Tuesday, November 28, 2017
Cinema, at its best, has thrown itself unstoppably against the immovability of the biggest questions. Some directors spend their entire career focused on one question or thematic concern. For Sam Peckinpah, it was what happens when men of a certain mindset outlive their times while stubbornly refusing to change. For Michael Mann, the terrible cost to be paid when one ceases to be true to oneself.
Other directors step outside their usual aesthetic playbook to create a one-off distillation of something so utterly profound that the effect is unforgettable: take Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Ikiru’ – not a samurai in sight, but a cumulatively beautiful and emotionally shattering meditation on how, in the face of death, one can undertake a single act that proves one’s life had purpose.
In ‘Knock Knock’, Eli Roth squares up – utilising every creative and cerebral nuance in his directorial paintbox – to that thorniest of existential dilemmas, to whit: Is the destruction of one’s home, the ruination of one’s marriage, the tarring of one’s reputation, the abject humiliation of the self, and the possible loss of one’s life worth it for a threesome with Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas?
By the final frame, I’m not sure that Roth wouldn’t come down on the side of shag-a-thon and the hell with the torture porn that follows. Hell, what’s torture porn but normal porn wth a little more in the way of pain? Roth would probably take a night of debauchery and marching songs with Prussian Blue and happily let them tie him up and carve a swastika into his willy the next morning and pour Wild Turkey over the wound. I can imagine him chugging a celebratory beer and asking them to do it again.
All of which is a 300-word way of saying that Roth’s enthusiasm in directing ‘Knock Knock’ is roughly akin to Oliver Reed being offered the job of Chief Quality Control Officer at Talisker distillery or Keith Richard winning a lifetime’s supply of cocaine and doing every fucking molecule of it in first 48 hours.
Here’s another thing about ‘Knock Knock’: after four films that are basically unofficial remakes (or rather greatest hits packages) of the films Roth grew up loving, this is his first official remake: of Peter S. Traynor’s 1977 sexploitation classic starring Sondra Locke and Colleen Camp. Camp cameos in a splendid comedy-of-embarrassments scene, while she and Locke act as producers. I’ve taken the piss out of Roth routinely in these pages but, with all sincerity, props to the guy for seeking Locke’s and Camp’s blessing in taking on the material.
And while I’m holding my hands up here, I’ll come right out with it: ‘Knock Knock’ is the first film in the Roth canon that I’ve straight up enjoyed. Granted, it’s no classic – one can easily imagine Jag Mahendra turning in a slightly less polished version of it in the mid-1980s with Shannon Whirry and Delia Sheppard – but it sees Roth freeing himself from those late-1990s “future of horror” expectations, working with a genuine A-list star (Keanu Reeves), and gifted with the most dementedly sexy double act imaginable courtesy of Izzo and de Armas. It’s no coincidence that the best scenes are where Roth simply points the camera at his leading ladies and lets them play off each other in the most deliciously nasty way.
A robot could probably have directed this film and got away with it, that’s how memorable Izzo and de Armas are. I can only describe what they achieve onscreen as being as if Rodney Bewes and James Bolam in ‘The Likely Lads’ or Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale in ‘Porridge’ were Lolita-esque jailbait.
Here’s the basic premise, if you haven’t second-guessed it already: Evan (Reeves) is a successful architect, happily married to an artist, Karen (Ignacio Allamand), who is about to get her first big exhibition. Karen takes their kids for a weekend away while Evan finishes work on a major commission. In the time honoured tradition of architects everywhere, he rolls a skinny, works late into the night and blasts out 70s rock. (In fairness, I only know one architect, but let’s just say that his working practices are significantly different to Evan’s.) Halfway through looking at an onscreen graphic – Roth seems unaware of how CAD actually operates – he’s disturbed by a knock at the door and – … wait a fucking minute, he’s a successful architect living in a detached piece of architecture in a suburb that has “white entitlement” written all over it and the cunt doesn’t have a fucking doorbell?
Okay. So. No-doorbell-cunt answers the knock – it’s pissing it down with rain – and finds Genesis (Izzo) and Bel (de Armas) on his doorstep, soaked through and asking for shelter from the rain. Which, being a decent guy, he gives them. And being a decent guy, he books an Uber for them. And being a decent guy he dries off their sodden clothes in his tumble-dryer. And being a decent guy he gives them dressing gowns to wear. And being a decent guy he acts all flustered when their behaviour demonstrates that they are confident in their sexuality.
And, finally, being basically a bloke and incapable of thinking through anything but his dick when half-his-age poontang is on offer, he conveniently compartmentalises his wife and kids and his sense of morality and, for want of a subtler phrase, goes at it like a butcher’s dog.
Waking the next morning to the post-coital equivalent of buyer’s remorse, and none too impressed that Genesis and Bel are making themselves a little too intimately at home, he finds himself having to jump through a number of hoops just to get them out of his house. He then gets busy eradicating every shred of evidence that they were ever there, little knowing that the games have only just begun.
Roth keeps the 100 minutes of ‘Knock Knock’ moving at an admirable clip. He turns up the heat on the erotic elements, only to go all abstract in the way he films the big shagging scene. He monkeys with the home invasion scenario in seeming to have Evan rid himself of the threat. And, when he sets the scene for the final half hour or so, the expected torture porn tropes are abandoned in favour of pure black comedy in which the surreal restaging of a popular gameshow stands in for the blood-letting of the ‘Hostel’ films and a wrongly “liked” Facebook post is the worst possible thing that can happen to you.
