Friday, April 26, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: DESTROYER (2018) and WE DIE YOUNG (2019)

(US/UK - 2018)

Last fall, DESTROYER had some awards-season buzz going for Nicole Kidman, but financially-strapped distributor Annapurna decided to focus their attention on the Oscar-baiting VICE instead, leaving DESTROYER to flounder on just 235 screens at its widest release. Looking what can be charitably described as several degrees south of haggard, Kidman did get a Golden Globe nomination for her performance as hard-drinking LAPD detective Erin Bell, a disgraced ex-FBI agent who's pretty much regarded as a total shitshow among her colleagues and always looks like she hasn't slept in days. Though two other cops have already caught the case, she shows up at a homicide where the John Doe murder victim was shot dead and has dye-stained $100 bills scattered around his body. Back at the precinct, someone mails her an envelope with an identically dye-stained $100 bill. She's convinced it's a message and she knows who's sending it: Silas (Toby Kebbell), the leader of a ring of bank robbers she and her former FBI partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) infiltrated as part of an extensive undercover operation nearly 17 years ago. Going rogue and blowing off her partner Antonio (Shamier Anderson), Erin starts tracking down all of Silas' known associates, none of whom are happy to see her since her cover was ultimately blown. She eventually works her way to Silas' sleazy, money-laundering lawyer DiFranco (Bradley Whitford), who's been holding the take and doling it out as requested in clandestine park handoffs to Silas' drug-addled girlfriend Petra (Tatiana Maslany). As Erin predicted, Silas' money is running out and he's resurfaced to plan another robbery and settle old scores.

At its core, DESTROYER is another saga of a morally-conflicted cop, with Kidman fearlessly diving  into her own TRAINING DAY crossed with a bit of BAD LIEUTENANT, with one shock value scene where she goes to absurd lengths to get info on Silas' whereabouts from one of his terminally-ill former accomplices. But director Karyn Kusama and writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (the trio also worked on 2005's AEON FLUX and 2016's terrifying THE INVITATION), have a few unexpected tricks up their sleeves beyond a cleverly-constructed ending and one incredibly intense robbery sequence. These are doled out slowly in a series of flashbacks to the undercover operation that play as a parallel timeline to the current events. Erin's job, boozing, and pill-popping are at the expense of fractured relationships with her ex Ethan (Scoot McNairy) and her teenage daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), and as the backstory gradually fills in, you finally get a sense of the extent to which she's gone to numb the pain. Everyone in her life has written her off, with the possible exception of her sympathetic former FBI boss Gil (Toby Huss), who invites her to a Bible study, insisting "It's low-key...nobody's handling snakes," prompting one of the very few times present-day Erin cracks a sort-of smile. In the end, DESTROYER doesn't absolve Erin of her sins and doesn't ask the audience for sympathy, but Kidman succeeds in conveying the humanity underneath an irreparably damaged person who can't stop making terrible decisions. (R, 121 mins)

(US/Bulgaria/UK - 2019)

Following the French drama THE BOUNCER, Jean-Claude Van Damme gets another chance to go serious with the earnest but cliched WE DIE YOUNG. Hampered by obvious budget constraints, the film gets off to a clunky start with too many shots of a Bulgarian backlot unsuccessfully portraying the mean streets of Washington, D.C. (no streets have as many mailboxes and pay phones as these do), but it gets better and more compelling as it goes on. Set in a barrio war zone controlled by MS-13 kingpin Rincon (David Castaneda of the Netflix series THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY), who's already reaching "heavy is the crown" levels of paranoia, so much so that he really only trusts teenage drug delivery boy and collector Lucas (Elijah Rodriguez), who lost his older brother in Afghanistan and is doing everything he can to shield his younger brother Miguel (Nicholas Sean Johnny) from gang life. Rincon is preoccupied with the wedding of his baby sister Gabriella (Robyn Cara) and entrusts Lucas to deliver two bricks of heroin to a contact just outside his territory. But Lucas is distracted when he learns that Rincon's guys are planning to initiate Miguel into MS-13, so he never makes the drop and is instead pursued by Rincon's hot-headed cousin and ambitious second-in-command Jester (Charlie MacGechan). Fleeing for safety, they end up in the car of Daniel (Van Damme), an Oxycontin-addicted neighborhood mechanic and ex-Marine who lost his ability to speak when he took some shrapnel in a bomb blast in Afghanistan.

Set over the course of Gabriella's wedding day, WE DIE YOUNG turns into a standard-issue, urban "survive the night" scenario with Rincon's guys eventually catching Lucas and Miguel, forcing Daniel to channel the long-dormant warrior within to mount a daring one-man rescue. Making his narrative feature debut, Israeli-American documentary filmmaker Lior Geller has obviously spent time worshiping at the altar of Alfonso Cuaron, with a couple of reasonably well-executed handheld, long-take chase sequences, both in a car (complete with blood splattering against the lens, as required by law) and on foot. The problem is that you've seen them all before, along with the heavy-handed digital insertion of the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument into the background to remind you that This Is America, and all the hackneyed literary allusions with Daniel trying to get Lucas to read A Tale of Two Cities and Rincon serving as an ersatz Shakespearean figure who even quotes The Merchant of Venice at one point. To his credit, Castaneda tries to bring some complexity to a potentially cartoonish character, and Van Damme (one of 37 credited producers) does a fine job letting his aged face, pinched into an almost constant contorted grimace due to Daniel's chronic pain, speak volumes. But for the most part, there's nothing new here--the kid who's been sucked into the gang life trying to keep his little brother from the same fate, the SCARFACE trope of the powerful gangster being possessive of his little sister, the quiet loner silently suffering in a shell of his former self until he has a reason to take action. In the end, it's a decent enough Redbox rental, as Geller gussies it up with some occasionally effective documentary immediacy, and its three solid lead performances (Castaneda and Rodriguez were both in SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO as well) give it a little more credibility than those early Bulgarian backlot scenes would initially indicate. (R, 93 mins)

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

In Theaters/On VOD: UNDER THE SILVER LAKE (2019)

(US - 2019)

Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell. Cast: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace, Callie Hernandez, Don McManus, Jeremy Bobb, Riki Lindhome, Zosia Mamet, Patrick Fischler, Jimmi Simpson, Grace Van Patten, India Menuez, Wendy Vanden Heuvel, Chris Gann, Stephanie Moore, Sibongile Mlambo, Rex Linn, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, Laura-Leigh, Luke Baines, Sydney Sweeney, David Yow, Summer Bishil, Deborah Geffner. (R, 139 mins)

It says something about just how strange and impenetrable UNDER THE SILVER LAKE is that distributor A24--the folks who specialize in giving nationwide rollouts to divisive audience-alienators like THE WITCH, IT COMES AT NIGHT, GOOD TIME, and HEREDITARY--were at a complete loss as to what to do with it. The much-anticipated follow-up to writer/director David Robert Mitchell's acclaimed 2015 horror hit IT FOLLOWS, UNDER THE SILVER LAKE was filmed in late 2016 and released overseas last summer after a mixed reception at Cannes. Skittish about its commercial prospects at home, A24 moved the film to December 2018, then pulled it from the release schedule entirely, ultimately unveiling it with little fanfare on just two screens on April 19, 2019, with a VOD dumping four days later. In more ways than one, UNDER THE SILVER LAKE is to Mitchell what SOUTHLAND TALES was to Richard Kelly, the acclaimed writer/director who was given wide latitude after 2001's DONNIE DARKO got zero attention in theaters before becoming a bona fide cult sensation once it hit video stores. Following the success of IT FOLLOWS, Mitchell was more or less permitted to make the film he wanted to make with UNDER THE SILVER LAKE. It's not IT FOLLOWS, just like SOUTHLAND TALES wasn't DONNIE DARKO, and it's an odd time for visionary auteurs when Kelly hasn't made a movie in ten years and unfortunately seems to have fallen off the face of the earth, and here's Mitchell, another wunderkind granted almost complete freedom on a project and creating something that's left its producers and distributors (and some audiences) completely dumbfounded. History has a way of repeating itself.

