Saturday, December 16, 2017
Michael Pressman’s debut film is one of the most good-natured and endearing exploitation flicks I’ve ever seen. Except for the frequent nudity and the fact that it proceeds from the argument that robbing banks is generally a good idea, it’s as wholesome a slice of 70s drive-in fare as I’ve come across. Seriously: there’s no real violence, there’s no rape, the female protagonists are never significantly in peril, nothing graphic or visceral happens, and there isn’t a bleak/cynical denouement.
I tells ya, folks, I had to double-check the movie’s credentials just to make sure it belonged in the Winter of Discontent stable. Fortunately, it ticked three crucial boxes – cops ‘n’ robbers, C&W on the soundtrack, Claudia Jennings in a lead role – and the Agitation of the Mind arbiter of bad taste (i.e. me) was satisfied that it is quite definitely a hick shitkicker movie.
So here we are.
‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ begins not so much in media res as absent its first act. Candy Morgan (Jennings) has broken out of jail, rendezvous’d with her sister Pam (Tara Strohmeier) and, as the opening credits play out, some scheme they’ve concocted to raise funds to prevent the foreclosure of their father’s farm comes to nothing and Candy, advising Pam to make her own way home, pulls off a risky heist at a local bank using only two sticks of dynamite, one with a nerve-rackingly short fuse.
Let’s pause here for a couple of observations. One: I love the name Candy Morgan, it’s like a nymphet/pirate combo. In an alternative universe, there’d be a late-night pay-per-view spin off with a title like ‘The Wicked Life and Fast Times of Candy Morgan’. Two: Strohmeier gets a pretty high billing in the credits and it strikes me that an early draft of the script might have had Candy and her accomplice as sisters until somebody realised that’d put the kibosh on the free-spirited love scenes with their eventual hostage-turned-willing-accomplice. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Just prior to Candy’s intercession at the bank (‘The Heists and Times of Candy Morgan’: that’d be a good alternative title for the sadly-non-existent spin-off), the film shifts perspective to introduce our other anti-heroine, Ellie-Jo Turner (Jocelyn Jones) and holy moley, where the hell has Jocelyn Jones been all my movie-going life? (The answer, courtesy of a rather anti-climatic couple of minutes on IMDb, is: not in much else, actually. Although ‘Tourist Trap’ – also starring Chuck Connors and Tanya Roberts – might be finding its way onto the Winter of Discontent’s roster pretty soon.) Jones is some kind of awesome, shimmering through the movie with the incandescent allure of every girl next door ever if every girl next also had a hint of every devil women ever bemoaned by every bluesman ever. If you get what I mean. Priest/stained-glass-window/roundhouse-kick, that kind of thing.
I SAID Ellie-Jo Turner is introduced in a vignette where she’s late for work owing to the combined ministrations of some anonymous stud muffin in her bed and a malfunctioning alarm clock. I feel for the girl; I hate it when that happens. She shows up and is promptly chewed out, in the non-cunnilingus sense of the word, by her boss. Her job? Bank teller. At the same bank that Candy’s about to rob? Surely not! Well, actually, yes. And you know what? Dickens threw out bigger coincidences so fuck ‘Dombey and Son’.
But I digress.
Ellie-Jo gets sacked seconds before Candy holds up the joint, and has a high old time flipping off her former boss by assisting Candy in emptying the registers. Candy’s haul safeguards her dad’s farm, her family declare how proud her they are, and before you know it she’s winding her way out of the county via the back roads, the better to evade recapture as an escaped prisoner.
Let’s pause again for a second. We’re about ten minutes into the movie at this point. The plot so far has been “hot chick breaks out of prison and pulls off bank heist to prevent foreclosure on family property”. This, for most writers and directors, would be enough for a film entire. Let’s face it, the first ten minutes of ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ is basically ‘Hell and High Water’ if Chris Pine had an hourglass figure and wore hotpants. One would logically expect everything that follows to build on this fast-paced explosions-and-exposition opener.
What Candy was inside for (‘Candy Morgan: Jail Bird Queen’ – seriously, why didn’t anyone commission a series?) is never stated or even mentioned again. Her family? They depart the production here and similarly pass into the collective amnesia of the creative team. One would assume that the local law enforcement types would equate Candy’s escape from prison, the robbery of a bank close to the old Morgan homestead, and the sudden, unprecedented and in-cash payment of her family’s entire mortgage arrears and arrive at a certain conclusion.
One would then expect the cops to go sniffing around the old Morgan place, and from there commence their pursuit of Candy. Y’know, the movie having “chase” in its title and all.
Granted, the police officers on display in this movie are the kind of intellectually-challenged individuals who, by comparison, give Mr Bean the combined IQ of a think-tank compromised of Hercule Poirot, Inspector Morse and Stephen Hawking. But still!
So, with every bit of business scrupulously established in the opening scenes tossed out of the window – except, of course, the bit involving Ellie-Jo – how then does ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ develop? Well, it has the now unemployed Ellie-Jo blowing off her loser boyfriend, in the non-fellatio sense of the word, and hitching out of town just as Candy makes her departure. And whaddaya reckon happens next? Damn tootin’: bank robber and former bank teller breeze through Texas pulling off robberies and blowing up the odd cop car. Oh, and they dally with a coupla fellas en route. Including some bland dude in a cowboy hat who starts off as their hostage before throwing himself enthusiastically into their lifestyle having given a whole three and a half seconds to thinking it over.
And that – after the backstory-packed first ten minutes – is pretty much the entirety of the subsequent eighty. ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’, a movie in which there’s one car chase of any significance and one foot chase (occupying a combined two and a half minutes of screen time), follows the ‘Big Bad Mama’ and ‘Truck Stop Women’ school of structure and narrative, which is to say that it unspools a sequence of loosely connected vignettes – gasp as Candy and Ellie-Jo get tooled up! guffaw as they humiliate a nitwit deputy! drool as they behave licentiously in an upmarket hotel – and doesn’t pause for long enough to bother about coherence.
Pressman makes a few weird flirtations with a more serious approach, particularly in the last twenty minutes or so. The media play up the pair as killers when they aren’t; a secondary character is dispatched in blunt fashion (the film’s only fatality); and the finale seems for a moment to point towards a Bonnie and Clyde style last stand. But then he doesn’t so much pull back from these decisions as run in the opposite direction as far and fast as he can. Which isn’t to say that this wasn’t a good move – ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ doesn’t have a serious bone in its body, and you arrive at the final act wanting a big dumb audience-pleasing send off – but it’s curious that the film makes so many hints at such tonally different possibilities yet ultimately does nothing with them.
Still, ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ offers so much to enjoy that this quibble hardly matters. Jennings sashays through what, next to Desiree in ‘Gator Bait’, is her signature role. Jones walks away with at least a dozen scenes, coquettishly glancing back over her shoulder to dare you to do something about it. The lowbrow comedy is balanced effectively with the actionful stuff. Production design and cinematography emphasise an evocative sense of place. The pace is commendable. I’ve noted in many a Winter of Discontent review that the cardinal sin of an exploitation movie is to be boring. ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ is never boring. It’s too full of hot chicks and hijinks to even know what the word “boring” means. It’s the kind of thing that gives exploitation cinema a good name.
Monday, December 11, 2017
Writing about Steve Carver’s ‘Big Bad Mama’ for last year’s Winter of Discontent, I opened my review with this homily:
“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 …”
If the enquiring academic were of a mind to seek out a control subject against which to benchmark the above catch-all, they could do a lot worse than Mark L Lester’s ‘Truck Stop Women’. It is most definitely a hick shitkicker film. How so? Let us count the ways. It has the words “truck stop” and “women” in its title – hell, the words “truck stop” and “women” are the motherlovin’ whole of its title. Its soundtrack is entirely country & western. And it stars Claudia Jennings, whose appearances in ‘Gator Bait’, ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ and ‘Moonshine County Express’ pretty much made her the poster girl for the hick shitkicker film in the same way that Edwige Fenech became the poster girl for the giallo, Shannon Whirry for late-night pay-per-view and Greta Gerwig for self-conscious indie noodlings.