Four years ago, on these very pages, I concluded a review of ‘Cabin Fever’ with the assertion that “this and ‘Thanksgiving’, the fake trailer Roth created for ‘Grindhouse’, [are] evidence of something that’s probably not at the top of anyone’s list at industry meetings but which I think would merit exploration: Eli Roth could direct the hell out of a comedy.”
‘Knock Knock’ is his first significant step in that direction, and I’m now prepared to double down on that assertion. Give Roth a scenario that demands straight-faced social horror and he’ll blow it by acting stupid; give him a set-up steeped in gallows humour and mordant satire and the guy delivers. In a decade’s time, when the originality-challenged bigwigs in Hollywood decide that what the world needs is a ‘Scream’ reboot, Roth will ace it. Although whether anything in any future film he directs, comedy or not, will ever top the demented brilliance of Keanu Reeves’s final reel “free pizza” speech is not something I’d put money on.
Saturday, November 25, 2017
This is what it must be like to be Eli Roth:
Hillbilly horror! My favourite genre ever! I’m gonna make a hillbilly horror movie, bitches, and it’s gonna rock!
Makes ‘Cabin Fever’.
Realises he’s trying too hard.
Torture porn! I fucking love torture porn! I’m gonna make the torture porn movie to end all torture porn movies – AND do a sequel!
Makes ‘Hostel’ and ‘Hostel 2’.
Realises he’s trying too hard.
Cannibal movies! OMG, why didn’t I think of that before? Imma be the next Ruggero Deodato!
Makes ‘The Green Inferno’.
Realises he’s trying too hard.
Whether the pattern holds for the erotic thriller and ‘Knock Knock’ is something we’ll find out in the next review. And in the interests of fairness, being Eli Roth probably encompasses a lot of other things, including money, lifestyle, having QT as your best bud, and being married to the not-unglamorous Lorenza Izzo.
Speaking of whom, Izzo is the audience’s surrogate through our 1hour 40 minute ordeal and proves an empathetic heroine even though the script has about as much emotional investment in her character, Justine, as a Tory politician has in the lower and unprivileged classes. We meet Justine at the kind of too-neat-and-clean American university that exists only in the movies. The daughter of a UN official, she’s moved by the activism and general do-goodery of some of the student body, much to the contempt of her room mate Kaycee (Sky Ferreira). In particular, she’s drawn to the swarthy Alejandro (Ariel Levy), a fact noted and frowned upon by his brittle girlfriend Kara (Ignacia Allamand).
The script needs to paint Alejandro as charismatic and impassioned in order to entice Justine into joining his expedition to an under-threat village in the Amazon, only for him to be revealed later as a man of hidden motives and self-interest. This cloak-then-reveal tactic would have required a better script and performance; as it is, we have Alejandro as a moody, self-righteous prick from the outset. Given that Izzo goes all out to sell Justine’s attraction to him, Levy’s non-performance is a drain on hers.
Fortunately, Roth doesn’t waste too much time in getting everyone on a plane and into the jungle. If there’s anything positive to be said about ‘The Green Inferno’, it’s the economy of the storytelling in the first half. Another smart move is to have Justine get the measure of Alejandro pretty quickly, so that she stops being all soppy and doe-eyed and gets her mettle tested in a gruelling tale of survival against the odds. Wait, let me rephrase that: in what Roth achingly believes is a gruelling tale of survival against the odds.
You see, there’s a common faultline in the filmography of Mr Eli Raphael Roth. Like his compatriot Quentin Tarantino, Roth’s films derive from a life-long immersion in genre cinema. Like Tarantino post-‘Jackie Brown’, his films are movie-movies rather than works that make any claim to being grounded in even the remotest facsimile of reality. But while Tarantino conjures non-naturalism into an aesthetic – an auteurist signature – the stories Roth wants to tell would work so much better if the veneer of artifice were stripped away.
Actually, make that two common faultlines. The other one is frat-boy humour. There comes a moment in every Eli Roth film where he makes a directorial decision that functions on roughly the same artistic, intellectual and emotional level of someone photobombing an Allied Press picture of a corpse-littered war zone while chugging a beer and pretending to butt-fuck a giant blow-up sheep.
[SPOILER ALERT: next two paragraphs.]
There are two such moments in ‘The Green Inferno’. One comes almost immediately after Justine and Alejandro, along with Lars (Daryl Sabara) and same-sex couple Amy (Kirby Bliss Blanton) and Samantha (Magda Apinowicz), have been captured by a cannibal tribe and imprisoned in a bamboo cage. No sooner have they witnessed their comrade Jonah (Aaron Burns) dismembered and feasted upon, than Amy suffers a gastrointestinal upheaval. Roth captures this – the first moment in the character’s degradation that leads to her self-immolation – with an over-the-top and extended sound effect, then immediately cuts to a reaction shot of the village children grinning and waving their hands under their noses. If his intent were comedy to leaven the horror, it’s misjudged – not only because it cheapens the ordeal but relies on a gesture I doubt cannibal children would know or have any use for even if they did.
