Movies, movies, movies!

Nurse Bob's film reviews

When rating a film I ask myself these three questions: What is the director’s goal or purpose? How does the director try to achieve it? Is the director successful? Hence a big box office hit may get a “5” while a Eurosleaze sexploitation flick gets a “7”. My rating system in a nutshell:

10 = Brilliant!
9 = Exceptional
8 = Very Good
7 = Good
6 = Average
5 = Forgettable
4 = Bad
3 = Dismal
2 = Dog Barf
1 = Beyond Awful

~ ~ ~ ~

Ms. 45
(USA 1981) (7): When grindhouse and arthouse intersect the result looks something like this early work from Abel Ferrara, a vicious yet eloquently staged melding of bloodstained exploitation and skewed feminist metaphor. Timid New York seamstress Thana (Zoë Lund, mesmerizing) is sexually assaulted twice in one day, an experience which would put any woman over the edge. But in Thana’s case the damage runs even deeper for she has always been something of a loner due in large part to the fact she can’t speak and must resort to hastily scribbled notes. Thus unable to communicate her pain to others, including her clueless but well-meaning co-workers, Thana undergoes a lethal transformation from quiet wallflower to high-heeled vigilante ready to settle the score with any man unlucky enough to cross her path. Now bedecked in tight black leather, her hair pulled back and her lips painted blood red—think hybrid of Vampira and Robert Palmer girl—Thana prowls the midnight streets of a Manhattan suddenly awash in pimps and whoremongers, cheaters and rapists, her newly acquired .45 automatic firmly in hand… Lund is perfectly cast as the mouse-turned-Fury, her model looks and smoky gaze going from pain and horror to vengeful determination with nothing more than a twist of the lips or a flickering of the eyelids. And Ferrara emphasizes her considerable onscreen charisma with contrasting backdrops of urban squalor and a cheerless palette of drab autumnal colours. The violence is suitably brutal as bullets rip through flesh and a gruesome aside features a meat grinder, but Ferrara records the carnage with an operatic intensity that borders on the surreal—a climactic Halloween bacchanal becoming a triumph of lighting, texture, and perspective all set to a discordant jazz thump. Slick, stylish, and loaded with pointed imagery (Thana’s Halloween costume!) Ms. 45 is one of those small gems which remind us that big films can indeed spring from tiny budgets.

(UK 1976) (5): Newlywed Samantha (Lynne Frederick) is being terrorized by crank phone calls and a stalker who somehow always manages to get into her apartment when she’s alone. Convinced that this escalating harassment is somehow related to the man who brutally murdered her mother fifteen years earlier when she was just a child, her frantic pleas for help are largely downplayed by the police who are unable to find any evidence to support her claims, her best friend and new husband who likewise believe she is delusional, and a psychiatrist who chalks it all up to stress. But when her acquaintances start to die off—victims of a sadistic serial killer—it may already be too late! You pretty well know whodunnit within the first 20 minutes (an opening voiceover does everything but write their name on the wall) but that doesn’t prevent this British giallo from entertaining audiences…if only in a curious roadkill sort of way. The attempts at generating suspense produce a few squirms which are promptly dispelled by the usual illogical devices—“I think I just saw a knife-wielding maniac outside the bathroom door so I’ll finish soaping up my breasts, throw on a skimpy towel, and examine every square inch of the apartment.” Naturally. And the murders themselves, a nice combination of POV angles and victim close-ups, are certainly grisly enough to have given the old nannies at the BBFC cause to grab the scissors—I especially liked the “knitting needle” scene. But the film’s sole red herring fails to add any mystery to an already superficial plot and the uneven performances range from fair to middling with Queenie Watts (playing the couple’s feisty housekeeper) coming out on top and Stephanie Beacham (playing Samantha’s old school chum and romantic rival) oozing 70s chic. Unfortunately, the whole production relies largely on Lynne Frederick’s reactions as the distraught Samantha and she can’t even faint convincingly. But the real star of this little cheese platter is clearly the decor! The couple’s apartment is a study in loud and tacky fashion abominations from the horrid patchwork wallpaper and shower-curtain curtains to the purple walls, burgundy bedspreads, and dollar store tchotchkes, the design department clearly went out of their way to ensure that nothing matched anything. It’s like watching a slasher flick unfold inside a warehouse filled with kitschy castoffs and thinking “if the murderer doesn’t kill them that living room set certainly will”.

