Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Endangered Species (1982)

While on vacation in Colorado, New York City cop Reuben Castle begins a romance with sheriff Harriet Perdue amidst a wave of inexplicable cattle mutilations that is sweeping the area. Great atmosphere and location photography throughout this environmental conspiracy theory thriller.

The Night of the Hunted (La Nuit des Traquées) (1980)

The Night of the Hunted begins, as many of Jean Rollin's films do, in the forest. A young woman is wandering in a nightgown without memory of how she got there. A man gives her a ride back to the city, and it is here that the film takes a different turn for Rollin. A victim of amnesia, she resides in a modernist high-rise building populated by others similar affected by memory loss. As the young woman's memory problems increase, she begins to question whether she and the rest of the building's inhabitants are suffering from the same disease or whether they are victims of some experiment.


Like The Grapes of Death, The Night of the Hunted uses the zombie narrative to explore the potential impact of science and modernization on the human body.  Unlike Rollin's typical dichotomy between a timeless natural environment and more gothic, castle/dungeon-ish interiors, Rollin here explores a more modern, urban setting. There is a dehumanizing and sterile emptiness to the interior shots.

So many of Rollin's characters are lost in their environments. In the case of The Grapes of Death and Lost in New York, they are searching for their companions. The need for a partner, someone with whom they can complete the journey, is a recurring motif. Here, in The Night of the Hunted, there is some particularly poignant about its expression. As the characters lose their memory, not only of themselves but of others, they still exhibit an emotional need for human companionship, as though it is a deeply rooted need that cannot be erased.

The Grapes of Death (Les Raisins de La Mort) (1978)

In The Grapes of Death (Les Raisins de La Mort) (1978), a pesticide is turning people into zombies. They are not Romero-style zombies; instead, their flesh is slowly melting, it almost pours off of their frame. Elizabeth is riding a train en route to her fiance, who works at a vineyard. She is chased off the train by a zombie. She flees into the woods and encounters many persons, some infected and some not, as she struggles to get back to her fiance.

Jean Rollin's films, to me, more closely resemble fairy tales than horror movies. There's a magical quality to his work, and his camera is attuned to the wonder of the world. Even the grotesque has an element of beauty and fascination to it. Rollin's films are not scary, because he is not frightened by the world; he is enchanted by both the dream-like and nightmarish qualities.

Beautiful photography and natural settings. Sparse cast of characters, isolated and lonely as only a Rollin film could be. Once Elizabeth leaves the train, she enters a forested environment that is almost timeless. Unlike Rollin's vampire films, this one is largely devoid of sexuality. An environmental and humanist fable, The Grapes of Death is unique in Rollin's body of work. It is one of my favorite films of his.

Delirium (Delirio caldo) (1972)

Renato Polselli's Delirium (Delirio caldo) (1972) is absolute perverse pandemonium. Mickey Hargitay is an impotent doctor by day, and psycho sex maniac by night. His wife has dreams of Mickey being a dungeon sex master who tortures women. Their maid is so infatuated by Mickey that she sucks her shoulder to get off. And then Mickey is assigned to help the police find the killer of his own victims.

Polselli's opulent and obscene direction, as well as his surreal editing patterns, are the strongest parts of the movie. His vision was unique, disturbing in its perversity, but fascinating in the way it merges both the pleasure of dreams and the horror nightmares often within the same image.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Reincarnation of Isabel (Black Magic Rites) (Riti, magie nere e segrete orge nel trecento ...) (1973)

Renato Polselli's The Reincarnation of Isabel (also known as Black Magic Rites) (Riti, magie nere e segrete orge nel trecento ...) (1973) is a nearly incomprehensible fever dream of cinematic imagination. Mickey Hargitay purchases a castle that is occupied by a group of vampires waiting for enough virgin blood to bring back to life the queen witch, Isabel. He throws a housewarming (castle-warming?) party, and the film begins its descent into lunacy. Alternating between past and present, we're shown glimpses of Isabel's torture and execution. For the rest of the movie, Polselli offers a nightmarish montage of abduction, torture, and ritual as the vampires accumulate enough virgins to complete their ceremony.

Polselli's story might not make much narrative sense, but visually he offers an overwhelmingly awesome display of style. He is a truly erotic director, one who transforms space and narrative through the aesthetics of eroticism. Cuts are dictated by ecstasy, body movement, impulse, and are assembled not for narrative cohesion but visual sensation. The whole movie is edited like a sex montage. Time doesn't pass literally. The collision of bodies and space between shots moves the story forward without concern for logic or clarity. Polselli is an inebriated , one driven by pleasure, pain, fear, orgasm, fantasy, desire, and a whole onslaught of other vividly rendered emotions.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Bloody Pit of Horror (Il Boia Scarlatto) (1965)

Bloody Pit of Horror (Il Boia Scarlatto) (1965) stars Mickey Hargitay, one-time Mr. Universe. It was made one year after his divorce from Jayne Mansfield. Here, he plays Travis Anderson, an actor who has retired from movies for a life of solitude and moral purity, and now lives as a recluse in a castle previously owned by The Crimson Executioner, a Medieval madman whose body and spirit were entombed in the basement of the castle. When a group of sleaze publishers show up at the castle looking to take some lurid photographs for the cover of their books, they accidentally open the tomb and unleash the wrath of The Crimson Executioner who is none too happy with their perverse and sordid ways.