The second is the film’s derailment moment. Recognising that the now deceased Amy is next for the cannibal stew pot, Lars forces down her throat a small baggie of pot which he has concealed upon his person. His reasoning? The tribe entire will feast on her and get high, rendering them incapable of preventing an escape attempt. Quite which branch of forensics or human biology convinced Roth and co-scripter Guillermo Amoedo that a small quantity of mary-jane can suffuse every ounce of a dead body’s flesh – dead body, folks: i.e. no functioning pulmonary system – to the extent that every man-jack of an entire tribe are turned into giggling dopers after two fucking bites, I can’t honestly say, but the resulting sequence is so powerfully stupid that it feels, as a viewer, as if you’ve swerved from a Ruggero Deodato fan-wank tribute to ‘Cheech and Chong Meet the Cannibals’, a comparison strengthened when Lars, his getaway foiled, exclaims “They’ve got the munchies” as he finds himself availed of in the light snack department.
[SPOILERS END, though why the fuck I’m not actively discouraging you from this pile of bum-dung I don’t know!]
‘Cannibal Holocaust’ is nasty as all hell, and that’s its power: it gives the audience no leeway, no comfortable only-a-movie rationale. ‘Massacre in Dinosaur Valley’ is total bollocks that exists as a delivery system for macho posturing, gore and Suzane Carvalho in the buff – and is honest about its intents from the outset. ‘The Green Inferno’ is a misjudged mash-up of the two – and it’s telling that the “history of the cannibal genre” overview Roth slips into the closing credits fawns over ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ but fails to mention ‘Massacre in Dinosaur Valley’ even though he makes more visual steals from that film than any of the other entries in the cannibal cycle. It’s a sad and self-effacing via negativa, akin to declaring your intent to homage ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ but knowing in your bile-embittered heart of hearts that you’re incapable of producing anything better than a hamfisted retread of ‘Ishtar’.
Thursday, November 23, 2017
Like ‘The Car’, however, its script is hackneyed and the acting uniformly bad.
‘Killdozer’ is based on a novella by Theodore Sturgeon, originally published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1944. Thirty years later, it got the TV movie treatment with Sturgeon co-writing the script (with Ed MacKillop) from an adaptation by Herbert F Solow, and Jerry London in the director’s chair. London is a seasoned TV director with, to the best of my knowledge, only one theatrical credit – the sex comedy ‘Goodnight Jackie’, made the same year as ‘Killdozer’ – to his name.
The novella is set on a Pacific island during World War Two, where a construction crew are building an airstrip; they accidentally release an ancient evil from a temple which possesses a D7 bulldozer. Mechanized chaos ensues. Solow’s adaptation – which responds to the dramatic and cinematic potential of a wartime setting and an ancient temple by jettisoning them entirely – relocates the action to the 1970s and has the construction crew working for an oil company. Oh, and the dozer’s now a D9.*
Yep. You read that right. In a prologue that positively glimmers with bad effects work, a meteorite goes spinning towards earth, impacts on a picturesque and uninhabited Pacific island and some time later – years, decades, centuries or millennia, the script doesn’t really clarify things – our hard-workin’, straight-talkin’, whisk(e)y-drinkin’ construction crew come along. The D9 bulldozer thuds its blade into the buried remains of the meteorite and in doing so releases an ancient evil. The ancient evil reacts in time-honoured ancient evil fashion and latches itself onto the thing that released it.
And whaddaya reckon a Caterpillar D9 suddenly possessed by ancient evil is gonna do? Damn straight, boy – it’s gonna bulldoze the fuck out of everything in its path. Now, you can take that sentence as a public service announcement that saves you 73-minutes of your life, or an exhortation to wholeheartedly invest that hour and a quarter of your mortality in the small screen shock-o-rama that is ‘Killdozer’.
And how can you not love a film where our macho sextet battle a big fucking yellow hunk of metal as their numbers dwindle, their tempers fray, their voices get even more growly, the amount of stupid mistakes they make redefines the word ‘exponential’, and the level of the whisk(e)y bottle plummets like a UK prime minister’s approval ratings?
That’s your review, folks – right there.
*Caterpillar only released three models between 1944 and 1977? That’s, like, one redesign per decade.
Saturday, November 18, 2017
If there’s one exploitation sub-genre that’s been consistently under-represented on the Winter of Discontent, it’s carsploitation. ‘Rolling Vengeance’, back in 2011, was the last time any automotive armageddon rolled through these pages. That season also featured ‘Rubber’, but whether a killer tyre movie with art-house pretensions counts as an entry in the carsploitation cycle is a semantic debate that I’m not ready to have with myself.
Not when I can give over the next couple of reviews to all things motor-revving, tyre-squealing and metal-rending, anyway. Starting this very evening with perhaps the most vanilla film ever to find itself invited to the Winter of Discontent backstage party: Elliot Silverstein’s ‘The Car’. This 12-rated DVD ended up in my collection on account of it going for a song in an HMV sale and my recollection of watching it on TV as kid and enjoying it.
Plenty of water has flowed under the bridge since I watched ‘The Car’ on TV as kid. Enough to wash the fucking bridge away. ‘The Car’ is frankly a pile of wank. But, hey, it’s carsploitation and several hundred words taking the piss out of it helps make the numbers up for this year’s Winter of Discontent.
The Agitation of the Mind: work-to-rule since two hours ago.
