Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Erotic Nights of the Living Dead (1980)

Written by: Joe D'Amato
Directed by: Joe D'Amato

George Eastman as Larry
Laura Gemser as Luna
Mark Shannon as John Wilson
Dirce Funari as Fiona

Genital warts were first described in medical writings dating all the way back to ancient Greece, although it wasn't until 1907 that it became clear to the world of medical science that they were caused by some form of virus, and not until the mid-1980s that a German virologist by the name of Harold zur Hausen linked several strains of the human papillomavirus to increased risk of cervical cancer. There are over 170 known strains in the papillomavirus family, roughly 40 of which can be transmitted through sexual contact.

In the late 70s, researchers in Rome working with a particularly aggressive strain accidentally exposed a specimen to what should have been a lethally high dose of ionizing radiation. Amazingly, the specimen seemed to thrive. Keeping the mutant strain of HPV under close observation, the researchers were shocked when, in the space of a few months, the specimen had attained first sentience, then sapience. Despite the research team's best efforts to keep their folly under wraps, it sprouted an enormous mustache and broke free of the lab after a terrible struggle that left two of the scientists and one security guard in a state of permanent sexual arousal and, unfortunately, gibbering insanity. Attempting to fit into society, avoid its captors, and propagate itself the best way it knew how, the specimen joined the Italian pornographic film industry under the assumed name of Mark Shannon.

John Wilson is a rich, womanizing real estate developer who has just purchased a piece of tropical paradise called Cat Island, which he plans to bulldoze into the ground, pave the whole thing, and turn it into a tacky luxury hotel. He's having the devil's own time trying to get someone to take him out to the island to survey his new fiefdom, however. Even the whores he is definitely not paying enough to play with his horrible, festering balls won't stick around when he tells them what he's up to. In fact, they flee his suite at the mere mention of Cat Island without bothering to collect their pay.

Fortunately for him and his awful swamp sack, there's one woman in the building willing to put up with a little superstition and a lot of penicillin in order to land herself what every girl dreams about; a hunky dude with a bottomless wallet and a batch that looks like an old potato was dipped in Drakkar Noir and rolled in a pile of Rice Crispies. Fiona picks up right where the two hookers left off, and the next morning she and John head off to find the one boat captain brave enough to take them to Cat Island. You see, the locals call it that because they believe the island is overrun with a horde of zombies, who are led by an adorable little black kitty because...I dunno. Because Italy.

The couple find Larry polishing his poop deck and John offers him a pile of money to make the trip solo, since his deck hands won't have anything to do with the island. Larry agrees, and the following day the trio hoist the mainsail on the Sloop John HPV and head off for adventure. It's a little unclear as to what John plans to accomplish on the island by himself. There isn't a lot to see other than sand and trees, he has no surveying equipment, and he's not exactly prepared to break ground on the new resort. He basically spends his time wandering around the forest while Fiona hits on Larry, until a spooky chick named Luna and her weird uncle with a giant cyst on his forehead show up and warn them that if they don't leave the island immediately, they will face unspeakable horror and death. John has too much money sunk into the island to give it up, a few ambulatory corpses hold no terror for Fiona because she's already had John's pustulent package all up in her business, and if need be Larry could punch the antlers off a moose, so they'll be staying the night, thank you very much.

Sure enough, before long the wrathful cat has the zombies up and shambling because as all evil development moguls must learn, sooner or later, the pussy grabs back. Luna has taken a liking to Larry during the numerous late night sexcapades that have filled most of the run time, and gives him a talisman that will keep the zombies from killing him. It performs its function well enough, but seeing a bunch of carnivorous cadavers chewing on his chums has done a number on Larry's lobes (of the brainular variety, that is). When the rescue team finally arrives, they have no choice but to cart the poor bugger off to the asylum, where he spends the rest of his days banging nurses and chewing on orderlies.

Even with as little time as I took describing the plot, I feel I may have oversold how much story this movie actually has. It is first and foremost a sex film, which aside from the bare minimum of containing sex, it completely fails at being. Despite containing a number of attractive women, this movie is about as arousing as watching a bowl of cereal slowly get soggy and puffy from absorbing all the milk. It is a horror film second, and only marginally more successful at this than an average episode of the Wiggles. There is a little bit of gore, and simply by dint of being Italian and filmed in the late 70s it captures a little of that inimitable atmosphere that made all such movies a genre unto themselves. At the end of the day, I can sit through anything from that period and find something to enjoy.

What I can't enjoy is the fact that this movie is TWO FUCKING HOURS LONG! With enough action and story to fill out twenty minutes if we're being generous, it is inexcusable that Joe D'Amato took only marginally less time to tell it than goddamn Infinity War. I consider myself a fan of D'Amato's work (it's Cinemasochist Apocalypse after all), but even I found this a hard pill to swallow. Of course, I'll be swallowing a lot of pills in the future, having spent as much time as I just did in the company of Mark Shannon's purulent pubic pendants.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Amazon Hot Box (2018)

Written by: James Bickert and Brian K. Williams
Directed by: James Bickert

Ellie Church as Inga Von Krupp
Tristan Risk as Val
Jett Bryant as himself
Kelsey Carlisle as Penny

Would you believe the first women in prison movie was nominated for no fewer than three Academy Awards? The first movie set almost entirely in a women's prison, anyway. By the time Caged was released in 1950, movies with incarcerated females as at least a major plot point had been hitting screens for almost 20 years. Funny that the genre's first step towards the bottomless chasm of sleaze it would leap eagerly into feet first in the 1970s also garnered it mainstream critical praise for the first time.

