Tuesday, November 30, 2010

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia

The third in the official trilogy (ie. produced by Mount Everest Enterprises; a Jess Franco knock-off constitutes a fourth entry in the cycle), ‘Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia’ takes place – conceptually, anyway – between ‘She Wolf of the SS’ and ‘Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheikhs’. Or at least the first half does.

Ilsa is now a Colonel in charge of a Siberian gulag. Leaving aside the likelihood of a former Nazi landing a high-ranking position in the Soviet army, she’s nonetheless doing a bang up job: escapees are swiftly hunted down and made examples of, either by water torture or finding themselves on the menu when it’s feeding time for Ilsa’s pet tiger. She’s also benefiting from job satisfaction. Her nights are spent watching her Cossack underlings fight over her; the last men standing are permitted to join her in a threesome.

New inmates arrive, including “political thinker” Andrei Chekurin. When attempts to recondition him (involving electric shock treatment) fail, Ilsa takes it upon herself to seduce him. All it takes for a quick tumble is complete allegiance to the state and the acceptance of Josef Stalin as the father of all Russia. Chekurin, unmoved at the sight of Ilsa’s buxom charms (the phrase “dead heat in a zeppelin race” comes to mind), refuses the offer. Insulted, Ilsa decrees that Andrei be thrown to the tiger.

Events are interrupted by the news that Stalin is dead and a Ukranian battalion, almightily pissed that one of their number has been imprisoned and mistreated in the gulag, are en route and not likely to respond to a glass of vodka and an offer of a room for the night. Ilsa gives the order that the encampment is to be razed to the ground. During the melee, prisoners fight back, the gulag burns and most everybody dies. Except for Ilsa, who escapes with her trusty henchmen Ivan and Leve. Chekurin also gets away.

Here endeth the Siberian bit.

The second half of the film is set in Montreal in 1977. According to a title card, anyway; a line of dialogue less than a minute later states that it’s 1976. But, hey, this is an ‘Ilsa’ film, why the fuck am I worrying about continuity? Besides, it’s suggested that she headed straight for Montreal after the fall of Stalinism and set up a brothel with Ivan and Leve and put a few rival mob guys out of business using a mind-control technique pioneered by Leve, so that pretty much negates her Arabian misadventures in ‘Harem Keeper’ as far as the timeline is concerned.

Chekurin, meanwhile, is apparently no longer an enemy of the state and is providing security to a Russian hockey team visiting Montreal. Some of the players evince an interest in visiting a brothel. It’s here that Chekurin is captured on a security tape and Ilsa recognizes him. Fearing that her new identity is about to be uncovered, she has Chekurin taken captive and decides to finish the job she started 24 years previously.

Leaving aside the same avoidance of the ageing process demonstrated between ‘She Wolf’ and ‘Harem Keeper’, here we have a less mean-spirited outing. Yes, there’s a couple of graphic torture scenes in the gulag sequence (including an arm-wrestling contest involving chainsaws that Eli Roth is still probably gnashing his teeth for not thinking of first), but once the setting shifts to the late-70s the emphasis is more on brainwashing a la ‘The Parallax View’ (that’s “emphasis on” as in “plagiarised from”, by the way). With Chekurin in Ilsa’s hands, the next bit of narrative development comes from Moscow as Chekurin’s failure to return with his team is interpreted as defection and Russian agents in Montreal are mobilized in search of him.

‘Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia’ is completely bonkers. Illogical even by the standards of the other films, absurd in its political imperatives, and chock-full of stereotypes (think the Jerries in ‘She Wolf’ were clichéd? Wait till you get a load of the Russkies in this one!) Not that any of this matters. It’s good unclean fun, all gratuitous nudity (and better still, gratuitous nudity that doesn’t involve rape), bargain-basement thrilleramics and a couple of halfway decent action set-pieces.

In a series not really marked by quality acting performances, Thorne plays Ilsa more as a hissable Bond villain than the stern, riding crop swishing bitch from hell of the earlier films. She’s more grand dame than dominatrix here. The directorial approach (Jean Lafleur calling the shots instead of Don Edmonds) is geared more towards excitement than exploitation. It’s certainly the most satisfying of the trilogy.

But will Jess Franco’s ‘Ilsa, the Wicked Warden’ best it? Somehow I don’t think so, but we’ll find out later on during this Winter of Discontent. Tomorrow, though, we’ll be standing to attention for a different sexploitation icon.

Monday, November 29, 2010

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheikhs

During the exegesis of diplomacy, patriotism and sensitive international relations that typified the Bush administration, it still amazes me that Dubya fumbled the ball so embarrassingly in terms of media awareness vis-à-vis his incursion into Iraq. The portrayal of this god-given mission to safeguard oil supplies democracy as an illegal war could easily have been avoided if only he’d been savvy enough to sponsor a roadshow re-release of ‘Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheikhs’. Ninety minutes of Don Edmonds’s razor-sharp indictment of Middle Eastern barbarianism and even the staunchest liberal would have been baying for towel-head blood.

It’s the mid-1970s and Ilsa (Dyanne Thorne) hasn’t let such minor quibbles as being shot at the end of the first film detract from a success career change. Nor has the passage of 30 years dared to even suggest she might fall prey to the ageing process. No, siree, Ilsa is as blonde and buxom and brutal as ever. She’s now in the pay of Sheikh El-Sherif (Jerry Deloney) and all those skills she learned as a high ranking officer of the SS have set her in good stead. Ilsa is assisted by her lithe and dangerous henchwomen Satin (Tanya Boyd) and Velvet (Marilyn Joi), who are basically a version of Bambi and Thumper from ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ only topless and vibing strong Sapphic undertones.

The film opens with the delivery to El-Sherif’s palace of three coffins containing drugged and kidnapped women. Our luckless and soon-to-suffer trio are retail heiress Nora Edward (Colleen Brennan), European starlet Inga Lindstrom (Uschi Digard), and famous equestrian Alina Cordova (Haji). Ilsa begins to train these new arrivals for life in El-Sherif’s harem. Her training technique consists of plentiful lashes of her wagstick, several unspeakable threats should anyone refuse to co-operate, and occasional on-the-job words of advice re: the art of sexual pleasure (sample quotes: “lick, bitch”; “use the tongue – I will not tell you again”).

While Ilsa is busy in this respect – as well as preparing out-of-favour harem girls for public auction – El-Sherif readies himself for a visit from Kaiser (Richard Kennedy), an American diplomat with vested interests in El-Sherif’s oil reserves, while considering the potential threat to himself presented by a sheikh from a neighbouring kingdom. El-Sherif is obsessed with power, as evidenced by the fact that he keeps his prepubescent cousin, the only living claimant to his throne, locked in a dungeon and fed on scraps.

Kaiser flies out from America, in the company of Adam (Max Thayer), a US naval commander with ties to the CIA. During the flight, Adam tells Kaiser that he has a spy in El-Sherif’s camp. Their conversation on the plane is intercut with scenes of Ilsa training Nora, Inga and Alina, Ilsa preparing the slaves to be sold, and the auction itself, the timeline suggestion that in the ’70s it took several days to fly from the US to the Middle East.

The political intrigue that follows is complicated by Ilsa’s instant attraction to Adam. After some initial pussyfooting around, they soon get down to business. Adam demonstrates a seduction technique to make Valentino jealous: he hacks her dress open with a flick knife and softly murmurs “Spread your legs, Ilsa.” Smooth, Adam; reeeeal smooth.

Meanwhile, Adam’s belly-dancing spy is discovered and persuaded to talk. El-Sherif evinces an oozingly insincere hospitality towards the Americans, all the while planning how best to rid himself of them. Kaiser returns to America, while Adam elects to remain. El-Sherif voices displeasure at Ilsa’s dalliance with him and orders her to kill him. When she prevaricates, El-Sherif exacts a humiliating punishment. Adam, meanwhile, is hauled off the dungeon where he’s locked into a device that suggests Jigaw might have been doing some freelance work in the Arab nations.