So, having established its credentials, let’s move right on to the matter of ‘Truck Stop Women’ and its embrace (or otherwise) of narrative tropes. What did I say about the academic approach? I’m laying down words like “tropes”, motherhumpers.
‘Truck Stop Women’ starts in media res with a gentleman being gunned down while taking a bath. He’s taking a bath with a buxom and significantly younger women, and a swifter “hoooey, this is my lucky day” to “oh shit, my luck is fucked” transition it’s difficult to imagine. The young lady gets an equally bad deal since the two gunmen demonstrate a marked disinclination to leaving witnesses.
This twosome – Smith (John Martino) and Rusty (Speed Stearns) – are then seen reporting to Mr Big (Nicky Blair) who castigates them for a messy job and for leaving their target comatose rather than deceased. The way this was edited makes it seem like an ambulance was summoned for their victim (by whom, since his consort is also plugged, is left unhinted at), hospitalisation occurred, his vital signs were stabilised, and his bang-up-to-date medical notes purloined and delivered to Mr Big in the exact same time it took for Smith and Rusty to drive to Mr Big’s crib.
So, yeah, Mr Big tears Smith and Rusty a new one for being total fuck-ups and then inexplicably gives them control of a whole new territory, presumably in New Mexico since that’s where the movie was shot. His last words before they strut their way out of his office is to warn them that some chick named Anna who owns a truck stop already has dibs on said territory.
Narrative wise, we’re definitely in the arena of the crime/thriller genre and the production is certainly wearing its exploitation heart on its sleeve. But we’re still only three minutes in and the next scene – which segues into the opening credits sequence – offers up a different perspective. Here we have two curvaceous young ladies in hot pants – Rose (Jennings) and Tina (Jennifer Burton) lookin’ all helpless by the side of the highway, the hood of their station wagon popped and no idea as to the automotive diagnosis. An obliging (and self-evidently lecherous) trucker offers to take a look. For his pains, he gets a monkey wrench applied to the back of the neck and his HGV stolen. Rose and Tina pick up a hitchhiker in the purloined vehicle and Tina entertains him in the sleeper cab, after which he’s unceremoniously kicked out and they complete the journey to their destination.
We’re still only about six minutes in at this point, and for the sake of not developing RSI on the review of a Mark L Lester film, I’ll throw this here plot synopsis into overdrive.
Said destination is the truck stop owned by Anna (Lieux Dressler), a blowsy crime matron who is both the ruthless competition Mr Big warned Smith and Rusty about, and Rose’s mother. That ‘Truck Stop Women’ swiftly develops into a story about a turf war – Anna and her hick crew vs slick besuited Syndicate types – is obvious from the outset, but the narrative peregrinations by which it gets there are frankly bonkers.
Initially, it comes on as broad comedy and salacious thrilleramics, as if ‘Convoy’, ‘The Cannonball Run’ and that episode of ‘The Sweeney’ about lorry hijackers had got dumped into a blender with the edited highlights of ‘The Benny Hill Show’ and a Christina Lindberg skin flick. Lester – co-scripting as well as calling “action” – throws an immediate narrative curveball by having the disaffected Rose throw in her lot with Smith (a curious name for a character who is written and played as Italian-American) before establishing all manner of character dynamics within Anna’s hick shitkicker crew, suggesting epic quantities of backstory, but never developing any of it.
The middle section morphs into a weird-ass kind of Greek drama (if, that is, the classics of Euripides and Sophocles had been written with a soundtrack in mind that included ‘Hello, I’m A Truck’* and ‘The Bullshifters’) that basically deals with the battle for Rose’s soul. Anna, every inch the bad-ass matriarch willing to take on the big boys and show them who’s boss, nevertheless can’t entertain that Rose might just be a scheming and self-interested harridan and tries at every twist and turn to get her back. This back and forth achieves its most jaw-dropping moment when Anna and one of her crew drive out to a rival truck stop; Anna discovers Rose playing pool while wearing a bikini, slugs her, and carries her unconscious form back out to the forecourt, slings her in the back of a truck then goes tearing off hellbent for leather, pursued by Smith’s goons.
Granted, when my Dad was running a haulage business in the 70s, the cultural touchstones in the UK were very different from the States – lorry parks (i.e. an acre or so of hardstanding where drivers could park up for the night) were our equivalent of truck stops and they were devoid of amenities – but I’m having a hard time imagining that nubile women in bikinis hung around truck stops playing pool. Playing something else for cold hard cash in sleeper cabs, maybe. But even then dressed in something than would allow for the secretion of a money belt.
Ahem. Anyway. Back to the review. It hardly needs pointing out that Anna’s inability to cut Rose loose is her Achilles’ heel. Just as Hamlet’s procrastination is his. And here we segue from Greek to Shakespearean tragedy, though the touchstone, come the rushed and tonally discordant final act, is more Lear than Hamlet. But that, evidently, is how Lester wants to play it. And what has, for more than an hour of its 88 minute running time, been an entertainingly stupid if needlessly over-plotted slab of drive-in fodder, suddenly and obstreperously lurches off in pursuit of a poignant and emotionally shattering finale. That it doesn’t earn said denouement is like saying that ‘Smokey and the Bandit’, with five minutes of running time left, passionately and whole-heartedly decides it wants to be ‘Andrei Rublev’ then gets all upset that it’s not being hailed as an art-house classic.
*The film is so enamoured of this particular ditty that it basically stops, somewhere around the midway point, and becomes a de facto music video.
Thursday, December 07, 2017
Bert I. Gordon has an eclectic filmography: his first film as director, in 1955, was ‘King Dinosaur’; his most recent, ‘Secrets of a Psychopath’, made two years ago, was billed as “ ‘Psycho’ meets the Craigslist killer”. Inbetween, he’s chalked up such trash classics as ‘How to Succeed with Sex’, ‘The Empire of the Ants’ and ‘Satan’s Princess’. Not to mention the scuzzy 1973 opus under consideration today: ‘The Mad Bomber’, a.k.a. ‘The Police Connection’.
The film opens in ‘Dirty Harry’ fashion with a driven cop who disregards the rule book tracking down a psychopath who’s terrorising the city. Let’s meet our antagonists. The obsessive cop is the marvellously named Lieutenant Geronimo Minelli (Vince Edwards); we learn nothing about him other than that he has a failed marriage in his past and that he hates sex offenders with an almost messianic intensity. The psychopath is William Dorn (Chuck Connors), an ostensibly buttoned down wage slave who flips after his daughter dies of a heroin overdose and sets out to settle the score with everyone – be they individual or institution – with whom he has a perceived grudge. Unlike Andy Robinson’s Scorpio killer in ‘Dirty Harry’, taking out his targets with a sniper rifle, Dorn plants bombs.
“I’m the nothing face that plants the bomb and strolls away” goes a Meticalla lyric, and ’Tallica could have had Dorn in mind when they wrote that. Connors – remembered primarily for his small screen work, particularly in the western genre (‘Tales of Wells Fargo’, ‘The Rifleman’) – turns in a performance that’s taut, understated and genuinely unsettling. The character, as written, could easily be a twenty-years-early sketch for Michael Douglas’s D-Fens in ‘Falling Down’: they share the same bland office attire; D-Fens has a briefcase, Dorn a brown paper bag; both rail at the devolution of standards and civility in modern life; and neither hold back in challenging the people they see as being responsible for it. Dorn’s stern lecturing of a rude waitress in a coffee shop exists in the same thematic space as D-Fens’s disapprobation with the poor service and product at the fast food outlet.