Directed by Massimo Pupillo, it was written by Romano Migliorini and Roberto Natale and supposedly based on the writings of the Marquis de Sade. It is campier than Corman's Poe movies, but also far sleazier and more violent. Where Corman suggested perversity, director Massimo Pupillo revels in graphic depictions of devious pleasures. Plenty of gothic torture chambers and scenes of lurid violence. Great set design (the whole movie takes place in the castle). Occasional moments of goofiness, such as the killer monster spider who makes even Sam Katzman's monsters look realistic, but even that has its charm and is enjoyable. The highlight, of course, is Hargitay and his monomaniacal zeal. Every scene he is in is brimming with batshit psychosis. Overall, a good, sleazy, low-budget, sick, fun movie. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

"Gold Is Where You Find It" (1938, Michael Curtiz)

Gold Is Where You Find It (1938)

Director: Michael Curtiz. Screenwriters: Warren Duff and Robert Buckner, from a story by Clements Ripley. Director of Photography: Sol Polito. Producers: Samuel Bischoff, Hal B. Wallis, Jack L. Warner. Music: Max Steiner. Actors: George Brent (Jared Whitney), Olivia de Havilland (Serena Ferris), Claude Rains (Col. Ferris).

Released in 1938, Gold Is Where You Find It is a California Western about the conflicts between the gold mining industry and the farmers whose fields are flooded with mud and other mining refuse. The political clash is channeled through star-crossed lovers: mining engineer Jared Whitney (George Brent) and Serena Ferris (Olivia de Havilland), the daughter of farmer Col. Ferris (Claude Rains). Whitney's innovations only intensify the dispute, bringing greater wealth to the mining company and further devastation to the land. Though the drama is finely acted (Rains, in particular, is terrific), it is the photography and setting, as well as the underly politics of the story, that are the most fascinating aspects of the film.

Gold Is Where You Find It was Warner Brothers' way of testing the waters of the newly innovated 3-strip Technicolor process before embarking on their epic production of The Adventures of Robin Hood. At the helm was director Michael Curtiz, the German emigre who cut his teeth making Expressionist films at Berlin's UFA studios in the 1920s and who would later go on to make Casablanca. Aiding him was Director of Photography Sol Polito, a veteran from the silent era whose stark, stylized cinematography (I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang) came to define Warner Bros. in the early 1930s. Though it hardly looks resembles the black-and-white chiaroscuro its makers are known for, Gold Is Where You Find It is a stylistic splendor, ablaze with vibrant colors. The most prominent attractions of the film are the dynamic opening montage of hydraulic mining and the flooded fields -- poetically edited and narrated in the vein of Pare Lorentz's The Plow that Broke the Plains -- and the climactic, explosive flooding of the mountains and plains at the end. For a film that seemingly prides itself on its photographic merits, its a shame that the finale relies so strongly on what are obviously sound-stage miniatures. By contrast, by re-enacting the actual process of hydraulic mining, the opening of Gold Is Where You Find It has an almost documentary significance to it, one of those privileged instances (such as the whaling sequences in Down to the Sea In Ships or the fishing scenes in Tiger Shark) of Hollywood dramatics preserving what would otherwise be a lost piece of American history.

One of the key characteristics of the Western genre is the way that is doubles as both entertainment narrative and symbolic discourse on the foundation of America. Beyond the romance plot, there are many political dramas unfolding within Gold is Where You Find It. At its core, the film is about the shifting balance of democracy and capitalism -- a heated topic that, nearly a century and half after this film takes place, is still being disputed. The central court case in the film proposes certain basic human rights, as well as the rights of the land, against the abuses of corporations. Viewed today, the film resonates with contemporary issues about pollution, water privatization, seed patents, and conservation.

A final note about the legacy of director Curtiz. Though he made one of the most well-known and enduring films of all time, Casablanca, Curtiz himself is surprisingly forgotten. His films in Germany seem to have landed in the hands of collectors and museum vaults, and his American output is more frequently categorized by the stars he worked with (particularly Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn) than by his own name. From what I've seen, Curtiz had the versatility that characterized (or un-characterized, some might say) the most efficient and successful studio directors, yet there's a certain dynamic flair to his visuals that can't be overlooked. His Expressionist roots are clearly visible in the heavy shadows and stark contrast of 1933's Private Detective 62 (visually a prototype for the Noir style to come in the following decade); one can see how this evolved into more subtle usage in Casablanca, made 9 years later. Yet films like Gold Is Where You Find It and The Adventures of Robin Hood show a different side of Curtiz, one who is as adept at large-scale spectacle as small-scale suspense, at using bold colors as well as nuanced shades of grey and violent clashes of black and white, and of one who is equally sensitive to hardboiled, romantic, political, and adventure narratives. Judging by his prodigious output, there are even more sides to Curtiz's character, and I'm greatly looking forward to uncovering them in future screenings.