But our plucky square-jawed hero is swiftly rescued by Ilsa (her political affiliations now clarified thanks to a bit of the old in-out-in-out from a good ol’ right-winger) and they ably overthrow El-Sherif’s highly-trained guards with a makeshift army of eunuchs and slave-girls. Apparently, thongs and belly-dancing costumes are appropriate combat gear for the latter. The sheer amount of topless women who get involved in the firefight probably account for why El-Sherif’s men suddenly lose the capacity to aim their guns effectively.

‘Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheikhs’ contains less gore and torture than its predecessor, but its quota of violence against women remains consistent. The most cynical example is the exploding pessary which Ilsa designs, detonation occurring during intercourse. Elsewhere, the loathsome El-Sherif (a pantomime villain of the old school) gets his filthy non-Aryan paws on a succession of white women, while Ilsa is complicit in acts of torture, trafficking and sexual subjugation. Still, good triumphs in the final reel: our former she-wolf gets her come-uppance, El-Sherif gets his, and the Americans get the oil. So that’s all right, then.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS

Silly me, there I was expecting ‘Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS’ to be a crude piece of T&A Nazisploitation. And it turned out to be so much more. More than I could possibly have anticipated.

‘Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS’ is no less than an historically accurate and profoundly important sociological document. It’s true. It says so right at the start:

Just in case the resolution’s a bit shoddy, I’ll present those words with the gravity and integrity so obviously intended by the film’s producer, Herman Traeger:

The film you are about to see is based on documented fact. The atrocities shown were conducted as “medical experiments” in special concentration camps throughout Hitler’s Third Reich. Although these crimes against humanity are historically accurate, the characters depicted are composites of notorious Nazi personalities; and the events portrayed, have been condensed into one locality for dramatic purposes. Because of its shocking subject matter, this film is restricted to adult audiences only. We dedicate this film with the hope that these heinous crimes will never occur again.*

Thus it was that I was forced to re-evaluate my perceptions/expectations. Accordingly, I overlooked the bad grammar and that superfluous comma floating around in the third sentence and settled down to watch Don Edmonds’s searing exposé of the Third Reich’s inhumane programme of incarceration and medical research with an open mind. And thus is was I learned what they never taught me in school. What I’ve never encountered in, say, Alan Bullock’s ‘Hitler: A Study in Tyranny’ or Laurence Rees’s ‘Auschwitz: the Nazis and the Final Solution’.

Not just an important sociological document, this movie. It was downright freakin’ educational.

I learned that it was possible for a woman to be commandant of a concentration camp. I learned that standard issue SS uniforms were specially tailored for female officers …

… as were prison camp uniforms:

I learned that punishment by flogging necessitated the female guards tasked with carrying out the sentence going topless. A more perceptive interconnection between violence and eroticism I have yet to encounter in the filmic arts.

I learned that medical experimentation in the camps was driven by the thesis that “a carefully trained woman can withstand pain better than any man”. This put a fascinating spin on the repetitive scenes of big-breasted woman in SS uniforms torturing big-breasted women in prison uniforms. These weren’t simply exemplars of pre-torture-porn torture porn with a quasi-Sapphic overtone. No, siree. These scenes were freakin’ feminist.

I was fascinated by the “notorious Nazi personality” that was Ilsa (Dyanne Thorne), and her predilection – obviously a “documented fact” – for pressganging the male prisoners into providing sexual services. I felt there was perhaps a correlation between Ilsa’s obsession with proving her scientific thesis and the fact that so few men were able to satisfy her rampant libido. I found a probing psychological insight in the scenes where Ilsa punishes her lovers for their shortcomings by castrating them. This was obviously a highly sensitive distillation of a complex web of interrelationships perhaps most fully underpinned, in the final analysis, by the conflict between personal satisfaction and duty to the Reich.

I was amazed that in a true story, Ilsa’s lover/nemesis Wolf (Gregory Knoph) should be a German-born American, the conflicting nature of whose cultural heritage so explicitly mirrors Ilsa’s dichotomous personality. And the revelation as to Wolf’s remarkable ability, a trait that allows him gradually to reverse the master/slave relationship between them … whew, powerful stuff! And kudos to the writer for the subtlety of Wolf’s expository dialogue, which allows the full implications to diffuse slowly into the viewer’s subconscious rather than banging the audience over the head with them:

“When I reached puberty, I discovered something about myself that set me apart from the rest of the guys. Something that made me unique, I guess. One of a kind … I discovered that I can hold back as long as I want. I still can. All night if necessary. I guess that makes me a freak of nature. A sort of human machine. A machine that can set its controls to ‘fast’, ‘slow’ or ‘never’. And you know something? That ‘never’ control just about drove her up the wall.”

The rhythm and cadences of that monologue! The sparsity and brutal effectiveness of that man/machine metaphor! This could have been an early work by Mamet.

Yes, folks, there’s no doubt about it: ‘Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS’ is a classic of the wartime genre, worthy of comparison with ‘All Quiet on Breast Fun Front’, ‘We Muff-Dive at Dawn’, ‘A Minge Too Far’ and ‘Shagging Private Ryan’.

*I have been unable to substantiate a rumour that the first draft of this testament, prior to being edited by the publicity department, read as thus: “The film you are about to see is a complete load of bollocks. The atrocities shown were filmed on the cheap in the hope of making a quick buck. Although these crimes against humanity are the product of the filmmakers’ twisted imaginations, we’d like to fob you off with the suggestion that there’s some kind of historical basis to this slice of baloney. Because of its aesthetic of wall-to-wall tits and gratuitous scenes of torture, this film is restricted to adult audiences only. We dedicate this film with the hope that it makes fuckloads of money.”

Friday, November 26, 2010

Caption competition

It was after I’d done hammering out 4,000 words on ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ that I realized I’d have to do something pretty special for the grand finale to Winter of Discontent. I was originally going to run this mini-season of sleaze for six weeks (which would have taken me through to mid-December) then return The Agitation of the Mind to some semblance of respectability. Either that, or enter therapy.

But, the disappointments of ‘Rope and Skin’ and ‘The House on Straw Hill’ notwithstanding, I’m enjoying this indulgence of my baser instincts. I’m probably enjoying it way too much.

So I’ve decided to keep going with the sex and the violence, the blood and the gore, and the filth and the fury all the way through to Christmas Eve. And I’ve made a shortlist of possible titles for the last review of our Winter of Discontent. But who will I get down and dirty with on the night before Christmas, when the carol singings are wassailing and Satan Santa (sorry, always get the spelling wrong) is making his rounds?

Will it be Bachelorette #1, ‘Baise Moi’. An extreme (and extremely low-budget French thriller) starring two porn actresses, a couple of handguns and a gallon or two of blood. Nihilistic, sometimes bleakly funny, and containing scenes of unsimulated sex.

Will it be Bachelorette #2, ‘Island of Death’. An immoral and reputedly offensive romp of sex, death and dirty deeds done with goats on an idyllic Greek island. She’s a member of the video nasties lists and apparently she likes to keep it in the family.

Will it be Bachelorette #3, ‘The Killer Must Kill Again’. A feisty Italian with a bent for the giallo lifestyle. She’s so stone cold heartless, it’s a crime!

Will it be Bachelorette #4, ‘Last House on the Left’. She knows a lot about drab Swedish existentialist cinema, but you’ll shocked when she reimagines ‘The Virgin Spring’ for the Vietnam generation. To avoid fainting, keep repeating “it’s only Bachelorette #4 …”

Will it be Bachelorette #5, ‘Mountain of the Cannibal God’. With the body of a Bond girl and a ravenous appetite, will this Amazonian terror be Agitation’s dinner date on Christmas Eve?

Or will it be Bachelorette #6, ‘Sex and Fury’. A cross-cultural classic as Sweden’s premiere sex symbol Christina Lindberg, gets mixed up in a typically outrageous Eastern cocktail of nudity, swordplay and pinky violence.

Ladies and gentlemen, the choice is yours.

Here’s the deal. Take a look at this picture:

It’s from ‘Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS’ (review tomorrow). Our teutonic titwillow is about to get assertive with her victim du jour. By the way: that cylindrical object entering the frame between them? It’s not the world’s biggest corkscrew.