Connors’s tight-as-a-watch-spring performance is matched by Edwards’s: everything we learn about Minelli as a man and a cop comes from watching him do his job, whether it’s his world-weary interaction with a suspect’s wife, his altercations with superiors, his curtly delivered instructions to colleagues and subordinates or his heavy-handed treatment of lowlifes.
And speaking of lowlifes …
Dorn’s second bombing, of a hospital – the first was a school – gives Minelli his first clue. Transpires Dorn wasn’t the only individual at the hospital who shouldn’t have been there. While Dorn was exiting after planting explosives, the utterly charmless George Fromley (Neville Brand) was hiding in a storeroom prior to raping a mental patient. The only witness to Dorn’s presence at the hospital, Fromley isn’t about to come forward and give the cops his unfettered assistance.
At this point, ‘The Mad Bomber’ goes haring off into its middle third with a new antagonist, a new focus for the investigation (nail the rapist; get him to spill on the bomber), and a tonal shift from the procedural narrative of the first act to the kind of scuzzy thrilleramics that wouldn’t be out of place in ‘The New York Ripper’ or any of the ‘Death Wish’ sequels. Fromley, almost entirely offscreen during the hospital attack – the scene focuses entirely on his victim – is introduced properly as he kidnaps and assaults a young woman. Quite apart from prefiguring the ‘Eden Lake’ poster by three decades …
… this sequence proves to be one of the sleaziest victim-attempts-to-run-from-aggressor scenarios committed to celluloid. It has nothing to do with the main plot and as a means of establishing Fromley as a rapist sack of shit, it would have done so just as effectively if Gordon had shouted “cut” five minutes earlier. It’s needlessly protracted and swerves what had, up to this point, functioned as a mainstream thriller so far into exploitation territory that it never fully rights itself.
Almost immediately afterwards, we get Minelli – a fervent hater of sex crime offenders, don’t forget – outlining his plan to catch Fromley in the bluntest of terms: “I want the streets flooded with every policewoman looking like they’re begging to get raped”.
Ladies and gentleman, ‘The Mad Bomber’.
There follows a montage, scored to what I can only describe as wakka-wakka porn music, of various female members of the police department giving it their best street bait sashay in the city’s least salubrious areas …
… until some lowlife douchebag makes a move on them, whereupon uniformed cops leap from doorways or behind bushes and make the arrest. Minelli eschews the wrestle-the-scumbag-to-the-ground-and-cuff-him approach beloved of his comrades for the more expedient method of punching the arrestee in the face a couple of dozen times. Dubbing in the Benny Hill music is perhaps the only aesthetic decision that would make this section of the film any more jaw-droppingly offensive than it already is.
Then, just as suddenly again, the film shifts into cat-and-mouse territory as Fromley, finally arrested, pits himself against Minelli, determined not to let the cop break him. What redeems ‘The Mad Bomber’ is its quality performances, and Brand – already an Agitation of the Mind veteran for his appearances in ‘The Ninth Configuration’ and ‘Killdozer’ – brings his A-game in his scenes with Edwards. I’ll go as far as to say that if Sidney Lumet had made ‘The Offence’ with Vince Edwards and Neville Brand instead of Sean Connery and Ian Bannen it would still have been every inch the powerhouse.
Of course, ‘The Offence’ was written by acclaimed playwright John Hopkins while ‘The Mad Bomber’ was written by Gordon himself from a story by Marc Behm (‘Trunk to Cairo’, ‘The Blonde from Peking’) and that more than anything is the difference here. ‘The Mad Bomber’ has strong performances, decent cinematography, good location work and some memorable scenes – the incongruity of the bright yellow motorcycle and sidecar that Dorn steals, Fromley’s man cave decorated with nude b&w photos of his otherwise dowdy wife, Dorn hallucinating a pedestrian as his deceased daughter – but its script is often terrible.
Still, it’s pacy and entertaining and even in its stupider moments – the flashing lights and ludicruous “bloop” noises on the computer that profiles Dorn; the multiple cuts to a flashing white screen when the script calls for something to be blown up that the budget can’t stretch to – it’s never less than watchable. The makers of ‘Falling Down’ sure as hell gave it a fair few viewings.
Sunday, December 03, 2017
Andy Sidaris was pretty much the leading light of this … well, “movement” is too grand a word, so let’s settle for “tendency”. Sidaris was the T&A auteur behind the likes of ‘Malibu Express’, ‘Hard Ticket to Hawaii’ and ‘Savage Beach’, opuses which traded on fast-moving narratives, gunplay, fisticuffs, pneumatic women and glamorous locations, and which still command a cohort of loyal fans despite the fact that they’re basically crap.
But it wasn’t just Sidaris who was happy to kid himself that he was shooting 007-style epics when it was perfectly obvious that the producers simply wanted oodles of nudity from Sibyl Danning or some Playboy pet in her first acting role, and the rest of it was just so much padding to get the running time past the 90 minute mark. Even Jag Mahendra and Fred Olen Ray were churning out wank-fodder as if the style-over-content ratio would guarantee their product a worthier fate than the grindhouse or the top shelf at the video store. And let’s not forget that half-decade or so when Zalman King honest-to-God had a big-screen career. Sidaris, Mahendra, Ray, King: to this roster add Jim Wynorski, Gregory Hippolyte, Charles Band, Albert Pyun, a dozen or so others.
And let us not forget Charles Philip Moore, either.
Who? I hear you ask.
Charles Philip Moore, I repeat. Charles Philip Moore who, between 1990 and 1994 notched up no fewer than four movies as director. Four, I tells ya.
He made his debut with the inauspicious monster movie ‘Demon Wind’ before finding his niche, two years later, with the sleaze/murder/topless-gyrations epic ‘Dance with Death’. In fact, 1992 was his annus mirabilis as he also made ‘Blackbelt’, in which chop-socky expert Don Wilson protects provocative singer Deidre Imershein from a nutjob stalker. In many respects, ‘Blackbelt’ is the quintessential Charles Philip Moore film. Well, in one respect actually: he liked it so much he remade it, two years later in his final outing as director.
This being The Agitation of the Mind, where your humble chronicler of all things dodgy is nothing if not idiosyncratic (or, as his father has oft been known to call him, “an awkward bogger”), it won’t be the heights of ‘Blackbelt’ that we consider today, but the somewhat different pleasures of ‘Angel of Destruction’, a title that makes little sense and was probably something of a compromise given that ‘Angel of Vengeance’ was already taken.
The film opens with ex-special forces type Robert Kell (played with plank-like intensity by Jimmy Broome) taking a hooker to a hotel room; excusing himself that he’s left something in car, he wanders down the hall, invades another room and, unarmed, takes down half a dozen types in suits. He’s aided in his agenda by the fact that at least half of these individuals sit around in easy chairs while he’s happily putting a massive beatdown on their compatriots and only react – and then not very effectively – when it’s their turn to feel the hurt. And what is our bug-eyed hunk of timber’s agenda? Just before he punches the last of his victims through a window – the room is several stories up – he delivers this deathless piece of dialogue: “You left me and my men to die in Angola. I didn’t like that.”
But before we can get into any ‘Punisher’-style narrative of a damaged military man bringing his own personal war back home, Kell wanders back to his room and starts acting all creepy around the hooker. Then we cut to a scene involving another hooker, this one being rescued from a potential gang rape by hard-ass private eye Brit Alwood (Charlie Spradling). Brit takes down the rapists-in-waiting with the same ruthless efficiency that Kell demonstrated against his antagonists, and for a moment ‘Angel of Destruction’ finds itself in a dramatic stasis that whereby two paths seem possible: Kell and Brit as antagonists or Kell and Brit in an uneasy alliance. Either would have been fine by me, as I was happily recalling Spradling’s turn in the Sherilyn Fenn starrer ‘Meridian’ and looking forward to 85 minutes of her in a lead role.