That said, UNDER THE SILVER LAKE is a better and, relatively speaking, more disciplined film than SOUTHLAND TALES, and it's not just Kelly to whom Mitchell owes a debt. He's also wearing his love of David Lynch and Brian De Palma on his sleeve and fashioning the whole thing as a sort-of INHERENT VICE-esque shaggy dog story that's incredibly ambitious and compulsively intriguing for much of its lengthy duration. That is until Mitchell starts trying to explain too many things, which is something Lynch would've never done. In probably his best performance to date, HACKSAW RIDGE Oscar-nominee Andrew Garfield stars as Sam, an aimless, unemployed L.A. slacker who's five days away from being evicted. He loves comic books and movies, his apartment is filled with old movie posters and his mom calls him to talk about Janet Gaynor and remind him that the silent classic SEVENTH HEAVEN is airing on Turner Classic Movies later that night. Sam fills his days hooking up with an aspiring actress and friend-with-benefits (Riki Lindhome) and watching his bikini-clad neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough) through binoculars. That night, she invites him over. Her bedroom walls are adorned with movie posters and they watch HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE on TCM. After some flirting and a kiss, her two roommates return home with an eye-patched, pirate-looking guy and a suddenly nervous Sarah abruptly ends the evening, telling him to come over and hang out tomorrow. The next day, Sarah's apartment is empty, she and the roommates are gone, and the building manager (Rex Linn) says they just up and left. Sam sneaks into the vacant apartment and is almost seen by a mystery woman (Zosia Mamet), who grabs a shoebox full of Sarah's personal items from a closet and gets in a car with two other women. Sam follows them and witnesses them hand off the shoebox to the pirate guy, who urgently sprints away with it.

To go any deeper into a straight synopsis is pointless, as it'll likely make me sounds as insane as Sam, who embarks on a dangerous journey throughout and underneath L.A. and Hollywood in search of Sarah. Her disappearance was really all he needed to fully embrace his inner crackpot conspiracy theorist, especially once the actress friend is scared away after finding pages upon pages of papers on Sam's bedside table revealed to be his scribbled notes documenting old episodes of WHEEL OF FORTUNE, as he's convinced that Vanna White is sending coded messages with her eye movements. Sarah may or may not be dead, and Sam's investigation involves, in no particular order: a rash of serial dog killings plaguing the neighborhood; strange, shadowy figures following him; the July 1970 issue of Playboy; the death of prominent billionaire Jefferson Sevence (Chris Gann) and three women in a car fire; a freeze-frame of a TV news update on the Sevence death showing the burned remnants of what looks like Sarah's hat and the charred remains of a dog found in the purse of one of the women; Sam's drinking buddy (Topher Grace) using a drone to spy on women; self-published graphic novel writer Comic Guy (Patrick Fischler), who has an intense interest in subliminal messages and the "programming" inherent in advertising; a symbol painted on the wall of Sarah's apartment that Comic Guy reveals to be known among the homeless to mean "Keep quiet;" Sam finding hidden codes and messages in the lyrics of an up-and-coming L.A. indie rock band called Jesus and the Brides of Dracula; one such code sending him to the James Dean bust at the Griffith Park Observatory, where The Homeless King (Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow) introduces him to a series of hidden tunnels under the park; the sudden appearance of Owl's Kiss, a murderous figure from Comic Guy's zine Under the Silver Lake; a map found in an old cereal box that mirrors the tunnels underneath Griffith Park; and an elderly songwriter (Jeremy Bobb), whose influence on popular culture is more than Sam can fathom.

What does all of this mean? It means there's certain to be years of thinkpieces and essays written about UNDER THE SILVER LAKE. Even Mitchell says there's too much here to unpack on one viewing, but from the start, you're paying attention to every number and detail that appears, as everything on the screen is likely there for a reason (Comic Guy's address is 1492, the drinking buddy's is 1016, and there's a flashing "751" on a scoreboard). But it's just as likely that some of these details are just there for Mitchell to fuck with the audience. There's a prescient subtext that definitely addresses the issue of toxic masculinity, invoked with background chatter of "the male gaze" at a Jesus and the Brides of Dracula secret show that Sam attends, his eventually meeting a trio of actresses who work for an escort service called "Shooting Star" and are also seen in the company of the pirate guy (Sam will see one of them in a club as they dance to R.E.M.'s "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" a further nod to conspiracy kooks); and in the drinking buddy's use of a drone to secretly record women. But it's also a blistering rebuke of a kind of male, namely the adult stuck in a state of perpetual adolescence. Sam has no apparent job or means of supporting himself, yet he drives a nice car (that eventually gets repossessed) and hangs out at pricey coffee shops (one assumption might be that his mom is sending him money and he's pissing it away). But Sam's humiliating dressing-down by the songwriter is a key moment as the man claims that he's responsible for everything formative in everyone's lives, from classic songs to memorable jingles, even playing Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on a piano and cackling that people think that song changed their lives ("That song wasn't written for distorted guitar...it was written by me between a blowjob and an omelette!  I'm the voice of your generation!").

With the brutal takedown of pop culture by the songwriter (a great scene, by the way, and destined get 30 million views on YouTube), and Sam's ultimate discovery of what's really going on and the reasoning behind it all, UNDER THE SILVER LAKE's third act veers into FIGHT CLUB territory, which is maybe one influence more than the narrative of this labyrinthine saga can handle. The "waking nightmare" feel of the story begins collapsing when Mitchell feels the need to start explaining, and his decision to force it all to make sense (and a lot of it still doesn't) grinds things to a tedious halt when it matters most. But in fairness, this is the kind of film that you can watch ten times and have ten different reactions, depending on which element you choose to focus. On one viewing, it feels like it's biting off way more than it can chew, though the endless in-jokes (there's a funny sight gag involving an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, a pointed reference to nobody liking Garfield's turn as Spidey, a planned trilogy halted after two films) and movie references (there's a slew of David Lynch shout-outs, like the tunnels invoking the horror underneath the Norman Rockwell-esque surface of BLUE VELVET; Sam beating the shit out of two teenage vandals in a moment that's every bit as gratifying as mobster Robert Loggia's revenge on an obnoxious tailgater in LOST HIGHWAY; and the very presence of Fischler, unforgettable in the traumatizing Winkie's scene in MULHOLLAND DR) are undeniably entertaining. Is UNDER THE SILVER LAKE a brilliantly-conceived, unsolvable puzzle that cineastes will be deciphering for years to come or is Mitchell is sending the gullible on a wild goose chase? It's impossible to tell, but one recurring theme throughout is masturbation, which becomes a metaphor for Sam's obsessive pursuit, never more blatantly than when he takes a break to jerk off while a Jesus and the Brides of Dracula vinyl plays in reverse as he scours their album for hidden messages. Maybe all we're doing with all this overanalyzing is jerking ourselves off. Maybe that's kinda what Mitchell's doing with UNDER THE SILVER LAKE.

Monday, April 22, 2019


(France - 1974)

Directed by Just Jaeckin. Written by Jean-Louis Richard. Cast: Alain Cuny, Sylvia Kristel, Marika Green, Daniel Sarky, Jeanne Colletin, Christine Boisson, Samantha, Gaby Brian, Gregory. (X, 94 mins)

Based on the scandalous 1959 novel by Emmanuelle Arsan that was long-rumored to be at least semi-autobiographical, 1974's controversial EMMANUELLE was a groundbreaking, X-rated deep-dive into post-LAST TANGO IN PARIS softcore erotica and it's likely that there never would've been a Skinemax without it. Focused on the intense sexual awakening of a beautiful and sexually-gifted but naive young woman, Emmanuelle was the first in a series of erotic novels by "Arsan," initially thought to be the pseudonym of French-Thai novelist Marayat Rollet-Andriane, an occasional actress who had a prominent supporting role as Richard Attenborough's love interest in the 1966 epic THE SAND PEBBLES, but the actual writer was later revealed to be her UNESCO diplomat husband Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andriane. The directing debut of French photographer Just Jaeckin, EMMANUELLE was a much-discussed sensation worldwide and made an international sex symbol of 22-year-old Dutch actress Sylvia Kristel, who would, for better or worse, be inextricably linked with the character for the rest of her career. As the film opens, Kristel's Emmanuelle is flying to Bangkok to visit her diplomat husband Jean (Daniel Sarky). They have an open marriage, though only Jean seems to take advantage of it and wishes his wife would indulge in similar exploits to share with him. Jean considers this the one negative aspect of his marriage to Emmanuelle, boasting to a colleague "I married her because no woman enjoys making love more, or does it better." Once in Bangkok, she's encouraged by other women, most of whom have slept with Jean, to explore her wild side, with young Marie-Ange (Christine Boisson) admonishing "He's only your husband...you have to take a lover if you want to be a real woman!" before masturbating in front of her to a magazine photo of a smiling Paul Newman.