‘The Car’ starts with a static shot of a mountain range and a long dusty road that quite fancies itself as a bit John Ford. Two minutes’ worth of credits play out over this image, after which Silverstein holds on it for another minute and a half as a plume of dust appears in the background and the growl of an engine in the distance becomes a roar as it approaches. Aha, you think: this is the scene setter where the eponymous automobile comes hurtling towards the screen as if hellbent on ram-raiding the fourth wall. But no. Silverstein cuts before the car even takes on any definition, cuts while it’s still in the middle distance, wreathed in dust.
You could almost believe that Silverstein made the decision to cut in order to disorient the viewer, to monkey with their expectations. But then he plays a similar trick throughout the first half an hour (i.e. a third of the movie) and does his utmost best to depict the car in abstract manner. Maybe the intent was to emulate ‘Jaws’ (made two years earlier) and keep the monster undefined/hinted at for as long as possible before reeling it (pardon the pun) onscreen front and centre for the extended finale. Maybe Silverstein and his creative team – you have no idea how much it pained me to type “creative team” – had their doubts as to how scary the car actually was. (Spoiler: not scary at all.) The story is very simple: there’s a sleepy American town …
The Amos/Bertha thing is particularly galling for Sheriff Everett (John Marley), who’s been kind of sweet on Bertha since high school. As a sub-plot, it’s sunk by the sixteen-year age gap between Marley and Dowling – an age gap exacerbated by Dowling having aged very gracefully and Marley very craggily – and totally redundant since (SPOILER ALERT) Everett is quickly dispatched by the car so that his deputy Wade (James Brolin) can assume hero duties, Brolin being the first billed actor ‘n’ all.
Strip away the padding and the essential narrative is: supernatural car turns up in sleepy town and starts killing folk; lawman tries to stop it. ‘The Car’ would have been improved immeasurably by either (i) a minimum 20 minute reduction in running time, or (ii) more vehicular mayhem courtesy of the car. In fact, for a supernatural force that seemingly exists only to run people over, the car spends a lot of the movie basically pissing about. What it’s doing while Luke is agonising about his drink problem or Wade is kept overnight in hospital after a bruising encounter, who knows. Getting an oil change? Chasing rabbits? Fishing?
In fact, it’s probably the car itself that gives the best turn, even though it had every right to complain to its agent that it just wasn’t getting enough screen time.
Saturday, November 11, 2017
Michele Soavi made his debut in 1987 with ‘Stagefright’ (a.k.a. ‘Deliria’, a.k.a. ‘Aquarius’, a.k.a. ‘Bloody Bird’) which made effective use of its single setting (a ramshackle theatre). He followed this a couple of years later with ‘The Church’ (a.k.a. ‘Demons 3’), which also made impressive use of a single setting. If you’d been looking, in the late Eighties or early Nineties, for someone to helm an Italian language remake of ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, I reckon he’d have done a bang up job.
By 1994, he’d put his stamp on the idiosyncratic black comedy ‘Dellamorte Dellamore’ (a.k.a. ‘Cemetery Man’) which uses a single setting – the graveyard – to quite brilliant effect for a good two-thirds of its running time before deconstructing in terms of its narrative, structure and theme (there is a case to be made that this was a quite deliberate decision) once it strays outside of this clearly defined environment and interacts with its larger fictive world in increasingly fragmented and bizarre ways.
In retrospect, ‘The Sect’ seems like a logical aesthetic transition for Soavi. While its most crucial scenes take place in the rambling rural home of protagonist Miriam Kriesl (Kelly Curtis), and in the architecturally improbable basement beneath it, the film opens with a ten-minute prologue set in California in 1970 before relocating to the Frankfurt of 1991. Or rather a version of Frankfurt that’s about as weirdly non-Germanic as Freiburg and its dance academy in Argento’s ‘Suspiria’. Just as California is represented by a nondescript landscape and the least convincing set of hippies you’re ever likely to see.
Moreover, the California-set prologue does nothing narratively except introduce a chapter of the titular sect active in America, thereby setting up a scene much later in the film where two chapters meet and the leader of one as much as says “oh, hi there, we’re your opposite numbers from the States”, when the script could just as easily have had them come in from, say, Berlin or Dusseldorf. Nor does the German setting make any sense (there isn’t a mythology akin to the Three Mothers of ‘Suspiria’ that requires geographical specifics) and everything that happens in the movie could have happened without a single alteration to the script if the setting had been Rome, Milan or Florence.
Nor do the next couple of sequences – a short and nasty murder in a suburban location, and an elaborate set-piece on a subway – add much to the story other than to establish that the members of the sect aren’t fucking around when it comes to disobedience and don’t flinch in their use of violence. They seem to be incorporated for no other reason than to big up the film’s epic scale after two smaller productions (‘The Sect’ had double the budget of ‘Stagefright’).
Once Soavi shunts his heroine onstage, however, and limits himself to her house, the cavernous spaces thereunder, the school she teaches at, and a nearby hospital, things bcome more focused. Even if the script does belabour her portentous meeting with enigmatic old cove Moebius Kelly (Herbert Lom) and take far too long to get to the weird shit that starts happening as a result of their meeting.