(Spain 1982) (2): When a crazy, sexually repressed mother discovers her young son assembling a jigsaw puzzle of a naked woman she tries to bitch slap the dirty thoughts right out of his head. Unfortunately she also slaps away his sanity for when she orders him to bring her a garbage bag so she can get rid of “this filth” he grabs an axe instead and proceeds to make a jigsaw puzzle out of her! Cut to a prestigious Boston college forty years later where buxom co-eds are being gruesomely dispatched by a serial killer wielding a chainsaw much to the chagrin of investigating police detective Bracken and undercover cop Mary Riggs (real life couple Christopher George and Lynda Day George). Who could the killer possibly be? Why are they targeting young women? And why is each victim missing a different body part? In this cheesy American slasher/Eurotrash giallo hybrid, director Juan Piquer Simón piles on the gore and boobs, mixes them with some horrible English dubbing and low-rent special effects (apparently real slaughterhouse blood and guts were used for the carnage scenes), and tops it all with some of the hammiest performances to ever grace a grindhouse screen. The result is a silly mess of plagiarisms including Shelley Duvall’s washroom scene from The Shining and a ridiculous finale straight out of Carrie, and lots of horror affectations—Lynda’s screams of frustration sound more like she’s in labour, the non-professional “victims” screech as if they’ve just seen a mouse rather than their impending death, and Paul L. Smith (playing creepy groundskeeper and major red herring, Willard) has trouble blinking his eyes in unison. And then producer Dick Randall grabs an extra from one of his current kung-fu movies to add a bafflingly pointless martial arts sequence. “I don’t know what came over me…” chuckles the Bruce Lee lookalike after dancing around Lynda Day George for a full minute, “…I must have eaten some bad chop suey!” Actually, by the time the closing credits finally ended this fiasco I felt the same way.

Driller Killer (USA 1979) (6): In this his debut feature film Abel Ferrara, one of the crown princes of zero-budget shockers, creates a surprisingly effective psychodrama with low grade special effects that had British censors clutching their pearls. He plays Reno Miller, a meagrely successful New York artist whose life has become increasingly unbearable. His two female roommates are getting on his nerves, his agent has dismissed his latest “masterpiece” as so much junk, his landlord is demanding back rent, and a very loud rock band has turned the adjoining apartment into a 24-hour recording studio. Further goaded by a neighbourhood full of winos, head cases, and rotting garbage, a deranged Reno finally decides to take out his frustrations on society at large. His weapon of choice? A surprisingly powerful electric drill…bzzzzz! Shot on grainy low-res stock which enhances its black shadows and bright red gore, Ferrara turns his seedy NYC locations into one man’s psychological hell with a directorial style that gilds an 80s punk aesthetic and some disappointingly tame grindhouse carnage with passages of pure surrealism featuring showers of blood and a modest apartment which morphs into a madhouse. It’s like watching a grunge music video directed by Sigmund Freud—with a little help from Andy Warhol perhaps—and Ferrara wastes no opportunity to reinforce his protagonist’s mental deterioration with cleverly placed billboards (“New York WINS!”); grating guitar chords as the group next door screeches out yet another opus; and Reno’s own artwork featuring leering human and animal faces marred by painted slash marks. It’s trash cinema of course, with suitably trashy performances from the likes of ballet student-turned-stripper Baybi Day who plays Reno’s roommate, Pamela, like a coked-out Suzanne Somers. But despite the film’s many stumbles and missteps Ferrara nevertheless manages to capture a little of the zeitgeist surrounding Manhattan’s underbelly circa 1979 with its raucous club scene and legions of disaffected youth, and for that reason alone it deserves more than a cursory snub.

Sleepaway Camp
(USA 1983) (5): Every now and then there comes a movie so perfectly terrible in every conceivable way that it actually gets by on sheer awfulness alone. Case in point is this ultra-cheesy “Dead Teenagers” flick from 1983, a production so bad it was elevated to cult status almost overnight. Thirteen-year old weirdo Angela Baker accompanies her overly protective cousin Rick to summer camp where her refusal to talk, eat, or join in any activities, coupled with her creepy habit of sitting still and staring at people for hours immediately makes her the target of every camp bully from the oversexed tweens in the boys’ cabin to the queen bitches in the girls’ dorm. But when people start dying off in very grisly (and amusingly imaginative) ways the camp’s proprietor finds himself busy hushing things up while trying to unmask the killer by himself..! Where to begin? Let’s start with the awkward dialogue and affected runway poses which pass for acting. One would be hard pressed to award a trophy for Worst Performance since they are all so uniformly bad: Desiree Gould as Angela’s eccentric Aunt Martha sounds like she’s reading her lines for the first time; Katherine Kamhi as Meg the Camp Slut gives a master class in hamming it up while flipping a ponytail back and forth; Owen Hughes as the camp’s disgustingly horny pedo cook gives a surprisingly good scream; and Felissa Rose as Angela perfects the art of the monotone drone. I’d also give an honourable mention to Dan Tursi and James Paradise’s “gay scene” for I’ve never seen a pair of actors generate more awkward onscreen discomfort. Then there’s the embarrassingly hilarious ‘80s touches with head bands, short shorts, and cut-off tank tops all around. Of course, being a slasher flick there’s little attention given to logic since just about every murder could have been easily avoided if the victim had only [insert obvious course of action here]. But the deaths are pretty cool as our mystery assailant grabs everything from curling irons to beehives in order to punish the wicked while writer/director Robert Hiltzik blows his meagre budget on special effects. And, last but not least, there’s that controversial BIG TWIST at the end which horror aficionados still recount with much fondness—an overwrought reveal accentuated by a frozen demonic grimace and bestial snarls. Recommended for hardcore fans of Z-grade shockers only.

Prime Cut
(USA 1972) (7): “Mary Ann” (Gene Hackman), the crooked owner of a Kansas City slaughterhouse, is not above siphoning profits into personal bank accounts and auctioning off sex slaves on the side. But when he runs afoul of the Chicago mob they send their number one enforcer Nick Devlin (Lee Marvin) to have a chat with him. The trouble is, every enforcer they’ve sent thus far has wound up dead in very unpleasant ways (mobster sausage?!)…will Devlin be any different? Fresh from his Oscar-winning performance as a straight and narrow cop in The French Connection, Hackman once again displays his acting prowess this time playing a trigger-tempered sociopath with a winning smile and a small army of redneck henchmen. Marvin, meanwhile, is his usual cool and sexy alpha with eyes that could melt lead and a voice that rumbles like a small earthquake. You just know that when these two veterans finally clash there’s going to be bullets, blood, and gut punches all around, and director Michael Ritchie certainly delivers the goods with macho posturing and a grand finale involving runaway trucks and a field of sunflowers. From the big hair and slinky fashions to the “burnt orange” furniture and sculpted wall-to-wall carpeting this is pure 70s kitsch preserved in all its glory—a whiff of nostalgia for some, a terribly dated time capsule for others. But the action sequences still hold up—ever see a car get eaten by a combine?—and the film’s sheer star power propels it past a script rife with genre clichés and a dash or two of humour (a visit to a county fair is pure Rockwell Americana, only with guns). Gregory Walcott co-stars as Hackman’s dim-witted hulk of a brother; model turned actress Angel Tompkins throws herself into the role of Mary Ann’s sluttish wife with shameless abandon; and a 23-year old Sissy Spacek makes her big screen debut as an unwilling member of Mary Ann’s female herd, a goggle-eyed naif whose daddy issues has her falling for Devlin’s sexy charms despite the fact he’s more than twice her age. Even Marvin had a problem with that particular twist.

Memory House
(Brazil 2020) (5): Cristovam, a simple man from the North, works at a dairy plant in a southern Brazilian town ruled by Austrian ex-pats. Being the only black man in the village (?) he finds himself the daily target of racism, exploitation, and the type of ethnic elitism that we’re told goes hand in hand with colonialism. Even his little three-legged dog is not above being terrorized by a trio of evil white kids. And then one day he happens upon an abandoned shack in the woods and winds up in the Twilight Zone for this particular hovel appears to be a repository of racial and cultural memories. First he finds an old photograph of his ancestors, then a ceremonial spear, until gradually Cristovam is transformed into an avenging voice from the past… As a sociopolitical statement writer/director João Paulo Miranda Maria’s arty polemic suffers from too many pushy metaphors and overt stereotypes: the dairy’s industrial decor is whiter than a Trump rally, every European is a knee-slapping racist, and only the black cows have any sense. Furthermore, the petty acts of vandalism and disrespect shown Cristovam begin to feel stagey after a while. In other words this is the type of “festival film” that always seems to skew audience votes. However, if taken as an allegory about one man raging against the powers that be by reasserting himself (à la 1993’s Falling Down only with less bite and more bark) Maria’s use of magical realism, complimented by folkloric references and traditional music, warrants a few pale comparisons to Michael Haneke or Roy Andersson. Cristovam’s battle with a jungle demon becomes grimly ironic when the sun rises, a growling animal familiar leers from the back of a prostitute’s jacket, and the old man himself becomes something of an impotent totem when he squares off against his germanic overlords. I’m sure Brazilian nationals would see a very different film—the mythological references are mostly lost on Western eyes while the political and historical gibes (South vs North?) are confusing—but for me it proved to be a case of stylish trappings overlaying another pat tirade.

Inland Empire
(USA 2006) (6): Somewhere in an alternate universe writer/director David Lynch is making movies with linear narratives that contain identifiable beginnings, middles, and ends. But not this universe. So once again he draws upon his bag of tricks—superimposed realities, time loops, and dream logic—to hurl us down yet another rabbit hole…this one containing actual rabbit people stuck on a sitcom set complete with canned laughter…where he abandons us with just enough maddeningly opaque cues to slog our way through. Actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern, magnificent) has just landed a choice part in a blockbuster helmed by director Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons). Unfortunately this particular movie—a potboiler revolving around an adulterous affair—is based on a script reported to be carrying a curse ever since the original production had to be scrapped years ago when its two leads were found brutally murdered. Diving into the role anyway Nikki’s grip on reality begins to soften after she starts having erotic thoughts of her own concerning co-star Devon Burke (Justin Theroux). Losing herself literally and figuratively in her character, Nikki’s fractured psyche (presented as a chorus of hookers?) gets caught up in a hallucinatory ghost story which stretches from the grimy streets of Los Angeles to the icy sidewalks of Poland where doppelgängers and lost souls await. Or so I surmise. As with all of Lynch’s films it’s the journey, not the destination, which matters and in this kaleidoscopic companion piece to Mulholland Drive he pulls out all the stops to amaze and confuse us while indulging his fascinations for Hollywood culture and the language of the subconscious—not to mention his affinity for ringing telephones (wake up!), colour codes (red, blue, green), and flickering lamps. Shifting roles vie with metaphors both heavenly and damned as Nikki’s taste for cinematic kool-aid causes her hallucinations to begin hallucinating until Tinseltown itself seems caught up in the throes of a bad dream. Complementing the onscreen reverie is a sound collage of scratchy LPs and electric buzzings while an incongruous score contains everything from Rock ’n Roll to Classical to Hip Hop. And the entire production is filmed in fuzzy standard def with a Sony handheld giving the impression we’re watching it all unfold on a computer screen like a digital psychodrama whose sidetracks into the fantastical intrude like so many pop-up windows and hyperlinks. Filmed over the course of a few years with a script often written on the sly (and it shows) you can take it as a psychedelic thought experiment or a transgressive assault on “avant-garde” cinema or just another screwy fan letter to Hollywood. Or you can simply chalk it up to Lynch being Lynch—full of affectations and artistic grandstanding yet always fascinating: an interlude with a trio of street people is especially magical in a very dark way. Harry Dean Stanton and William H. Macy (and a few other surprise names) have walk-ons, while Peter J. Lucas scowls as Nikki’s violently jealous husband and Grace Zabriskie piles on the foreshadowing as a creepy neighbour who stops by the house for coffee and a bit of odd advice.

House of 1000 Corpses
(USA 2003) (3): Writer/director Rob Zombie indulges his love of Z-grade horror movies and violent excesses to give us this hot chaotic mess of a film that practically leaves skid marks as it splatters across the screen. It’s Halloween Eve and two bickering couples on a road trip through hicksville U.S.A. happen upon “Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen”, a sleazy roadside attraction specializing in freaks and murderers. With reactions ranging from obsession to disgust, they then decide to check out the nearby grave of a local serial killer—but wind up the unwilling guests of the insanely homicidal Firefly family instead. Now, at the mercy of an inbred clan of sadistic cretins headed by buxom, brown-toothed matriarch Mother Firefly (Karen Black setting a match to whatever was left of her career), the four unlucky tourists are in for a Halloween celebration they will remember for the rest of their lives—which probably won’t be very long. Borrowing a page from Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, Zombie skirts past reality to thrust his audience headfirst into a maelstrom of torture and perversion punctuated by incongruous TV commercials, shocking low-resolution loops (necrophilia, rape, and disfigurement!), old monster movie clips, and a haphazard soundtrack which includes C&W, heavy metal, and everything else in between. It’s a manic meth binge of blood and gore that gets progressively more surreal as the night wears on with a fiery black mass and a Dantean trek through a labyrinth of bones and surgical abominations. But what was the point—if any? Could it be a lopsided homage to the genre with Zombie culling every tired trope and cliché he can lay his claws on including homicidal hillbillies and evil clowns? Perhaps it’s a statement on our morbid preoccupation with violence and bloodletting as entertainment—he certainly serves up enough of both and then laughs at it. A critique on religion and gun culture then, with a passing sign announcing “God is Dead” and a pastor exhorting the love of Jesus while pointing a loaded rifle at the camera. Or maybe his barrage of cinematic gimmicks simply has us trying to read more into what is essentially 90 minutes of gratuitous juvenile garbage.

(USA 2020) (7): R. J. Cutler’s incisive documentary on the life and death of SNL legend John Belushi follows the usual trajectory—restless young boy follows his dream of fame and fortune only to be undone by the harsh realities of life in the spotlight—but he takes a few novel approaches. To begin with his use of previously recorded voice interviews instead of endless talking heads allows the likes of Dan Aykroyd, Carrie Fisher, Harold Ramis, and other close associates of John (including his widow, Judy) to provide context without interrupting the film’s stream of old TV clips, yearbook photos, and home movies which emphasize Belushi’s formative years as the talented black sheep of a staunch immigrant family. Secondly, Cutler fills in the visual gaps using edgy animated sequences with Bill Hader giving an uncanny impersonation of Belushi’s rasping voice. And, finally, excerpts from Judy’s diary and John’s own tortured love letters, both presented in scrawling cursive, trace the devolution of a once creative and dynamic personality as he succumbs to addiction, despair, and the weight of his own ambition. From smart aleck kid to television phenomenon to Hollywood centrepiece to overdose statistic at the age of 33, Belushi didn’t so much burn the candle at both ends as take a blowtorch to it—but while he blazed he shed a lovely light indeed. R.I.P.

The Mafia Kills Only in Summer
(Italy 2013) (6): Sicily’s turbulent war between organized crime and the State saw numerous assassinations of mob bosses and government officials in the 1970s and ‘80s, wholesale slaughter which culminated in one of Italy’s most celebrated mass prosecutions. Against this backdrop of gunplay, bombings, and corruption writer/director “Pif” gives us an awkward adolescent rom-com in which lovestruck Arturo tries to gain the attention of grade school siren Flora only to have his efforts backfire again and again. Drawing inspiration from his hero, Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti—even dressing up as him for Carnival—Arturo regales Flora with tall tales (he aspires to be a journalist) and baked goods only to be undermined by fellow classmate Fofó while the streets outside seem to turn meaner with each passing day. As a coming-of-age story it has its charms thanks in large part to Alex Bisconti’s performance as 13-year old Arturo—his doe-eyed reactions registering frustration, heartbreak, and juvenile yearning with ease. But as an obvious homage to the politicians, judges, and police officers who lost their lives fighting the Mafia (with Pif himself playing grown-up Arturo still lusting after grown-up Flora) things get muddled down. Unless you are familiar with the sociopolitical setting in which the story takes place the list of deceased carries little to no emotional impact even with the grainy crime scene footage and passionate newscasts thrown in. Pif’s heart is in the right place however as he outlines a childhood in which bogeymen carry out drive-bys on motor scooters, an impotent church offers little solace, and real heroes wear badges and bang gavels.

The Blood Spattered Bride
(Spain 1972) (3): When a man brings his virginal new wife (still wearing her bridal gown no less!) to his ancestral estate in the country things immediately take a turn for the worse. To begin with, every sexual overture he makes puts her into a catatonic state—she’s even unconscious during their wedding night shenanigans—and what’s with the man-hating lesbian vampire who begins haunting her dreams and possessing her waking hours? There’s a dark family curse afoot which seems to be triggered by male-female coitus and when the increasingly psychotic blushing bride gets her dainty hands on a very sharp ceremonial dagger it’ll be every man for himself! Sleaze director Vicente Aranda piles on the boobs, bush, and blood for this sapphic Eurotrash bloodsucker flick which suffers from all the usual genre shortcomings: horrible English dubbing, a cornball script, undisciplined camerawork, and a blaring soundtrack of organ chords more suited to a hockey arena. He does provide an interesting psychological angle however, for this particular vampire is triggered by rage against the patriarchy, institutionalized misogyny (the husband’s erotic fantasies involve abuse), and issues of consent or lack thereof—lofty ideas which quickly succumb to irony given the gratuitous amount of heaving female flesh plus the question of consent between busty vampiress and her frigid victim. One could also see it as an allegory exploring the darker side of female sexuality and the male reaction to it—sometimes a coffin is not just a coffin, same for a long hard rifle and a repeatedly thrusting knife—but that would be giving this turkey more credit than it deserves. Finally, there’s the overbearing metaphors involving trapped vixens (PETA beware), a defaced (literally) painting, and a naked scuba diver. A naked scuba diver? But with lines like, “He has pierced your flesh to humiliate you! He has spat inside your body to enslave you!” (spoken as dead woman goads living woman into action) you realize that simply pinning psychobabble onto a celluloid train wreck is rather like gift-wrapping a turd. With sincere apologies to Jung and Freud.

Hello Destroyer
(Canada 2016) (7): Junior hockey star Tyson Burr (an outstanding Jared Abrahamson) has a promising professional career ahead of him when he’s involved in an on-ice skirmish that sends an opposing player to the hospital with serious, possibly life-threatening, injuries. Now all those vehement “pep talks” he and his team received from their coach—praising competitive aggression and peppered with F-bombs and withering criticisms—have come back to haunt him as he’s given an indefinite suspension while former teammates and staff begin distancing themselves. With the entire community seemingly against him and his family relationships becoming strained, a remorseful Tyson finds himself cut adrift with no one to turn to and a court date looming… One can’t watch Canadian news these days without seeing at least one article bemoaning hockey’s “toxic culture” whether it be brutal hazings, on-air fisticuffs, or sexual assaults, but writer/director Kevan Funk brings it down to a very personal level with this slow-burner about a young man who becomes both a product and a victim of that same culture. Funk lays the pathos on thick and heavy with the film’s Prince George settings filtered through a haze of grey skies and empty dirt roads while Tyson’s temporary odd jobs—demolishing a family home, hosing blood off the walls of a slaughterhouse—provide metaphors as subtle as a puck to the face. Even the team’s harshly lit locker room comes to resemble a jail cell while their off-ice socialization appears to consist of drinking, bravado, and throwing punches. Furthermore, critics are quick to point out that regardless of how the sport is played the team doesn’t abandon its own in times of trouble (quite the opposite in fact) and there is certainly some truth to that. Taken as a character study however, Hello Destroyer is a quiet, minutely observed tragedy about one young man’s headlong fall from preeminence to pariah. And Abrahamson nails it. His hoarse voice and downcast posture suggesting a deeper pain he is ill-equipped to handle especially when his usual supports—family, friends, fans—now approach him with uncertainty or outright hostility. Or not at all. In one pivotal scene Tyson gazes into a case full of trophies, symbols of a glory which now seems forever out of reach. While the script itself may be contentious depending on which side of the rink you stand on, this is still a noteworthy piece of cinema which opens with a solid punch and ends with an agonizing uncertainty.

(USA 1931) (8): During WWI Viennese war widow-turned-prostitute Marie Kolverer (Marlene Dietrich) is recruited by the head of the Austrian Secret Service who believes that, as a spy, her powers of seduction will be able to glean more information from the enemy than a mere undercover male. And he’s right. Easily cracking her first big case Marie’s next assignment will be to bag notorious Russian spy Colonel Kranau (Victor McLaglen) by any means possible (wink, wink). But Kranau’s own masculine charms and burly good looks—not to mention quick wits—may prove too much for even the sultry Marie to resist… Dietrich practically glows in B&W playing a pragmatic young woman whose hard life lessons have left her unafraid of either living or dying, yet whose libido is still very much alive and kicking. But there is a sense of vulnerability to her character for even as she leads spies and traitors to their executions one can sense a moral ambivalence behind those luminous eyes as she takes one nervous drag after another on that dangling cigarette. Perhaps director Josef von Sternberg meant her to be a kind of proto-feminist: Strong, resourceful, and unapologetic for her life thus far, and willing to sacrifice her own feelings for the greater good—at least up to a point. Unfortunately McLaglen is left in her dust, faced with Dietrich’s innate sensuality and big screen presence his character is little more than brawny huff and puff unable to even smile convincingly. Nevertheless, despite their mismatched allures the two still generate erotic sparks even if the camera stops just shy of the duvet, and it’s this sexual tension which adds a bit of spice to an otherwise formulaic espionage drama. Credit must also be given to cinematographer Lee Garmes whose imaginative lens goes from bird’s eye panoramas of battleground chaos to chaos of a different kind at an officers’ wild bacchanal to a striking moment of intimacy between Austrian and Russian with Kranau’s broad physique silhouetted against a windowpane lit by sweeping searchlights. A softly lit romance of sorts, but one with a hardened edge devoid of the usual sentimentality and an ending as cold as its wintry setting.

Black Sunday
[The Mask of Satan] (Italy 1960) (7): In this early work by horror maven Mario Bava, ‘60s scream queen Barbara Steele showcases her ample talents as the 17th century princess Asa who was executed by her own family for being a witch. Before she died (with a spiked mask messily nailed to her face) Asa vowed to return from the grave and wreak vengeance on her family’s future generations. Two hundred years later a pair of curious travellers unwittingly release the witch from her tomb…and mayhem ensues! With a macabre style lying somewhere between Hammer Horror gothic and German Expressionism, Bava’s B&W ghost story is a moody piece of crumbling castles and fogbound cemeteries forever caught in a perpetual twilight. In this vaguely eastern European landscape of dead trees and cobwebs Steele is superbly cast in a dual role as both the resurrected witch and her lookalike descendant, the princess Katia, whose body Asa must possess in order to complete her bloody revenge. Steele’s jet black hair, mascaraed eyes, and clinging period costumes add a touch of unearthly eroticism to counterbalance some of the film’s more grotesque passages—although tame by today’s standards, Bava’s growing proclivity for blood and gore had censors in an uproar when Black Sunday was first released. Accompanied by a suitably eerie orchestral score, the film’s highly operatic mood is further enhanced by a stagy script (badly dubbed into American English) and melodramatic performances which would come across as hackneyed if taken out of context but are right at home given the production’s overall sense of menace which is so inflated it borders on kitsch. An enjoyable campfire tale full of undead malfeasants and secret passageways, where vampire bats leap out of mausoleums and skulls leer from within darkened niches. Rounding out the cast are John Richardson as a visiting doctor and Katia’s love interest, Arturo Dominici as Asa’s zombie henchman, and Ivo Garrani and Enrico Olivieri as Katia’s unlucky father and brother. Based on an 1835 novella by Russian/Ukrainian author Nikolai Gogol which was later remade as the (superior) Soviet film Viy (1967).

