Monday, 30 April 2012

Danger: Diabolik (1968)

Lured by the success of Batman's and Fantomas's film versions – classic comic strip and criminal fiction heroes – Dino de Laurentiis decided to spin two projects in late 1967. One of these creations eventually became Roger Vadim's "Barbarella" while the other one – cashing on a great popularity of Italian fumetto about supervillain Diabolik – was assigned to Mario Bava and dubbed simply "Danger: Diabolik". Although it was the most expensive movie Bava ever directed, flashing with stylish sets or classy designer costumes and it made a huge blast in Europe, it didn't manage to break through in United States, where after limited theatrical release it went down to circulating as a 16 mm print. But with time it gained a large following, today being considered one of the best comic book adaptations ever made linking pulp frivolousness with a sense of underground sensitivity, very appealing to the counterculture of the late 60's.

As the movie was based on an established comic strip series, it had a pile of volumes to exploit and in fact Bava just cut'n'pasted Diabolik's most interesting adventures rewriting them into a tight script. Known by his gothic horror, fantasy & giallo versatility, he was a perfect match for a movie, which demanded weird imagination, tension building and certain equivocality from a director. As an effect Bava came up with a humorous, luscious vision bridging pop cultural light weight with genre parody and anti-establishment winks towards political revolutionaries of the psychedelic era. In the end his figure of Diabolik (acted by John Phillip Law) is an ambiguous one, coming down as a sort of witty, technology-savvy superthief, who robs from filthy rich, but not for the profit... for pure fun and satisfaction exclusively. Although he likes to surround himself with top of the line decor and drives pricey Jaguar, he wouldn't have a sense of purpose without his gorgeous girlfriend Eva, who's more important than all the gold and jewels of this world.

He's introduced while nicking a car carrying $10 mln, smoking the escort out and lifting it with a crane. But as he comes home to his lady luck Eva (played by beautiful Marisa Mell), he simply tosses the money on a bed and they're promptly drowning in the heat of a love act using it as a spectacular fetish. But the government will soon have enough and will grant chief of police new prerogatives to get Diabolik by any means. Importantly, there is another bad guy in this story, Valmont – boss of the powerful syndicate, whose operations are being busted one by one in order to force him into a deal. He'll be the criminal mind to deliver Diabolik. Knowing his ways far better than police, he's gonna pick the right bait to catch him. Although this plan initially pans out, Diabolik hides more aces and throws them on a table eventually, slipping away from the hands of law being officially dead... and blowing up all tax and financial centres afterwards in an act of absurd revenge. Facing all these futile efforts the prime minister becomes edgy and orders another desperate trap set. Will Diabolik finally slip?

This fast-paced caper by Mario Bava is much different from his other genre works, mostly as he had much bigger budget at his disposal and didn't hesitate to spend it on lurid sets, which perfectly mirror the spirit of the epoch – sci-fi ideas of the late 60's meet current Italian interior design. Then there are Marisa Mell's designer clothes, who's dripping with sex herself as always (one of the reasons to see this movie). Yes, it does have a dash of exploitation, but Bava's eye is still there with his famous close-ups (mimicked at large by later giallo and horror artists), long, full frame shots, giving viewer a sense of depth or his dynamic car chase sequences, definitely ahead of it's time. It's all nicely combined by a streamline action, exactly like in comic books – one scene goes after another without any psychological sit-downs as development of the characters is pretty unnecessary here – they are as we see them. Over the top acting and psychedelic musings like zapping press conference with laughing gas or busting Valmont's pad filled with joint puffing hippies add to a general sense of playful romp, which didn't lose anything with time. On the top you get ravishing Ennio Morricone's soundtrack, so don't hesitate and just go for it!

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The Doll Of Satan (1969)

A middle class couple (Jack & Eizabeth) arrives to the old French castle to partake in a reading of the last will of young lady's uncle, just to find out he left her these ancient premises in inheritance. Overwhelmed by castle's bizarre aura they rather choose to enjoy themeselves in a beautiful countryside casually staring to discover it's striking nicety. Soon enough they are to find out, that their new home has been an object of a pending purchase offer, made by a local businessman. When they encounter this gentleman during a walk through the forest, he mentions that a deal is still on the table, waiting to be reconsidered by the new owner. Suddenly strange things start to happen with a young lady being a centre of the brutal game, whose puppet masters are nearer than she expects.

Although very appealing, the title of this rare giallo flick has nothing to do with the plot as satan's horns are virtually absent. Instead, the movie carries a strong resemblance to Roger Corman's gothic horrors, especially as set production is concerned. While plot evolves, it's gothic wings are being cut down a little in favour of a cheesy espionage spoof. In comparison with other gialli of the late 60's, that one has minor interest in exploiting middle class games, nudity or even Italian alta moda. Acting is not it's strongest side either, but that's at least counterweighted by light fetish touch to scenes of morbid visions, where main character is involved. We even get a short peek at her nipples and they're not too bad. Only magnet here is a dressed, female beauty – blonde one is a victim while brunette one is the crook and on the top we get another one, brown-haired daredevil – a secret agent.

What can I say about Ferruccio Casapinta's "The Doll Of Satan" in the end? It can barely provoke a grimace on your face and it's definitely not funny in a bad way other cult B-movies are. Nothing more than a full-length eurospy gibberish dressed in gothic trimmings with subpar script and action as askew as it's practically possible. That's true it's rare and you won't find an official release, but I wouldn't mind not having it in my collection as it's value is next to none. A dull pot boiler I'm afraid, blinking dramatically at the seekers of rare Italian gialli. But if you're really into the genre, there are other yummy rarities worth grabbing and only if you are the most adamant completist, you might consider giving it a go. Otherwise, stay clear of this movie, cause you're gonna curse the producers and the place, where you've bought it.