Men's magazines, not subject to the same strict regulations as the film industry, were already delving into full-on exploitation territory with women in prison stories around the same time. Incarcerated women enduring human rights violations for the entertainment of the masses can be traced at least as far back as the 18th century, with Denis Diderot's novel La Religieuse (The Nun for you non-French speakers) in 1796, but if you want to get persnickety about it (and I like being persnickety), that's the beginning of the nunsploitation subgenre and only a close relation of the standard women in prison flick, which tend to have little or no religious imagery or themes.

As the 60's rolled along and censorship restrictions began to roll back, filmmakers started to get a little more adventurous with the possibilities of the format. Then in 1969, Jess Franco (because of course it was Jess Franco) and Harry Alan Towers released 99 Women to considerable financial success and the floodgates opened. Still fairly tame by the standards of what would be released less than a decade later, 99 Women featured at least embryonic versions of what are now recognizable as most of the major tropes of the genre.

Once exploitationeers caught wind of the money to be made, it was off to the races. Anyone who could get their hands on a camera, a gross building in a jungle, and a handful of women willing to bare it all for gold and glory was turning out their own women in prison flick. Incidentally, did you know that Roger Corman can smell a single penny on the ground from up to three miles away? Scientific fact. The genre in its purest form had quite a long run in its original heyday, finally fizzling out in the early 90s, although its influence can still be seen today in the popularity of things like Orange is the New Black. Like any deliciously icky exploitation subgenre, it still has its devoted group of degenerate fans, and of course that's why we're here today.

Penny is a student activist, and she isn't having a very good day. We meet her chained to two other women, all three of them being hauled off to jail on trumped up drug charges in the totally not made up South American nation of Rattica. Judging from the other two women's reactions to the situation, this isn't their first ride in the clown car of banana republic justice. Once the women have been issued their regulation coffee cup, cockroach, and I-can-see-your-labia short prison dresses, Penny discovers that the surly and unpleasant guards are going to be far from her biggest problem. The jail is all but run by badass inmate Val, with Tristan Risk doing her best wild-eyed sneering Lina Romay impression (her introductory scene is even a direct reference to Romay's role in Greta the Mad Butcher, and of course that's far from the last reference to WIP movies that this genre love letter will serve up).

Elsewhere in the prison, the adorably befuddled Jett Bryant is trying to figure out just how his last drug smuggling run went so massively pear-shaped that he wound up as Rattica's latest puppet president, held under guard by the most laid-back military dictator in history (imagine Fidel Castro as played by Tommy Chong on sleeping pills and you'll be getting close to the mark). And because it is a direct violation of international law to make a women in prison movie and not have the prison doctor be a sadistic mad scientist, Inga von Krupp is hosting her old mentor Dr. Greeley (Paul McComiskey from Dear God No!) to compare notes and see whose method of torture is the most effective. A fourth subplot involving an American covert ops organization called KS-13 trying to assassinate Jett Bryant to destabilize the Rattican government before it can completely recover from the last coup sort of ambles alongside everything else without accomplishing much until it's time for everything to come to an explosive head after 80-or-so minutes of torture and nekkid catfights and the antics of what is possibly the most lovable duo in exploitation film history.

I was of two minds when I watched this movie the first time around. Of course I was excited that some of my favorite indie filmmakers were doing a women in prison movie, but I think I was expecting something closer to the 70s filth I'm used to. There is a ton of humor in this movie, and it rather blindsided me. After watching it again with the commentary track on, I realized that was precisely the right choice to make. The world already has one Bare Behind Bars. What it didn't have until now was an Abbott and Costello style routine done by a sleepy South American dictator and Zakk Wylde's cool uncle. Among the goals Bickert stated for making this movie was doing a WIP flick with no rape in it. That is a welcome omission, and between that and the humor, this movie becomes something much more special and interesting and downright fun than it ever could have been as just another dreary parade of atrocities.

Most of the switches in tone are handled with a deftness that appears as simplicity on first viewing, but when you see it a couple of times it becomes apparent just how artfully it's done. Using humor to break up the brutality also helps to highlight just how good Bickert and Williams are at the latter as well. Particularly the fight between Penny and Charli (Alyss Winkler), and the death of Inga von Krupp. Speaking of Inga, this is a great performance from Ellie Church. She's definitely the standout actor in the bunch. Inga is obviously an homage to Ilsa, but there are as many differences as similarities. Inga is scarier and more driven than Ilsa, less a power-mad sex predator than a Cenobite. Her obsession with the effects of pain and pleasure come to a head when she realizes that her time is done, and her final act is to bond with her torture machine. Church sells the hell out of the ecstasy she derives from her demise.