Credit where it’s due, though: the weird shit is certainly work the wait, whether it’s the surreal dreams that plague Miriam, full of crucifixion imagery and ‘Wicker Man’-style earth/nature/sex undercurrents, or the needlessly elaborate but memorable way that the sect isolate Miriam by removing from the board those few people who are close to her. The most striking and visceral example is their transformation of Miriam’s mousy colleague Catherine into a vamp trawling for rough trade at a truck stop …
… who bewitches a horny truck driver into murdering her. The scene plays out with all the sleaze, illogic and upended expectations that the description suggests. It’s also worth noting that the above screengrab shows the trailer said trucker is hauling. One can only assume that German HGVs are blessed with suspension and cornering of a spirit level bubble since not one single piece of freight is secured.
But then again, this is a film in which a hospital morgue is found in a leaky sub-basement area and looks like this:
So either Germany is the weirdest place on earth, with its dance academies and weird cults and people who drive VWs (ve must be in Cher-mahn-hee, ja, because Kelly Curtis is drivink ein VW), or it’s a safe bet Dario Argento had a hand the production. (He did: producer and co-scripter.)
But this is mere carping (mixed with a healthy dash of cheap sarcasm); ‘The Sect’ is an Italian horror movie made at the tail-end of that country’s several-decades run of great horror movies that were stylish-to-the-nines and narrative clusterfucks. ‘The Sect’ never achieves the visual gorgeousness of Bava or Argento at his best or even Fulci on a good day. But it has weirdness in spades, it has the chutzpah to cast Curtis (in her only lead role) for no other reason than she’s Jamie Lee Curtis’s sister, it casts Herbert Lom and basically gets him to do a Donald Pleasance impersonation, and it shoots for the moon in terms of an incendiary good vs evil finale that it has neither the budget nor the creative energy to achieve on the scale it good clearly wants to.
Oh, and it predates Lars von Triers’s ‘Breaking the Waves’ by five years as an example of a film that tries to con you in its closing moments that it’s deep concerned with a redemptive quasi-theological ending when it fact it was getting its jollies over the nasty stuff all along. With the crucial difference that ‘The Sect’ is a lot more fun to watch than ‘Breaking the Waves’.
Wednesday, November 08, 2017
As an Italian exploitation sub-genre, the cannibal film had its genesis in 1972 with Umberto Lenzi’s ‘The Man from Deep River’ which was basically a rip-off of Eliot Silverstein’s 1970 gruel-a-thon ‘A Man Called Horse’ with the native American Indians replaced by Brazilian cannibals. The cycle really got its groove on in 1977-78 with Ruggero Deodato’s ‘Last Cannibal World’, Sergio Martino’s ‘Mountain of the Cannibal God’, and Joe d’Amato’s ‘Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals’ and ‘Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals’. The d’Amato films had more to do with T&A than flesh-munching, but – hey! – that’s Joe d’Amato for you.
Whatever the merits (or otherwise) of these particular productions, they provided the momentum for what was the annus mirabilis of the cannibal film: 1980. If Altamont was the defining socio-political moment whereby the free love ethos of the Sixties transitioned to the political disenfranchisement and social upheaval of the Seventies – a decade that, for all its turbulence, proved to be a cauldron of creative risk-taking and new movements in music, literature and cinema – then a case can certainly be made for the fact that the against-the-system attitude that characterised the Seventies gave way to the soulless greed-is-good yuppiedom of the Eighties, and that the path was cleared by a cluster of cannibal films, two of which would come to define the sub-genre and gain notoriety for their prominence in the “video nasties” controversy that came to eat up (pun intended) so many column inches later on in that piss-awful decade.
At least half a dozen cannibal films were made in 1980, including Jess Franco’s ‘The Devil Hunter’ and – notable for being one of the very few non-Italian cannibal opuses – Tsui Hark’s ‘We’re Going to Eat You’. But the two that came to define the sub-genre, and remain the colossi against which trash movie fans test themselves, were Deodato’s ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ and Lenzi’s ‘Eaten Alive’. These two should really have been the cannibal movie’s “thank you and good night” moment, but this is exploitation cinema we’re talking about and as long as there was a hint of a buck to be made at the box office, some producer somewhere would sign off on another one. And thus it was that the cycle limped on intermittently till 1988 and the death rattle of Antonio Climati’s ‘The Green Inferno’ (a title borrowed over quarter of a century later by Eli Roth); these last few entries included Lenzi’s grim-as-fuck ‘Cannibal Ferox’, Franco’s ‘Diamonds of Kilimanjaro’ and Mario Gariazzo’s ‘White Slave’, a film so schizophrenically marketed that it appeared in some territories as ‘Amazonia: The Catherine Miles Story’ and in others as ‘Cannibal Holocaust 2’.
The film under consideration today was made in 1985 and I’m not even going to try to pretend that it represents some last great throw of the longpig dice. But this is the Winter of Discontent and cannibal movies are just one of those sub-genres that have to be done – like gialli, polizia, nazisploitation, nunsploitation and anything that stars David Hess – and besides ‘Massacre in Dinosaur Valley’ was directed by Michel Massimo Tarantini (under the pseudonym Michael E. Lemick) and if the dude who helmed ‘Policewoman on the Porno Squad’ and ‘Women in Fury’ isn’t a natural fit for the Winter of Discontent then I might as well just give up and watch reruns of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’.