Your task: come up with a rib-tickling caption. Email it to me at slainte@inbox.com (put “competition” or suchlike in the subject line) with your name and the title of your blog. The closing date is Sunday 19 December. The competition will be judged on Monday 20 December by an informal panel of my friends and the entrant whose caption provokes the loudest and longest laughter will be notified by email. The prize: they get to choose which of these six films I’ll be reviewing for the season finale.

(Yup, you read that right: “season”. I’m planning a little follow-up to Winter of Discontent. More details later.)

Ingrid Pitt: a memento

Thursday, November 25, 2010

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The House on Straw Hill

I have a soft spot for Linda Hayden, mainly because of her deliriously seductive turn in the otherwise jumbled horror flick ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’, and I’d pretty much watch her in any old POS.

Sadly, the phrase “any old POS” encompasses most of her filmography. It’s one of those crimes of the film industry that someone so stunning, with such presence and capable – on the very rare occasions that anyone gave her decent material to work with – of demonstrating real acting chops never rose to the heights that equal (or even lesser) talents achieved.

I approached ‘The House on Straw Hill’ (a.k.a. ‘Exposé’) knowing very little about it except it was a home invasion thriller, it was directed by James Kenelm Clarke, it had made the DPP’s video nasties list and there was a girl-girl scene between Linda Hayden and Fiona Richmond.

Already I had cause for concern. The home invasion subgenre is usually done badly. There are relatively few good examples. Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Straw Dogs’ is probably the greatest home invasion movie, and the very title of ‘The House on Straw Hill’ suggests nothing more than a ham-fisted attempt to cash-in on the controversy and box office success of Peckinpah’s film and Wes Craven’s ‘Last House on the Left’.

Then we have the dude in the director’s chair. His seven-film CV includes ‘Hardcore’ (not to be confused with the George C. Scott drama), a supposed biopic of Brit sex star Fiona Richmond starring the lady herself, and the desperately unfunny comedy ‘Let’s Get Laid’, starring Richmond (again) and Robin Askwith. (The phrases “desperately unfunny comedy” and “Robin Askwith” are virtually synonymous.) His last film ‘Yellow Pages’, made in 1984 but shelved for four years, was an attempt at a film noir spoof. Let’s just roll out that “desperately unfunny comedy” tag again and move quickly on.

So: the film was almost guaranteed to be a cheap cash-in; the director didn’t have a halfway decent or even acceptably average film to his name; and the unavoidable fact of the DPP video nasties list is that the nastiest thing about most of the titles on it is how drab and often quite boring they are.

Which really only leaves the anticipation of a bit of girl-girl action (promising) between Linda Hayden (very promising) and Fiona Richmond (hmmm). Now, I’m not intending to be cruel, and for all I know Fiona Richmond might be the coolest person on the face of the planet and incredibly kind and generous, but (how shall I put this?) she doesn’t quite conform to the kind of looks you’d expect of someone who attained that degree of fame in the adult entertainment industry. Or to put it another way: despite having the kind of pneumatic figure that guaranteed her décolletage entered the room five minutes before the rest of her, Richmond had a very stern visage. More deputy headmistress threatening to cane you than sex kitten promising to seduce you. (Actually, thinking about the kind of overcoated, repressed, middle-aged British males with boarding school backgrounds who probably made up Fiona Richmond’s core audience in the ’70s, it all makes sense!)

But wait! I started this review in praise of Linda Hayden. And I’ve also (you’ll have noticed) tried to avoid talking about the film. Why’s that? Are we firmly in “any old POS” territory here?

Let’s pause for a synopsis before answering that question. Writer Paul Martin (Udo Kier) has holed up in the countryside to escape the publicity generated by the success of his first novel, work on a follow-up and conduct a controlling and borderline SM relationship with his consort Suzanne (Richmond). The book is progressing too slowly for his publisher’s liking, so the intensely private Martin reluctantly agrees to hire a typist, Linda Hindstatt (Hayden). What follows is a cat-and-mouse game between Linda and Martin which begins with sexual overtones and ends with homicidal ones.

The attentive viewer will pick up a clue in the opening sequence – a TV interview in which Martin is cagey in his answers – that makes the final act revelation an inevitability rather than a surprise. Structurally, the film presents a stagnant, talky and not particularly well shot first hour followed by a frenetic attempt at steering things into psycho-thriller territory. This involves narratively pointless splurges of violence (SPOILER why not just kill Martin first and get it over and done with? END SPOILER) rendered in a not particularly well shot style and way too much reliance on tired ‘Psycho’ homages.

‘The House on a Straw Hill’ is a tired, unengaging piece of hack work with very little entertainment value. Why it ended up on the nasties list is a mystery. Sure, there’s some sexualized violence, but nothing more than your average non-DPP-witch-hunt stalk ‘n’ slash title. Yeah, there’s a rape scene, but it’s so clumsily staged and the emphasis shifts from attack to vengeance so arbitrarily that it’s ludicrous rather than offensive.

The script is clunky, the score intrusive and the cinematography just plain horrible. We shall not speak of the direction.

Acting-wise, Kier blandly suggests Martin’s prissiness and self-regard, but it’s a one-note performance. Richmond is slightly better than you’d expect for someone who’s normal acting range was perforce restricted to writhing suggestively and moaning “mmmm yes … mmmm yes”. Predictably, it’s Linda Hayden’s show and she rises above the shoddy material in fine style. It’s sad that the misogynistic finale ultimately rubbishes the character she manages against all odds (ie. Clarke as writer and director) to breathe life into. Sadder still that this and ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ are arguably her career highlights. She deserved better.


Right then, here’s a bit of exploitation scuzzy enough to make ‘Satan’s Baby Doll’ look like an episode of ‘The Powerpuff Girls’. Directed by Shogoro Nishimura as part of the roman porno cycle of the “pink” subgenre, ‘Rope and Skin’ boasted a slightly higher budget than most productions of its ilk, but ticked all the requisite boxes – nudity, violence, sexual content, short running time – otherwise.

It marked genre favourite Naomi Tani’s retirement from filmmaking at the age of 31 (her rationale: “I never wanted to disappoint my fans by showing an unflattering face … Nobody is free from aging. I want to exist in the audience's memory as a forever blooming flower”) and certainly pandered to her core audience. Tani, nicknamed “the queen of S&M”, had achieved great success over five years starring in exploitationers for the Nikkatsu production company.

Tani plays Okoma, a Yazuka member and renowned gambler. On the eve of her retirement from the criminal lifestyle to marry hardworking chef Kenzo (Tatsuya Hamaguchi), she participates in one final game. Catching crooked dealer Ofusa (Yukiko Tachibana) cheating, Okoma exposes her and displays contempt towards Ofusa’s patron, Chiyo (Junko Miyashita) who is the leader of the Yuki clan. Chiyo is angered, but Okoma’s protection by Hanai (Shohei Yamamoto) and big boss Sakuro* prevents the situation from escalating further.

Until, that is, Okoma and Kenzo are alone. That’s when some heavies from the Yuki clan infiltrate their home. Okoma fights off their attack, but Kenzo isn’t so lucky.

The story then skips ahead two years and we find Hanai in prison, the bereaved Okoma working a mundane job for Sakuro’s daughter Yukiyo, and Sakuro tenuously maintaining order despite Chiyo’s blatant provocations. Then Sakuro is assassinated and the shit hits the fan.

The Yuki bunch buy out Yukiyo’s debts on her restaurant and try to force her into a life of prostitution. Okoma swears to protect her, but the disappearance of a mutual friend is exploited by Chiyo who coerces Yukiyo into (quite literally) a life of bondage. Okoma offers to take Yukiyo’s place and is swiftly had at a disadvantage by the Yukis, particularly the sneeringly malevolent Ofusa who’s relishing the opportunity of some payback.

Chiyo reneges on the agreement, and keeps Yukiyo imprisoned. Ofusa goes to work on Okoma. Will Hanai get out of clink in time to stage a rescue?