Charles Philip Moore has other plans, however, and this is how things pan out: Kell is revealed in short order – so short that it doesn’t even count as a spoiler to reveal it in this review – as having an unhealthy obsession with raunchy soft-rock singer Delilah (Jessica Mark in her only film role). That’s unhealthy as in breaking into her dressing room and leaving a severed finger as a token of his affection, by the way. Brit is hired as bodyguard by Delilah and her backing singer/dancer/sometime lover Renee (Chanda, whose enigmatic mononym vouchsafed her a film career that included ‘Emmanuelle, Queen of the Galaxy’, ‘Erotic Boundaries’ and ‘Men Cry Bullets’). But no sooner has Brit taken the gig than Kell shows up at her office and (only mild SPOILER) offs her (minor SPOILER ends).
Enter Brit’s younger sister, undercover cop Jo (Maria Ford), and her rumpled ’tec partner (and occasional lover) Aaron (Antonio Bacci). Jo takes up where Brit left off and finds herself plunged into Delilah’s dysfunctional world. Delilah performs a Lita Ford-style brand of soft rock pepped up with the kind of stage show you normally get at the kind of place that boasts a bouncer on the door who used to work for the Krays, a three-drink minimum, and a stage with a pole. Her last two albums bombed and she’s putting up with the demanding ministrations of manager Danny (James Paolelli) – whom she intends to “drop like a greased pig” as soon as her career revivifies – who is himself in a fractious relationship with Sonny (Bob McFarland), a mobster who has sunk $2 million of his paymasters’ money into Delilah’s career and isn’t impressed with the lack of return on investment.
There’s so much going on in ‘Angel of Destruction’ that it’s probably for the best that the main Delilah/Kell/Jo conflict is so streamlined. Between Kell’s obsession with oriental hookers, Jo and Aaron’s patented investigation technique (smack people around till they spill the beans) and Delilah’s stage persona (seriously, she makes The Pretty Reckless’s Taylor Momsen look like Mary fuckin’ Poppins), there’s a shoot-out, hand-to-hand combat bout, or hot chick popping ’em out every five minutes.
There are a lot of criticisms you can level against ‘Angel of Destruction’ – its lousy performances, the trade-down in protagonist from Spradling to Ford, the over-reliance on bland hotel rooms and anonymous corridors as settings, the fight scenes that seem contractually obliged to shoot the coup-de-grace from at least three different angles and repeat one after the other in fetishistic slo-mo – but you sure as hell can’t accuse it of being dull. Oh, and it has an extended scene of Ford kick-boxing a couple of dozen antagonists into a coma whilst sporting nothing more than a g-string. You’re welcome, folks; happy to take one for the team.
Tuesday, November 28, 2017
Cinema, at its best, has thrown itself unstoppably against the immovability of the biggest questions. Some directors spend their entire career focused on one question or thematic concern. For Sam Peckinpah, it was what happens when men of a certain mindset outlive their times while stubbornly refusing to change. For Michael Mann, the terrible cost to be paid when one ceases to be true to oneself.
Other directors step outside their usual aesthetic playbook to create a one-off distillation of something so utterly profound that the effect is unforgettable: take Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Ikiru’ – not a samurai in sight, but a cumulatively beautiful and emotionally shattering meditation on how, in the face of death, one can undertake a single act that proves one’s life had purpose.
In ‘Knock Knock’, Eli Roth squares up – utilising every creative and cerebral nuance in his directorial paintbox – to that thorniest of existential dilemmas, to whit: Is the destruction of one’s home, the ruination of one’s marriage, the tarring of one’s reputation, the abject humiliation of the self, and the possible loss of one’s life worth it for a threesome with Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas?
By the final frame, I’m not sure that Roth wouldn’t come down on the side of shag-a-thon and the hell with the torture porn that follows. Hell, what’s torture porn but normal porn wth a little more in the way of pain? Roth would probably take a night of debauchery and marching songs with Prussian Blue and happily let them tie him up and carve a swastika into his willy the next morning and pour Wild Turkey over the wound. I can imagine him chugging a celebratory beer and asking them to do it again.
All of which is a 300-word way of saying that Roth’s enthusiasm in directing ‘Knock Knock’ is roughly akin to Oliver Reed being offered the job of Chief Quality Control Officer at Talisker distillery or Keith Richard winning a lifetime’s supply of cocaine and doing every fucking molecule of it in first 48 hours.
Here’s another thing about ‘Knock Knock’: after four films that are basically unofficial remakes (or rather greatest hits packages) of the films Roth grew up loving, this is his first official remake: of Peter S. Traynor’s 1977 sexploitation classic starring Sondra Locke and Colleen Camp. Camp cameos in a splendid comedy-of-embarrassments scene, while she and Locke act as producers. I’ve taken the piss out of Roth routinely in these pages but, with all sincerity, props to the guy for seeking Locke’s and Camp’s blessing in taking on the material.
And while I’m holding my hands up here, I’ll come right out with it: ‘Knock Knock’ is the first film in the Roth canon that I’ve straight up enjoyed. Granted, it’s no classic – one can easily imagine Jag Mahendra turning in a slightly less polished version of it in the mid-1980s with Shannon Whirry and Delia Sheppard – but it sees Roth freeing himself from those late-1990s “future of horror” expectations, working with a genuine A-list star (Keanu Reeves), and gifted with the most dementedly sexy double act imaginable courtesy of Izzo and de Armas. It’s no coincidence that the best scenes are where Roth simply points the camera at his leading ladies and lets them play off each other in the most deliciously nasty way.
A robot could probably have directed this film and got away with it, that’s how memorable Izzo and de Armas are. I can only describe what they achieve onscreen as being as if Rodney Bewes and James Bolam in ‘The Likely Lads’ or Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale in ‘Porridge’ were Lolita-esque jailbait.
Here’s the basic premise, if you haven’t second-guessed it already: Evan (Reeves) is a successful architect, happily married to an artist, Karen (Ignacio Allamand), who is about to get her first big exhibition. Karen takes their kids for a weekend away while Evan finishes work on a major commission. In the time honoured tradition of architects everywhere, he rolls a skinny, works late into the night and blasts out 70s rock. (In fairness, I only know one architect, but let’s just say that his working practices are significantly different to Evan’s.) Halfway through looking at an onscreen graphic – Roth seems unaware of how CAD actually operates – he’s disturbed by a knock at the door and – … wait a fucking minute, he’s a successful architect living in a detached piece of architecture in a suburb that has “white entitlement” written all over it and the cunt doesn’t have a fucking doorbell?
Okay. So. No-doorbell-cunt answers the knock – it’s pissing it down with rain – and finds Genesis (Izzo) and Bel (de Armas) on his doorstep, soaked through and asking for shelter from the rain. Which, being a decent guy, he gives them. And being a decent guy, he books an Uber for them. And being a decent guy he dries off their sodden clothes in his tumble-dryer. And being a decent guy he gives them dressing gowns to wear. And being a decent guy he acts all flustered when their behaviour demonstrates that they are confident in their sexuality.
And, finally, being basically a bloke and incapable of thinking through anything but his dick when half-his-age poontang is on offer, he conveniently compartmentalises his wife and kids and his sense of morality and, for want of a subtler phrase, goes at it like a butcher’s dog.
Waking the next morning to the post-coital equivalent of buyer’s remorse, and none too impressed that Genesis and Bel are making themselves a little too intimately at home, he finds himself having to jump through a number of hoops just to get them out of his house. He then gets busy eradicating every shred of evidence that they were ever there, little knowing that the games have only just begun.