‘Massacre in Dinosaur Valley’ reunites Tarantini with ‘Women in Fury’ star Suzane Carvalho and gives her an equally thankless, frequently denuded and thoroughly sexually objectified role. After a very short career in exploitation films, Carvalho reinvented herself in spectacular fashion as a racing driver and I can’t help wondering how much her proficiency in this latter career was motivated by imagining Tarantini naked and clutching his extremities just behind the chequered flag as she powered towards him in several hundredweight of race-car …
But let’s park that image (again: pun intended) and stroll down the leafy expanse of Plot Synopsis Boulevard. ‘M in D V’ starts with respected academic Professor Ibanez (Leonidas Bayer) and his daughter Eva (Carvalho) arriving in a Brazilian backwater with the intent of seeking passage to the fabled Dinosaur Valley where Prof Ibanez can complete his palaeontological research. After a protracted first act which introduces fellow palaeontologist (or, to use his preferred appellation, “bone hunter”) Kevin Hall (Michael Sopkiw), Vietnam vet John Heinz (Milton Rodriguez) and his alcoholic wife Betty (Marta Anderson), photographer Jose (Joffre Soares) and fashion models Belinda (Susan Hahn) and Monica (Maria Reis), this mismatched bunch find themselves on the same light aircraft. A cockfight, a bar room brawl and some gratuitous nudity assists the viewer’s passage to this particular plot development, though no rationale is given as to why Jose and his models or the Heinzes are on the plane. Much is made, however, of the flight as off-the-books and into forbidden territory.
It hardly needs saying that the pilot encounters adverse weather conditions and
The survivors decide to make their way through the jungle, Heinz appointing himself leader on account of having done three tours in ’Nam. What follows is a “forty miles of bad road” type deal, as the group contend with leeches, snakes, cannibals, white slave traders, attempted human sacrifice and the gargantuan hindrance that is John Heinz and his planet-sized case of overcompensation. Example: Jose is set upon by piranha as the group splash through a river. Kevin plunges in to rescue him; Heinz sees his injuries as a liability and makes a brutal executive decision. Kevin attacks him and the two of them plunge into the selfsame piranha-infested waters, thrashing about for a good couple of minutes, all the time being resolutely untroubled by flesh-eviscerating fish. Quite what the piranha are doing the while – perhaps they’ve repaired to the opposite bank and started taking bets on the outcome – is left unanswered by the script.
As internal tensions within the increasingly depleted group reach boiling point, Kevin is split up from Eva and Belinda when the cannibal tribe attack. If I were trying to intellectualise this skeazy expanse of celluloid, I’d dwell on the fact that Eva and Belinda’s perils at the hands of the cannibal tribe occupy the middle third of the film rather than setting up its denouement, and they’re rescued by Kevin before much worse can happen than a flesh wound and some enforced nudity. Worse awaits them in the last twenty minutes or so when they fall into the clutches of slave-trader, unlicensed prospector and all-round sleazeball China (Carlos Imperial) who has designs on Eva, and his right-hand-woman Myara (Gloria Cristal) who gets all predatory towards Belinda.
Up to this point, ‘M in D V’ has unspooled through a fairly obvious checklist of exploitation tropes: it’s dealt in punch-ups, gun play, softcore sex scenes and mild peril, and throughout it all Tarantini and co. have maintained an aesthetic that could almost pass for good natured. For 65 minutes, ‘M in D V’ happily parades itself as one of the goofiest, least self-aware exploitationers you’ll ever see. Then the Tarantini of ‘Women in Fury’ steps up to the base and brings the nasty. Which is fair dues: let’s not forget what kind of movie we’re watching here. But the shift is abrupt and his attempt, in the closing scenes, to cut back to sub-Indiana Jones jokey pastiche only serves to emphasise the tonal inconsistency.
Ultimately, though, ‘M in D V’ is damned by its own irrelevance. The best of the cannibal films rubbed the audience’s collective nose in filth in order to make a point: viewer complicity in ‘Cannibal Holocaust’; the correlation between religion, brainwashing, sacrifice and manipulation in ‘Eaten Alive’. The slenderest of cases can just about be made for ‘Amazonia’ in respect of tabloid salaciousness and the exploitation of the exotic by those whose white privilege is its own ulterior motive. ‘M in D V’ adds nothing to the dialogue beyond its brisk pace and the appeal of a heroine who deserved to be more heroic.
Sunday, November 05, 2017
I had, of course, heard of Ottavio Alessi's 'Top Sensation' (a.k.a. 'The Seducers'). What self-respecting exploitation fan hasn't? I started watching it online a couple of years ago with an eye to a Winter of Discontent write-up. The print quality was so bad, however, that it was like having my eyeballs vigorously buffed with a Brillo pad. Never mind that there was a Rosalba Neri topless scene ten minutes in, I gave it up as a bad job. Now, though - thanks to Shameless DVD Releasing - 'Top Sensation' is available in a version that's not onerous to watch. Although, in an otherwise laudable attempt to present as complete an edit of the film as possible, they've shoehorned in every bit of recovered footage they could get their hands on and to say there are quality control issues with these inserts is putting it mildly.
Coming on like a lurid remake of Polanski's 'Knife in the Water' (made seven years previously) and pre-dating that ne plus ultra of sex-on-a-boat movies, Deodato's 'Waves of Lust' by six, 'Top Sensation' boasts two locations (yacht; island), lifestyle porn aplenty, and world-class eye-candy in the form of Rosalba Neri, Edwige Fenech and Eva Thulin. It's also utterly cynical and requires us to spend an hour and a half with some utterly venal characters - but, hey, that's exploitation for you!