Thinking of demises and handling of tone, if I was expecting a whole movie of 70s film pastiche, the ending makes it very clear they could have delivered exactly that had they chosen to do so. The haunting, melancholic feel of the 70s mini-apocalypse ending (I hesitate to call it a downer, as at least some of the people who deserve to make it out alive do) is reproduced to perfection. I mentioned Ellie Church before, but Tristan Risk makes Va's death scene just as affecting. We got to see a side of Val just minutes before that showed her cruel nature was a survival instinct brought out by prison life, and somewhere in all that tough-as-nails armor there was still a decent person who almost had a chance to see the light again before the bombs started falling. As we see the characters succumbing to their fates, the whole thing is set to an eerie, depressive piece of music not a hundred miles away from Riz Ortolani's Cannibal Holocaust theme.

Of course with a movie made so quickly for so little money, it's not entirely a home run. While our stars all bring their A-game, some of the other performers are awkward and amateurish, and there are some pretty unfortunate digital effects. I could also have done without the zombie subplot, as it doesn't really go anywhere or serve any purpose beyond adding a little extra gore that could easily have been thrown in without the inclusion of the walking dead. I think it would have been more interesting to have Inga experimenting on the former Rattican president while he still had his wits about him and see him cringing and gibbering in a cage robbed of his humanity. It would have made her character that much more menacing.

Minor quibbles, all, and things that simply come with the territory in modern low budget genre movies. There's so much to love here, because the filmmakers clearly love what they're doing. If they chose to skimp on a few effects shots to make sure their cast and crew were well fed and taken care of (which Bickert says on the commentary is exactly what they did), then more power to them. I've never seen a movie I didn't like from this bunch, and it's safe to say I'm a fan for life. Make sure you snag a copy if and when it hits retail, and keep an eye out on social media so you can back their next Kickstarter project and get in on the fun!

Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Bone Yard (1991)

Written by: James Cummins

Directed by: James Cummins

Ed Nelson as Jersey Callum
Deborah Rose as Alley Oates
Normal Fell as Shepard
Denise Young as Dana
Phyllis Diller as Mrs. Poopinplatz

It's probably just a function of the fact that we live in a golden era of cult movies getting great releases, but it seems like lately every time I hear a movie mentioned on another show or we talk about one on Attack of the Killer Podcast lamenting that it's not out on Blu-ray, within a month Scream Factory or Vinegar Syndrome or someone announces it's on their release schedule. A while back, Matt Weinhold of Monster Party brought this one up, and I had never heard of it but it sounded like something right up my alley. I had planned to look it up on YouTube, but sure enough, just a few days later Code Red announced a disc coming in a few months.

Jersey Callum is a detective with a problem, and the solution lies in psychic Alley Oates, who has helped the department on several tough cases in the past. Unfortunately, the problem involves yet another batch of murdered children and the solutions Alley has provided in the past left her raddled with so much PTSD that she can't even get out of bed long enough to wash the dishes anymore.

A flareup of psychic activity draws Alley back in for one more case, and she and Callum head off to the local mortuary to examine the bodies of three children said to have been kept locked in a local doctor's cellar and fed on human cadavers before he finally murdered them and turned himself in. The doctor keeps claiming that they weren't children at all, but ancient demons called kyoshi that were bonded to his family centuries ago. Of course, no one believes him and he kills himself rather than face the consequences of his actions. No, not the consequences of murdering three children. The consequences of trying to duck out of his hereditary curse. Those three tiny corpses aren't nearly as dead as everyone thinks, and they certainly aren't human children. They are, however, getting rather peckish...

I've said it before, and this certainly won't be the last time: one of the great joys of being a devotee of weird cinema is discovering movies that can still surprise you. I fully expected this to have been adapted from a 70s or 80s pulp horror novel like the ones featured in Grady Hendrix's indispensable Paperbacks from Hell, and was surprised to discover it was an entirely original project by first-time feature director Cummins. The story of the production is so cut-and-dry, it was almost disappointingly boring. Cummins approached producer Richard Brophy with a script, Brophy liked it, they raised the money and made the movie. The only major setbacks seem to have been not getting Clu Gulager and Alice Cooper as their first choices to play Callum and Shepard respectively.

While it does suffer from some odd pacing at times, there's a lot here to love. One of my favorite touches is Dana, a woman brought into the mortuary as a suicide, who turns out not to have done a very good job at it and wakes up in a very unexpected place amidst the demon-fueled insanity. Most of the performances are solid, with one of the odd low points being Phyllis Diller. By all accounts she had a good time making the movie, but her line delivery is often weird and unnatural, like it was her first time in front of the camera. Part of that could just be the editing, as there are a lot of takes with all of the characters that need a few seconds trimmed off either end.

Let's be honest, though, we don't watch these movies for the stellar performances. The makeup on the three demon children would be shockingly good for a movie ten times more expensive than this. They look more like Aztec mummies than your bog standard zombie, and although the masks are pretty inexpressive, that somehow serves to make them creepier rather than fake-looking. Then there are the other monsters. When injured or destroyed, the demons expel copious amounts of disgusting snot custard which, if it gets in your mouth or eyes or an open wound or whatever, causes normal living creatures to become hulking mutant hell-beasts. Say what you will about the rest of the movie, there's nowhere else you're going to see a bunch of people trapped in a morgue being attacked by a 10-foot tall Phyllis Diller Garbage Pail Kid monster and her mutant zombie were-poodle. In what is hands down my favorite part of the movie, when the latter beast smashes its way through a door to menace our heroes, Dana bursts into laughter for a moment before sobering up and fleeing the danger. She has, after all, had a rather strange evening and it's a wonderfully realistic acknowledgment of the absurdity of their situation without resorting to winking at the camera.