Roth keeps the 100 minutes of ‘Knock Knock’ moving at an admirable clip. He turns up the heat on the erotic elements, only to go all abstract in the way he films the big shagging scene. He monkeys with the home invasion scenario in seeming to have Evan rid himself of the threat. And, when he sets the scene for the final half hour or so, the expected torture porn tropes are abandoned in favour of pure black comedy in which the surreal restaging of a popular gameshow stands in for the blood-letting of the ‘Hostel’ films and a wrongly “liked” Facebook post is the worst possible thing that can happen to you.
Four years ago, on these very pages, I concluded a review of ‘Cabin Fever’ with the assertion that “this and ‘Thanksgiving’, the fake trailer Roth created for ‘Grindhouse’, [are] evidence of something that’s probably not at the top of anyone’s list at industry meetings but which I think would merit exploration: Eli Roth could direct the hell out of a comedy.”
‘Knock Knock’ is his first significant step in that direction, and I’m now prepared to double down on that assertion. Give Roth a scenario that demands straight-faced social horror and he’ll blow it by acting stupid; give him a set-up steeped in gallows humour and mordant satire and the guy delivers. In a decade’s time, when the originality-challenged bigwigs in Hollywood decide that what the world needs is a ‘Scream’ reboot, Roth will ace it. Although whether anything in any future film he directs, comedy or not, will ever top the demented brilliance of Keanu Reeves’s final reel “free pizza” speech is not something I’d put money on.
Saturday, November 25, 2017
This is what it must be like to be Eli Roth:
Hillbilly horror! My favourite genre ever! I’m gonna make a hillbilly horror movie, bitches, and it’s gonna rock!
Makes ‘Cabin Fever’.
Realises he’s trying too hard.
Torture porn! I fucking love torture porn! I’m gonna make the torture porn movie to end all torture porn movies – AND do a sequel!
Makes ‘Hostel’ and ‘Hostel 2’.
Realises he’s trying too hard.
Cannibal movies! OMG, why didn’t I think of that before? Imma be the next Ruggero Deodato!
Makes ‘The Green Inferno’.
Realises he’s trying too hard.
Whether the pattern holds for the erotic thriller and ‘Knock Knock’ is something we’ll find out in the next review. And in the interests of fairness, being Eli Roth probably encompasses a lot of other things, including money, lifestyle, having QT as your best bud, and being married to the not-unglamorous Lorenza Izzo.
Speaking of whom, Izzo is the audience’s surrogate through our 1hour 40 minute ordeal and proves an empathetic heroine even though the script has about as much emotional investment in her character, Justine, as a Tory politician has in the lower and unprivileged classes. We meet Justine at the kind of too-neat-and-clean American university that exists only in the movies. The daughter of a UN official, she’s moved by the activism and general do-goodery of some of the student body, much to the contempt of her room mate Kaycee (Sky Ferreira). In particular, she’s drawn to the swarthy Alejandro (Ariel Levy), a fact noted and frowned upon by his brittle girlfriend Kara (Ignacia Allamand).
The script needs to paint Alejandro as charismatic and impassioned in order to entice Justine into joining his expedition to an under-threat village in the Amazon, only for him to be revealed later as a man of hidden motives and self-interest. This cloak-then-reveal tactic would have required a better script and performance; as it is, we have Alejandro as a moody, self-righteous prick from the outset. Given that Izzo goes all out to sell Justine’s attraction to him, Levy’s non-performance is a drain on hers.
Fortunately, Roth doesn’t waste too much time in getting everyone on a plane and into the jungle. If there’s anything positive to be said about ‘The Green Inferno’, it’s the economy of the storytelling in the first half. Another smart move is to have Justine get the measure of Alejandro pretty quickly, so that she stops being all soppy and doe-eyed and gets her mettle tested in a gruelling tale of survival against the odds. Wait, let me rephrase that: in what Roth achingly believes is a gruelling tale of survival against the odds.
You see, there’s a common faultline in the filmography of Mr Eli Raphael Roth. Like his compatriot Quentin Tarantino, Roth’s films derive from a life-long immersion in genre cinema. Like Tarantino post-‘Jackie Brown’, his films are movie-movies rather than works that make any claim to being grounded in even the remotest facsimile of reality. But while Tarantino conjures non-naturalism into an aesthetic – an auteurist signature – the stories Roth wants to tell would work so much better if the veneer of artifice were stripped away.
Actually, make that two common faultlines. The other one is frat-boy humour. There comes a moment in every Eli Roth film where he makes a directorial decision that functions on roughly the same artistic, intellectual and emotional level of someone photobombing an Allied Press picture of a corpse-littered war zone while chugging a beer and pretending to butt-fuck a giant blow-up sheep.
[SPOILER ALERT: next two paragraphs.]
There are two such moments in ‘The Green Inferno’. One comes almost immediately after Justine and Alejandro, along with Lars (Daryl Sabara) and same-sex couple Amy (Kirby Bliss Blanton) and Samantha (Magda Apinowicz), have been captured by a cannibal tribe and imprisoned in a bamboo cage. No sooner have they witnessed their comrade Jonah (Aaron Burns) dismembered and feasted upon, than Amy suffers a gastrointestinal upheaval. Roth captures this – the first moment in the character’s degradation that leads to her self-immolation – with an over-the-top and extended sound effect, then immediately cuts to a reaction shot of the village children grinning and waving their hands under their noses. If his intent were comedy to leaven the horror, it’s misjudged – not only because it cheapens the ordeal but relies on a gesture I doubt cannibal children would know or have any use for even if they did.
The second is the film’s derailment moment. Recognising that the now deceased Amy is next for the cannibal stew pot, Lars forces down her throat a small baggie of pot which he has concealed upon his person. His reasoning? The tribe entire will feast on her and get high, rendering them incapable of preventing an escape attempt. Quite which branch of forensics or human biology convinced Roth and co-scripter Guillermo Amoedo that a small quantity of mary-jane can suffuse every ounce of a dead body’s flesh – dead body, folks: i.e. no functioning pulmonary system – to the extent that every man-jack of an entire tribe are turned into giggling dopers after two fucking bites, I can’t honestly say, but the resulting sequence is so powerfully stupid that it feels, as a viewer, as if you’ve swerved from a Ruggero Deodato fan-wank tribute to ‘Cheech and Chong Meet the Cannibals’, a comparison strengthened when Lars, his getaway foiled, exclaims “They’ve got the munchies” as he finds himself availed of in the light snack department.
[SPOILERS END, though why the fuck I’m not actively discouraging you from this pile of bum-dung I don’t know!]
‘Cannibal Holocaust’ is nasty as all hell, and that’s its power: it gives the audience no leeway, no comfortable only-a-movie rationale. ‘Massacre in Dinosaur Valley’ is total bollocks that exists as a delivery system for macho posturing, gore and Suzane Carvalho in the buff – and is honest about its intents from the outset. ‘The Green Inferno’ is a misjudged mash-up of the two – and it’s telling that the “history of the cannibal genre” overview Roth slips into the closing credits fawns over ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ but fails to mention ‘Massacre in Dinosaur Valley’ even though he makes more visual steals from that film than any of the other entries in the cannibal cycle. It’s a sad and self-effacing via negativa, akin to declaring your intent to homage ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ but knowing in your bile-embittered heart of hearts that you’re incapable of producing anything better than a hamfisted retread of ‘Ishtar’.
Thursday, November 23, 2017
Like ‘The Car’, however, its script is hackneyed and the acting uniformly bad.
‘Killdozer’ is based on a novella by Theodore Sturgeon, originally published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1944. Thirty years later, it got the TV movie treatment with Sturgeon co-writing the script (with Ed MacKillop) from an adaptation by Herbert F Solow, and Jerry London in the director’s chair. London is a seasoned TV director with, to the best of my knowledge, only one theatrical credit – the sex comedy ‘Goodnight Jackie’, made the same year as ‘Killdozer’ – to his name.