Emmanuelle confesses that she had sex with two strangers on the flight from Paris to Bangkok, joining the mile-high club in the first-class cabin with a man across the aisle while others watched, then she was whisked away to the restroom by another man emboldened by her fearlessness. Jean has aggressive sex with Arianne (Jeanne Colletin), who also desires Emmanuelle, confronting her with "You're nude under your dress, aren't you...have you made love since I last saw you?" Emmanuelle is coveted by everyone, and she finds unexpected passion with archaeologist Bee (Marika Green, aunt of actress Eva Green). Emmanuelle confesses her love for Bee, who likes her very much but politely rejects her. A heartbroken Emmanuelle is chastised by Ariane ("What I live for is pure enjoyment. Your violins, your hearts and flowers, your promises of eternal love make me sick"), who boasts of her fling with Jean in a country club locker room dialogue exchange that pretty much sums up Euro softcore porn in a nutshell:
Ariane: "You know, I made love with your husband."
Emmanuelle: "Yes, he mentioned it. How'd it go?"
Ariane: "I thought you knew, it was practically rape."
Emmanuelle: "Help me unhook my brassiere." 

As Jean grows jealous over Emmanuelle's sudden interest in taking advantage of the open marriage that was all his idea, it's Ariane who suggests that she visit Mario (Alain Cuny), an aging playboy and an expert in the ways of mature lovemaking. Mario is infatuated with Emmanuelle at first sight but refuses to make love to her, instead promising to take her to "the land of eroticism." This essentially involves a series of degrading activities that include being pawed by a vagrant, drugged in an opium den and gang-raped to pilfered King Crimson riffs, and then taken to an underground fight club where Mario promises Emmanuelle to the winner. He's really just a perv--and presumably impotent--who likes to watch, and it's the last third of EMMANUELLE that really becomes unpleasant to watch, and not just through the lens of 2019. I don't wish to sound like a representative of Woke Twitter, and I'm not advocating canceling EMMANUELLE 45 years after its release, but it's hard to imagine the Mario section of the film, with Emmanuelle experiencing her ultimate sexual awakening through one humiliation and degradation after another, being a turn-on to audiences or even a symbol of female empowerment, since it's all for Mario's pleasure. Even after this, Mario still doesn't sleep with Emmanuelle and moves on to his next subject, offering the kind of explanation where the only suitable response would be a kick in the balls: "I collect situations. I want to find the next Emmanuelle...through the looking glass!"

It's putting it mildly to say that EMMANUELLE hasn't aged well, but it obviously set the template for the countless European-made "sexual awakening of a young woman" films that came in its wake, such as Corinne Clery in THE STORY OF O (1975) and Dayle Haddon in THE FRENCH WOMAN (1977), both directed by Jaeckin; Sirpa Lane in Roger Vadim's CHARLOTTE (1975); Patti D'Arbanville in BILITIS (1977); Olivia Pascal in VANESSA (1977); and Annie Belle in both ANNIE (1976) and LAURE (1976), the latter written and co-directed by the Rollet-Andrianes, and featured "Arsan" herself as the title character's sexual mentor (the film was released in the US in 1982 as FOREVER EMMANUELLE). EMMANUELLE itself spawned two sequels (all three films have just been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber) and was so popular that it was spoofed in the 1978 British comedy CARRY ON EMMANUELLE. But it's the BLACK EMANUELLE series (note the missing "M") with Laura Gemser that was the most successful of the knockoffs, and in many ways, surpasses the inspiration (and Gemser most closely resembles the real Arsan). Released in the US by Columbia with the attention-getting tag line "X was never like this," EMMANUELLE is insufferably pretentious, with the constant hot air blather of "making love" growing unintentionally funny very quickly. It really fancies itself as something chic, artistic, and profound, and the presence of top-billed Cuny (memorable in Federico Fellini's LA DOLCE VITA and FELLINI SATYRICON) certainly gives it an air of importance, though the respected actor was said to be difficult and later commented that he only took the role to show his contempt for modern cinema. It also exploits the exoticism of Thailand and the Far East, with a particularly memorable shot of a dancer using a certain orifice to smoke a cigarette that's exactly the kind of thing you think of when you hear "bar in Bangkok." But it's Kristel's film from beginning to end. She's lovely and has haunting eyes that hypnotize when she stares into the camera, and it's easy to see why EMMANUELLE catapulted her to fame, while at the same time leaving her hopelessly typecast.

EMMANUELLE opening in Toledo, OH on 2/27/1976

(France - 1975; US release 1976)

Directed by Francis Giacobetti. Written by Bob Elia. Cast: Sylvia Kristel, Umberto Orsini, Frederic Lagache, Catherine Rivet, Venantino Venantini, Caroline Laurence, Henry Czarniak, Tom Clark, Marion Womble, Florence Lafuma, Claire Richard, Laura Gemser, Eva Hamel, Christiane Gibelin, Sterling St. Jacques. (X, 91 mins)

With no shortage of "Emmanuelle Arsan" stories, and with EMMANUELLE being such a worldwide box-office smash (it opened in the US in December 1974 and moved across the country slowly, letting the notoriety continue to build, and it was still hitting first-run theaters in America well into 1976), a sequel was inevitable. Just Jaeckin passed on directing, not wishing to be associated strictly with EMMANUELLE, and instead made the similarly X-rated, S&M-themed THE STORY OF O and the brothel-set THE FRENCH WOMAN. Kristel returned for EMMANUELLE 2, better known by its eventual US title EMMANUELLE: THE JOYS OF A WOMAN, directed by a debuting Francis Giacobetti. It's a loose sequel, with a markedly more confident and assured Kristel playing what appears to be an Emmanuelle, if not the same Emmanuelle from the previous film, with Jean now either an engineer or an architect and played by Italian actor Umberto Orsini (THE DAMNED, VIOLENT CITY). The film opens with Emmanuelle boarding a ship to Hong Kong, where Jean is working, but a booking snafu forces her into a dormitory sleeping arrangement with some commoner women, which instantly leads to some girl-on-girl action between a now sexually-emboldened Emmanuelle and young traveler Ingrid (Caroline Laurence), who seduces Emmanuelle by confessing a violent gang-rape fantasy. Emmanuelle and Jean continue to have the most open marriage imaginable, with Jean practically salivating over her exploits. Jean is also providing room and board to a pilot named Christopher (Frederic Lagache), who sleeps with his propellor (?) and, of course, becomes a fantasy object for Emmanuelle, especially after he takes her to an acupuncturist and she masturbates to him with needles sticking out of her face. In Emmanuelle's absence, Jean has been sleeping with (or, in the parlance of EMMANUELLE, "making love to") Laura (Florenca Lafuma), the younger wife of aging diplomat Peter (Tom Clark). When she isn't fantasizing about Christopher or masquerading as a prostitute in a Hong Kong brothel and having sex with three men in a consensual re-enactment of Ingrid's rape fantasy, Emmanuelle becomes obsessed with Laura's virginal stepdaughter Anna Marie (Catherine Rivet). She eventually convinces the naive young girl (oooh...could she remind Emmanuelle of her younger self?) to partake in a threesome where Jean is only all too happy to deflower the young woman. You know, if that's what Emmanuelle wants and all...

Of course, that's after the film's most famous scene, a long massage sequence where Emmanuelle, Jean, and Anna Marie are given soapy, oily rubdowns and happy endings by a trio of masseuses, including one played by Indonesian actress Laura Gemser, who made such an impression in this one scene that she would immediately be cast in the Italian knockoff BLACK EMANUELLE, which led to her own series of films that lasted well into the 1980s. EMMANUELLE: THE JOYS OF A WOMAN understands first and foremost what drew audiences to EMMANUELLE and as such, it doesn't waste time with endless philosophizing about "making love" and instead just gets down to it. It's much closer in spirit to the Italian-made Gemser series, perhaps in part since it features Italian actors like Orsini and Eurocult regular Venantino Venantini (who would also appear in three of Gemser's BLACK EMANUELLEs), seen here as a tattooed polo player who gets fellated by Emmanuelle in a locker room before fisting her. EMMANUELLE: THE JOYS OF A WOMAN is often jawdropping in its brazen explicitness, rivaling the carnal content of any of Gemser's outings, so much so that even after being cut down to 84 minutes for its 1976 US release by Paramount (yes, Paramount), it still got handed an X rating. It wasn't quite as big of a hit as its predecessor, but it enjoyed a reasonably successful run as a midnight movie into the early 1980s. EMMANUELLE: THE JOYS OF A WOMAN is the best of the Kristel EMMANUELLEs by far (strangely, Giacobetti never made another movie), and Kino Lorber's Blu-ray offers the uncut 91-minute version, so plan accordingly..

opening in Toledo, OH on 10/22/1976

Further evidence that things just used to be different: here's
at a goddamn mall in Toledo, OH on 6/16/1978

(France - 1977; US release 1981)

Directed by Francois Leterrier. Written by Monique Lange and Francois Leterrier. Cast: Sylvia Kristel, Umberto Orsini, Jean-Pierre Bouvier, Alexandra Stewart, Olga Georges-Picot, Charlotte Alexandra, Caroline Laurence, Sylvie Fennec, Radiah Frye, Jacques Doniol-Valcroize, Erik Colin, Jack Allen, Bob Asklof, Greg Germain, Patrick Victor. (R, 98 mins)

The EMMANUELLE series made Kristel an international star, though it limited her to largely similar roles in various Euro erotica outings ranging from artsy to commercial, including Alain Robbe-Grillet's PLAYING WITH FIRE (1975), Roger Vadim's GAME OF SEDUCTION (1976), and Walerian Borowczyk's THE STREETWALKER (1976). Kristel returned to her signature role for the final film in the original trilogy, 1977's GOODBYE EMMANUELLE, which reteamed her with Umberto Orsini as Jean but under the direction of a third helmer, this time Francois Leterrier, who had a minor hit in France with 1973's PRIVATE SCREENING, with Francoise Fabian, Jane Birkin, and Bulle Ogier. GOODBYE EMMANUELLE drastically tones down the "anything goes" titillation of its predecessor and desperately wants to be taken seriously like Jaeckin's original. It's got a very catchy theme song by Birkin and her husband, renowned French singer and composer Serge Gainsbourg, and its cast has more prestigious actors than usual, like Olga Georges-Picot (Alain Resnais' JE T'AIME, JE T'AIME, Fred Zinnemann's THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, Woody Allen's LOVE AND DEATH) and Canadian-born Alexandra Stewart (Francois Truffaut's THE BRIDE WORE BLACK and DAY FOR NIGHT, Louis Malle's BLACK MOON). But it gets everything about EMMANUELLE fundamentally wrong. The central premise has Emmanuelle, now traveling to the Seychelles, where Jean is (allegedly) working, but this time, she's growing tired of the sexual histrionics of their open marriage--of course, not before an opening threesome with Jean and local dressmaker Angelique (Radiah Frye). She even begins sympathizing with frigid Clara (Sylvie Fennac, a dead ringer for Dayle Haddon), who tried to play that game with her husband, Jean's friend Guillaume (Erik Colin), but just wasn't into it. Clara also blames Emmanuelle and Jean for Guillaume's sudden interest in pursuing an open marriage and his obsession with perfecting the art of "lovemaking," which is understandable since it's all anyone in these movies ever fucking talks about. Emmanuelle develops feelings for Gregory (Jean-Pierre Bouvier), a filmmaker scouting locations in the area, who doesn't believe in Jean's lifestyle philosophy and happens to catch Emmanuelle at the very moment she's been thinking the same thing, especially her growing disgust with how Jean and all of the expat swinger couples in their social circle pass eager, nubile young Chloe (Charlotte Alexandra) amongst themselves for their endless sexual pleasure. Though Jean loves nothing more than being turned on by Emmanuelle's stories of making love to other men, he soon grows jealous of Gregory and starts deliberately sabotaging her relationship with him, driving Emmanuelle to make the decision to abandon her sexually adventurous world and consider settling down with Gregory.

The less said about GOODBYE EMMANUELLE, the better. "Emmanuelle Goes Monogamous" might've seemed like a thought-provoking and even subversive idea on paper, but it's deadening in execution, unless you're a big fan of the endless "making love" philosophizing and highbrow poseurdom that constitute everything you fast-forwarded through in your teenage years in an impatient dash to get to "the good parts." The good parts are few and far between in the impossibly dull GOODBYE EMMANUELLE, and it must've been apparent to any potential US distributors. While EMMANUELLE was released by Columbia and EMMANUELLE: THE JOYS OF A WOMAN by Paramount, GOODBYE EMMANUELLE went unseen in America until it was picked up in 1981 by ambitious young concert promoter Harvey Weinstein, who was looking to get into the movie distribution game, thus earning the film its only claim to future notoriety by being the first release of the fledgling Miramax Films. It was so tame that it didn't even need any trimming for an R rating. And it was only given a spotty release, with Weinstein's acquisition likely due less to the fading brand recognition of the EMMANUELLE films (even Gemser's EMANUELLEs were being retooled as women-in-prison grinders like CAGED WOMAN and WOMEN'S PRISON MASSACRE) and more because Kristel, then in the midst of a short-lived run in Hollywood after 1979's THE CONCORDE: AIRPORT '79 and 1980's THE NUDE BOMB, was having a pretty good year in 1981, and here was one of her EMMANUELLE movies, sitting there unclaimed. 1981 saw Kristel reunite with Jaeckin for the future cable favorite LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER and she also enjoyed her biggest US success that same year with PRIVATE LESSONS. Like EMMANUELLE, PRIVATE LESSONS was another influential first centered on Kristel, in this case kickstarting a string of "horny, virginal teenage dweeb inexplicably gets seduced by his hot teacher" comedies (followed by the likes of HOMEWORK, MY TUTOR, and THEY'RE PLAYING WITH FIRE) that wouldn't have a chance in hell of being made today, much less being huge moneymakers at the box office, and, it bears mentioning, inspiring Van Halen's hit "Hot for Teacher."

But it's the success of PRIVATE LESSONS that was a blessing and a curse for Kristel. It finally gave her a non-EMMANUELLE hit, but a scheming agent talked her into signing her percentage profits over to him, so while the film was a smash hit, she barely made anything from it. Coupled with the collapse of her often volatile relationship with Ian McShane, who she met while making 1979's THE FIFTH MUSKETEER, and a worsening drug and alcohol problem (she was very open in later years about having a serious cocaine addiction in the late '70s and into the '80s), Kristel was quickly bottoming out personally and professionally. Out of desperation, she was lured back to the world of Emmanuelle for the 1984 Cannon reboot EMMANUELLE IV, which played like an erotic take on SECONDS, almost insulting then-32-year-old Kristel by having her Emmanuelle go through plastic surgery to emerge in a younger incarnation played by Mia Nygren. After that, Kristel was simply taking jobs for the money, from 1985's MATA HARI to the same year's German-made women-in-prison potboiler RED HEAT to a disastrous attempt to once again crack the American market with 1988's DRACULA'S WIDOW, which was caught up in the bankruptcy of DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group and ended up going straight to video. The increasingly dubious and decreasingly-budgeted  EMMANUELLE series continued without her, but Kristel was eventually reduced to starring in 1993's EMMANUELLE 7, which has the title character now running a virtual reality lab where people can fulfill their sexual fantasies. The same year, she appeared as "Old Emmanuelle" (Kristel was 41 at the time) in a series of French made-for-cable movies where she's featured in wraparound segments recounting her youthful sexploits to a new Mario (George Lazenby, of all people), with young Emmanuelle played by Venezuelan actress Marcella Walerstein. Kristel remained in Europe, working primarily in France, Italy, and her native Netherlands in obscure films and on TV, but her career never bounced back. While she successfully conquered her substance abuse issues, she spent the bulk of the '00s battling cancer, first in her throat, then spreading to her lungs, and she suffered a stroke shortly before her death in 2012 at just 60.

Sylvia Kristel (1952-2012)

Friday, April 19, 2019

Retro Review: BLACKOUT (1978)

(Canada/France - 1978)

Directed by Eddy Matalon. Written by John C.W. Saxton. Cast: Jim Mitchum, Robert Carradine, Belinda J. Montgomery, June Allyson, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Ray Milland, Don Granbery, Terry Haig, Victor Tyler, Camille Ange, Fred Doederlein, Judy London, Norman Taviss, Gwen Tolbart, Vlasta Vrana. (R, 92 mins)

A then-topical, "ripped from the headlines" Canadian tax shelter quickie cranked out in response to the infamous NYC blackout and the resulting looting and crime spree over July 13-14, 1977, BLACKOUT never gets as nasty or exploitative as its R rating would lead you to believe, and other than some minor cursing and a bloody stabbing, it could easily pass for a TV-movie. It's surprising in retrospect that the '77 blackout didn't lead to competing Movies of the Week on all three major networks, but the bland BLACKOUT never takes advantage of being the only contemporary semi-dramatization of the event, instead resorting to recycled tropes of the decade's disaster movie craze (the poster even has the standard "faces in boxes" design showcasing the sort-of all-star cast). Released by New World Pictures in the fall of 1978, BLACKOUT was relegated to grindhouses and drive-ins and other than a 1986 VHS release and some scattered TV airings, has languished in obscurity in the decades since. It's just been released on Blu-ray in a flawed but as-good-as-it-can-be edition by Code Red (because physical media is dead), and while it's not really very good, I'm glad it's available. And it's got some curio value, like one of the producers being future MEATBALLS, STRIPES, and GHOSTBUSTERS director Ivan Reitman, and a cast headlined by the sons of two Hollywood legends sharing scenes with revered old-timers looking to cash in on the declining disaster cycle by slumming in a cheap B-movie from the director of 1977's schlocky CATHY'S CURSE.