Here's the basic set up: control-freak entrepreneur Mudy (author Maud de Belleroche in her only acting role) has hired loose-living couple Aldo (Mauricio Bonuglia) and Paola (Neri) to crew her yacht for the duration of a trip designed to provide R&R for her mentally troubled son Tony (Ruggero Miti). Mudy, despairing of the retinue of shrinks and specialists who have been unable to cure him, is convinced that he just needs to get laid. To this end, Aldo and Paola have been tasked with finding a girl suitable to this requirement. Dangling the promise of a big fat pay cheque in front of her, they have persuaded Ulla (Fenech) on board. The film begins in media res, the yacht a-sail, and all of these characters locked into a duplicitous game, the sexual tension simmering away.
Immediate complications are twofold: (1) Paola wants more from Mudy than just a one-off payment and will stop at nothing to get a cut of Mudy's latest business deal; and (2) Tony remains blandly disinterested in Ulla, proving that the boy really does have issues. Actually, make that threefold, since Aldo swiftly compounds things by running the yacht into a sandbank on account of doing the nasty with Ulla when he should have been navigating. Just when it seems like Mudy's on the verge of tearing all parties a new arsehole, Tony slips ashore and, when the others eventually find him, he's made the acquaintance of butter-wouldn't-melt farm girl Beba (Thulin) and they appear to be getting along famously.
Aldo, never one to miss an opportunity, discerns that if he can get Beba onboard the yacht and away from her boorish husband Andro (Salvatore Puntillo), then shenanigans of the salami-hiding variety between simpleton and shepherdess are a foregone conclusion. Beba is thusly, and in remarkably short order, seduced onto the yacht, seduced into a bit of lipstick lesbianism, and pimped out to Tony.
But before the lad can get devirginised, Andro turns up in a rowboat and 'Top Sensation' segues from pressure-cooker sexploitationer to something like Brian Rix farce leeched of the actual comedy. This weird tonal shift isn't the only problem with Alessi's film.
There are two main problems: the first is that Alessi, directing his second and last film after 1964's 'Whatever Happened to Baby Toto? ', achieves about as much visual style as a wall coated with slowly drying paint of a boring colour. It's not much to ask, surely, that a film with such a lurid story also be visually lurid? That a film whose main female leads are so voluptuously appealing also have appealing cinematography or production design? Christ, even the yacht doesn't look sleek and sexy – and when 70% of your film is set on a yacht belonging to a spectacularly rich person, this does not bode well.
Secondly, for a film that clocks in at just 90 minutes in the most complete edit that Shameless can manage, there aren’t half some dull patches! Endless scenes of Tony moping in his cabin, playing with toys like the man-child he is. Endless scenes of Mudy ranting at people and scowling. Endless scenes of … well, filler. Even the film's most notorious sequence – it involves Fenech, a photoshoot and a goat and I'm saying no more other than warning you upfront that once you've seen it, you will forever refer to 'Top Sensation' as “that film with Edwige Fenech and the goat”* – exists for no other reason than to pad out the running time.
In fact, stripped down to its actual narrative stepping stones – introduce everyone on boat and their motivations; establish that Tony isn't going to get jiggy with Ulla; get various parties to the island, thence to the boat; Andro turns up; everything goes pear-shaped - there's probably about half an hour's running time to be had out of the material. The rest of it relies on Neri and Fenech to look good in bikinis. Of course, it goes without saying that both of them ace this requirement. Indeed, Fenech – 21 when the film was released and on the cusp of claiming her crown as giallo goddess – is va-va-voom made flesh, while Neri gets to rock the kind of outfit that would make your average jeweler shut up shop and sneak home for a hour or two’s private time.
But for all that, it's de Belleroche's appearance that stays with me. Winner of the Prix Broquette-Gonin for her debut novel, she had published 'L'Ordinatrice' – generally considered her magnum opus – the year before she appeared in 'Top Sensation'. Which is kind of like Annie Proulx coming off 'The Shipping News' winning the Pulitzer and saying yes to a Rob Zombie job offer on the understanding that it involved a girl-girl scene with Kelly Brook. Now that'd be a Winter of Discontent flick!
*I'm not sure what the life expectancy of the average goat is, but I'm guessing the goat dined out on the story of most of the rest of said lifespan.
Thursday, November 02, 2017
Heard the one about the two guys driving a truck loaded with barrels of toxic waste and they’re so busy talking shit and not paying attention to the road that –
Yeah, Fulwood, we’ve heard it before. Like in the opening scene of ‘Eight Legged Freaks’.
Well, yeah, but with a crucial difference. So listen: there’s these two hillbilly dudes in a truck loaded with barrels of toxic waste and they’re having the mother of all politically incorrect conversations about how dating a guy is easier than dating a woman (“we didn’t disagree about anything, it was real easy – except for the sex: the sex was brutal”) when, as a result of not driving with due care and attention, they hit a deer. The impact jolts a barrel of toxic waste off the back of the truck, whereupon it rolls down into the river and –
FFS, Fulwood, we said we’d heard this one before. The toxic waste infects the water supply causing genetic mutation and zombie-type shenanigans.
Well, yeah, but listen to me, motherfuckers: this toxic waste turns the local beaver population rabid and when you try to fight them off, they prove functionally immortal. These beavers come back from the dead. Because they’re zombie beavers.