It hardly matters. Nishimura has no interest in the action scenes (seriously: ‘Rope and Skin’ contains some of the most pathetic fights you will ever see) and once he’s hurried the plot out of the way during the first 40 minutes of this mercifully short piece of work, he gets down to his real agenda.

The title kind of gives it away. In fact, it would be fair to say Nishimura couldn’t have been more blatant short of calling it ‘Naked Women Tied Up and Sexually Humiliated for Half an Hour’. No kidding: the last half of the film consists of first Yukiyo then Okoma being bound and violated in a numerous unpleasant ways. Rape; anal douches; non-culinary use of eggs and bananas. It’s grim, repetitive and horribly misogynistic.

Misogynistic not because Nishimura sides with or takes the POV of Okoma’s tormentors. Quite the opposite: he takes pains to portray them as utterly depraved and lacking in humanity. Likewise, Okoma’s ordeal is wince-inducing and generates not even the guiltiest bit of frisson.

No, it’s misogynistic because what Nishimura puts Yukiyo and Okoma through is the sole reason for the film’s existence. The plot is merely a jumping-off point. The characters are uniformly one-dimensional. The fights – as previously noted – are staged with a palpable lack of interest. All ‘Rope and Skin’ has to offer is naked women tied up. It’s functionless, joyless and makes your average Jess Franco production look like ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. It’s the kind of thing that gives exploitation a bad name.

*Either I took the name down wrong while I was drunkenly watching this during the early hours, or the version I watched had dodgy subtitles, because I can’t correlate this character with anyone listed on the film’s IMDb page.

These movies have warped my fragile little mind …

… and you know something? I love it!

Well, actually tonight’s double bill weren’t as much fun as some of the other entries in Winter of Discontent. Which is why I’m posting both reviews tonight. Clearing the decks so I can see out November with a series of films featuring a Teutonic anti-heroine of pneumatic proportions.

Winter of Discontent will continue well into December with a slew of sexploitation titles, assorted gialli, a welter of the weird and wonderful, and a grand finale which one lucky winner will get to pick from a shortlist of depraved and disreputable titles – yup, it’s The Agitation of the Mind’s first competition. Check in tomorrow for full details.

In the meantime, let’s get the demoralizing duo of ‘Rope and Skin’ and ‘The House on Straw Hill’ out of the way.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Ingrid Pitt

Ingrid Pitt – concentration camp survivor, genre icon and successful author (her literary endeavours inspired by Alistair Maclean in whose WWII action thriller ‘Where Eagles Dare’ she enjoyed her first significant role) – died yesterday, two days after her 73rd birthday.

I met Ingrid Pitt – briefly – at a collector’s fair in the early 90s. She would have been in her mid-fifties. She was still strikingly beautiful. She was generous in the time she spent talking to her fans; there was nothing rarefied or pretentious about her. She signed a photograph for me (I’ll attempt to scan and post it to the blog tomorrow) and I came away feeling that I’d met someone of quality. Someone with real presence and dignity, but worn lightly as only those who have lived a survivor’s life are capable of.

i.m. Ingrid Pitt (21 November 1937 – 23 November 2010)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Bryce at Things That Don’t Suck recently asked me if I was taking requests for Winter of Discontent (the answer’s yes, provided I can track down a copy online or borrow from friends) and nominated ‘The Candy Snatchers’. This is how he sold it to me:

“Imagine an X Rated Apple Dumpling Gang, and you’re still nowhere near how wrong that movie is.”

I’d vaguely heard of ‘The Candy Snatchers’ but without knowing who was in it (nobody I’d ever heard of, as it turned out) or who directed it (nobody I’d ever heard of, as it turned out) or what it was about. With a title like ‘The Candy Snatchers’, all manner of dubious possibilities came to mind.

Sitting down to watch it, I discovered that the title refers to a gang of kidnappers who target a girl named Candy (Susan Sennett). Whew! So it wasn’t about a sweet-shop heist after all.

The opening scenes, as Candy hangs out with schoolfriends then hitches a ride home, have the flat and characterless look of a TV movie. Then a van pulls up next to her (our trio of kidnappers inside it are wearing ludicrous fake noses by way of a disguise) and she’s bundled inside. One of the kidnappers wonders aloud if he’ll get the opportunity to “do her” before the ransom’s paid.

This priapic gentleman is Alan (Brad David). His partners in crime are Jessie (Tiffany Bolling) – ostensibly the brains behind the outfit – and Eddie (Vince Martorano). Eddie is basically a big dumb lug.

They drive Candy up into the hills and bury her in a coffin that looks like it was knocked together from a few bits of pallet wood. There’s a small tube for ventilation. No-one notices the autistic boy hiding in the scrub, the only witness to their actions. A ransom demand is made to diamond store owner Avery (Ben Piazza) whom they wrong assume to be Candy’s father. Arrangements for the drop are confirmed, after which the kidnappers impersonate bird-watchers while they stake out the drop site.

Instead of ripping off his own store as per instructions received, Avery palms off his alkie wife with a story that Candy’s staying at a friend’s house, heads off to an anonymous hotel where he makes out with his mistress. The scene shifts back to the kidnappers. Pissed off that the gems weren’t delivered, they dig up Candy and have a lively debate about whether to cut her ear off and mail it to Avery by way of an incentive. The motion is passed in principle but volunteers to do the actual slicing are thin on the ground, so Jessie suggests her buddy at the hospital might be able to help. Hospital buddy is a funky-struttin’ jive-talkin’ hipster whose dialogue with Jessie vis-à-vis the dollar value of a severed ear takes the form of a musical number.

It was that this point that my perception of ‘The Candy Snatchers’ as a generic crime thriller thus far notable only for bad acting and a couple of offbeat aesthetic decisions on the director’s part went down in flames faster than a kamizake pilot on speed and I found myself deep in WTF territory without a map or compass. I was less than half an hour into the film and I was glued to the screen. As the next hour or so rolled by, my jaw described an ever-widening descent in the general direction of the carpet.

The best frame of reference I can come up with for ‘The Candy Snatchers’ is ‘The Big Lebowski’ as an early ’70s Roger Corman production written by Charles Manson on laughing gas and directed by Humbert Humbert while possessed by the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe. While all of them were doing crack. Like the Coen brothers’ stoner classic, ‘The Candy Snatchers’ takes a standard issue crime thriller premise and puts it through a sequence of unexpected and increasingly bizarre permutations.

Gasp! as Avery reveals his ulterior motive – to the very people who are trying to extort him. Gape! as Eddie fawns over Candy in true Lennie in ‘Of Mice and Men’ style, warning the predatory Alan off her … then without missing a beat forces himself on Jessie. Gawp! as the filmmakers contrive scene after scene in which an autistic child witnesses a rape, gets mistreated by his parents and finally stumbles onto centre stage for the off-the-wall finale, delivering a bitterly ironic visual punchline that makes you reflect on what an episode of ‘Sesame Street’ directed by Sam Peckinpah might have looked like. Only without the educational content.

Monday, November 22, 2010


I made a big song and dance about my 100th and 500th posts. I’ll probably roll out the barrel in fine style for my 1000th post. Today marks my 666th post and since I’m in the middle of the expurgation of filmic filth that is Winter of Discontent, I figured something suitably sleazy and satanic was called for.

Ladies and gentlemen, please give a big Agitation of the Mind round of applause for Mario Bianchi’s ‘La Bimba di Satana’. It doesn’t sound too bad in Italian, does it? The English title, ‘Satan’s Baby Doll’ makes it sound like something Linda Hayden ought to be starring in. Unfortunately, she’s not but (a) la bimba of the title is played by lookalike Jacqueline Dupre (not the cellist!) and (b) stick around because we’ll be paying a visit to the luscious Linda at ‘The House on Straw Hill’ later this week.

Here’s the plot: in a big old castle high in the hills of … somewhere … matriarch Maria Aguilar (Marina Hedman) has just popped her clogs. Her husband Antonio (Aldo Sombrell) finds solace jacking himself up on heroin and bullying the staff, while their daughter Miria (Dupre) takes to her bed in a state of shock after hallucinating (or maybe not) her mother returning from the dead. When family physician Dr Suarez (Alfonso Gaita) recommends that Miria spend some time in a sanatorium, he is quick to meet an unpleasant death. It seems like some force is hellbent on keeping Miria at the castle. A force that just as quickly possesses Miria.

Is Maria manipulating her own daughter from beyond the grave? Why is Antonio so antagonistic towards nurse/nun Sol (Mariangela Giordano) who devotes herself to caring for his crippled brother Ignazio (Joe Davers)? What makes groundsman Isidro (Giancarlo del Luca) go into a crazed and hallucinatory fit when he enters the family crypt?

These are the questions you probably won’t give a crap about the answers to. As a horror film, Bianchi’s affront to the filmmaker’s art is woeful. The effects are a joke, the zombie Maria is the unscariest thing I’ve ever seen and Isidro’s attempts to perform an impromptu exorcism necessitate the kind of facial gurning that even Jim Carrey in ‘Ace Venture’ mode might consider over the top.

The only purpose of ‘Satan’s Baby Doll’ is to get the female cast members naked as frequently as possible. Thus we have Ignazio manoeuvring his wheelchair to Sol’s room so he can spy on her sleeping and fantasize that she’s pleasuring herself in a decidedly non-bride-of-Christ-like manner; Antonio not only fantasizing about a similar thing but outright propositioning her; the seemingly resurrected Maria appearing au naturel before all and sundry (seems she put it about a fair bit before she kicked the bucket); and Miria exhibiting signs of possession by the immediately identifiable tendency of unbuttoning her blouse and squeezing her breasts. For about five minutes at a time.

‘Satan’s Baby Doll’ is a pretty wretched movie that was apparently distributed in both a hardcore version and the kit-off-but-little-actual-sex 70 minute cut that I watched laughed myself silly over last night. What caused my merriment – and this is why I would heartily recommend ‘La Bimba di Satana’ to anyone in need of an hour of unintentionally hilarious material and absolutely no requirement to engage their mental faculties – is the. Worst. Subtitling. In. The. History. Of. Cinema.

I’m guessing they were done by someone with no knowledge of English who used one of those free online translation pages and wasn’t very good at typing when he entered the indigenous dialogue. Thus we get howlers like these:

Having said that, I’m guessing the script wasn’t exactly a model of linguistic elegance in its original incarnation, judging from the following bit of sophisticated and witty repartee:

Or this charming little homily:

Believe me, in a film this bad he’s the lucky one!

Sunday, November 21, 2010


‘Gator Bait’ opens (to a jangling bit of faux Cajun music) with two Suth’un gennulmen passing some time in a boat, waxing lyrical on the sun-dappled but ’gator-infested waters of the bayou and sure hopin’ that Desiree Thibideaux (Claudia Jennings), a lady of some renown in the locality, might pass their way and favour them with that dazzlin’ smile of hers.

No. Wait. What the fuck am I talking about?

‘Gator Bait’ opens with hick shitkickers Billy Boy Thomas (Clyde Ventura) and Ben Bracken (Ben Sebastian) waiting for Cajun wildcat Desiree to come scooting by in her speedboat so they can indulge in what would seem to be the holy trinity of leisure activities in this neck of the woods swamp: a high speed chase, a few belts of moonshine and a spot of rape.

And sure enough, along comes Desiree. One high speed chase later, Billy Boy and Ben are left outwitted, unsatisfied and with a bag of snakes – flung at them by our enterprising Louisiana lass – spilling out all over their boat. Ben leaps into the bayou, while Billy Boy draws his gun (believe it or not, this buck-toothed doofus is the deputy sheriff) and starts trying to shoot them.

Pop quiz: what happens when you empty the chamber of a gun into the bottom of a boat? Hands up everyone who answered “the motherfucker sinks”.

This is the correct answer.

So: Ben’s splashing about in the murky waters, Billy Boy’s hopping around in the boat, firing wildly and what happens next is an object lesson in the consequences of allowing buck-toothed doofuses access to firearms. Billy Boy accidentally shoots Ben in the head.

Cut to: Billy Boy cooking up a story about how Desiree shot Ben and sank the boat for the benefit of his pa, the town sheriff and the owner of said boat, all of whom are incorporated in the portly figure of the same man: Joe Bob Thomas (Bill Thurman). Because Ben’s equally rape-hungry brother Leroy (Douglas Dirkson) once had a run in with Desiree (the outcome: “she cut his balls off”), Joe Bob buys it, and this upstanding father-son law enforcement team head out to the Bracken property to inform bullish and temperamental patriach T.J. (Sam Gilman) that his youngest is shot in the head and mouldering in the swamp. They have sneaky suspicion that he might not take the news too well.

Cut to: the Bracken family at home. The surviving Bracken brothers, Leroy and Pete (Don Baldwin), are goofing off watching a voluptuous woman in a silk slip hanging some washing out. I missed the character’s name; might have been Darlene or Jolene, but none of the usual online resources confirm the cast list in enough detail and the movie has no closing credits. Anyways, Pete tells her she looks might fine in her slip, gropes her derriere and wrestles her to the muddy ground. T.J. turns up at this point, lashes away with a bullwhip and yells, “Goddamn it, Pete, you horny bastard, that’s your sister.”

Let me just repeat that finely honed and classy line of dialogue. “Goddamn it, Pete, you horny bastard, that’s your sister.”

Ladies and gentlemen: ‘Gator Bait’.

Anyway, before I lose the will to live: T.J. takes it badly and coerces Joe Bob and Billy Boy (I’m writing a review, that’s already pushing 700 words, of a film with characters called Joe Bob and Billy Boy; I consider it a small miracle my laptop hasn’t self-destructed as an act of protest) into allowing him, Pete and Leroy to accompany them as part of the posse when they head into the bayou to arrest Desiree. Turns out not only is Joe Bob scared of T.J., but he’s been taking bribes off him to look the other way as regards some of his less than legal activities.

The Thomases and the Brackens fetch up at the small but homely shack inhabited by Desiree and her siblings: sister Julie (Janit Baldwin) and mute brother Big T (Tracy Sebastian). Desiree herself has headed back into the swamp to hunt ’gators and snakes (which sounds kind of like my job, but without the paperwork) and is unable to protect them. Joe Bob and T.J. interrogate Big T as to Desiree’s whereabouts – being redneck doofuses, it takes them a while to figure that someone who’s mute is going to encounter a certain degree of difficulty in answering questions – while Leroy and Pete stand guard over Julie.

Now, asking a fellow of Pete’s predilections to stand guard over a woman and expect nothing to happen is comparable to appointing Oliver Reed night watchman at a brewery and expecting all the barrels and vats to still be full the next morning. Or entrusting Keith Richards with the key to the evidence room following a major drugs bust and banking on Exhibit A still being available for the trial. Or asking Gary Glitter to do the school run and not …

Anyway, you get the picture. Priapic Pete, who’s viewing the (wo)manhunt not as a search for a dangerous fugitive but as the Louisiana equivalent of speed dating, decides he wants a piece of that jailbait ass (and to think, this time last year I was finishing up an Andrei Tarkovsky respective; may the god I don’t believe in have mercy on my wretched soul). Leroy gets pissed off that Pete’s about to enjoy what he can’t and the second of the film’s three attempted rape scenes ends in an unexpected and shocking manner.

Meanwhile, Joe Bob and T.J. have cut Big T loose. Bad move on their part. Big T goes and finds Desiree. Making her way stealthily back, Desiree discovers what the posse have done. Cue an hour of Desiree ghosting vengefully through the swamp, exacting her calculating and merciless revenge.

All of which sounds like trashy fun. And I’ve got to admit, ‘Gator Bait’ has its occasional moments. Yes, it’s a crass, scuzzy, no-budget piece of shit with very little in the way of redeeming qualities (fuck’s sake, you have the most popular Playboy centrefold of the early ’70s in the lead role and there’s not a scrap of nudity!), but it’s one of the few exploitationers of its time where the rape is (a) only attempted and (b) not lingered on interminably, and – the mechanics of Julie’s fate notwithstanding – the violence isn’t graphic and OTT.

BUT. It’s still an exploitation movie. And there are certain conventions which should be observed. The chief of which is this: entertainment factor. I can watch and appreciate a film by Andrei Tarkovsky and deal with the 9-minute single takes and extended scenes of reeds rippling in a stream or someone driving through an interminable series of arterial roads because that’s what I expect from a Tarkovsky film. Likewise something by David Lynch or Alejandro Jodorowsky: I don’t bitch about the narrative incoherence or the headfuck imagery because that’s what these guys do. You pays your money and you takes your auteur.

Similarly, when I watch an exploitation movie, I am taking certain things (such as production values, technical achievement, high calibre acting performances, sophisticated plots and good taste) and putting them in a box which I then seal with scotch tape and store temporarily in the attic of my critical aesthetics. And the only thing I want in return is 90 minutes of guilty pleasure. Hit me with some sex, violence and bad language, maybe a dash of lowbrow comedy, and most of all keep it fast paced and entertaining.

‘Gator Bait’ is, at best, only intermittently entertaining. The opening sequence, with Desiree making Ben and Billy Boy look like fools, is terrific stuff. Billy Boy’s big bad fib to his pa and the cause-and-effect at the Bracken homestead ups the tension. Unfortunately, way to much of the remainder of the film is given over to boats zipping through the bayou (now, a boat chase can be good fun: the pre-credits sequence of the otherwise turgid Bond movie ‘The World is Not Enough’ is proof positive) but when 70% of your movie consists of fucking boats zipping through the fucking bayou, the effect becomes tedious pretty quickly. And when a good chunk of the remaining percentage is redneck peckerwoods arguing amongst themselves, well excuse me while I lose interest.

The biggest asset ‘Gator Bait’ has is Claudia Jennings. While not great shakes in the acting department, she nonetheless established herself as a popular and voluptuous staple of such grindhouse fare as ‘Truck Stop Women’, ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’, ‘Moonshine County Express’ and ‘Deathsport’. As the athletic, vengeful and scantily clad Desiree, stalking her antagonists silently through the undergrowth, as able with a knife and gun as she is with a motorboat, she had the potential to be as iconic an exploitation heroine as Christina Lindberg in ‘Thriller – A Cruel Picture’. Unfortunately, the role is underwritten to the point of being a cameo. After the first ten minutes, in which all she’s asked to do is steer a boat through the bayou, Jennings effectively disappears but for intermittent vignettes where she torches her enemies’ boat, blasts them with a shotgun or fashions Rambo-stylee traps in the woods.

Jennings, denied the chance of replacing Kate Jackson in ‘Charlie’s Angels’ when network bosses balked at her Playboy photoshoots, had already started to carve a career for herself at the crummier end of the film business, but a small role in ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ suggested that better things might have transpired. Sadly, she died in a car accident at 29.

She’s much missed in the belated sequel ‘Gator Bait II: Cajun Justice’ made 14 years later and again helmed by husband and wife writer/producer/director team Ferd and Beverly Sebastian (check out the proliferation of Sebastians in the opening credits to ‘Gator Bait’; it’s somehow fitting how much of a family affair this production was). In a coda as bizarre as Jennings’s is tragic, Ferd Sebastian has since become a born-again Christian and apparently is now an ordained minister.

Holy crap is probably an expression he’d never use in a sermon, but it’s certainly mine on checking the word count. Last week I pounded out 4,000 words on ‘Cannibal Holocaust’. Today I’ve written 1,700 on ‘Gator Bait’. I need the services of either a priest or a mental health professional, I’m not sure which.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Something heartwarming for the weekend

After spending the last three days posting what added up to almost 4,000 words on the daddy of all video nasties, ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, it’s time for The Agitation of the Mind to get back in touch with its human side.

Matt of Chuck Norris Ate My Baby fame and his fiancée Liz (that’s them on the sidebar) have reached the second round of a wedding contest being held by the OC Register. Click here for Matt’s post on his blog explaining the whys and the wherefores, then click here to vote for them.

Do read Matt and Liz’s story before you place your vote; I think you’ll agree they deserve to win. Please take a couple of minutes to register on the site (all it costs is your time) and support them.

Thank you.

(Back to the filth, depravity and gratuitous exploitation tomorrow.)

Friday, November 19, 2010

WINTER OF DISCONTENT : Cannibal Holocaust (part three: the clue’s in the title)

There is a long and sometimes confusing tradition in Italian exploitation movie distribution to random acts of retitling. Therefore, Mario Bava’s ‘Reazione a Catena’ (which roughly translates as “chain of events”) was variously marketed as ‘Blood Bath’, ‘A Bay of Blood’, ‘Ecology of a Crime’, ‘The Antecedent’, ‘Twitch of the Death Nerve’ and ‘Last House on the Left Part II’, this latter being foisted on it for no other discernible reason than to pull in some business on the back of Wes Craven’s grindhouse classic.

Such was not the case with ‘Cannibal Holocaust’. Which is a shame. It would be convenient to make a claim that the English language release resulted in its blatantly provocative title. But unfortunately ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ never started out as, say, ‘Quattro Americani in territorio pericoloso’, leading some dollar-bottom-line obsessed distributor to muse that ‘Four Americans in Dangerous Territory’ was a dead loss on marquees and posters so why not call it ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ instead.

The fact is, ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ was ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ from the beginning.

The title is a great snarling “fuck you” to the viewer’s sensibilities before a single frame of jungle has appeared on screen, let alone anyone tucking into a helping of longpig. Let’s break it down into its component parts.

Cannibal. Holocaust.

Cannibal as in person that eats human flesh … and let’s face it, alongside sleeping with your sister, getting all Catholic priest over a choirboy or listening to fucking Jedward and Vanilla fucking Ice piss all over the Queen classic ‘Under Pressure’, is there anything more taboo or socially transgressive than going supersize on a McPerson Burger with all the trimmings?

Holocaust as in … Yeah, this is where the controversy starts. Cambridge Online defines holocaust as “a very large amount of destruction, especially by fire or heat, or the killing of very large numbers of people”, but I defy anyone to read or hear the word without thinking of the Nazis and the Final Solution.

Now, this isn’t to say that a film with a blunt title can’t be subtle in its execution (for all I know ‘Sorority Pink’ might be a sensitive coming of age drama and not the Nina Hartley/Porsche Lynn hardcore shagfest that IMDb tells me it is). But, really, when you call your film ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, you’re not really leaving yourself any room to cry foul the moment controversy comes hurtling your way. Quite the opposite: you’re making a statement of intent.

So the question is: does ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ have any merit beyond its already inarguable reputation as one of the most controversial films of all time?

Well, since I’m 400 words into my third fucking article of the week about it, my vote is yes. ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ achieves exactly what Deodato set out to achieve: it blurs the line between supposedly savage and supposedly civilized behaviour; it blurs the line between media and viewer and finds complicity on both sides; and it does these things so persuasively that every frame, every incident, indeed the whole construct of the thing, is designed to have already answered the question Monroe asks in the closing scene. Who are the real savages?

We are.

But just because the film achieves its ends, doesn’t mean it isn’t flawed. ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ was always going to be a poisoned chalice. It’s the kind of film that can only prove its point by becoming a victim of its own argument. I said in the first part of this review that Deodato was hoist by his own petard in contractually obliging his cast to disappear from sight. The film likewise: in protesting the media and their role in the proliferation of (and by dint of over-exposure, the cheapening of) horrific images of man’s inhumanity to man, ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ needs must be ugly, repulsive, mean-spirited and provocative.

It succeeds. Too well. It succeeds to the point where its infamy has almost become its raison d’etre. Try finding a DVD copy that doesn’t trumpet how many countries it’s been banned in; how many years it’s been unavailable. It’s become a byword for exploitation. It’s the poster boy for the whole ridiculous video nasties phenomenon. (And isn’t it depressing that a term coined in the early 1980s by something as parochial as the British tabloid press is still part of the film reviewer’s cultural frame of reference?)

But here’s another area where ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ succeeds: it presupposes the “found footage” subgenre which burst unexpectedly into the mainstream with ‘The Blair Witch Project’ and was milked in contrived and shameless fashion in ‘Cloverfield’; which generated real scares in ‘[REC]’ and ‘Paranormal Activity’; and remains the visual and narrative aesthetic du jour for a new generation of low-budget filmmakers.

‘Cannibal Holocaust’ gets under people’s skin for all the wrong reasons. Maybe there will be a time when it gets under their skin for the same reason ‘Blair Witch’ and ‘Paranormal Activity’ did. Or maybe its reputation just casts too big a shadow.

I’m not sure whether Werner Herzog would thank me for name-checking him in a review of ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, but the Bavarian maverick/genius once said “The images that surround us today are worn out … The biggest danger, in my opinion is television because to a certain degree it ruins our vision and makes us very sad and lonesome. Our grandchildren will blame us for not having tossed hand-grenades into TV stations because of commercials. Television kills our imagination and what we end up with are worn-out images because of the inability of too many people to seek out fresh ones.” This sentiment is one of the reasons I revere Herzog. With very few exceptions (‘The Prisoner’ – the original version, not the execrable remake – ‘The Sweeney’, ‘Family Guy’, a handful of other shows) , I fucking hate TV. And I hate with a vengeance the banal, intellectually retarded, aesthetically stillborn culture of reality TV. ‘Big Brother’, ‘The X Factor’, ‘My Super Stuck-Up Sixteen’, ‘I’m a Non-Entity, Get Me Some Publicity’ – vacuous crap, the lot of it.

Take the Agitation test: watch half an hour of advert-riddled, celebrity-smeared TV then stick ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ on and feel it hit you. (As Francisco at The Film Connoisseur put it in a comment on yesterday’s article, “it’s a film that causes a reaction … if the film doesn’t move you, you’re a freaking rock.”) ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ is a hand-grenade from a time before political correctness, infomercials or internet sex tapes. Yes, it’s fucking nasty, but we’re spoon-fed way too much pabulum that’s filtered down through committees to be guaranteed safe and inoffensive; in a world that’s increasingly corporatized and homogenized, I’d like to think that ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ is ready to pounce, rabid and snarling, on a whole new audience. It’s one hell of a wake-up call.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

WINTER OF DISCONTENT : Cannibal Holocaust (part two: how not to make friends and influence people)

Is there anybody who doesn’t know the basic storyline of ‘Cannibal Holocaust’? I saw it for the first time last week, and yet at any point prior to that I could have given you an accurate synopsis and a fairly inclusive list of the nasty shit that happens.

‘Cannibal Holocaust’ is one of those films you’ve read a thousand articles about in magazines and online, seen grainy clips of, or had the gory details gleefully recounted to you by a friend or colleague who saw it on home video back the 80s just before it got banned. It’s a film you’re weirdly familiar with even if you’ve never seen it. In fact, I’d take a guess that it’s this sense of there being nothing to discover about the film – coupled with its reputation as A-Number 1 gross-out material – that keeps a lot of people from watching it.

In other words, please feel free to skip the next few paragraphs if you think I’m covering old ground.

‘Cannibal Holocaust’ starts with a news report about a team of documentary filmmakers who have gone missing in the Amazonian rainforest. The reporter interviews anthropologist Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman), who is about to join a search party.

In the Amazon, native guides Chaco (Salvatore Basile) and Miguel lead Monroe to a village occupied by the Yacumo tribe. Overcoming initial hostility, they learn that the film crew had passed through en route to an area of jungle notorious as something of a no-man’s-land between the warring Yanomamo and Shamatari tribes, both cannibals*. Following the trail, Chaco and Miguel intercede in a Shamatari attack, resulting in an invitation to the Yanomamo village. Here, Monroe finds a totem made of the missing documentary team’s bones and their (unopened) cans of film. Monroe trades a tape recorder for the film cans and flies back to America.

The TV production company who backed the documentary project are keen to exploit the story and a live interview with Monroe is followed by the announcement that an exclusive documentary will be aired in a week’s time incorporating the recovered footage. Pressured to present the documentary, Monroe insists on working with a team of editors to review the film. One of the editors fills Monroe in on the documentary crew’s modus operandi.

If Monroe is the hero of the film for the first half, let’s meet our villains; we’ll be spending the second half of ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ with them and it ain’t gonna be pretty. We’ve got director Alan Yates (Carl Gabriel Yorke), script consultant (and Alan’s girlfriend) Faye Daniels (Francesca Ciardi) and two cameramen: Jack Anders (Perry Pirkanen) and Mark Tomaso (Luca Barbareschi).

Monroe is warned that Yates was committed to a visceral aesthetic and wasn’t above staging violent incidents to give his documentaries more impact. Monroe interviews colleagues, friends and family of Yates and co. and starts to put together a very dubious picture of them. His suspicions are confirmed when he begins to view the footage. The death of Yates’s guide by snakebite is gloatingly filmed. Every bit of narration that Yates delivers is blatantly insincere. When he encounters the eviscerated remains of a victim of cannibalism, Anders has to remind him to stop smiling because he’s on camera; Yates puts on a serious face and delivers a deeply hypocritical screed about how shocked he is.

Soon enough, the infamous Alan Yates staged footage technique is revealed. Arriving at the Yacumo settlement, Yates, Anders and Tomaso round up a group of tribespeople at gunpoint, herd them into a bamboo hut and set fire to it. Yates’s idea is to pass off the scene as a massacre by the Yanomamo. Monroe and the editing team, already perturbed at what they’ve seen, are sickened by this revelation. Worse is to come: Yates, Anders and Tomaso gang-rape a Yanomamo girl. In one of the film’s most damning moments, Faye’s sole protestation is that they’re wasting film – they’ll never be able to use it in the documentary!

Monroe calls the TV execs in to view the footage. They watch the last reel – depicting the Yanomamos’ violent revenge on Yates, Anders and Tomaso and rape of Faye – after which the head honcho rises shakily from his seat and instructs the technician in the screening room to ensure that the film is burned. As Monroe leaves the studio, he ruminates on who the real savages are.

Reading back over that 550 word plot synopsis, I’ve probably sold ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ short in terms of how graphically unpleasant it is. The flesh-eating scenes (which account for surprisingly little screen time) are nowhere near the worst of it. The animal deaths, discussed in yesterday’s post, are much worse. But even then, they’re mostly over with pretty quickly. The snake and the spider are despatched with a couple of machete blows. The monkey’s skull is chopped clean open. The pig is killed with one gunshot. Most of it’s in medium or long shot. The turtle is the only poor bastard creature whose demise is lingered on, and even then it’s not the death that’s protracted but the gutting, cooking and eating of it. Visually, this is probably the worst the film has to offer. This scene is one of the few things in cinema I’ve had to turn my eyes away from (other examples being the coprophilia in ‘Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom’ and a certain scene which I really don’t want to describe in ‘A Serbian Film’).

Emotionally, the worst of the film is the sexual violence. I’ve cited two instances of gang-rape (neither, it has to be said, glamorized, glorified or eroticized in any way; there’s no doubt that Deodato fully intended to portray the act as ugly and brutal), but there’s another instance, early in the film, where Monroe’s guides caution him to keep quiet and not intervene when they come across a Yacumo tribesman ritually punishing his wife for adultery. The ritual involves a crudely fashioned dildo wielded like a weapon.

I get it: Deodato is showing us the cultural differences by which white men label indigenous tribespeople “savages” before flipping the point of comparison on its head and demonstrating the savagery inherent in the supposedly civilized man. This is why the first half of the film plays out from Monroe’s POV and the second from Yates’s (with plentiful cuts back to Monroe in the editing suite who winces and grimaces and expresses disapprobation on out behalf). I get it. I’d have got it just as effectively, just as powerfully, without three dispiritingly protracted instances of women dragged screaming through the mud and brutalized.