While it's nice to have something different than just another bunch of zombies, it seems that rather than do any research into Japanese folklore, Mr. Cummins just picked the first Japanese word that he liked the sound of and went with that as the name of his monsters. Kyoshi is a real word, but it has sweet fuck all to do with demons. It's a fairly common Japanese name, but it has another meaning in the world of games such as shogi (basically Japanese chess) and go (an immensely complicated chess-like strategy game created over 2,500 years ago, considered one of the four essential arts by Chinese scholars of antiquity and thought to be the oldest board game in existence that is still being played today) as well as cultural activities like flower arranging and tea ceremonies, but most famously, martial arts.

The dan system of ranking was first used at a go school during the Edo period (1603 – 1868, the reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate), and was later adopted into kendo and karate, as well as a host of other martial arts all around Asia. It is represented by a series of different colored belts, each symbolizing levels of achievement. Kyoshi, specifically, is quite a high level – a 7th or 8th degree black belt. The “kyo” means “professor” or “philosopher”, so a person of this level is now ready to teach the philosophy of martial arts as well as the physical parts. Callum and Oates could have used a couple of black belts to help them fight whatever the hell those ghouls actually are. I'm sure there is a creature that roughly corresponds to a zombie child that vomits toxic sludge capable of mutating normal humans and animals into giant monsters somewhere in the annals of Japanese demonology, but damned if I have the time to read down that list and find it!

Friday, March 23, 2018

Eaten Alive! (1980)

Written by: Umberto Lenzi
Directed by: Umberto Lenzi
Robert Kerman as Mark
Janet Agren as Sheila
Ivan Rassimov as Jonas
Me Me Lai as Mowara

One of the things I never get tired of as a genre fan is seeing people who starred in movies decades ago discovering that they have generations of fans who love them and their work, and want their autographs and to hear the stories that they thought had long since passed into irrelevance. There's a feature length documentary about Me Me Lai on the new Severin Films Blu ray of this movie that is largely her adorable and slightly befuddled reaction to precisely this information. The highlight of the piece, though, is a story about her career after she retired from film, but I'll get to that later.

“Who is Me Me Lai?” you may be asking yourself. I doubt any of my readers are unfamiliar with her name, at least, but just in case: Born in Burma to a Burmese mother and an English father who worked for an oil company, the family moved to England for the company when she was a teenager. Being stunningly beautiful, she quickly got jobs modeling and followed that naturally into acting because it seemed like fun to get paid vacations to exotic locations, even if she did have to be nekkid all the time. She is the only woman to have starred in three Italian cannibal movies (and ended up playing alongside Ivan Rassimov in all three of them, too). Well, starring may be a machete whack too far in this case. She's more of a secondary character in Eaten Alive, but an important one, nonetheless. She is an instantly recognizable face in the world of Italian exploitation (although she did the majority of her acting work outside the genre, and a lot of television as well). It's a damn shame she and Laura Gemser never got teamed up.

Our story opens, as so many of Lenzi's movies tend to, in New York City. This has some of the most beautiful and loving shots of scuzzy old NYC I've ever seen in an Italian splatter flick. I've said it before and I'll say it again, constant readers, I was born in the wrong damn decade. A vaguely Southeast Asian-looking man with an unfortunate bowl haircut is running around the city shooting various people with a blowgun, while a statuesque blonde woman in a fur coat makes her way downtown to a police precinct. The woman is Sheila, and she's going to the police to answer some questions and try to get a few answers of her own about the disappearance of her sister, Diana. It seems she was seen in the company of a suspected cult leader named Jonas shortly before he and all of his associates vanished from the city. The man is thought by the police to be murdering defectors from Jonas's cult to prevent them from turning state's evidence against him should an extradition case be mounted once the FBI can figure out exactly where he moved his cult to. How do they know that? All the darts used in the murders were coated with cobra venom, an ingredient essential to many of the cult's rituals.

The police are unable to aid her further, but discovery of a video of Diana attending some sort of strange ritual in New Guinea leads her to that hoariest of adventure movie cliches, the washed up jungle adventurer, in this case one Mark Butler (played by exploitation sleaze stalwart and Italian porn stallion Robert Kerman). He wants no part of messing with some loony cult, but Sheila promises him $80,000 of her rich family's Alabama cotton mill money if he will guide her into the jungle and suddenly a little cobra venom seems a trivial thing.

Reaching the compound of Jonas's purification cult is perhaps not as difficult as they had anticipated, but getting out will be another matter. They can't just snag Diana and run for it, or they'll be gunned down by his brainwashed followers. Instead, Mark and Sheila have to pretend they are pilgrims who want to join up, and try to find some sympathetic followers who might help them escape. And even if they manage that, Jonas has set up shop at the very farthest reaches of jungle that could be even vaguely described as hospitable to modern man. Beyond the camp's borders, the vegetation becomes an impenetrable tangle, filled with all manner of dangerous wildlife. On top of that, there is a tribe of stone-age cannibals living in the caves that riddle a nearby mountain who have become increasingly bold in their raids on Jonas's land looking for food. To make matters worse, while Mark tries to hatch an escape plan, Jonas has begun grooming Sheila as his newest bride and plying her with the same brainwashing drug he uses on Diana and their new friend Mowara, a widowed cultist who seems destined to become the village bicycle without the protection of her husband. The women have moments of lucidity as the drug wears off, but they don't have long between their mandatory doses. Their window of opportunity to escape is closing, and Jonas's chief henchman Karan is becoming suspicious.

Despite being known by horror fans primarily for his work in the genre, Lenzi only made three cannibal movies. Well, two and a half if you consider the fact that a large portion of the money shots in Eaten Alive are lifted from Lenzi's own Man from Deep River, Sergio Martino's Slave of the Cannibal God, and Deodato's Jungle Holocaust (Also known as Ultimo Mondo Cannibale because in some territories, Man from Deep River was re-titled Mondo Cannibale and Jungle Holocaust was originally intended to be a Lenzi-helmed sequel. The Jungle Holocaust title came later to cash in on the infamy of Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust. And you thought the numbering issue with the Zombi sequels was confusing...) Or four, if you count the jungle adventure parody flick Daughter of the Jungle (1982). Between Man from Deep River and Eaten Alive, Lenzi worked primarily on giallo and poliziotteschi movies, both genres he preferred to straight horror, which would go some way toward explaining why even his later horror movies have a detective element to them.

While loads of other directors got in on that sweet man-eating cash during the decade or so, none of them enjoyed the success or the infamy of Lenzi and Deodato. Even then, they rarely stuck to making “straight” cannibal movies. The gut munching almost always took a backseat to other story elements or even entirely different genres. Their respective careers in cannibalism always make me think of the running joke in Dracula: Dead and Loving It, where Dracula and Van Helsing constantly try to get the last word on each other in Moldavian. Deodato was brought in to helm a sequel to Lenzi's groundbreaking Man from Deep River; Lenzi stole footage from that movie and inserted it into Eaten Alive; Deodato pulled out his 12-inch hog on the dick-measuring contest of how gruesome the movies could get with Cannibal Holocaust; Lenzi came in at 11 ½ inches but an arguably more watchable movie with Cannibal Ferox; and finally, Deodato put the whole thing to bed with Cut and Run, a blatant knockoff of Eaten Alive, with even less cannibalism but the best gore effects in any of these things by a country mile (seriously, the scene of the guy getting torn in half by the tree snare trap is fucking incredible).

Deodato is unquestionably the better filmmaker, but Lenzi's lack of tact, intelligence, and artistic flare often make his movies a great deal more enjoyable than Deodato's. Cut and Run may be the technically superior jungle cult/cannibal hybrid movie, but by Satan's gnarly knob, it gets downright boring in the middle. Richard Lynch is great as the cult leader, but he's only in the last five minutes of the movie. With Eaten Alive, little time is wasted getting to Ivan Rassimov in scenery-chewing overdrive and some of the goofiest looking phony rituals ever committed to film. I mean, what would you rather see: Richard Lynch lying in a hammock and whispering bullshit philosophy, or a guy who looks like an even angrier Jack Palance fucking a hot Swedish girl with a stone dildo covered in cobra blood? Yeah, me too.

Some of the animal violence is placed in such a way that, if you were of the disposition to find subtext in your entertainment, you could make a case for Lenzi actually putting some thought into juxtaposition and the themes of his story. For example, a monitor lizard is seen yakking up a snake that was too big for it to digest in one go, at the same time Mark is trying to escape from the compound to bring back help. Sheila and Diana being from a cotton plantation in Alabama, and talking about their black workers as though they were slave owners from 150 years ago, might make you think there is a theme of one racial minority taking a sort of metaphorical revenge for another when Diana is raped and eaten. Then you hear their hilariously shitty dubbed Southern accents, and wonder why the hell you're trying to read deeper meaning into such a silly thing. Even better than the sisters' ludicrous accents are the voices of the cannibals themselves. They evoke the “caveman rhubarb” jokes from the Cave Dwellers episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I dare you to watch any of the gut munching scenes with a straight face when you can hear the dubbing crew saying things like, “Unga bunga ugga bugga bugga” with crystal clarity.

In summation, if you are a fan of cannibal movies and you haven't seen this one already, check it out. It's a real hoot. As much as something with this much repugnant and morally reprehensible can be a hoot. Oh, you know what I mean. Just go watch the damn movie!

Oh, right. I had a story about Me Me Lai to tell you. After she retired from show biz, she became a police officer in Essex. This was in the mid-80s, at the height of the Video Nasties lunacy. In the course of duty, she found herself involved in several movie raids, where they would confiscate banned titles. Lai was mortified to discover several of her more notorious films among the captured cassettes, and feared that her fellow officers would watch them and discover the traitor in their midst! If anyone did sneak one of the tapes home and find out her secret, they never told. She retired from the force many years later, and today is still happily meeting her multi-generational fans at conventions hither and yon.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Velluto Nero (1976)

Written by: Ferdinando Baldi and Brunello Rondi
Directed by: Brunello Rondi
Annie Belle as Laure
Laura Gemser as Emanuelle
Al Cliver as Horatio
Gabriele Tinti as Carlo

All right. Even by the standards (if these things can be said to have standards) of Italian sexploitation movies, this is one weird flick. Episodic, plotless, and extremely skeevy, it's everything you want in your Eurosmut, but more so. If you're looking to dip a friend or significant other's toes in the water, this is not the movie to do it with unless you want to have some very uncomfortable and possibly angry conversation about your taste in cinema. If, on the other hand, your appetite has been whetted by tamer fare and you're ready to dive headlong into the rapey, racially insensitive, downright appalling end of the pool, then grab your trunks and goggles and let's get wet!

Crystal is the widow of some well-to-do Egyptian noble, who lives in what appears to be some sort of gated community for rich looneys in the middle of the desert. We meet her as she's gearing up for an annual visit by some friends from out of the country. It's an extra special occasion this year, because her daughter Laure is coming home for the first time in quite some time. She sends her other daughter, Magda (played by the delightfully named Ziggy Zanger), to retrieve fashion model Emanuelle and her asshole photographer boyfriend Carlo (Gabriele Tinti who, I'm pretty sure, never in his entire career played a character who wasn't an asshole, but this one is right up near the top of the charts on that count) from the airport while she stays home in case Laure should show up while no one but the servants were home.

It also gives her a chance to chase away the group of hippies, misfits, and other assorted losers who have latched on to Horatio. Horatio is her...boyfriend, maybe? It's often a little difficult to determine what any character's relationship is to another in Italian sexploitation movies, since most everyone fucks each other at some point. Whatever he is to Crystal, he's some kind of spiritual guru to his gaggle of patchouli-smelling hangers-on, but the nonsense he spouts suggests to me he's just got a really bad case of sunstroke and should stop wandering around the desert in the middle of the day with no UV protection.

Magda, meanwhile, is on the way back to the mansion with Emanuelle and Carlo when we get a taste of just how much of a shitbird Carlo is going to be later on. Their jeep passes the desiccated carcass of a jackal and Carlo tells the driver to stop. He then makes Emanuelle get out and strip down to her underwear to do a photo shoot on top of the maggot-riddled corpse!

Laure still hasn't shown up, so that night the rest of this horrifically dysfunctional Brady Bunch head over to the mansion next door to see Hal, a washed up Shakespearean actor (who knew that job paid well enough to retire to a palatial servant-filled manse?) who loves to host gaudy bacchanals for his friends. Oh, and to have impure relations with his underage servant boys.

When Laure finally arrives, things get even stranger. After a little naked cuddle time with mom, she goes on a little joy ride into the desert with Carlo and Emanuell, where they come across a field of dead bodies. Apparently a group of vicious nomads roam the area and get a little too zealous about their Seany Bean family cosplay when travelers enter their territory. Carlo decides this is a perfect opportunity for a sexy photo shoot and demands Emanuelle strip down and pose with the freshly murdered people strewn about the sand. She understandably balks at the idea, to which he replies, “All this fuss over a few dead Arabs,” and then smacks her around a little and starts to rape her, BUT THEN SHE GETS INTO IT AND STARTS FUCKING HIM BACK! I thought Nightmare City had some backwards ideas about male/female relations, but good grief.

The next day, the whole crew decides to embark on a boat ride down the river and see all the temples and monuments and such, during which time Laure has a little sexual interlude with everyone in some fashion or other. By the time they all get back to Hal's place for one last orgy, everyone has undergone some tremendous personal insight and change in character through their encounters with Laure, and in the end, she and Emanuelle leave everyone else and their weird hangups behind, strip down, and skip naked into the desert to live happily ever after. Or die of exposure and scorpion stings an hour later. It's one of those “left up to the viewer to interpret” kind of endings, really.

According to my good friend El Santo, the English dub version names Gemser's character Laura, and Belle's as Pia, but in the subtitled version that I saw, Gemser is reprising her role as Emanuelle, and Belle is Laure, her eponymous character from Laure, also from 1976. Since the Emanuelle character wouldn't set off down the path to becoming the jet-setting sexual superhero we know and love until the following year, this version of Emanuelle fits right in with the more innocent, somewhat flighty one seen in Emanuelle In Bangkok (1976 again). There's not a lot of readily available information to be had on this movie, and the interviews on the DVD are more personal stories from Gemser and Cliver about their careers rather than specifics about the history and production of Velluto Nero. However, since Laure and Emanuelle not only share names, but also character traits more or less consistent with the other movies I mentioned, I'm just going to go ahead and say that in my head canon we're dealing with a Eurosmut shared cinematic universe. Take that, Marvel!

Man, I really wish they'd done a whole series of these crossovers now. I'd love to see the places they could have taken it once Emanuelle became a total badass. And if there was ever a woman who could believably change people's lives and make them realize their true potential through the sheer power of being sexy, it was mid-70s Annie Belle.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Condemned (2015)

Written by: Eli Morgan Gesner
Directed by: Eli Morgan Gesner
Dylan Penn as Maya
Ronen Rubinstein as Dante
Genevieve Hudson-Price as Alexa
Honor Titus as Loki

“Adverse possession” is the legal term for occupying someone else's property. It's also as good a term as any for being taken over by a horrific weaponized plague, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Say you live in Minnesota but own some property in Iowa that was thought by you to be unoccupied. Say then that someone, without your knowledge, moved into that property and lived there for a certain period of time. At the end of that period of time (it's different in every state, but Iowa's code states 8 – 10 years), that squatter is no longer a squatter, but your legal tenant, and in order to get rid of them you have to go through the legal eviction process just like you would someone who held a lease. Every state in the US has statutes on squatter's rights. The disseisor (the person dispossessing the true owner of the land) must occupy the property for the entirety of the statute (anywhere from as little as five, up to as many as 30 years) before they can lay claim to it. With abandoned and condemned buildings, it gets a little trickier because government is usually involved at that point, and the disseisor has to make a case that they were operating as a business rather than as government in order to even begin to have a claim.

Now, a bunch of junkies and lunatics probably wouldn't have the forethought to look any of this up. A group of relatively intelligent young punk rockers and artists rebelling against whatever you got, man, probably would, though. In which case, you'd think one of them would have tried to rally everyone together and make a case for their occupying the crumbling shithole they all share. That brings us to tonight's movie, in which poor little rich girl Maya runs away from her shitty, neglectful parents to live with her boyfriend Dante. What she isn't prepared for is that Dante is living in a condemned tenement building as part of the aforementioned group of young punk rockers and artists, surrounded by the afore-aforementioned bunch of junkies and lunatics. Among them are a severely alcoholic, self-hating closeted gay lapsed rabbi named Bigfoot and his transgender prostitute girl/boyfriend; a hulking, openly gay, Rammstein-looking neo-Nazi leather daddy named Gault (my favorite character, played with scenery-devouring gusto by Johnny Messner); and most importantly, Cookie, the resident narcotics chemist who distributes his wares hidden inside fortune cookies.

Cookie isn't your every-day dope peddler, though. That's just for pocket money. His real pet project is designing biological weapons for Russian terrorists, and he's got a batch just about ready to go. Unfortunately for Dante, Maya, Loki, Gault, Shynola, and all the other assorted misfits squatting in this run down building, the runoff from Cookie's cooking has been stewing in the dilapidated plumbing system of the old building. Now it's issuing noxious fumes from drains, getting into the water supply, and turning the tenants into deranged, super-humanly strong murder machines. Who will survive, and how much glop will be coating them?

I want to point out first that this is not a zombie movie. It's not even a 28 Days Later sort-of-but-not-really zombie movie. Netflix will tell you otherwise, but this is 100% a virus movie, like The Crazies. The is no doubt the infected are still alive. They just happen to be melting while they're trying to kill you. I found that very refreshing, as I was fully expecting (and fully resigned to) zombies. It's nice to be surprised.

The cast are all great, although the secondary characters absolutely steal the movie out from under our protagonists in every single scene. Possibly the weakest link is Dylan Penn, although that could simply be a byproduct of the fact that she plays the bland, normal viewpoint character against a backdrop of some of the most vibrantly weird exploitation movie characters I've seen in ages. Given little more to do than be by turns grossed out and scared, she doesn't get a lot of room to shine. I remember even less of Dante's part, so perhaps Ronen Rubinstein is the dud here, although no one is truly bad in this. It's no crime to be unmemorable when you're up against a guy who looks like Till Lindemann's younger brother leading a gimp around on a leash. The script is sharp and funny. It takes a while to get there, but once things kick off the gore is plentiful, thoroughly disgusting, and nearly all practical gags.

Now, we all remember the craze for everyone making “throwback grindhouse” movies a while back. It still happens once in a while, although I think the bulk of that fad has passed. Sometimes it's a lot of fun (Frankenstein Created Bikers), and sometimes it's just a chore (I dunno, pick one, there were about ten thousand of the damn things after Grindhouse came out). The vast majority of filmmakers jumping on that bandwagon appeared to be operating under the assumption that simply adding a bunch of post-production film grain and artifacting to their picture automatically gave them 42nd street cred regardless of the actual substance of their movie. It's such a treat to see a movie from a filmmaker who understands that the true spirit of the grindhouse can be summoned up without a hint of faux print scratches.

Setting aside some obvious anachronisms like editing style and being shot digitally, Condemned totally feels like a 70s or early 80s NYC exploitation flick. It really captures that pre-Giuliani squalor. This movie is a treasure. A love letter to pre-gentrification New York; to Milligan and Hennenlotter and the Findlays and every diseased weirdo who brought their own personal vision of hell to life with a few thousand bucks and a box full of short ends. The budget may have been a little higher, and those short ends are now endless thanks to modern technology, but Eli Gesner gets it. I hope we get a lot more sleazy, slimy nastiness from him in the future.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Bloodtide (1982)

Written by: Richard Jeffries and Nico Mastorakis
Directed by: Richard Jeffries
Martin Kove as Neil
Mary Louise Weller as Sherry
Deborah Shelton as Madeline
James Earl Jones as Frye

It has recently come to my attention that at least one of my friends passed this movie by because he had dismissed it as a Jaws knockoff and felt his life did not need another one of those. That being the case, we'll consider this review a public service announcement of sorts. If you own some of those Mill Creek 50 movie packs (and let's face it, who doesn't?), there's a better than even chance you own at least one copy of Bloodtide. You should watch it. Cue The More You Know Music

You're probably wondering, If it's not a Jaws knockoff, then what the hell is it? Have you ever wanted to see drunken, Shakespeare-quoting Thulsa Doom get his junk bitten off by a demonic Greek gill man? Ah, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Neil and Sherry Grice have come to the small island of Jalapenopopperdopoulis (not really) to locate his sister, Madeline. She was an art student who had come to the island to study its ancient religious iconography, but no word has been heard from her for a worrying amount of time. The islanders are none too welcoming to outsiders, and for some inexplicable reason offshore diving is strictly prohibited, even though the waters are perfect for it. Things get even weirder when they meet Frye, an alcoholic ex-thespian-turned-treasure-hunter, who constantly quotes Othello and is convinced the islanders are guarding an enormous trove of riches in the ruins of a temple submerged somewhere at the base of the island. He intends to find it, diving at night to avoid detection, and blast his way into the treasure vault with a load of explosives he's been hiding.

Eventually Madeline turns up, and she has made some exciting but frightening discoveries in an old church. In trying to restore some of the oldest icons, she uncovered layers of older and older art beneath them. The head nun implores her to give up her study, take communion, and leave the paintings be, and does not take kindly at all to the suggestion that the wood some of the icons are painted on is older than Christ. This would be a short and boring movie if Madeline and Frye let sleeping monsters lie. You see, thanks to the opening sequence and the odd flash of imagery up until now, we know full well that what those icons depict is a monster that was kept docile in pre-Christian days by feeding it virgins, and that what's behind the door in that old temple is damn well not gold.

When Frye blasts the vault open, the explosion nearly causes the underwater cave to collapse, so he skedaddles and is not present to witness the awakening of the creature, but before long people start dying and Madeline begins to exhibit some disturbing signs of hostile mental takeover by an unknown force. When Frye's girlfriend Barbara is killed by the creature, he switches modes from Othello to Ahab, and he and Neil set out to save Madeline from being the next sacrifice.

It's amusing that people blow this movie off as a Jaws cash in, because there's a scene in the movie that I'm fairly certain was the filmmakers acknowledging this very thing. After Barbara's death, the villagers, led by Jose Ferrer, attempt to pass it off as a shark attack. Frye snaps back that it was no shark attack, there aren't even any sharks in the waters around the island, and you can practically hear Matt Hooper saying, “This was not a boat accident!”

The one thing Bloodtide does have in common with Jaws, though, is the dearth of monster scenes working very much in the movie's favor. The creature is always present in the background as a threat, represented by the religious icons Madeline uncovers, by the deaths in the water, by Madeline's strange behavior, the hostility of the villagers, and the overall sense of impending dread hanging over the proceedings, but we are afforded very few clear looks at the creature, and the glimpses we do get are fleeting. While I am all for getting a good solid eyeful of monster in a monster movie, sometimes less really is better. That isn't to say that the creature suit doesn't look good. From what I can tell, it's actually pretty damn cool. But this thing is supposed to be a literal demon that held an island in thrall for millennia. No foam rubber dinosaur costume is going to hold up to those expectations, so Jeffries wisely lets the atmospheric locations and the audience's imagination do most of the heavy lifting for him.

When I say atmospheric locations, boy are they ever. You don't see a lot of horror flicks come out of Greece, so the unusual geography and architecture lend the flick a very different flavor than something from, say, Italy or Spain. It's little wonder Jones was willing to take what was surely a significant pay cut from his last few projects in order to have an all-expenses-paid vacation to the land of Hercules (and now I really want to see a movie where Hercules and Conan have to team up to fight Thulsa Doom).

I'm a little baffled by how this movie has managed to continue wallowing in relative obscurity despite its fairly impressive cult film creative pedigree. Okay, so Martin Kove is basically the K-Mart store brand version of Reb Brown (contemplate that on the Tree of Woe) and Mary Louise Weller's biggest claim to fame was getting second billing in Forced Vengeance with Chuck Norris (or I guess she was in Animal House if you're into that), but come on, James Earl fucking Jones! One of the most instantly recognizable actors of the last century slumming in a cheap foreign monster movie (and being really damn good in it, too)! How does that not warrant some attention? And this wasn't even before he got big. He'd already done Conan the Barbarian and two Star Wars movies, so people damn well knew who he was. Behind the camera, the movie was produced and co-written by Nico “Island of Death” Mastorakis and co-produced by Brian Trenchard-Smith!

If that doesn't make you want to see it, I don't know what would. Oh wait, yeah I do. The best glimpse we get of the creature is right at the end of the movie, just before Frye blows it to pieces, when it bites his fucking junk off and shakes it around like a dog worrying a chew toy! There, now go grab one of the seven or eight copies you inevitably own and watch the damn thing!

Bloodtide Ate My Balls.