The novella is set on a Pacific island during World War Two, where a construction crew are building an airstrip; they accidentally release an ancient evil from a temple which possesses a D7 bulldozer. Mechanized chaos ensues. Solow’s adaptation – which responds to the dramatic and cinematic potential of a wartime setting and an ancient temple by jettisoning them entirely – relocates the action to the 1970s and has the construction crew working for an oil company. Oh, and the dozer’s now a D9.*
Yep. You read that right. In a prologue that positively glimmers with bad effects work, a meteorite goes spinning towards earth, impacts on a picturesque and uninhabited Pacific island and some time later – years, decades, centuries or millennia, the script doesn’t really clarify things – our hard-workin’, straight-talkin’, whisk(e)y-drinkin’ construction crew come along. The D9 bulldozer thuds its blade into the buried remains of the meteorite and in doing so releases an ancient evil. The ancient evil reacts in time-honoured ancient evil fashion and latches itself onto the thing that released it.
And whaddaya reckon a Caterpillar D9 suddenly possessed by ancient evil is gonna do? Damn straight, boy – it’s gonna bulldoze the fuck out of everything in its path. Now, you can take that sentence as a public service announcement that saves you 73-minutes of your life, or an exhortation to wholeheartedly invest that hour and a quarter of your mortality in the small screen shock-o-rama that is ‘Killdozer’.
And how can you not love a film where our macho sextet battle a big fucking yellow hunk of metal as their numbers dwindle, their tempers fray, their voices get even more growly, the amount of stupid mistakes they make redefines the word ‘exponential’, and the level of the whisk(e)y bottle plummets like a UK prime minister’s approval ratings?
That’s your review, folks – right there.
*Caterpillar only released three models between 1944 and 1977? That’s, like, one redesign per decade.
Saturday, November 18, 2017
If there’s one exploitation sub-genre that’s been consistently under-represented on the Winter of Discontent, it’s carsploitation. ‘Rolling Vengeance’, back in 2011, was the last time any automotive armageddon rolled through these pages. That season also featured ‘Rubber’, but whether a killer tyre movie with art-house pretensions counts as an entry in the carsploitation cycle is a semantic debate that I’m not ready to have with myself.
Not when I can give over the next couple of reviews to all things motor-revving, tyre-squealing and metal-rending, anyway. Starting this very evening with perhaps the most vanilla film ever to find itself invited to the Winter of Discontent backstage party: Elliot Silverstein’s ‘The Car’. This 12-rated DVD ended up in my collection on account of it going for a song in an HMV sale and my recollection of watching it on TV as kid and enjoying it.
Plenty of water has flowed under the bridge since I watched ‘The Car’ on TV as kid. Enough to wash the fucking bridge away. ‘The Car’ is frankly a pile of wank. But, hey, it’s carsploitation and several hundred words taking the piss out of it helps make the numbers up for this year’s Winter of Discontent.
The Agitation of the Mind: work-to-rule since two hours ago.
‘The Car’ starts with a static shot of a mountain range and a long dusty road that quite fancies itself as a bit John Ford. Two minutes’ worth of credits play out over this image, after which Silverstein holds on it for another minute and a half as a plume of dust appears in the background and the growl of an engine in the distance becomes a roar as it approaches. Aha, you think: this is the scene setter where the eponymous automobile comes hurtling towards the screen as if hellbent on ram-raiding the fourth wall. But no. Silverstein cuts before the car even takes on any definition, cuts while it’s still in the middle distance, wreathed in dust.
You could almost believe that Silverstein made the decision to cut in order to disorient the viewer, to monkey with their expectations. But then he plays a similar trick throughout the first half an hour (i.e. a third of the movie) and does his utmost best to depict the car in abstract manner. Maybe the intent was to emulate ‘Jaws’ (made two years earlier) and keep the monster undefined/hinted at for as long as possible before reeling it (pardon the pun) onscreen front and centre for the extended finale. Maybe Silverstein and his creative team – you have no idea how much it pained me to type “creative team” – had their doubts as to how scary the car actually was. (Spoiler: not scary at all.) The story is very simple: there’s a sleepy American town …
The Amos/Bertha thing is particularly galling for Sheriff Everett (John Marley), who’s been kind of sweet on Bertha since high school. As a sub-plot, it’s sunk by the sixteen-year age gap between Marley and Dowling – an age gap exacerbated by Dowling having aged very gracefully and Marley very craggily – and totally redundant since (SPOILER ALERT) Everett is quickly dispatched by the car so that his deputy Wade (James Brolin) can assume hero duties, Brolin being the first billed actor ‘n’ all.
Strip away the padding and the essential narrative is: supernatural car turns up in sleepy town and starts killing folk; lawman tries to stop it. ‘The Car’ would have been improved immeasurably by either (i) a minimum 20 minute reduction in running time, or (ii) more vehicular mayhem courtesy of the car. In fact, for a supernatural force that seemingly exists only to run people over, the car spends a lot of the movie basically pissing about. What it’s doing while Luke is agonising about his drink problem or Wade is kept overnight in hospital after a bruising encounter, who knows. Getting an oil change? Chasing rabbits? Fishing?
In fact, it’s probably the car itself that gives the best turn, even though it had every right to complain to its agent that it just wasn’t getting enough screen time.
Saturday, November 11, 2017
Michele Soavi made his debut in 1987 with ‘Stagefright’ (a.k.a. ‘Deliria’, a.k.a. ‘Aquarius’, a.k.a. ‘Bloody Bird’) which made effective use of its single setting (a ramshackle theatre). He followed this a couple of years later with ‘The Church’ (a.k.a. ‘Demons 3’), which also made impressive use of a single setting. If you’d been looking, in the late Eighties or early Nineties, for someone to helm an Italian language remake of ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, I reckon he’d have done a bang up job.
By 1994, he’d put his stamp on the idiosyncratic black comedy ‘Dellamorte Dellamore’ (a.k.a. ‘Cemetery Man’) which uses a single setting – the graveyard – to quite brilliant effect for a good two-thirds of its running time before deconstructing in terms of its narrative, structure and theme (there is a case to be made that this was a quite deliberate decision) once it strays outside of this clearly defined environment and interacts with its larger fictive world in increasingly fragmented and bizarre ways.
In retrospect, ‘The Sect’ seems like a logical aesthetic transition for Soavi. While its most crucial scenes take place in the rambling rural home of protagonist Miriam Kriesl (Kelly Curtis), and in the architecturally improbable basement beneath it, the film opens with a ten-minute prologue set in California in 1970 before relocating to the Frankfurt of 1991. Or rather a version of Frankfurt that’s about as weirdly non-Germanic as Freiburg and its dance academy in Argento’s ‘Suspiria’. Just as California is represented by a nondescript landscape and the least convincing set of hippies you’re ever likely to see.
Moreover, the California-set prologue does nothing narratively except introduce a chapter of the titular sect active in America, thereby setting up a scene much later in the film where two chapters meet and the leader of one as much as says “oh, hi there, we’re your opposite numbers from the States”, when the script could just as easily have had them come in from, say, Berlin or Dusseldorf. Nor does the German setting make any sense (there isn’t a mythology akin to the Three Mothers of ‘Suspiria’ that requires geographical specifics) and everything that happens in the movie could have happened without a single alteration to the script if the setting had been Rome, Milan or Florence.
Nor do the next couple of sequences – a short and nasty murder in a suburban location, and an elaborate set-piece on a subway – add much to the story other than to establish that the members of the sect aren’t fucking around when it comes to disobedience and don’t flinch in their use of violence. They seem to be incorporated for no other reason than to big up the film’s epic scale after two smaller productions (‘The Sect’ had double the budget of ‘Stagefright’).
Once Soavi shunts his heroine onstage, however, and limits himself to her house, the cavernous spaces thereunder, the school she teaches at, and a nearby hospital, things bcome more focused. Even if the script does belabour her portentous meeting with enigmatic old cove Moebius Kelly (Herbert Lom) and take far too long to get to the weird shit that starts happening as a result of their meeting.
Credit where it’s due, though: the weird shit is certainly work the wait, whether it’s the surreal dreams that plague Miriam, full of crucifixion imagery and ‘Wicker Man’-style earth/nature/sex undercurrents, or the needlessly elaborate but memorable way that the sect isolate Miriam by removing from the board those few people who are close to her. The most striking and visceral example is their transformation of Miriam’s mousy colleague Catherine into a vamp trawling for rough trade at a truck stop …
… who bewitches a horny truck driver into murdering her. The scene plays out with all the sleaze, illogic and upended expectations that the description suggests. It’s also worth noting that the above screengrab shows the trailer said trucker is hauling. One can only assume that German HGVs are blessed with suspension and cornering of a spirit level bubble since not one single piece of freight is secured.
But then again, this is a film in which a hospital morgue is found in a leaky sub-basement area and looks like this:
So either Germany is the weirdest place on earth, with its dance academies and weird cults and people who drive VWs (ve must be in Cher-mahn-hee, ja, because Kelly Curtis is drivink ein VW), or it’s a safe bet Dario Argento had a hand the production. (He did: producer and co-scripter.)
But this is mere carping (mixed with a healthy dash of cheap sarcasm); ‘The Sect’ is an Italian horror movie made at the tail-end of that country’s several-decades run of great horror movies that were stylish-to-the-nines and narrative clusterfucks. ‘The Sect’ never achieves the visual gorgeousness of Bava or Argento at his best or even Fulci on a good day. But it has weirdness in spades, it has the chutzpah to cast Curtis (in her only lead role) for no other reason than she’s Jamie Lee Curtis’s sister, it casts Herbert Lom and basically gets him to do a Donald Pleasance impersonation, and it shoots for the moon in terms of an incendiary good vs evil finale that it has neither the budget nor the creative energy to achieve on the scale it good clearly wants to.
Oh, and it predates Lars von Triers’s ‘Breaking the Waves’ by five years as an example of a film that tries to con you in its closing moments that it’s deep concerned with a redemptive quasi-theological ending when it fact it was getting its jollies over the nasty stuff all along. With the crucial difference that ‘The Sect’ is a lot more fun to watch than ‘Breaking the Waves’.
Wednesday, November 08, 2017
As an Italian exploitation sub-genre, the cannibal film had its genesis in 1972 with Umberto Lenzi’s ‘The Man from Deep River’ which was basically a rip-off of Eliot Silverstein’s 1970 gruel-a-thon ‘A Man Called Horse’ with the native American Indians replaced by Brazilian cannibals. The cycle really got its groove on in 1977-78 with Ruggero Deodato’s ‘Last Cannibal World’, Sergio Martino’s ‘Mountain of the Cannibal God’, and Joe d’Amato’s ‘Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals’ and ‘Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals’. The d’Amato films had more to do with T&A than flesh-munching, but – hey! – that’s Joe d’Amato for you.
Whatever the merits (or otherwise) of these particular productions, they provided the momentum for what was the annus mirabilis of the cannibal film: 1980. If Altamont was the defining socio-political moment whereby the free love ethos of the Sixties transitioned to the political disenfranchisement and social upheaval of the Seventies – a decade that, for all its turbulence, proved to be a cauldron of creative risk-taking and new movements in music, literature and cinema – then a case can certainly be made for the fact that the against-the-system attitude that characterised the Seventies gave way to the soulless greed-is-good yuppiedom of the Eighties, and that the path was cleared by a cluster of cannibal films, two of which would come to define the sub-genre and gain notoriety for their prominence in the “video nasties” controversy that came to eat up (pun intended) so many column inches later on in that piss-awful decade.
At least half a dozen cannibal films were made in 1980, including Jess Franco’s ‘The Devil Hunter’ and – notable for being one of the very few non-Italian cannibal opuses – Tsui Hark’s ‘We’re Going to Eat You’. But the two that came to define the sub-genre, and remain the colossi against which trash movie fans test themselves, were Deodato’s ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ and Lenzi’s ‘Eaten Alive’. These two should really have been the cannibal movie’s “thank you and good night” moment, but this is exploitation cinema we’re talking about and as long as there was a hint of a buck to be made at the box office, some producer somewhere would sign off on another one. And thus it was that the cycle limped on intermittently till 1988 and the death rattle of Antonio Climati’s ‘The Green Inferno’ (a title borrowed over quarter of a century later by Eli Roth); these last few entries included Lenzi’s grim-as-fuck ‘Cannibal Ferox’, Franco’s ‘Diamonds of Kilimanjaro’ and Mario Gariazzo’s ‘White Slave’, a film so schizophrenically marketed that it appeared in some territories as ‘Amazonia: The Catherine Miles Story’ and in others as ‘Cannibal Holocaust 2’.
The film under consideration today was made in 1985 and I’m not even going to try to pretend that it represents some last great throw of the longpig dice. But this is the Winter of Discontent and cannibal movies are just one of those sub-genres that have to be done – like gialli, polizia, nazisploitation, nunsploitation and anything that stars David Hess – and besides ‘Massacre in Dinosaur Valley’ was directed by Michel Massimo Tarantini (under the pseudonym Michael E. Lemick) and if the dude who helmed ‘Policewoman on the Porno Squad’ and ‘Women in Fury’ isn’t a natural fit for the Winter of Discontent then I might as well just give up and watch reruns of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’.
‘Massacre in Dinosaur Valley’ reunites Tarantini with ‘Women in Fury’ star Suzane Carvalho and gives her an equally thankless, frequently denuded and thoroughly sexually objectified role. After a very short career in exploitation films, Carvalho reinvented herself in spectacular fashion as a racing driver and I can’t help wondering how much her proficiency in this latter career was motivated by imagining Tarantini naked and clutching his extremities just behind the chequered flag as she powered towards him in several hundredweight of race-car …
But let’s park that image (again: pun intended) and stroll down the leafy expanse of Plot Synopsis Boulevard. ‘M in D V’ starts with respected academic Professor Ibanez (Leonidas Bayer) and his daughter Eva (Carvalho) arriving in a Brazilian backwater with the intent of seeking passage to the fabled Dinosaur Valley where Prof Ibanez can complete his palaeontological research. After a protracted first act which introduces fellow palaeontologist (or, to use his preferred appellation, “bone hunter”) Kevin Hall (Michael Sopkiw), Vietnam vet John Heinz (Milton Rodriguez) and his alcoholic wife Betty (Marta Anderson), photographer Jose (Joffre Soares) and fashion models Belinda (Susan Hahn) and Monica (Maria Reis), this mismatched bunch find themselves on the same light aircraft. A cockfight, a bar room brawl and some gratuitous nudity assists the viewer’s passage to this particular plot development, though no rationale is given as to why Jose and his models or the Heinzes are on the plane. Much is made, however, of the flight as off-the-books and into forbidden territory.
It hardly needs saying that the pilot encounters adverse weather conditions and
The survivors decide to make their way through the jungle, Heinz appointing himself leader on account of having done three tours in ’Nam. What follows is a “forty miles of bad road” type deal, as the group contend with leeches, snakes, cannibals, white slave traders, attempted human sacrifice and the gargantuan hindrance that is John Heinz and his planet-sized case of overcompensation. Example: Jose is set upon by piranha as the group splash through a river. Kevin plunges in to rescue him; Heinz sees his injuries as a liability and makes a brutal executive decision. Kevin attacks him and the two of them plunge into the selfsame piranha-infested waters, thrashing about for a good couple of minutes, all the time being resolutely untroubled by flesh-eviscerating fish. Quite what the piranha are doing the while – perhaps they’ve repaired to the opposite bank and started taking bets on the outcome – is left unanswered by the script.
As internal tensions within the increasingly depleted group reach boiling point, Kevin is split up from Eva and Belinda when the cannibal tribe attack. If I were trying to intellectualise this skeazy expanse of celluloid, I’d dwell on the fact that Eva and Belinda’s perils at the hands of the cannibal tribe occupy the middle third of the film rather than setting up its denouement, and they’re rescued by Kevin before much worse can happen than a flesh wound and some enforced nudity. Worse awaits them in the last twenty minutes or so when they fall into the clutches of slave-trader, unlicensed prospector and all-round sleazeball China (Carlos Imperial) who has designs on Eva, and his right-hand-woman Myara (Gloria Cristal) who gets all predatory towards Belinda.
Up to this point, ‘M in D V’ has unspooled through a fairly obvious checklist of exploitation tropes: it’s dealt in punch-ups, gun play, softcore sex scenes and mild peril, and throughout it all Tarantini and co. have maintained an aesthetic that could almost pass for good natured. For 65 minutes, ‘M in D V’ happily parades itself as one of the goofiest, least self-aware exploitationers you’ll ever see. Then the Tarantini of ‘Women in Fury’ steps up to the base and brings the nasty. Which is fair dues: let’s not forget what kind of movie we’re watching here. But the shift is abrupt and his attempt, in the closing scenes, to cut back to sub-Indiana Jones jokey pastiche only serves to emphasise the tonal inconsistency.
Ultimately, though, ‘M in D V’ is damned by its own irrelevance. The best of the cannibal films rubbed the audience’s collective nose in filth in order to make a point: viewer complicity in ‘Cannibal Holocaust’; the correlation between religion, brainwashing, sacrifice and manipulation in ‘Eaten Alive’. The slenderest of cases can just about be made for ‘Amazonia’ in respect of tabloid salaciousness and the exploitation of the exotic by those whose white privilege is its own ulterior motive. ‘M in D V’ adds nothing to the dialogue beyond its brisk pace and the appeal of a heroine who deserved to be more heroic.
Sunday, November 05, 2017
I had, of course, heard of Ottavio Alessi's 'Top Sensation' (a.k.a. 'The Seducers'). What self-respecting exploitation fan hasn't? I started watching it online a couple of years ago with an eye to a Winter of Discontent write-up. The print quality was so bad, however, that it was like having my eyeballs vigorously buffed with a Brillo pad. Never mind that there was a Rosalba Neri topless scene ten minutes in, I gave it up as a bad job. Now, though - thanks to Shameless DVD Releasing - 'Top Sensation' is available in a version that's not onerous to watch. Although, in an otherwise laudable attempt to present as complete an edit of the film as possible, they've shoehorned in every bit of recovered footage they could get their hands on and to say there are quality control issues with these inserts is putting it mildly.
Coming on like a lurid remake of Polanski's 'Knife in the Water' (made seven years previously) and pre-dating that ne plus ultra of sex-on-a-boat movies, Deodato's 'Waves of Lust' by six, 'Top Sensation' boasts two locations (yacht; island), lifestyle porn aplenty, and world-class eye-candy in the form of Rosalba Neri, Edwige Fenech and Eva Thulin. It's also utterly cynical and requires us to spend an hour and a half with some utterly venal characters - but, hey, that's exploitation for you!
Here's the basic set up: control-freak entrepreneur Mudy (author Maud de Belleroche in her only acting role) has hired loose-living couple Aldo (Mauricio Bonuglia) and Paola (Neri) to crew her yacht for the duration of a trip designed to provide R&R for her mentally troubled son Tony (Ruggero Miti). Mudy, despairing of the retinue of shrinks and specialists who have been unable to cure him, is convinced that he just needs to get laid. To this end, Aldo and Paola have been tasked with finding a girl suitable to this requirement. Dangling the promise of a big fat pay cheque in front of her, they have persuaded Ulla (Fenech) on board. The film begins in media res, the yacht a-sail, and all of these characters locked into a duplicitous game, the sexual tension simmering away.
Immediate complications are twofold: (1) Paola wants more from Mudy than just a one-off payment and will stop at nothing to get a cut of Mudy's latest business deal; and (2) Tony remains blandly disinterested in Ulla, proving that the boy really does have issues. Actually, make that threefold, since Aldo swiftly compounds things by running the yacht into a sandbank on account of doing the nasty with Ulla when he should have been navigating. Just when it seems like Mudy's on the verge of tearing all parties a new arsehole, Tony slips ashore and, when the others eventually find him, he's made the acquaintance of butter-wouldn't-melt farm girl Beba (Thulin) and they appear to be getting along famously.
Aldo, never one to miss an opportunity, discerns that if he can get Beba onboard the yacht and away from her boorish husband Andro (Salvatore Puntillo), then shenanigans of the salami-hiding variety between simpleton and shepherdess are a foregone conclusion. Beba is thusly, and in remarkably short order, seduced onto the yacht, seduced into a bit of lipstick lesbianism, and pimped out to Tony.
But before the lad can get devirginised, Andro turns up in a rowboat and 'Top Sensation' segues from pressure-cooker sexploitationer to something like Brian Rix farce leeched of the actual comedy. This weird tonal shift isn't the only problem with Alessi's film.
There are two main problems: the first is that Alessi, directing his second and last film after 1964's 'Whatever Happened to Baby Toto? ', achieves about as much visual style as a wall coated with slowly drying paint of a boring colour. It's not much to ask, surely, that a film with such a lurid story also be visually lurid? That a film whose main female leads are so voluptuously appealing also have appealing cinematography or production design? Christ, even the yacht doesn't look sleek and sexy – and when 70% of your film is set on a yacht belonging to a spectacularly rich person, this does not bode well.
Secondly, for a film that clocks in at just 90 minutes in the most complete edit that Shameless can manage, there aren’t half some dull patches! Endless scenes of Tony moping in his cabin, playing with toys like the man-child he is. Endless scenes of Mudy ranting at people and scowling. Endless scenes of … well, filler. Even the film's most notorious sequence – it involves Fenech, a photoshoot and a goat and I'm saying no more other than warning you upfront that once you've seen it, you will forever refer to 'Top Sensation' as “that film with Edwige Fenech and the goat”* – exists for no other reason than to pad out the running time.
In fact, stripped down to its actual narrative stepping stones – introduce everyone on boat and their motivations; establish that Tony isn't going to get jiggy with Ulla; get various parties to the island, thence to the boat; Andro turns up; everything goes pear-shaped - there's probably about half an hour's running time to be had out of the material. The rest of it relies on Neri and Fenech to look good in bikinis. Of course, it goes without saying that both of them ace this requirement. Indeed, Fenech – 21 when the film was released and on the cusp of claiming her crown as giallo goddess – is va-va-voom made flesh, while Neri gets to rock the kind of outfit that would make your average jeweler shut up shop and sneak home for a hour or two’s private time.
But for all that, it's de Belleroche's appearance that stays with me. Winner of the Prix Broquette-Gonin for her debut novel, she had published 'L'Ordinatrice' – generally considered her magnum opus – the year before she appeared in 'Top Sensation'. Which is kind of like Annie Proulx coming off 'The Shipping News' winning the Pulitzer and saying yes to a Rob Zombie job offer on the understanding that it involved a girl-girl scene with Kelly Brook. Now that'd be a Winter of Discontent flick!
*I'm not sure what the life expectancy of the average goat is, but I'm guessing the goat dined out on the story of most of the rest of said lifespan.