The depiction of rape sums up the film itself. It’s meant to shock, it’s meant to be unpleasant, and it’s meant to inspire feelings of revulsion in the viewer. Deodato’s intention was to address the proliferation of violent images in the media and question the media’s culpability in the dissemination of these images. In his own words:

“There were a lot of terrorist problems in Italy at that time with the Red Brigade – you saw it on TV on the news, along with wars from around the world. Even my son was upset at some of the things on the news. And it inspired me to do a film in the style of journalists at the time. So I did a film about journalists who go to find out what’s going on in the world and then disappear.” (Quoted in a Total Sci-Fi Online interview.)

Which is fair enough, but Deodato wants to have his human remains and eat it. In criticizing the media for their “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality, he plays right into the hands of media moralists who seek to blame violent movies for society’s ills. There’s a fine line between slapping viewers in the face with horrific imagery for the purpose of shocking them out of complacency, and rubbing their noses in it lingering on violent act, one visceral image, after another.

Moreover, Deodato loses any middle ground in which the audience might question where reportage leaves off and moral considerations come into play by doing everything possible to demonize Yates and his team. Yes, I know that Yates’s villainy is kind of the point – his “civilized” savagery shown in counterpoint to the cultural and ritualized “savagery” of the natives – but Deodato doesn’t allow the audience to make up their own minds. Yates and his mates are so outright loathsome that their eventual slaughter by the Yanomamo isn’t so much cathartic as a fucking relief. Simply put, you’re just glad you don’t have to spend any more time in the company of these assholes.

‘Cannibal Holocaust’ is gripping, bloody, often quite artfully made and its impact and notoriety are undeniable. But is it a good film or not? Has its still discernible influence rendered it more important in retrospect? Is there any merit to it? I’ll be trying to marshal my thoughts into some concluding paragraphs tomorrow.

*In actuality, they practise a highly ritualized form of endocannibalism (go here for an in-depth if pretentiously written article on the subject) but are not cannibals in the way Deodato portrays.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

WINTER OF DISCONTENT : Cannibal Holocaust (part one: animals were harmed during the making of this picture)

Apologies for the lack of screenshots. I neglected to take any while I was watching the film and I don’t feel like reacquainting myself with it just yet.

It’s one thing to announce in a fanfare of self-publicity that you’re devoting six weeks on your blog to all things exploitative. Yeah, you’ve got stockpile of gialli to go at. Sure, you can use ‘Shortbus’ as a jumping off point to consider the, ahem, insertion of unsimulated sexual activity into an otherwise non-porno flick. It’s as easy as pie to take the piss out of something as bog-awful as ‘Fight for Your Life’. You can pride yourself on watching ‘Thriller – A Cruel Picture’ without needing to break halfway through for a trip to the nearest decontamination plant.

You can line up a slew of scurrilous titles – look out for ‘Rope and Skin’, ‘The Candy Snatchers’ (thanks, Bryce!), ‘The House on Straw Hill’ and ‘Gator Bait’ next week – and happily wallow in a mudpool of cinematic filth.

But it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing them cannibals.

And if you’re going to kit yourself out with a sick bag and some anti-malarial pills and head into the green inferno, then you may as well accept the inevitable and square up to the most infamous cannibal movie – if not the most infamous movie – of all time: Ruggero Deodato’s ‘Cannibal Holocaust’.

This movie didn’t just upset the BBFC and the DPP. It upset fucking everyone. When Deodato’s friend and fellow director Sergio Leone wrote “what a movie … the second part is a masterpiece of cinematographic realism, but everything seems so real that I think you will get in trouble with all the world”, he had no idea how prescient this remark was.

Less than a fortnight after ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ premiered in Milan in 1980, prints were seized by the authorities and Deodato arrested. The charge? That he’d killed the four actors playing the missing documentarians as well as an indigenous actress who is shown impaled on a pole in one of the film’s most notorious images. In a hoist-by-one’s-own-petard twist, Deodato had insisted that his cast sign clauses denying them appearances in any media for a year following the film’s release; an obvious publicity stunt to play up the missing people/found footage aspect. Deodato produced the very much alive actors before the court and successfully demonstrated how the special effects had been achieved. The murder charges were dropped, but he was still convicted of obscenity and received a four-month suspended sentence. The court also banned the film, a decision it took Deodato three years to get overturned.

The obscenity prosecution owed to the unstaged animal deaths. Which is where this review gets thorny. The animal deaths in ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ are kind of like the hardcore inserts in ‘Thriller – A Cruel Picture’. Whatever level you discuss these two films on, whichever angle you come at them from, there’s no getting away from it. No avoiding it. ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ contains real animal deaths and ‘Thriller – A Cruel Picture’ contains hardcore pornographic footage. It’s up to the viewer to determine their own moral and critical standpoint.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to say “harrumph, animals were killed in front of the camera, disgusting behaviour, I wash my hands of this film”. An easy response, a justified response, and a completely self-defeating response. Unless you’re a vegetarian, every time you sit down to a meal you are complicit in the death of an animal. (I’m not a vegetarian by the way: I subscribe to Dennis Leary’s observation that “eggplant tastes like eggplant but meat tastes like murder and murder tastes pretty fucking good”.) So how come I can happily tuck into a chicken casserole, a rump steak, a pan-fried salmon or a rack of ribs but feel physically sick when I see a turtle being killed, gutted, cooked and eaten on camera in ‘Cannibal Holocaust’? Is it because I don’t see how the chicken meets its end? In fact, the turtle that ran afoul of Deodato and his crew probably had a better life – free and in the wilds right up till that final moment – than the chicken that was doubtlessly bred, lived and died in the miserable conditions of a battery farm, a chicken that existed solely to become the main ingredient in my casserole.

Then there’s the fact that ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ was a cheaply made Italian exploitation film released in 1980 – ie. not the kind of production monitored by the American Humane Association. This isn’t a justification, it’s a statement of fact. Pick any cannibal movie by an Italian director from the 70s or 80s and unsimulated animal deaths are virtually guaranteed. You can throw the argument wider: check out any number of Hollywood productions (particularly westerns) pre-mandatory AHA supervision. I wouldn’t change a frame of either of them, and certainly never call for them to be banned, but the chickens at the start of Peckinpah’s ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ and the lizard whose slo-mo demise opens ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’ – they got the same deal as Deodato’s turtle.

Now consider the BBFC’s decision to pass ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ with an 18-certificate following almost six minutes’ worth of cuts. Including the turtle evisceration sequence in its entirety, as well as the deaths of a snake, a spider, a monkey and pig. Does the film become a less thorny, more easily watchable work in this version? The answer has to be no: the turtle, the pig, the snake, the spider and not one but two monkeys still died (the superannuation of monkey murder was so that Deodato could get a reverse shot); cutting these scenes and pretending that the film is now significantly less contentious is at best an exercise in denial. As is a question I’ve seen posted on a forum: “How can I see ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ without the animal deaths?” Talk about a machine-washable morality! If the only way someone can rationalize approaching ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ is without these scenes, particularly if the issue of animal deaths is completely abhorrent to them, then surely they should be boycotting the film in any version as a matter of principle.

There’s a time and a place for debating the artistic, aesthetic or intellectual merit (or otherwise) of ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, and I’ll dip a toe into those waters in the final part of this review, but it should be mentioned that all-too-often the requirement is placed on the individual to separate the artist from the art. Many of the great directors have been control freaks and bullies. Most of the great conductors: tyrants. Most of the great writers: depressives and alcoholics. Most of the great musicians: junkies. Do we stop watching ‘A Clockwork Orange’ because of what Kubrick put Malcolm McDowell through? Do we consign ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ to the scrapheap because Wagner was an anti-semite? Do we refuse to listen to a world-class recording of it because the conductor was once a member of the National Socialist Party?

Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal aesthetics. I approached ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ for two reasons: (i) to make up my own mind; and (ii) a sense of half-prurient half-academic curiosity. Could this movie really be as shocking, brutal and controversial as its reputation would have it?

Join me tomorrow and we’ll take a murky trek through that green inferno.