As a storm rages over NYC (played mostly by Montreal mixed with mismatched stock footage of Manhattan), a series of lightning strikes takes out the power grid, sending the entire city into darkness and total chaos. At the same time, a prisoner transport van crashes and the cops running it are killed by crazed Christie (Robert Carradine, youngest son of John), who dons one's uniform and leads three other psycho escapees (including Don Granbery, who played a similar role in the previous year's Canuxploitation home invasion thriller THE HOUSE BY THE LAKE) into a nearby high-rise where they make their way through the building on an overnight spree of rape, robbery, and murder. Meanwhile, cop Dan Evans (Jim Mitchum, eldest son of Robert), apparently the only police officer in the area, happens upon the transport crash and heads into the building after hearing the screams of a tenant (Belinda J. Montgomery), who's just been raped by one of the psychos. Among those terrorized by Christie and the fugitives are French magician Henri the Magnificent (Jean-Pierre Aumont), who gets lectured by Christie about the dangers of living on credit cards before being stabbed in the stomach; Mrs. Grant (June Allyson), whose ailing husband (Fred Doederlein) is on a ventilator; and wealthy, asshole art collector Stafford (Ray Milland, cast radically against type at this point in his career as a pompous, sneering prick), who initially refuses to give the psychos the combination to his safe, even as they beat his helpless wife, but finally caves when Christie threatens to burn a priceless Picasso (and, in a brief moment where you actually side with the bad guys, Christie gets in the safe but proceeds to burn all of Stafford's paintings anyway). In accordance with disaster movie convention, there's also two people trapped in the elevator, a pregnant woman (Gwen Tolbart) about to go into labor, as well as a big, fat Greek wedding packed with drunk, obnoxious guests on the top floor that will no doubt be crashed by Christie and his creeps.

Director Eddy Matalon and screenwriter John C.W. Saxton (ILSA: SHE WOLF OF THE S.S., HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, CLASS OF 1984) don't really convey the chaos of the NYC blackout aside from a handful of cutaways to the power company command center and a few random shots of black people looting. Instead, they stay confined to the high-rise in what amounts to a proto-ENEMY TERRITORY/DIE HARD situation, the latter especially once Christie pulls a "Bill Clay" on Evans by passing himself off as a resident. But the comparisons end there, as Matalon generates little suspense and really no one to root for since the lumbering, sleepy Mitchum--at the end of a very short-lived stint as a drive-in headliner, following MOONRUNNERS, TRACKDOWN, and MANIAC!, aka RANSOM--can only get so far by looking exactly like his father, not even possessing the screen presence of his younger brother Chris, let alone the magnetic star power of his legendary dad. Carradine, several years before cementing his place in pop culture history with 1984's REVENGE OF THE NERDS, fares better as the ruthless Christie, even if the crimes for which he was incarcerated (he's an activist who has a chip on his shoulder about...corporations and credit cards?) don't really gel with his homicidal actions. The older actors seem like they're getting sub-Irwin Allen table scraps, particularly Allyson, who's far too classy to be in something like this, even if it's relatively restrained for its type. Neither she, Aumont, nor Milland (a Best Actor Oscar-winner for 1945's THE LOST WEEKEND) have much screen time, and Allyson's character just disappears from the film after Christie ties her up, gags her, and shuts off her husband's ventilator just because.

There's some obvious audio damage inherent to the print used for Code Red's Blu-ray, a sort-of audible, rhythmic hiss that's apparent whenever there's no dialogue. It tapers off as the film goes on and is hardly a dealbreaker and might actually accentuate the grindhouse experience. No, the only real issue with the BLACKOUT Blu-ray is (deep breath) yet another steaming shit sandwich of a commentary track from the two-man wrecking crew of Code Red head Bill Olsen and L.A.-based DIY filmmaker Damon Packard--the duo last heard knowing fuck-all about anything to do with Lamberto Bava's DEVILFISH--who welcome co-star Belinda J. Montgomery for her first and probably last Blu-ray bonus feature. Perhaps best known to genre fans for co-starring with Patrick Duffy on his pre-DALLAS '70s cult TV series MAN FROM ATLANTIS and later as the title character's mom on DOOGIE HOWSER, M.D., the now-68-year-old Montgomery acts sparingly today but had a very busy career on TV from the early '70s through the '90s. But it's this commentary that might actually constitute her finest acting thus far, as she somehow doesn't just get up and leave after a barrage of idiotic comments from Olsen and Packard, who have clearly done zero prep work and, judging from how often they throw her a question that's already been asked and answered, don't even appear to be listening to what Montgomery is saying. Honestly, I got 25 minutes into this commentary and couldn't take it anymore, but among the lowlights in that short period of time:

  • Olsen taking all of 52 seconds into the film before uttering something stupid, over a stock footage shot of NYC: "This isn't Quebec," to which Montgomery replies "Yep, it's supposed to be New York but we shot in Montreal." OK, sure, maybe he was making a joke and it just didn't land, but I've heard enough Bill Olsen commentaries to conclude that's probably not the case.
  • Olsen doing his usual schtick of mispronouncing people's names as they come up in the credits, and saying "Gene" Pierre Aumont, with Montgomery immediately correcting him with "Yes, Jean-Pierre Aumont." 
  • Olsen and Packard deciding, apropos of nothing, to shit all over score composer Didier Vasseur when his credit appears. Olsen, chuckling: "There's a great musician." Packard: "Never heard of him." Well, Vasseur also composed two other films by Matalon, including CATHY'S CURSE, which might be worth mentioning as opposed to a flippant "Never heard of him." If only there was some sort of, oh I don't know, some easily-accessible database on the internet that had movie information where one could quickly find out this sort of stuff beforehand. 
  • Packard asking "What else has Eddy Matalon done?" Again, if there was only a way to find this information online ahead of time.
  • Montgomery mentioning that MAN FROM ATLANTIS was canceled after one season, followed five minutes later by Packard asking "Why were you replaced on the second season of MAN FROM ATLANTIS?" Montgomery clears her throat and replies "There was no second season of MAN FROM ATLANTIS." 
  • The Canadian-born Montgomery mentions early on that she got her start when she came to Hollywood in 1969, so of course, Packard later asks "When did you get your start?" 
  • Olsen keeps talking about Don Granbery being in THE HOUSE BY THE LAKE, aka DEATH WEEKEND. Packard: "Was that a Canadian film?" Yes, it's pretty well-known among Canadian tax-shelter films of the period.
  • Montgomery mentions she didn't see BLACKOUT when it was released, but she and her husband saw it somewhere several years later (I would assume on TV). Olsen, less than ten minutes later: "Now, when this came out, did you see it in a theater?" 
  • Montgomery reminisces about doing an episode of MARCUS WELBY, M.D., and says "Robert Young was just adorable." Packard: "Robert Young the director?" Montgomery, after a pause: "No. Robert Young. The star of the show." Packard: "Oh." Yes, there is a director named Robert M. Young (SHORT EYES, ONE-TRICK PONY, EXTREMITIES, DOMINICK AND EUGENE), but how do you not think of the actor Robert Young when someone is talking about MARCUS WELBY, M.D.?

And with that, I, unlike Belinda J. Montgomery, had heard enough. She's not an A-lister, but she's someone who's been in the entertainment industry for 50 years. She has an extensive list of credits and she's worked with a shitload of people. Is this supposed to be some kind of convention-defying, avant-garde, anti-commentary performance art or are Olsen and Packard really this dumb? Do the prep work, fellas. Montgomery deserves that respect, and to an extent, so does BLACKOUT. It's not a great movie. Hell, it's not even a good movie, but this is likely the last chance to preserve it and its making for posterity. That doesn't mean it needs to be an academic, Criterion-style commentary by a stuffy film professor, but even commentaries for the crummiest movies, even if you want to be amusing (which Olsen and Packard are not), need to have a certain level of research, preparation, and professionalism.

BLACKOUT opening in Toledo, OH on 11/17/1978

Thursday, April 18, 2019


(Italy/France/West Germany - 1971)

Directed by Willy Pareto (Riccardo Freda). Written by Willy Pareto (Riccardo Freda), Alessandro Continenza and Gunther Ebert. Cast: Luigi Pistilli, Dagmar Lassander, Anton Diffring, Valentina Cortese, Arthur O'Sullivan, Werner Pochat, Dominique Boschero, Renato Romano, Sergio Doria, Ruth Durley, Niall Toibin. (Unrated, 96 mins)

Journeyman director Riccardo Freda (1909-1999) remains a key figure in Italian horror, having mentored Mario Bava and encouraged his transition from cinematographer to director by letting him handle large chunks of 1957's I VAMPIRI and 1959's CALTIKI, THE IMMORTAL MONSTER. Bava soon made the groundbreaking 1960 Italian horror classic BLACK SUNDAY while Freda, who often used the Anglicized pseudonym "Robert Hampton" on his films, never seemed particularly beholden to the genre beyond 1962's THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK and its 1963 semi-sequel THE GHOST, with both in very high regard by connoisseurs of Italian horror. But Freda spent most of the decade making a string of HERCULES-inspired peplum epics like 1960's THE GIANTS OF THESSALY and 1961's MACISTE AT THE COURT OF GRAND KHAN and assorted spaghetti westerns and 007 Eurospy knockoffs. Following Dario Argento's trailblazing 1970 giallo THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and its followups, 1971's THE CAT O'NINE TAILS and 1972's FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, Italian journeymen directors essentially formed a conga line to crank out a series of knockoff gialli with animals in the title, among them Lucio Fulci's A LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN (1971) and DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING (1972), Sergio Martino's THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL (1971), Paolo Cavara's THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA (1971), Duccio Tessari's THE BLOODSTAINED BUTTERFLY (1971), Sergio Pastore's THE CRIMES OF THE BLACK CAT (1972), and Antonio Margheriti's SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CAT'S EYE (1973) just to name a few. Following his 1969 krimi-inspired DOUBLE FACE, Freda hopped on the animal giallo bandwagon with one of the genre's most nonsensically random titles, 1971's THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE.

The meaning of that title is shoehorned in almost as an aside and doesn't really make sense even in context, but it's probably the most memorable thing about the film, which suffers from erratic pacing, hilariously awful special effects, and Freda and his co-writers fighting a losing battle to keep track of all of their red herrings, at least two of whom completely disappear from the film. It does benefit from an unusual setting, a great cast of familiar Eurocult faces, an expectedly catchy lounge score by Stelvio Cipriani with the participation of Edda dell'Orso, whose wordless vocals were essentially legally mandated by this point, and an admirably off-the-rails climax that prefigures both Brian De Palma's DRESSED TO KILL and Dario Argento's TENEBRAE to a certain extent. In Dublin, a woman has acid thrown in her face and her throat slashed before being stuffed in the boot of a Rolls Royce belonging to Sobiesky (Anton Diffring), the Swiss ambassador to Ireland. Police inspector Lawrence (Arthur O'Sullivan) gets nowhere with the investigation since Sobiesky immediately plays the privileged asshole card by flaunting his diplomatic immunity and refusing to cooperate. It turns out the dead woman was his mistress, and when another Sobiesky mistress, a sultry nightclub chanteuse (Dominique Boschero), also turns up dead after trying to blackmail him over their affair, Lawrence sends rogue, plays-by-his-own-rules detective John Norton (Luigi Pistilli) undercover. Norton, who's persona non grata with the Dublin police after a suspect grabbed his gun and committed suicide during a brutal interrogation, and who's still plagued by the unsolved murder of his wife (a plot point that's mentioned and never revisited), lets himself get picked up at a bar by Sobiesky's promiscuous stepdaughter Helen (Dagmar Lassander), much to the chagrin of her arrogant boy-toy Walter (Sergio Doria), and manages to ingratiate himself into the Sobiesky household, also questioning the ambassador's alcoholic wife (Valentina Cortese, who would earn a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination three years later for Francois Truffaut's DAY FOR NIGHT) and generally not giving much of a shit about the ambassador's diplomatic immunity privileges. There's also suspicious, conjunctivitis-afflicted limo driver Mandel (Renato Romano), who's also blackmailing Sobiesky's weirdo stepson Marc (Werner Pochat) for his own indiscretions back home in Switzerland, a doctor (Niall Toibin) who's creepy for no reason whatsoever, and comic relief in the form of Norton's teenage daughter as well as his doddering, Agatha Christie superfan mother (Ruth Durley), an amateur sleuth whose annoying habit of misplacing her glasses with attached hearing aids leads to one of the dumbest contrivances in the entire giallo genre.

Never released theatrically in the US, THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE has been available only in bootleg format stateside, never even hitting home video and remaining one of the most obscure giallo offerings that, thanks to that title, was certainly read about more than it was actually seen. That is until now, thanks to Arrow's new extras-packed Blu-ray that gives it its first official US release, 48 years after it was made, because physical media is dead. That doesn't mean it's a classic waiting to be discovered. Structurally, THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE is a mess that's needlessly convoluted--is there anyone in it not involved in a clandestine blackmail scheme?--and goes to absurd lengths to make sure every character is a suspect at one point, usually in the form of an aggressive zoom into their faces, sporting expressions that land somewhere between suspicious and constipated. The best thing about the film is the unique Dublin setting, especially with some extensive location work done by Freda and his crew, particularly some breathtaking shots at the Cliffs of Moher. There's also a cringe-worthy shout-out to an iconic Dublin business--the Swastika Laundry and yes, that was its logo--which was in existence since 1912, well before the swastika was co-opted by Nazi Germany (it ultimately closed in 1987). And speaking of cringe-worthy, don't miss the scene where O'Sullivan's spectacularly unappealing Lawrence sneeringly hypothesizes that the first murder shows signs of "a woman's hand, or that of a colored person...they're experts at such things," which is the worst hunch by a cop this side of Jack Hedley's Lt. Williams in 1982's THE NEW YORK RIPPER expressing with certainty that "we know the killer has lived in New York his whole life."

Freda wasn't happy with much of anything about THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE, starting with Pistilli (best known as the priest brother of Eli Wallach's Tuco in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY and in a rare lead here), who he felt was forced on him by the producers after they failed to secure his first choice--Roger Moore, of all people (Ivan Rassimov was also considered at some point). Displeased with the end result after post-production, Freda decided to take his name off the finished film, where he's credited as "Willy Pareto." It's not a top-shelf giallo, but it's hardly the worst ever made and it's definitely worth seeing for completists. And it's a masterpiece compared to Freda's next film, his 1972 career nadir TRAGIC CEREMONY, which was so bad that it would be nine years before he made another, 1981's MURDER OBSESSION, aka FEAR. MURDER OBSESSION is no great shakes, but it's a decent enough second-tier giallo that's marginally better than THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE, if for no other reason than it co-stars Laura Gemser. Freda's comeback was short-lived, however, as he opted for retirement with MURDER OBSESSION proving to be his final film.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019


(UK/Hong Kong - 1974; US release 1979)

Directed by Roy Ward Baker. Written by Don Houghton. Cast: Peter Cushing, David Chiang, Julie Ege, Robin Stewart, Shih Szu, John Forbes-Robertson, Robert Hanna, Chan Shen, James Ma, Liu Hui Ling, Liu Chia Yung, Wong Han Chan, Chen Tien Loong, Fong Kah Ann. (Unrated, 89 mins/R, 75 mins)

With 1970's THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, Hammer Films started spicing up their horror offerings with generous doses of skin and sex in an attempt to inject new life into their product. They made a play for the youth market by benching Peter Cushing in favor of Ralph Bates as a much-younger Dr. Frankenstein in 1970's little-loved HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, and while they didn't replace Christopher Lee as Dracula, they did transport him with Cushing's Van Helsing to mod, swinging London in all its Austin Powers glory for 1972's DRACULA A.D. 1972 and 1973's THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA. Neither film was a hit, and while Cushing soldiered through them, Lee made sure to voice his displeasure with Hammer and the DRACULA series to anyone who would listen. Warner Bros. shelved SATANIC RITES in the US, where it wouldn't be released for another five years, and when pandering to the counterculture demographic failed, Hammer took an even more unpredictable approach by partnering on two 1974 projects with Hong Kong's Run Run Shaw, whose Shaw Brothers outfit was for responsible much of the burgeoning martial-arts craze: the horror/kung-fu hybrid THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES and the Stuart Whitman-starring Hong Kong-set actioner SHATTER.

Hammer was in a strange place by 1974. THE EXORCIST was enough of a game-changer that "classic"-style horror was falling out of fashion. Cushing returned to his Dr. Frankenstein role for one last time with 1974's FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL, by far the goriest entry in the series and the same year saw the release of their most inspired film in years with Brian Clemens' horror/swashbuckler cult classic CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER, which was actually completed in 1972 but Hammer didn't have any confidence in it and shelved it for two years. Bad decisions, diminishing returns, and a changing genre landscape would eventually cause the company's classic incarnation to fold after 1976's TO THE DEVIL...A DAUGHTER, but THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES, like CAPTAIN KRONOS, was a film tragically unappreciated in its time and one that has aged remarkably well over the decades.

It would've been even better had Lee returned as Dracula, but he was so fed up with whole thing after SATANIC RITES that he walked away and refused to have anything more to do with the series, and it's doubtful that he would've been wooed back by the prospect of Dracula in a kung-fu setting. While Cushing returned as Van Helsing, Dracula was now played by jobbing British character actor and one-and-done trivia question response John Forbes-Robertson, the George Lazenby of the Hammer DRACULA series. Since Dracula's screen time is limited to the beginning and the end, the actor doesn't have much of a chance to make an impression beyond his excessive rouge and pasty makeup. And on top of that, he's dubbed over by veteran voice actor David de Keyser, whose familiar tones can be heard revoicing John Richardson in THE VENGEANCE OF SHE and Gabriele Ferzetti in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE. Forbes-Robertson has very little to do here, and it's likely Dracula would've received more face time had Lee agreed to be in it, but with the end result, it hardly matters. Directed by the venerable Roy Ward Baker (ASYLUM, THE VAULT OF HORROR, AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS), with uncredited assistance from top Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh, who handled the action sequences, THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES is a dark horse underdog in the Hammer canon that's long overdue for respect and appreciation. As recently as 2018's comprehensive, 992-page chronicle Hammer Complete: The Films, The Personnel, The Company, author Howard Maxford calls the film "a letdown on almost every level." Quite the contrary...it's clever, wildly entertaining, paced like a freight train, and better than at least the last four of Lee's DRACULAs.

Disregarding the A.D. 1972 and SATANIC RITES continuity even though, like those two, it was written by Don Houghton, 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES opens in 1804 Transylvania, where Chinese priest Kah (Chan Shen) awakens Dracula (Forbes-Robertson) to beg for his help in resurrecting the legendary "seven golden vampires." A weakened Dracula decides to use Kah as a vessel to strengthen his own evil spirit and to use the seven golden vampires to wreak his vengeance on mankind (having Dracula possess Kah is also a convenient way around Forbes-Robertson being cast late in production). 100 years later, Van Helsing (Cushing) is in Chung King as a guest lecturer on the subject of vampirism, telling his students of the legend of the seven golden vampires who have terrorized the remote village of Ping Kwei for the last century. Most scoff and walk out, but one, Hsi Ching (David Chiang) knows he speaks the truth: his family comes from that village and his grandfather lost his life battling the seven golden vampires, but not before killing one of them. Van Helsing, with his son Leyland (Robin Stewart) and wealthy, widowed Scandinavian socialite Vanessa Buren (Julie Ege), who thinks "a vampire hunt sounds exciting," agrees to accompany and advise Hsi Ching, his six brothers, and their ass-kicking little sister Mei Kwei (Shih Szu) on a treacherous journey to Ping Kwei to find and destroy the six surviving golden vampires while frequently fighting off a growing army of their undead victims, now resurrected as kung-fu zombies.

I'm not sure how "Peter Cushing leading a band of sibling martial-arts warriors against vampires and kung-fu zombies" wasn't the most slam-dunk cinematic sales pitch of 1974. It's handsomely-produced and stylishly shot in garish greens, blues, and reds, with spirited performances (this is one of Cushing's best turns as Van Helsing, even taking part in some of the kung-fu fighting) and a sharp use of the region and its iconography (Van Helsing warns that crosses are useless against these vampires, who can only be warded off by Buddha imagery), but THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES was met with general apathy by UK audiences. Like THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, it was shelved in the US by Warner Bros, who ended up selling both films to the short-lived grindhouse outfit Dynamite Entertainment. They eventually released SATANIC RITES in 1978 as COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE, while 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES underwent a drastic restructuring into the cheesily-titled THE 7 BROTHERS MEET DRACULA, which hit theaters in the summer and into the fall of 1979. It's one of the worst botched re-edits of all time, gutting the film from 89 to 75 minutes, losing tons of exposition and shifting scenes around to the point where the story makes no sense at all. This had to be part of the reason the film was dismissed as gutter schlock and was maligned for so long by American audiences until Anchor Bay's original DVD release in 1999 finally made the original 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES cut widely available (the butchered 7 BROTHERS MEET DRACULA was included as an extra, and both cuts are present on Scream Factory's new Blu-ray, because physical media is dead). Considering how well-crafted the original version was, and that kung-fu films were all the rage in 1974--especially with Warner Bros., who had huge hits with  5 FINGERS OF DEATH and the landmark ENTER THE DRAGON--shelving the film in the first place was an astonishingly bone-headed decision, let alone Dynamite's later catastrophic mangling of it, basically reducing it to fight scenes and T&A, with one topless shot of a woman repeated three times. Forget the 7 BROTHERS cut unless you need to analyze just how badly a good movie can be fucked up beyond recognition. THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES is an absolute blast and a worthy conclusion to Hammer's DRACULA series, and it's time for it to be given its rightful place among the studio's crowning achievements.

The butchered 7 BROTHERS MEET DRACULA version
opening in Toledo, OH on 10/5/1979

Monday, April 15, 2019

Retro Review: RIDER ON THE RAIN (1970) and COLD SWEAT (1970)

(France/Italy - 1970)

Directed by Rene Clement. Written by Sebastien Japrisot. Cast: Charles Bronson, Marlene Jobert, Annie Cordy, Corinne Marchand, Gabriele Tinti, Jill Ireland, Jean Gaven, Jean Piat, Marc Mazza, Ellen Bahl, Steve Eckhardt, Jean-Daniel Ehrman, Yves Massart. (PG, 114/118 mins)

When you think of Charles Bronson, the things that usually come to mind are the DEATH WISH films, his many sleazy Cannon actioners of the 1980s, the vengeful Harmonica in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, or his being a member of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE GREAT ESCAPE, and THE DIRTY DOZEN in the 1960s. But it's his European phase--lasting from roughly 1968 to 1973--that firmly established him as a global superstar, and it's that era that isn't referenced much today, though two new Blu-ray releases from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead) are finally doing justice to this vital period of Bronson's career. Steadily employed in supporting roles on the big screen and in TV guest spots on shows like THE VIRGINIAN and THE FUGITIVE in the mid-to-late '60s but frustrated with the state of his career as he was approaching 50, Bronson decided to test the waters of the European film industry when he was offered a chance to team with French superstar Alain Delon in 1968's sweaty heist thriller FAREWELL, FRIEND (aka HONOR AMONG THIEVES). The film was a huge hit in Europe but wouldn't be released in the US until 1973. Following ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, Bronson starred in a series of French and Italian-made thrillers while maintaining a Hollywood profile in occasional American films like CHATO'S LAND, THE MECHANIC, and THE STONE KILLER. Nevertheless, it was his European films that were cementing his status as a pop culture icon everywhere in the world but the US. The major outlier here would be 1972's gangster biopic THE VALACHI PAPERS, an Italian-French co-production that became a major box-office hit in America in the wake of THE GODFATHER.

While Bronson's Euro sojourn began with FAREWELL, FRIEND, it was 1970's RIDER ON THE RAIN that was the key film in making him Europe's most popular movie star. Reteaming Bronson with his FAREWELL, FRIEND producer Serge Silberman and screenwriter and French mystery novelist Sebastien Japrisot, RIDER ON THE RAIN, directed by Rene Clement (PURPLE NOON), is a dreamily melancholy Hitchcockian psychological thriller with an appropriately-named heroine in Melancolie "Mellie" Mau (Marlene Jobert), who lives in a resort town in the south of France with her possessive flight navigator husband Tony (Gabriele Tinti), who's frequently away at work for several days at a time. Mellie spends most of her time at a bowling alley managed by her sardonic mother (Annie Cordy) and it's here on a gray and torrentially rainy afternoon that she spots a stranger (Marc Mazza) standing across the street after exiting from a bus, remarking "He must've ridden in on the rain." Stopping at a clothing shop run by her friend Nicole (Jill Ireland, Bronson's wife) to pick up a dress for a wedding she's attending the next day, she spots the stranger staring at her through the shop's window. Arriving home and discovering a delayed Tony won't be home until the next morning, Mellie is soon accosted by the stranger, who has somehow followed her home. He rapes her until she loses consciousness, and she awakens in the middle of the night to find he's still in the house. She blows him away with Tony's shotgun and proceeds to dispose of the body by throwing it over a cliff. Trying to hold it together and behave like nothing's happened, which eventually leads to insanely jealous Tony thinking she's having an affair, Mellie is confronted at the wedding by Harry Dobbs (Bronson), a smiling and vaguely sinister American mystery man who already seems to be completely up to speed on everything that's happened and keeps turning up wherever Mellie goes.

It's nearly 30 minutes into the film before Bronson even makes his first appearance, but once he does, he completely steals the film with a performance that's among his most loose and eccentric, at least until things take an even darker turn and he realizes the head games he's been playing to get a confession out of Mellie (who he glibly calls "Love-love") have sent her down a dangerous path with a different set of bad guys. Who was the stranger? Why is Dobbs after him? Do the stranger and/or Dobbs have business with Tony? More of a character study than an outright mystery/thriller, RIDER ON THE RAIN shows a much wider range for Bronson as an actor than those accustomed to his vigilante thrillers might expect. He's matched by the lovely Jobert, whose Mellie is a little flighty and odd (particularly in the way she doesn't like to swear and replaces expletives with "saxophone" when she's inclined to curse), but proves more resilient and determined than Dobbs anticipated, and you can see some of that intensity in Jobert's eyes was passed down to her actress daughter Eva Green, born in 1980. RIDER ON THE RAIN's denouement may frustrate first-time viewers (there's a reason there's a character named "Mac Guffin"), but it's an offbeat and unpredictable film (and you get to see Charles Bronson bowl!) that sticks with you long after it's over. It's very European in its style and structure, though it did OK business in the US when it was picked up by Avco Embassy. Kino's Blu-ray has both the English-language version at 114 minutes and the French-language version at 118 minutes. Beyond a simple dub or re-edit, Clement actually shot the film twice, once with the cast speaking English and the other with them speaking French, with Bronson saying his French dialogue phonetically and having it revoiced later on (the French-language version earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film). RIDER ON THE RAIN was one of five films Bronson made in a busy 1970--only one being American--closing out the year with another French thriller, COLD SWEAT.

(France/Italy - 1970; US release 1974)

Directed by Terence Young. Written by Shimon Wincelberg, Albert Simonin, Jo Eisinger and Dorothea Bennett. Cast: Charles Bronson, Liv Ullmann, James Mason, Jill Ireland, Michel Constantin, Jean Topart, Luigi Pistilli, Yannick de Lulle, Paul Bonifas, Sabine Sun, Roger Maille, Nathalie Varallo, Remo Moscani, Dominique Crosland. (PG, 93 mins)

Released in France in December 1970, COLD SWEAT had mostly spotty distribution in Europe over the next couple of years. It didn't turn up in America until the fall of 1974, courtesy of grindhouse bottom-feeders Emerson Film Enterprises, a company that spent most of the '60s distributing dubious drive-in fare like CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS and MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE, and assorted pre-porn-era Times Square "nudies" like PUSSYCAT PUSSYCAT and WIFE SWAPPERS. After Bronson hit it big in the summer of 1974 with MR. MAJESTYK and the water-cooler, zeitgeist sensation DEATH WISH, Emerson saw some potentially easy money and vultured in on one of the actor's long-forgotten European efforts that fell through the cracks and still hadn't made it stateside. They managed to get COLD SWEAT into some theaters (it opened at a mall in my hometown of Toledo, OH on Christmas Day 1974), but it wasn't enough to keep the lights on, as Emerson finally folded after releasing the more typical FUGITIVE LOVERS in 1975. No one will ever mistake COLD SWEAT for Bronson's best movie, but it's a decent-enough thriller that deserved better than Emerson Film Enterprises who, from the looks of it, spent about five minutes working on that US poster art.

COLD SWEAT didn't generate much business in theaters, but it enjoyed a long life on television, airing on CBS in 1975 before going into regular rotation on late-night TV and on VHS in the early '80s. It became a public domain staple and was available on any number of low-quality DVD sets (usually with artwork showing shots of Bronson from other movies), but Kino's new Blu-ray release, taken from a restored French print (but in English) is easily the best it's ever looked. Bronson stars as Joe Martin, an American expat residing in the French Riviera, earning a living as a tour and fishing boat captain for wealthy tourists. He's married to Fabienne (the great Ingmar Bergman muse Liv Ullmann, who got some shit from highbrow critics for "slumming" in a Bronson movie) and is stepfather to her daughter Michele (Yannick de Lulle). Their quiet, happy life abruptly crashes and burns when Joe's past comes back to haunt him in the form of a team of criminals with whom he associated some 20 years earlier. Ross (James Mason, taking his Southern MANDINGO drawl for a test spin) was Joe's commanding officer during the Korean War, and they got reacquainted after being thrown in the stockade on a military base in Germany after the war, Joe for drunkenly punching a colonel and Ross for hijacking US Army trucks as the head of black market gunrunning operation. They escaped from the stockade, along with three other Ross cohorts--Katanga (Jean Topart), Fausto (Luigi Pistilli), and Vermont (Michel Constantin, dubbed by LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT star David Hess)--with Joe agreeing to be the getaway driver. But when Katanga impulsively killed a German cop who stumbled on the scene, Joe sped off, leaving Ross and his men behind and taking all of their money with him to start a new life in France. Ross and the others have just busted out of another German prison and tracked Joe down to "balance the books." They want their money and they want Joe to take them out on his boat to pick up a shipment of drugs from a Turkish cargo vessel.

What begins as a DESPERATE HOURS home invasion scenario (and it foreshadows A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, as they find Joe via a two-year-old newspaper article where he rescued a drowning tourist) soon changes locations to a cottage in the mountains, where they're eventually joined by Ross' much-younger hippie girlfriend Moira (Jill Ireland, by this point a standard part of the Bronson package deal). There's unexpected character development, as Ross just wants the money and isn't interested in killing Joe, even after Joe breaks Vermont's neck in self-defense. The real problem is the psychotic, trigger-happy dumbass Katanga, who constantly makes the situation worse. Paranoid that Joe will double-cross them, he just starts firing his gun and accidentally kills Fausto and shoots Ross in the stomach. With Ross in desperate need of medical attention, Joe agrees to take Moira to get a doctor while Katanga holds Fabienne and Michele at the house as COLD SWEAT becomes a race against the clock--complete with a nicely-done Remy Julienne car chase--to get Ross a transfusion before he bleeds out.

COLD SWEAT was based on Richard Matheson's 1959 novel Ride the Nightmare, which was also the basis of a 1962 episode of THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR with Hugh O'Brian, Gena Rowlands, and John Anderson in the respective Bronson, Ullmann, and Mason roles. The novel was adapted by a team of writers--exactly who depends on whether you see the French print, where German-born American TV writer Shimon Wincelberg (whose long career included credits on HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL, NAKED CITY, GUNSMOKE, LOST IN SPACE, STAR TREK, MANNIX, DYNASTY, and LAW & ORDER among countless others) and Albert Simonin are credited, or the US version, which credits Wincelberg, veteran Hollywood scribe Jo Eisinger (GILDA), and Dorothea Bennett, the wife of director Terence Young. Best known for directing three of the first four James Bond films (DR. NO, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, and THUNDERBALL) and the classic Audrey Hepburn nail-biter WAIT UNTIL DARK, Young was strictly in hired gun mode from the late '60s on. COLD SWEAT was the first of three European collaborations between Young and Bronson, followed in quick succession by the 1971 east-meets-western RED SUN and 1972's THE VALACHI PAPERS, though it would be the last to make it to US screens.

COLD SWEAT opening in Toledo, OH on 12/25/1974