(USA 1970) (7): The French New Wave aesthetic gets filtered through a distinctly American lens in this unpolished slice of cinema verité, notable for the fact it was the first motion picture to be written and directed by a woman (Barbara Loden, married to Elia Kazan) who also plays the main character. Set in the rural wasteland of Pennsylvania’s mining country Loden recounts the sad tale of Wanda—newly divorced from the husband and kids she abandoned, now penniless and wandering aimlessly through a grey landscape punctuated by cheap storefronts and piles of slag. Hungry for a sense of belonging yet lacking in everything but base survival skills (she’s not above begging or prostituting herself) she eventually falls in with the neurotic “Mr. Dennis” (Michael Higgins), a small-time thief and general loser who gives her the attention she craves albeit in the form of verbal and physical abuse as well as stifling psychological control. But their already dysfunctional relationship heads for a nosedive when Dennis coerces Wanda into helping him with the biggest heist of his sordid career and she realizes too late that even when you feel as if you already have nothing, there is always one more thing to lose… Shot guerilla-style with handheld cameras and a production team of only four people, Loden’s bleak character study of a lost soul forever circling the drain delivers an emotional blow which belies its modest budget and supporting cast of non-professionals. The grainy film stock and washed-out colours, off-centre framing, and stilted (ad libbed?) dialogue actually work in her favour, as do the makeshift sets of grimy hotel rooms and beer-stained honky-tonks. This is pure misery cinema made all the more powerful by the fact Loden neither damns nor makes excuses for her characters: Wanda may be a pathetic woman-child with her monotone responses and hair full of curlers yet she somehow manages to survive poverty, deprivation, and assault; Mr. Dennis, likewise, is definitely a bottom feeder yet we are given glimpses into his torn psyche as he pops endless aspirins, suffers through a painful visit with his estranged father, and generally acts out (a drunken tantrum aimed at a toy airplane in flight begins to sound like a rant against God himself). An absorbing drama which proves once again that “big movies” can come from small budgets. Sadly, breast cancer took Barbara Loden’s life before she was able to show the world her full potential. Winner of the Best Foreign Film at the Venice Festival and included in Steven Schneider’s list of “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”, a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree.

(USA/Canada 2014) (7): When the clown scheduled to appear at a little boy’s birthday party bows out due to a scheduling conflict the tyke’s father, a real estate agent, decides to fill in by wearing a dusty old clown costume he found in the dusty old basement of a house he is selling. But what dad doesn’t realize is that this particular outfit is cursed and slowly turns anyone who wears it into a floppy-footed, red-nosed carnival demon with an insatiable appetite for tender young children…muahaha! Writer/director Jon Watts takes an admittedly silly premise, contrives a novel backstory to explain it (you’ll never guess how Bozo and his ilk got their start…LOL!), and garnishes it with just enough blood, guts, and creepiness to keep us interested. What impressed me the most, however, were the pitch black comedic touches he threw in—a messy encounter at a kid’s arcade gives ball pits a bad name; try shooting a devil clown and you get a wall full of rainbow-coloured gore; and eating cursed props turns Fido into a very bad dog indeed. Simply put, Watts and crew have churned out a savvy tribute to those cheesy horror flicks from the ‘80s with plenty of canned screams, gross effects, and supposedly smart people doing stupid things (“wow, look at all the blood, let’s stay and investigate!”) It’s a silly mix of genre clichés, inappropriate yuks, and a few genuine heebie-jeebies which may not keep you up at night but at least you’ll have fun while it lasts. Pennywise could take notes.

Don’t Torture a Duckling
(Italy 1972) (5): A string of child murders in a remote hilltop community has the police baffled. But the fact that all their prime suspects seem to have reliable alibis is not the biggest roadblock to the official investigation, it’s the backwoods superstitions—both Catholic and pagan—which have the townspeople pointing fingers and forming murderous vigilantes. While one obviously disturbed woman believes herself to be a witch, the local priest wields his own form of voodoo in the form of Sunday mass. And a spoiled millionaire’s daughter living on the edge of town has a few dark secrets of her own. Determined to crack the case himself, a crusading newspaper reporter embarks on an investigation in which the facts are clouded by fear, prejudice, and old wive’s tales… Horrormeister Lucio Fulci’s surprisingly tame giallo (the nudity consists of one lurid passage and the gore factor is limited to a few raw flesh wounds plus a repeatedly crushed skull) is reported to be among his personal favourites. Bypassing the usual sensationalism which marks the genre he fashions something of a thriller-cum-social critique that takes aim at ignorant adherence to myth and fancy be it a belief in black magic or the dogmatic teachings of the Church—the latter actually getting the film blacklisted in Europe and abroad resulting in a limited theatrical release. Unfortunately the film’s message, while worthwhile, is greatly outweighed by its many flaws: the haphazard editing wreaks havoc with continuity while the soundtrack pops and starts; studio dubbing tries to cover up the fact that none of the main cast actually spoke Italian; an inconsistent musical score too often sounds like it belongs in a different movie; and the special effects are not very special at all—the aforementioned crushed skull sequence is actually worth a rewind if only for a chuckle. Fun to watch just the same, but there are better examples of the genre out there. Greek screen legend Irene Papas co-stars as a troubled mother who fears for her own child.

(USA 1981) (8): Her teenaged daughter is an out-of-control slut dating a punk rocker, her son is a criminally insane stalker with a foot fetish, her pornographer husband is having an affair with his skanky secretary, and her own mother is an abusive shrew intent on emptying her bank account. Is it any wonder then that overwrought Baltimore housewife Francine Fishpaw (Divine) is drinking heavily and just one step away from the loony bin? But then a handsome and mysterious stranger (Tab Hunter?!) enters her life and things finally seem to be going her way at last…or are they? With this first foray into “mainstream” cinema, transgressive writer/director John Waters eases up on the more vulgar and salacious elements that made his earlier body of work such a succés de scandale and creates instead a kitschy R-rated suburban soap opera which allows the late great Divine—sporting the body of a beluga whale and the sniffing nose of a bloodhound—to fully showcase his comedic talents. From the canned music and tacky 70s furniture to Francine’s closet full of frilly Valu Village knock-offs this is vintage (albeit somewhat toned down) Waters, and for a touch of nostalgia he also casts a few familiar faces from his underground days namely Mink Stole playing the nympho secretary, Jean Hill as a gospel singer turned bus hijacker, and Miss Edith Massey (sporting her two remaining front teeth) playing Francine’s only friend and confidante, the sweet but mentally challenged Cuddles. Of course amidst the low-brow jokes and tasteless gags Waters throws in his usual bit of social critique in the form of screeching anti-pornography protestors, a pro-life Karen who is not above bitch-slapping a pregnant teen “for Jesus”, and a pair of sadistic nuns running a halfway house for wayward girls. My personal favourite though was the avant-garde drive-in theatre and its snobbish clientele…LOL! But the film’s biggest claim to infamy was “Odorama”. In a salute to director William Castle whose own films always came with a gimmick to lure people into the theatre, Polyester audiences were given scratch’n sniff cards loaded with ten different scents; when prompted to by a flashing number onscreen they would scratch the corresponding box on their card in order to get a whiff of everything from pizza and skunk juice to fresh farts. God bless you Mr. Waters.

Suddenly, Last Summer
(USA 1959) (8): When her cousin Sebastian dies under tragic circumstances while the two of them are on Summer holiday together, the shock proves to be too much for Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor) who finds herself committed to a stateside asylum with a vague diagnosis of delirium. But simply having Catherine institutionalized is not enough for Sebastian’s wealthy mother Violet (Katherine Hepburn) who wishes to have her young niece’s painful—and potentially scandalous—memories silenced by way of a lobotomy. However, the surgeon assigned to the case (Montgomery Clift) is not convinced Catherine is as crazy as her Aunt wants her to be and sets out to uncover what exactly happened to Sebastian that Catherine cannot bear to talk about and his mother cannot bear to hear… Set in the 1930s, sex, lies, and dark family secrets turn director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s loose adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play into a brooding slice of gothic horror which, despite being toned down considerably to appease the censors, still managed to raise eyebrows as well as a few hackles when it was first released. Violet’s rambling mansion, home to an overgrown and slightly menacing Garden of Eden, provides the perfect psychological space graced as it is with artwork steeped in homoeroticism and death—a marble skeleton leers from behind a tangle of vines while the late Sebastian’s private quarters are dominated by paintings of nude men including a giant reproduction of his saintly namesake being martyred. The fact that Sebastian wasn’t exactly a “lady’s man” is all too apparent (even though they were’t allowed to say the actual word in 1959) as is the uncomfortably close relationship he had with his doting mother, but as the determined doctor digs deeper into Catherines memories the final truth will be more than any one person can handle. Hepburn and Taylor both received Oscar nominations for their work; the former giving us a wilted southern belle whose sharp tongue belies a brittle ego, the latter an angry young woman whose suppressed recollections are transmuted into violent outbursts. Oliver Messel et al were also nominated for Best Art direction, their gloomy set pieces tinged with decay and paranoia whether it be Violet’s decadent estate, a tropical idyll turned deathly nightmare, or a moldering asylum filled with cackling inmates. A weighty, pessimistic film in which love gets twisted into something repugnant, a gay man is transformed into a predatory Frankenstein, and God himself is reduced to a ravenous bird of prey. Mercedes McCambridge (the devil’s voice in The Exorcist) co-stars as Catherine’s neurotic mother, a jittery woman whose overtures of maternal concern are more pitiful than comforting.