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Sunday, 22 April 2012

One On The Top Of The Other (1969)

If there's one Lucio Fulci's film you cannot afford not to watch, it's "One On The Top Of The Other" aka. "Perversion Story" (Italian title: "Una sull'altra"). Inspired by Hitchcock's famous "Vertigo" with James Stewart and Kim Novak, it uses giallo rails to spice up classic thriller frame by exploiting what Hitchcock was never able to come through with – sex and erotic passion. While for my money it's a much better picture, I need to mention I was never big fan of Hitchcock appreciating "Psycho" and nothing more. Partly cause I personally hate Old Hollywood romance cliches and partly cause his style is very repetitive and too self-conscious for my taste. Fulci on the other hand had roaring 60's past him, standing on the shoulders of the cultural revolution, which changed a lot in the cinema – from 1959 to 1969 it was like light years ahead! That gave the movie a distinctive flavour, but also let him boil up the story to a sensual orgy.

In fact, it's one of these maestro's genre flicks so flapped around eroticism, that pratically void of violence, which is very often paired with his style by gore fans if not forcefully superimposed. However we have to remeber, that Fulci was suave and smart director, who didn't jump on stage just to say: "Let's do this zombie movie, filled with sex and violence. It'll sell". He evolved like every other great director, shaping his workshop and developing his interests with time through many movies, which included sword & sandals flicks, comedies, documentaries, spaghetti westerns and even musicals. In the end of 60's shaken by suicide of his wife, tired with comedies and spaghetti westerns he suddenly discovered giallo – invented single-handedly by Mario Bava in his two early 60's movies: "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" (1963) and "Blood and Black Lace" (1964). That definitely changed Fulci's artistic route giving him new means of expression, which is best exemplified by "One On The Top Of The Other".

But Fulci would never lower himself to a blatant rip-off, instead he was gonna offer one of the most complex, criminal stories ever featured on the screen. His first take on giallo is definitely one of the best of the genre and starts a completely new offshoot – erotic criminal, which tracks a bust up of marriage. But that's not all of it! Considering, that this amazing movies, starring Jean Sorel, Marisa Mell and Elsa Martinelli was an international co-production, it was released in four different cuts (American, French, Spanish and Italian) of which two (Spanish and Italian) are considered very rare today. Although differences between the cuts are not crucial for the intrigue, they accentuate diverse tones and expose or delete erotic scenes. American version is the most stripped one as far as carnal heat is concerned, while Italian and French one are the most passionate showing all of it. Italian version is the longest one, running approximately 105 min., but it drops initial bird's eye shots of San Francisco apparent in French cut, released as "Perversion Story" on DVD. On the other hand it contains full dialogue lines making this version most elaborate and detailed one.

Italian cut presents full, sophisticated script based on a story of a San Francisco upper middle class marriage. Doctor George Dumurrier (Jean Sorel) is exposed as a character finding himself in a difficult situation, between a falling relationship and his private clinic drowning in serious financial troubles... but his affair with a sexy photographer Jane (Elsa Martinelli) is fortunately flourishing while he's daydreaming about getting rid of the wife, Susan (Marisa Mell) to make his life complete. This somehow happens without his intervention as she soon dies of dramatic asthma attack. Not being able to grieve as he's heart is jumping to start over with Jane, he surprisingly finds out, that his wife's kept a valid life policy worth $1 mln, which makes him instantly rich.

He's able to save the clinic now... and pursue his erotic desires as he's just met a new hottie in a local strip club, Roaring Twenties – Monica Weston, whose beauty is a mirror reflection of his dead wife. Only she's blonde, has deep green eyes and her line of work includes paid sex – in the end she seems nothing more than a witless hooker. But after spending night with her, he accidentally finds out, that she needs to take the same anti-asthmatic drug as his dead wife and that's just the beginning of a long mystery-solving run as he promptly becomes arrested by police and accused of murdering Susan to profit from her insurance policy. Hitting with red herrings, hazardous passions, double-crossing, unexpected twists and dark underbelly, film finally leads to slightly crude, but still surprising ending. As Fulci plays the suspense very well, it becomes a very effective challenge for the imagination.

Maestro's picture is visually stunning, spiked with absolutely amazing shots of Alejandro Ulloa, including fast close-ups, slow panoramic shots and off-beat dolly outs. My favourite one captures Jean Sorel and Elsa Martinelli making love through a veil of thin fabric with red lens – very psychedelic indeed. This Fulci owes undoubtedly to European New Wave masters like Godard or Antonioni. But his vision of working with a camera is not worse than these established auteurs, Fulci is just more after genre's exploitation possibilities and doesn't want to be pretentious. On the top the movie is supported by a breath-taking jazz soundtrack by Riz Ortolani ("Mondo Cane"), clearly one of the best 60's soundtracks I happened to hear. Ortolani's main theme with rich bass notes, counterpointed by a flurry of high-pitched brass licks is an intrisic element of many pivotal points of the movie and often left me breathless.

As far as acting is concerned Jean Sorel is not bad in his role, but feminine creations rule here with gorgeous Merisa Mell playing two sides of the coin and Elsa Martinelli capturing the spirit of strong, sexy, self-made woman. Well-chosen sets and locations add another layer to this cult movie as well as high fashion costumes, which will make vintage orientated designers scream. Although this is one of the rarest Fulci's movies, it's more than worthy tracking down and a must-see for maestro's fans. In my shortlist it occupies a second position after "Don't Torture a Duckling" (1972) and before "Lizard in Woman's Skin" (1971), starting the most creative period of Fulci's career. The only thing I really don't like about it is the ending, suddenly bringing para-documentary style onboard. And while it couldn't meet any more experimental touch in order to sell worldwide, I feel that going down that road it could have made a real masterpiece. Nevertheless, divorced from "what if he..." wondering, I reckon it's still one of the best B-movies or at least gialli ever made, which can be hardly pigeonholed after all. It needs very careful watching, but it won't disappoint Fulci's ardent followers.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

One of my all-time personal favourites, "Five Easy Pieces" is an absolutely electrifying drama perfectly summing up bittersweetness of the 60's – a period of irreversible cultural transformation, which changed societies, but individuals even more. This great vision of Bob Rafelson, photographed by Laszlo Kovacs, played out by Jack Nicholson and Karen Black is one of the best, that American auteur cinema has had to offer. Emotionally exuberant picture featuring verbatim acting creations and surprisingly simple story flows high due to masterminded narration, transgressive pacing and spot-on shoots, utilizing non-ordinary angles. It's quasi antic connotations make it a little bit more than just a social critique and it's enigmatic ending embodies all, that truly timeless cinema should be associated with. While this is just one nugget in the epoch's pile of gold, only few 70's artistic flicks matched it with their passion and genuine storytelling qualities.

Bob Rafelson was one of these crucial forces in the late 60's and early 70's American cinema, which later lost their impact and were forgotten, covered up with other names like Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese. Still, he remains one of the most original auteurs and producers, who managed to inject new blood into the Hollywood system. In fact his "Head" (1968) besides casting The Monkees comes as one of the most original, surrealistic romps made in the 60's and although initially flopped, became the ultimate cult movie later on. That's where his collaboration with Jack Nicholson has started, who co-wrote this yummy flick. With "Five Easy Pieces" Rafelson was nominated for Oscar as a director and script writer – he took the first one in glory together with New York Critics Award. This on the other hand leaves me upset about Academy Awards today, won by pictures, which wouldn't probably even take a nomination 30 years before – for which I don't even bother watching them usually – but every time has it's "spirit" and the golden years will rather not come back.

"Five Easy Pieces" is a story of Robert Eroica Dupea, impersonated by Jack Nicholson – a romantic dropout from upper middle class nest of anything but average, classical musicians. Bobby – as we get to know him in the beginning – severed ties with his family and has gone down South to live a life of a physical labourer, moving from job to job, from town to town. Although at some point he's refused to pursue his family's artistic heritage (as his brother and sister did without a blink of an eye), he cannot find peace as a "class refugee", working in the oil fields, bowling, fucking girls and downing beers with his pal. But his girfriend Rayette (Karen Black) seems a perfect symbol of what he desperately struggles to embrace. She's easygoing, warm-hearted and pretty in a way, but brainless and lacking any wider horizons. Confused about his past Bobby plays along, but mixed emotions and guilt of losing the higher ground eventually provoke a fight with his buddy and then with Rayette. In the end he's just a non-committed drifter, who can only keep fear at bay for so long.

One of these days he doesn't want to take it anymore and visits her sister Tita in a recording studio. Narration makes clear, that she's a subpar pianist, but leaving a question about Bobby's talent open. Although she's very happy to see him, she needs to lay a very sad news on her brother. Their father had two strokes recently and doesn't seem to be feeling well. Jerked around by guilt and melancholy, Bobby decides to drive up the country to Washington, to visit his old home and check on his father. Making it a bundle, he decides to leave his girlfriend, but she makes a scene and thus they carry on together. However, he doesn't want to bring Rayette down, ashamed over her working class, non-educated background. Instead he forces her to stay in a cheap motel not far from the island, on which his family's been living.

As Bobby finally arrives, he finds his father terminal and a new tenant at home – a young pianist and his brother's girlfriend. That wakes up a yearning for a new affair as well as natural, musical talent. When he plays beautiful notes of Chopin – while camera rolls over family photos showing him next to his father – his status as the most talented one becomes obvious, explaining uneasy family tension around the life he chose. Although his savage nature and very unpredictable character will be more than a girl can take, Bobby beds her in the course of an action just to find out afterwards, that he's still not a good fit for quiet, classical pianist lifestyle and eventually leave home with Rayette. That leads to an unexpected, beautiful ending, which becomes the most precise depiction of Bobby's hasty, rebelious personality.

Rafelson's work is one of the most important American films ever made, paving the way for Jack Nicholson to the stardom. In "Five Easy Pieces" actor continues, what he started in "Easy Rider" finally breaking free from a burden of secondary roles. Although, we're gonna see Jack Nicholson doing even better (in "Last Detail", "Carnal Knowledge", "King Of Marvin Gardens" or "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest"), this is the role to be acknowledged and remembered as it's here, where his pure hysterical energy and talent for bringing out character's metamorphosis got revealed in a raving streak of confrontations. But this masterpiece would never reach this level if not Laszlo Kovacs with his cameraman virtuosity – his total eye is just amazing. Obviously, top-notch screenplay by Rafelson and his clear, artistic vision come on the top, creating a perfectly structured tale with spontaneous narrative curves, invoking profound conflicts of the human nature as well as basic dilemmas of free thinking individuals in a modern, mobile society. This is an obligatory viewing for any serious film buff!

Monday, 16 April 2012

The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963)

Hailed by critics and movie buffs as the first giallo movie in cinema history, Mario Bava's "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" (or "La ragazza che sapeva troppo") takes it's title from critically acclaimed Hitchcock's thriller "The Man Who Knew Too Much". Beyond any doubt Bava was inspired by Hitchcock's movies praising mainly "Psycho" as a genre breakthrough, which set it's print on many 60's thrillers and horrors – American and European ones. This legendary film was also his fourth and final movie shot in black & white as one year later he'd go fully Technicolor with another exuberant giallo classic – "Blood & Black Lace", where he'd pull out all the stops creating genre history. But it's here, where he made a giallo statement juggling with pulp fiction sleaze in order to reinvent the art of screen terror and setting a blueprint for the next 300 Italian productions. From this perspective "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" is a really exceptional achievement.

The girl's name is Nora Davis (Leticia Roman) and she's just flying over to Rome from United States, flipping through pages of another giallo novel. Her auntie is sick and she's looking forward to meeting her, unfortunately she dies shortly after Nora's arrival, in the middle of the night. Shocked by this sudden occurence, she tries desperately to get a doctor on the phone and then runs to the hospital stomping on spiral stairs of Piazza di Spagna, but she gets knocked by a thief and lands unconscious on the pavement. When she finally comes to her senses a weird murder is being committed right before her eyes. But when she reports it to the police, they cannot investigate as apparently no harm was done... at least as far as they know. Driven by viral giallo fantasies she goes after the mystery herself and forces her auntie's personal doctor, Marcello Bassi (John Saxon) to help her out. That leads to a series of unexpected events and final encounter with malevolent Alphabet Murderer.

Emotionally vibrant with carefully paced, oniristic narration, "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" is an extraordinary film calling for multiple viewing. Many can be said about Bava's inventive camerawork, master shadow play catch and stunning photography. Even Furore – movie's main theme, sung by Adriano Celentano, helps to lay a roaring vibe on Bava's story from a first frame, which shows an aeroplane high in the clouds. All the elements and licks play along just fine smoothly carrying the action ahead. Acting performances are strong and certainly well caught on camera. As John Saxon couldn't speak Italian, this is also first giallo featuring full Italian dubbing and first giallo to bring drugs to the screen. A puff of marijuana cigarette and Nora is high, confused about what is real and what is a fantasy, which serves Bava as an opening bracket of the story and as a closing one too. After the climax she conceives in her mind, that it all could have been just a weed dream. Stoner movie? Well, let's not get that far.

As the first giallo, Bava's movie was actually paving the way, but as this step on the moon was promptly overturned by "Blood & Black Lace", it never got ripped off by director's devotees such as Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martini or the others. Paradoxically, the structure of the latter one was grabbed, successfully tweaked and polished, eventually evolving into a point of occult thriller or satanic slasher (depends on the artist), where a form became everything, pushing sound screenplay aside. While "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" seems a fairytale in par to later attainments of Italians, it's much closer to European New Wave in terms of film expression than Bava's later works. Especially exterior shots resemble Fellini's and Antonioni's hunt for catching the nature of the game. A truly artistic B-movie, which skillfuly balances taste and thrills. Definitely a must-see for giallo greenies and completists, who somehow missed it.

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Sunday, 15 April 2012

Hunter S. Thompson – His Final Hours (2006)

One of these minor documentaries, that only die-hard fans can dig. Directed by William Hicklin for Cineflix International (Canadian TV production company) it makes an interesting effort to uncover last 24 hours of Hunter S. Thompson's life as a part of Final 24 biography series. While most of the classic and modern documentaries on Hunter have covered him on a current time basis or in retrospective – coming up with personal interviews and live/archival footage – this stuff goes down a little bit weirder patch favoring his last day as a TV play. We get a bunch of actors impersonating Thompson, his son, wife and befriended video camera operator – Ben Fee, who's been invited over at that time to shoot the family reunion. Obviously, it's been made after writer's suicide, so nobody was able to interview him anymore, but a drama take itself – known well from many criminal or historical documentaries – works here as well.

However, director had also ambition to map Hunter's long way to fame, thus he interviewed his ex-wife, few old Rolling Stones editors and his neigbours. There's even a psychiatrist and one minor book biographer in this bunch, but both without a real muscle. Overall His Final Hours is a nice collage of acted reconstruction and Hunter's back-story, which weaves in and out as the countdown to an end is getting nearer. All threads are linked, all explanations are given and all known facts are unveiled as we watch the actors giving their performance on a snowy-white set (as Thomspon took his life in February) in a country house, carrying a forced resemblance to Owl Farm. For those of you, who've read two or three biographies about Thompson, there won't be probably any new crack on the writer, but this material is consistent enough to serve as an expanding pill for the readers, who are after obnoxious or shocking details, which in Hunter's case seem more than easy to catch. He proclaimed himself the last public drug fiend anyway.

Thompson's twisted, double nature and persona playing comes first as an explanation for his mythical drive towards drugs, alcohol and wild non-conformism. Although portraited as a juvenile delinquent in Louisville, who nevertheless aspired high and then bitter journalist for many years (two books rejected, being limited to smalltime press writing for a long time), who suddenly broke through with Hell's Angels in 1966 and then just winged ahead to better deals, there's never any doubt about his great writing talent. This is confirmed by everybody in the movie, can hardly be questioned and happens only when another frustrated crappy writer sweats out some adolescent bunk in order to get his five minutes. But more interesting is digging in Hunter's closet, which is done with a surprising dose of competence. Sandra (ex-wife) doesn't take his charm away, but speaks of his dark temper as well.

Respectively his former Rolling Stone editor – Alan Rinzler, takes us back to the early 70's recounting anectdotes how Hunter must've got loaded with everything he could have laid his paws on (usually coke, weed and whiskey) in order to crystalize the angelic vision out of thin air. Otherwise he couldn't write. If he was zonked out like a space monkey, he coudn't write either. Apparently, a delicate balance was necessary. That – as it's stated here – was a good line in a short run, but in the late 70's or early 80's started taking it's toll as an integral part of Hunter's lifestyle and ultimately as a destructive fix. The most detectable result was a crashing level of his writing as imaginative started becoming real (a prisoner of his own narration theory). In fact, between 1973-1983 he didn't write anything new – The Great Shark Hunt (1979) was brilliant stuff, but only a retrospective collection of previously written materials – with Curse Of Lono (1983) opening another period. But even this book would have never been published if not Douglas Brinkley's intervention, who had to put it together virtually by himself!

Then we eventually come to fin de siecle, 2003-2005, when Hunter underwent two hip surgeries, suffered broken leg pain and started getting weary and depressed from daily mixture of painkillers and Chivas Regal. At that point it wasn't mystery for anyone, that he was a hard drinking alcoholic, although most of the people interviewed in the movie prefer to speak of "a professional drinker". Whatever, diplomacy was never Hunter's strong line and he wouldn't mind in-your-face anyway. Moreover, he's been spreading the word about his suicidal mood at least two years before he's actually done it as well, so nobody could have been genuinely surprised (covered in the movie). The way he's done it? Hemingway way? Stashing almost 30 guns loaded around the house? The only option really. And the word he left on a paper: "Counselor"? Probably an ultimate gonzo joke... but we'll never know, cause he's dead now sniffing heavenly coke. Good filler for detail hunters, but you need to be Hunter's lover to really appreciate it!

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Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Terror (1963)

Among many Corman's cult classics "The Terror" occupies a very particular space as the only picture, which took more than three weeks to wrap up. In fact, it took nine months before any editing might have taken place as the story kept missing and missing from the reels, even if five directors were busy closing in on Corman's wacky idea. Have you ever seen a low-budget picture, which can hardly pull off any storyline? Well, meet "The Terror", which doesn't have any plot at all. Basic concept of this legendary gibberish, heavily outlined by the cast, critics and Corman's fans invaded director's brain when he's been finishing the shoot of „The Raven” (1962). He mentions looking at the beautiful, gothic set and feeling kind of upset from a necessity to tear it all down a day after. Thus he got touched by a genie and came up with another movie, which could have been shot over two days, without any need to cut between the scenes to save time by keeping the camera on!

Although one thing he still missed was the screenplay, Corman solved it quickly by calling his fastest writer, Leo Gordon, who eventually agreed to write some loosely linked pages in few days. Director now had a set, very basic story and a cast brought up in a jiffy. Jack Nicholson agreed to play a French Army officer – Duvalier, who wandered off of his regiment along Baltic Sea shoreline during Napoleon's military campaign. Sandra Knight (Jack Nicholson's wife) played Helene, a mysterious ghost dragging him into... that's the problem as nobody knew what exactly. Then there was Boris Karloff as Baron von Leppe, who got paid $30,000 by AIP to commit two more days to next Corman's movie. Finally, the role of his servant was filled by Dick Miller. Eventually it proved to be a rather poor triangle for a thrilling, gothic romp, hence two other characters were created to buzz it up – mysterious mute named Gustav and The Witch. The roles were grabbed by Jonathan Haze and Dorothy Neumann respectively.

As nobody really knew initially what the story was about and what the motivations of their characters were, Jack Nicholson and Boris Karloff were forced to stroll around the props for two days occasionally exchanging nonsense lines. After two days shooting Corman had to leave to Europe in a rush, where he was planning to make another quickie, "The Young Racers" (1963). Thus a task of finishing the movie was laid on Francis Ford Coppola, who was to direct exterior scenes linking the castle sequences with another part of the story or more precisely he just had to work up it's foundations. He manged to improve the story though by bringing Duvalier and Helene outside and making them interact, which unfortunately bent it out a little bit, leaving retarded "castle plot" even more problematic.

Confronted with an obvious gap in a storyline and missing more footage Corman gave a camera and some film to his assistant Dennis Jakob – fresh UCLA graduate. But Dennis shot his own movie about a Civil War in three days instead leaving Corman in a real despair. This time Monte Hellman was picked and asked to shoot additional scenes on the cliffs of Palos Verdes. He was happy to do it and filmed everything he was told to, but felt that the scipt should have been changed even more, so promptly rewrote an already messed up story overlapping it with another absurd twist, which made The Witch look for revenge and Gustav talk... but at least he was able now to explain the mystery of this movie to a beat up viewer. While Corman was pondering his long over time project, he figured he needed another man to round up the story by shooting some more footage.

Jack Hill jumped onboard and carried on for a bit, but Corman still needed one more day of filming and this time Jack Nicholson persuaded him he'd do it if everybody was doing it anyway. As the story didn't sparkle anyway – it definitely missed a beat – Corman decided to go for the ultimate twist. Baron was not a Baron, but Eric, witch's son, who took his place long time before by killing him in a duel. Bad news was, the witch didn't know that and tried to kill him all this time by using Duvalier and Helene to drive him completely crazy! As Jack Nicholson said: They don't make movies like The Terror anymore. The movie has become a cult trash since and was featured as a tribute by Corman's pupils in such movies as: "Mean Streets", "Targets" or "Hollywood Boulevard". A real chunk of low-budget movies history, where the movie itself is the least important thing!

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Friday, 6 April 2012

Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011)

One of these documentaries for which many of us have been sharpening their teeth and ticking days off as DVD release date was coming closer. Although it premiered on Sundance Festival a year ago, not all folks from around the globe could have attended, so instead they were forced to sit on their asses impatiently! As a big fan of Corman I need to say it's value lays mainly in high rollers of Hollywood uttering words of praise for the man, who let them literally be... who's been often their lifeblood. You have to check out Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern or Martin Scorsese who finally confirm, what we've all known but very rarely got admitted loud – Corman's film school has been the main link between 60's exploitation cinema and 70's auteur fireworks being the ground of new artistic forms developed in family environment.

As far as Corman's career is concerned, Alex Stapleton's movie speaks of few facts I wasn't aware. Documentary builds at large upon the story comprehensively told by Corman himself in his great book How I Made Hundred Movies In Hollywood and Never Lost A Dime, which tells you everything you need to know, hence those ones, who've read the book, might find a history of his career (revealed once again) a bit boring. But let's not forget, that there is still a lot of people outside the fandom, who've never heard of Corman or they've just drifted once or twice toward these regions and never really bothered to grab any solid book about the exploitation pope! "Corman's World..." seems to serve this purpose just fine mixing a biographical side with New Horizons office footage and very inspiring interviews with mentioned above and many others like David Carradine, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, Allan Arkush, Polly Platt, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert De Niro, Peter Fonda and many more. This list is very impressive itself!

On technical side it's a good job – maybe not ravishing, but all right – and it ticks all the boxes of modern documentary. Posters, trailers and press clipppings are being mixed with cinematic part and laid in simple manner, while narration heads toward tension build-up and eventually brings a climax. The movie seems longer than it really is, but that's due to compact construction. Corman's professional and private life in a pill was definitely a challenge, that's why screen time needed to be sped up multiple times, which reasonably trimmed his legendary 380 productions to 50 essential ones in a flash. Director also opted for leaving off Filipino chapter as that's been nicely exposed in another recent documentary - "Machete Maidens" (2010). Apart of that, we get basic treatment, from Corman's mythical schlock entries like "The Monster From the Ocean Floor" and "The Fast and the Furious", through unforgettable Poe flicks like "House Of Usher" or "Tomb Of Ligeia" (favourite Poe movie of Martin Scorsese) and then "The Terror", "The Wild Angels", "The Trip", and finally to New World Pictures period, when Corman made a fortune on such exploitation classics like "Big Doll House", "Grand Theft Auto", "White Line Fever" or "Death Race 2000" (to name only few).

But it wasn't exactly simplest task to do – covering a story of the guy, who has had three production/distribution companies, discovered 50% of Hollywood's biggest names, totally revolutionized production side of filmmaking, invented a new way of budgeting it, created dozen of exploitation sub-genres from a scratch giving a root to the modern action movie, improved and mastered the art of entertainment marketing (including these famous sticky trailers), took over distribution of European art films on US market in the 70's with profits and on the top directed more than 300 movies himself! Not all of these achievements have been discussed in "Corman's World...", but the most important were licked with clear sense of understanding, many to the credit of former Corman's collaborators and workers.

Saying that we need to stress once again, that Total Documentary on any topic is virtually impossible to score – the more extensive the subject, the more you need to shave it off as pedantic exploration of every single pocket carries a danger of down-playing or even losing the storyline completely. Grabbing all these threads together is hard enough and still it rarely happens on the screen! Making of an excellent documentary is very difficult as it needs a perfect insight! Besides, I'm deeply convinced, that no documentary can match a biography book as the latter one doesn't have time limitations and as a verbal medium cuts the distance to the analytical, left side of your brain. A film is a magic powder and it either turns you on or not – connection is more crucial than fishing it all out!

However, "Corman's World..." does one thing nicely. It creates a sense of slight disappointment in viewer's consciousness by picking the bits of actors talk as far as Corman's critical acclaim is concerned. Above all histories of life with their tutor, they spontaneously come up with one justified question, why he never got Lifetime Achievement Academy Award? And then it goes, smoke disperses while director shows Roger Corman tying his bow tie and heading to the L.A. ceremony, where Quentin Tarantino thanks him in the name of fans from around the world for making such a lot of great movies. He finally gets his official recognition, which he maybe didn't give a shit about, but it instantly cements his life-of-film-art status lifting him up from an underground phenomenon to acknowledged filmmaker of undeniable prestige. The thing is, he never chased for awards as money from his operations was smoothly flowing in, but in the end there are not many guys in this business with similar film score and such a massive worldwide cult. Along the line, this documentary should be treated as a cherry on the top!

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Machete (2010)

Undeniably Robert Rodriguez's biggest hit in years, which resonated well in his fan base and helped to spread the word futher to the outside world, that exploitation was indeed back on the block and kicked butts exactly like it had done in the golden years of drive-in and grindhouse cinema (we're saying late 60's and early 70's). While it didn't hit my guts as strongly as a preceding take on the convention – "Planet Terror", it definitely managed to come down with whole lotta fun, recalling all these sleazy stirs of Corman's New World Pictures exploitation products – to name the biggest shop of the time. As the idea of a smashing trailer evolved into a feature movie, the action was developed into a shitstorm of badass skull-ripping, high octane explosions, sex mini-adventures and borderline notoriety. The character of Machete himself draws largely upon the lines of jungle movies black revolutionaries like mythical Jim Haygood from "Savage!" (1973), classic underground vindicators like Billy Jack ("The Born Losers") or you name it.

When Machete (Danny Trejo) gets accidentally framed looking for justice on a self-driven mission to capture a ruthless drug baron Rogelio Torrez (Steven Seagal), he barely makes his way out of the deepest shit he ever stepped in, losing his wife and daughter. After crossing the US border, he eventually anchors in Texas, where he's gonna desperately look for a regular job, but instead the fate will lead him into the eye of a spiderweb political affair with dark underbelly. Failing to accomplish his mission – which occurs to be another set-up – he becomes a wanted fugitive and again needs to run for his life... but this time he wields his dear machete like a fuckin' angel of death. Not that he particularly likes the violence, but he just doesn't have any choice. Fortunately, he'll get a hand from a stunning immigration agent (Jessica Alba), who's initial aim is to bust a revolutionary Mexican organization known as The Network, but soon she'll stand arm in arm with Machete taking down shadow secretaries and corrupted kings of Texas politics – senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro) and his pervert aide – Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey), who struck a deal with Torrez himself to put their paws on the sources of political power.

Bold and swingin' like a doberman on speed, "Machete" does it's job! How on earth Rodriguez cast such an overspill of prime Hollywood playeres, I don't really know cause I'm not his casting director, but that was definitely an important factor in translating to box office success. The script is not as wildly entertaining as "Planet Terror" with few unnecessary licks and could have been polished better, but it's in-your-face simplicty with action and no mercy build-up lands a decent brainfuck with only slight excess of form – parody edge spoils it a bit in my opinion. First half rocks, while second one comes a bit short and the ending lacks a well constructed climax – Rodriguez could have made better and we know it! I guess it was partly intentional – let's not forget that the original classics, shot in a week and edited in two, didn't always make a home run either – but as we got used to the smoothest products, that Troublemaker Studios' dream machine could offer, my brain didn't tick to the full fulfilment beat.

But what the hell, man! The character of Machete is raving! Danny Trejo really broke through with it. Being obsessively cast as a Mexican outlaw/gangster in all TV series possible, he's become a genuine embodiment of the role – a cliche he got stuck with in a way, most recently in "Sons Of Anarchy" and "Breaking Bad". I suppose this made an easier choice for Robert Rodriguez... but why did he have to put on a full-blown Latino showdown??? I have to admit, I really suffered storming the Alamo of vigilantes with low-riders and California choppers in clear spirit of "Mad Max". That was way too much for me, but probably good for teenager market, if you get my point. Nevertheless, I enjoyed watching "Machete" for all these neat cues like Robert de Niro (not exactly ma favourite actor) sort of playing back to his old days in Corman's film school ("Bloody Mama") or great Cheech Martin puffing joints on the screen in tribute to his glorious days of Cheech & Chong stoner flicks, or even Steven Seagal showing off his ken-do and ai-ki-do techniques, this time on the other side of the force. We're all waiting for "Machete Kills" and hope it's gonna beat the original!

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Psych-Out (1968)

Right after he wrapped up his biker classic "Hells Angels On Wheels", Richard Rush rushed to the streets of San Francisco to shoot another picture for AIP. This time he was to roll over Height Ashbury district withering counterculture and come up with "Psych-Out" – a cult hippiesploitation flick featuring restless bunch of actors, who at some point jumped onboard and have become AIP regulars due to Roger Corman's talent-spotting eye. It's here, where Rush finally broke through with his underground sensitivity and good nose for subtleties of the counterculture and youth revolution. He is fortunately in debt to the amazing creations he called up to the screen when cast all the best that AIP could have offered. Jack Nicholson, Adam Roarke, Susan Strasberg, Bruce Dern, Dean Stockwell and Max Julien were soon about to become respectable actors with few of these young guns making their way up to the top. We're not gonna exaggerate at all dubbing some of them New Hollywood trademarks. But here all these future stars were still spacing out for nickel'n'dime while being caught by the camera of great Laszlo Kovacs.

A movie was shot in San Francisco with a lot of scenes being filmed at the location, in Height Ashbury or in Golden Gate Park. Although by 1968 Summer Of Love vibe was already gone, the feeling of cosmic change coming has dried and revolutionary heat has given up to the rising depression, it was a perfect time for AIP to cash on hippie-related products, while media was still digesting countercultural agenda, stripping and washing it down for the palate of middle class America. This was a moment when the revolution has slowly, but irreversibly moved toward selling out and all psychedelic groups were suddenly signing to big recording companies like RCA, MGM, Columbia, Capitol or their small, alternative subsidiaries and only few hard liners stayed unaffected. In fact a lot of old hipsters and activists started moving out of Height Ashbury going up the country – mostly to Northern California, where they soon laid a foundation for the biggest, illegal industry in United States – the cannabis growing business! This wave made easier for AIP to pull two classy acts into the movie, a young psychedelic rock group, The Strawberry Alarm Clock and successful garage rock band, The Seeds, thus we watch them both performing on the screen.

Jack Nicholson plays Stoney, a leader and a guitarist of aspiring Height Ashbury garage/psych band – Mumblin' Jim. Kicking back with his buddies (played by Adam Roarke and Max Julien) in a local cafe he accidentally bumps on a deaf girl, Jenny (Susan Strasberg) – a runaway searched by police. While lads provoke a brawl to help her slide off the eyes of the cops, Stoney won't let his one night stand opportunity slip away again when they meet her on the street going around with gig posters. Jenny is a girl with rules though and the most important thing for her is to find the older brother – Steve (Bruce Dern), who's just sent her a postcard with LSD inspired message ("God is well and alive in a sugar cube"). Mumblin' Jim guys will help her out by bringing to the free shop, so she can shake off the remnants of a square life, introducing her to the communal living and the psychedelic scene. Luckily, they'll trace her brother's pad eventually through the acid guru named Dave (Dean Stockwell), who lives in a compact box on the top of the roof, but is apparently into girl's charms. As they find out pretty soon, her brother's nickname is The Seeker and he occurs to be a local mystic, experimental sculptor and a drug burnout... to accomplish the mission they'll need to rumble around with God-loving Americans, meditate on their hang-outs and get through the psychedelic jungle of multiple inner truths.

"Psych-Out" has a general quirky stream dragging on scene after scene and it does follow a simple script saving it from too many loop-holes. Runaway girl, a band rising to local fame, crazy brother hiding around the corner – it all makes sens solely if actors know their lines verbatim, creations are believable and director knows what he's doing. The movie is sort of exploitation with an insight as it borrows from both worlds of cinema – a cheap, slanderous, pass the buck land of cashing on any emerging underground phenomenon there is and emotionally rich, smart driven slope of auteur cinema. Besides top directing by Rush, the movie is soaked in brilliant, electrifying examples of B-movie acting. It's hard to point at a winner here. Dean Stockwell as Dave – an enlightened recluse and acid guru, who doesn't lose any opportunity to clue Stoney in on his square hang-outs and materialistic doings, but still will keep his affinity for the girls... or Jack Nicholson as Stoney himself – a low-down musician with a big heart, driven by his street smarts and psychedelic hip, but boling with rage... or maybe Bruce Dern as The Seeker (Steve) – a down and out acid burnout, usually running around tripping his brain out or ranting insanely in the Golden Gate Park about the need of making love not war. Who knows, man?

Since it's release "Psych-Out" has joined a cult circuit gaining worldwide recognition. There are certain reasons for that as the movie is a hectic romp from beginning till the last cut. It offers some unique, psychedelic camera work by Laszlo Kovacs with his famous lens flare, vision blurring and brilliant close-ups, which kind of invoke the Height Ashbury experience. One of many movies, he definitely lifted up with his original style of photography. This is also fantastic opportunity to check the mentioned cream of a talented breed, who's been wading through AIP many low-budget productions to eventually hit the spot in the late 60's and 70's with classic auteur movies like "Easy Rider", "King Of Marvin Gardens", "The Last Movie", "Coming Home" and many others. Moreover, you get to see Jack Nicholson with a pony tail, playing cover of "Purple Haze", sharing the stage with loud rockin' bands such as The Seeds and The Strawberry Alarm Clock, bashing out their psych/garage hits – both outstanding examples of West Coast late 60's sound, they left some far out albums like "Incense and Peppermints" (1968) and "Web Of Sound" (1966). Undoubtedly a valuable proposition for rabid AIP, Richard Rush or Jack Nicholson followers!

Monday, 2 April 2012

The Specialist (1969)

One of the last Sergio Corbucci's spaghetti plates and one of these few gigs with Franco Nero being absent. A role of the gunslinger from nowhere is commissioned instead to Johnny Hallyday – a French Elvis Presley, who's been storming the European charts in the 60's, dubbed the hottest voice on the continent! However, his performance doesn't strike with the same charisma... or maybe the style of acting itself is subpar. Johnny Hallyday has been everything, but a method actor and this is detectable as far as his screen presence is concerned. Usually tensious and emotionaly rich Corbucci's close-ups do not sparkle with the same cool as Halliday offers a very haughty facade and lacks this quirky lick of Nero's affiliation. As far as director's ouevre is concerned, screenplay of "The Specialist" coins an intrigue picking the bits from "Big Silence" and "The Mercenary" (both screened a year before), crossing them both in a way.

Therefore the dude named Hud enters a corrupted, western town – where he had lived in the past – in order to track down a stashed cash of his recently murdered brother, clear up what really happened... and kill the malevolent ones, who pull the strings. But not an easy job to do while local sheriff is nagging him about checking the guns in and the crooks around the corner only wait to rip his heart open. He'll need to figure how to keep the guns and sling 'em fast to protect his life while digging out the dirt from underneath the porch. In the meantime a high-rolling, local female banker is gonna feel the heat crawling up her ass, hence will use all the paid manforce to terminate an old homie, who's getting too close to discovering the truth. She teams with another scumbag and together they jump on Hud's balls with a pure intention to scramble them once and for all!

While for my money "The Specialist" remains a secondary job of Corbucci, it does have some unusual elements. This is probably a first spaghetti western ever, breaking the ground by introducing smoking weed, western hippies. They are brought right up in the first scene exposing Hud's character and raise the action, being a closing bracket as well. A movie kicks off when they're down and out, crawling in the mud, pestered by a patrol of the Mexican brute – El Diablo, and fades when they finally raise to power, scraping the havoc leftovers to fill their end. Not without a reason they describe themselves as a "revolutionary group" in the movie. This particularly interesting element of late 60's Corbucci's works (it's gonna come back in "Companeros") serves as an off-beat commentary on the social change of the time. Countercultural dropouts/revolutionaries raising their hands in act of violence against the system charge up Corbucci's vibrant, alternative world and become a satirical teasing – in the same time coming through as a significant, social statement!

Usual triangle is used to stimulate the plot in "The Specialist". An outlaw gunfighter (Hud), a Mexican bandito (El Diablo) and corrupted powermonger (Madame Virginia) will play it out mostly against each other driving action full of treachery, back-stabbing and raunchy twists, which perk up the experience. If you like Corbucci and wanna go down the completist line, this is definitely a valuable proposition, especially as a precedence to "Companeros", which features few ideas outlined here, but circling back to "The Mercenary" structure. A really good movie after all, with tight secondary performances and plenty of amusing dialogue lines. It should be checked out if only for few weird scenes like town folks terrorized by the hippies to strip naked and crawl down the dirt road en masse or the sheriff getting smashed on a bottle of Champagne – probably a must put in a French co-production. A solid and entertaining genre flick!