Hey! Hey! Where’s everyone going? Hey! Come back! Aw, c’mon, this kind of no-budget z-grade trash is why you hang out at The Agitation of the Mind and, brother, you know it!
Director Jordan Rubin and his co-scripters Jonathan and Al Kaplan know it, too. Well, not about The Agitation of the Mind, probably. In fact I’d be omigosh surprised if they’d even heard of this blog. But they know exactly what kind of audience they’re catering to and go all out to make exactly the kind of movie you anticipate (gleefully, with an underlying hint of guilt) when you see the title ‘Zombeavers’ on a DVD cover.
Let’s get jiggy with a plot synopsis, shall we? Shortly after the two sexually confused hillbillies lose the barrel of toxic waste, three coed friends (or rather frenemies, given the internal tensions) turn up at a lakeside cabin in rural America for a weekend ostensibly dedicated to helping Jen (Lexi Atkins) get over the heartbreak of her boyfriend cheating on her. Jen’s gal pals are bossy-little-thing Mary (Rachel Melvin) and trash-talking slapper Zoe (Cortney Palm). And if you think I’m being unfair in describing Zoe as a trash-talking slapper, just try spending five minutes’ screentime in her company.
No sooner have they taken to the lake (Zoe indulging in a spot of skinny-dipping) and fallen afoul of the locals than their boyfriends – or at least Mary and Zoe’s boyfriends and Jen’s now thoroughly cold-shouldered ex – turn up without invitation and with booze, partying and sex on their minds. Let’s meet The Three Douches. Jen’s asshole ex-boyfriend is Sam (Hutch Dano), Zoe’s obnoxious boyfriend is Buck (Peter Gilroy), and Mary’s slightly less douchey but still wanker-by-association boyfriend is Tommy (Jake Weary, who alone amongst the cast can actually claim a legimate film career on account of having been in ‘It Follows’*).
Buck and Tommy get their end away that night. Sam gets Jen’s kneecap in his gonads. Jen is startled in the bathroom by an aggressive beaver, which the guys dispatch with a baseball bat after some debate about who should tackle the creature. None acquit themselves as paragons of knight-in-shining-armour type behaviour. Next day, the sextet are at the lake when the zombeavers attack. Although Buck sustains injury, the group make it back to the cabin. The zombeavers lay siege. It’s the most pathetic siege in the history of horror cinema:
What follows is pretty much as you’d expect from a zombie film: foiled escape attempts, massively amplified internal tensions, gruesome deaths and the inability to get a mobile signal or find a functional landline (the visual punchline of zombeaver prints next to the severed cable is a nice touch). The drama around Sam’s dalliance behind Jen’s back is also resolved, and it’s touching to see that such a trashy outing as ‘Zombeavers’ can actually make time for its characters’ emotional closure before getting down to the business of their mortal closure. Hey folks, I’m kidding; the Sam/Jen thing merely allows for a bit of padding so that a short-as-it-is-anyway movie can just about clear the bar re: feature length.
Does it do anything unexpected, or anything new with the genre? Does it rug-pull with expectations or monkey with the formula? No, of course it fucking doesn’t! It’s a film called ‘Zombeavers’ – did you really expect it to be a game-changer?** It has zombie beavers and it makes no bones about the fact that they’re puppets (seriously: if Jim Henson had got fucked up on peyote and decided to make a movie that wasn’t for the kiddies, he’d have come up with exactly these furry-toothy-undead critters). It has a cast of college kids (albeit played by actors in their late twenties), so it features douchey behaviour and nudity. It’s a zombie movie, so people get chomped and/or eviscerated. Oh, and you know how the rules stipulate that those who are bitten become zombies themselves? Well, what do you think happens to people who are bitten by zombeavers?
You’re shaking your head now, aren’t you? Facepalming? Mumbling something along the lines of “oh, for the love of all things unholy, please tell me the filmmakers don’t actually go there”?
They go there. Of course they go there. This is a film called ‘Zombeavers’. Why would they not?
*Though I’ll be perfectly honest in admitting that I found ‘Zombeavers’ a far more rewarding film than ‘It Follows’.
**Although the closing credits song arguably is. It’s a brilliant piece of camp which recaps the entire narrative in the form of a Sinatra-esque swing number. Sample lyric: “Contaminated by toxic goo / A genetic mistake / They’re semi-aquatic, they’re hungry for you / Boys and girls, stay away from the lake”. Sample lyric #2: “Look out, they’re coming through the walls / Your girlfriend’s chewing off your balls / Zombeeeeeeeeavers!”).
Wednesday, November 01, 2017
Now is the winter of this blog’s discontent. Now is the time when we springboard from 13 For Halloween into two months of darkness, depravity and dubious content. Now is the time to sample the fruits of your humble reviewer’s annual trawl through everything that is strange, seedy, sordid, shameful and shocking. Now is when these unhallowed pages fill up with reviews rich in alliteration, hyperbole and cheap sarcasm. Now the time for copy hammered out under the influence of alcohol and moonlight. Now is the season of Mrs Agitation rolling her eyes and slowly shaking her head and wondering where the committal papers are.
Well be kicking off in fine style tomorrow, and carrying on for as long as your humble reviewer’s mental health holds out. Here’s a small sampling of things to come:
Well be kicking off in fine style tomorrow, and carrying on for as long as your humble reviewer’s mental health holds out. Here’s a small sampling of things to come: