Thursday, April 20, 2006

Laughing with Nobody

I’ve always been a fan of Westerns but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I started watching them with regularity. About this time my friend Jack Daves became obsessed with the genre and it was then impossible to be around him without being infected with his love. Being a Euro Cult film nut I have a tendency to gravitate to the legendary Spaghetti Westerns made in the 60’s and 70’s and luckily this was such a fertile time that I'll still be tracking down titles to watch in my 80’s.

I recently rented one that I knew by reputation and had already seen.... I thought. It turns out I had only seen parts of this gem in my youth and I’m glad I finally watched the whole thing. MY NAME IS NOBODY (1973) is the last western with the great Sergio Leone’s name attached to it. He didn’t direct the film (although fans have debated this) but he did produce and provide the story, which was shaped into a script by Ernesto Gastaldi. This is a very fun movie with a lot to recommend it. I remember my father and uncles being big fans of this when I was a kid. Having seen the whole thing I can understand why. This is a very entertaining ‘film for guys’ with several iconic moments throughout that I will forever link to my Uncle Paul’s laughter.

Primarily a spoof of the Spaghetti western genre’s motifs it sometimes slides a little too far into comedy for my tastes but the story is so well played and genial that I came away loving it anyway. Henry Fonda is Jack Beauregaurd, an aging gunfighter making his way to the coast where a ship will take him to retirement in Europe. In his path is an appointment with the man responsible for his brother’s death, a large number of freelance killers looking to make themselves a name by taking the legend out, and Nobody. Nobody (Terrance Hill) is an unassuming young man in awe of lawman Beauregaurd’s gun slinging prowess. He wants to see his hero do one last great thing to make his name an entry in the history books- take on the 150 men strong ’Wild Bunch’. Beauregaurd has no interest in acting out his fan’s hopes but events manipulated by Nobody push him toward the confrontation. Easing the young man’s quest are his own amazing skills with pistols and an almost supernaturally fast quick draw. It’s in these moments of sped up quick-time action that the movie veers too far into silliness but (for me, at least) they never overwhelm the story’s charms.

Playing the material perfectly both Fonda and Hill are wonderful. With their tense but humorous byplay and the fantastic cinematography I found myself enjoying the film so much that each slight advance in the story almost snuck up on me. I was happy to just watch what was happening with no real need for the plot to advance. This is pure entertainment for western fans with a sense of humor and it had me laughing out loud more times than I can remember. There’s even a touching end to the tale with Fonda’s voiceover farewell wrapping up both the story and the ‘Old West’ as myth. And as a side note, it’s nice to have Fonda’s last go round in the genre not be the nasty as Hell bastard Frank he played in Leone’s brilliant ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Beauregaurd seems to be a furthering of the characters he played in WARLOCK (1959) or THE TIN STAR (1957) years before. I was glad to see him play a good guy even as he demonstrated the steel resolve that kept Beauregaurd alive long enough to be able to retire. This is one great film!

I must warn folks of a perfection oriented nature to bware the Image DVD released here in the States. It is nicely letterboxed and colorful but even my forgiving eyes caught lots of digital authoring glitches. MY NAME IS NOBODY deserves a better disc. And some extras would be nice too.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

INSEMINOID injects itself into my mind!

A group of archaeologists on a mysterious planet are investigating some kind of ancient ruins. They discover a secret underground chamber in which one of the crew is attacked by a strange but barely seen creature. This fellow later runs amok leaving the safety of the group’s cave-built compound until he’s finally subdued violently. Crystal rock samples taken from the secret chamber puzzle the group’s chemist so the next day he and Sandy (Judy Geeson) go outside to retrieve some more rock samples. As they are leaving the dig Mitch the chemist is ripped apart by the mysterious creature and Sandy has an unfortunate encounter with the beastie, which leaves her pregnant and deranged. The movie then slides into slasher territory as the rest of the crew fall victim to Sandy’s homicidal madness, leaving only a couple of people behind to see what she gives birth to.

Slightly daft, sloppily written and (for the most part) acted as if the paychecks were late INSEMINOID a.k.a HORROR PLANET (1981) is one of the worst pieces of science fiction/horror trash I’ve ever seen. Less a story than an idea thrown up onto the screen it at least has the virtue of aiming low. Very low. A small budget rip off of ALIEN the film takes the sub-textual concept of horrid creatures raping humans to implant their seed and places it front and center. In a better film this nastiness would be a plus but here it just barley keeps things moving along. Luckily ample amounts of bloody violence is scattered around to keep things interesting.

I’m sure there was a script (i.e. pieces of paper with dialog and scene direction typed on them) but they might have made the same film if the cast & crew merely huddled each day and said “What sequence can we cobble together today?” The characters are cardboard cut-outs, the dialog is banal when its not being idiotic and the sets are dull. Some of my favorite moments are when a line of dialog comes out of nowhere to make some point that feels plot related. This is a hallmark of bad scripts and in science fiction these bits of technobabble usually stand out beautifully. So when Mitch the chemist proclaims that the strange crystals ‘seem to have some kind of chemical intelligence’ you’re stunned by the non-sequiter craziness, but you just know that it provides a clue to defeating the nasty evil thing that shows up later. Except in this damned film you’d be wrong to think that! This silly-ass line has nothing to do with anything that happens later! Nothing! I’m not sure if this is genius slight-of-hand writing or plain ineptitude.

The cast is a mixed bag of slumming pros (most of the women) and folks that really needed some acting lessons (pretty much all the men). It’s fun in a sick way to watch some good actors flail away with this material. Geeson does as good a job as could honestly be expected I think. She musters up some believable homicidal rage when dispatching the rest of the cast and her banshee screams during the birthing scene are unnerving. As a plus you get to see the lovely Victoria Tennant stabbed to death with scissors- surely a first in cinema.

Now, to step back for a moment I must give the movie some praise. The film is well shot with the opening scenes colorfully showing the alien planet’s landscape. This generates some nice, creepy atmosphere that the rest of the movie’s claustrophobic cave sets slowly dissipate. The direction, while never outstanding is capable, moving the story along at a nice clip and hiding some of the sloppier moments. Before the film sinks to its eventual sad level I felt a measure of hope in the bustling activity of the little group of archeologists. But when the killing started the terribly choreographed fight sequences finished off my willing suspension of disbelief. I do give the film points for the overly gory murders but the effects are hit or miss with at least one death scene descending into unintended humor.

I picked this film up as part of the Norman J. Warren Collection. This is a 5 DVD set from Anchor Bay UK. I’d not seen any of the 4 films represented here and thought I’d start with INSEMINOID as it was highest budget feature the director ever made. If this movie is any indicator I’ve got my work cut out for me. Strangely, I find myself wanting to watch this sucker again, perhaps with the director’s commentary track. Norman J. Warren film experts being fairly thin on the ground maybe I could become one by delving deeply into his other films. Who knows? SATAN’S SLAVES may be a lost classic! PREY might stand with the greats of 1970’s horror cinema! Could TERROR be the missing movie link between the gothic Hammer films and LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT?

Only time and my Region free DVD player will tell.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Italian Crime time

Recently I watched Shriek Show's DVD of the Italian crime film SYNDICATE SADISTS (1975).

The film stars Thomas Milian as a roving, motorcycle riding fellow with his own moral code. Milian is one of my favorite bad-ass actors from European films of the 60's and 70's. As I began to explore the European cult films of that period 15 years ago I started running across him and it was always rewarding. He often plays nasty bad guys but, as here, he can play the hard nosed good guy to good effect. Milian has made several fantastic westerns but to me he seems more at home in crime movies set in contemporary times. Of course this film is basically a thinly desguised western, so take that for what its worth. Directed by exploitation specialist Umberto Lenzi this is a pretty good little movie if a bit sloppy in that low-budget Lenzi way. Milian plays a guy who breezes into Milan to see his old friends but gets caught up in a rivalry between two crime families. He's really uninterested in what's going on until his rent-a-cop buddy is killed and then he decides to do away with both sides of the problem. Milian's character has a past with these mafia groups and uses his reputation to gain information and set each side against the other.

One of the strangest things here is that Milian's character is named Rambo! In the DVD interview Lenzi states that this name wasn't pulled out of a hat either. It seems that the actor was looking to do a film in which he played a nicer guy than in his previous collaboration with Lenzi, the vicious ALMOST HUMAN. In that one Milian played what is possibly the most reprehensible scumbag you can imagine and he wanted to do something lighter. He came across a copy of the novel FIRST BLOOD while in America and asked to have his character named Rambo. Crazy! So that amazing scribe Ernesto Gastaldi cobbled together a script using that name and Lenzi's idea of updating A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS to contemporary Italy. More craziness! Rambo is a very likable guy in the film going out of his way to not only rescue a kidnapped boy but befriending him as well.

Luckily what ends up on screen is a pretty damned good little action movie. It's a little light on reality at times but it's very entertaining and no less than Joseph Cotton plays one of the crime bosses. This was near the end of Cotten's career and although he's supposed to look frail in the film I found it a shock to see him so sickly. Thank goodness he dubbed his own voice here as it adds some gravitas to his perfomance. Shriek Show's DVD is one of their standard half-assed jobs with some nice extras (interview with Lenzi and a commentary track) but the print of the film is very worn. I'm glad to have the chance to see this film but surely there are better elements available for DVD.

Oh, and regardless of the poster art used to entice paying customers, there is no scene in which someone takes a blowtorch to handcuffed people. There isn't even a blowtorch in the movie! Damned liars!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

It Conquered Corman (or vice versa)

In response to Tim Lucas' call to blog about Roger Corman today in celebration of his 80th birthday I attempted to dash this off in my spare moments at work. I managed to get this blog done before lunch so by Corman standards I should have been able to get another one finshed before 6PM. I guess I'm just a slacker!

I am a major fan of Mr. Corman with his Poe inspired series of films in the 60's being the best stuff he ever produced as director. But I would like to focus on one of my all time favorite Corman directed films from the 1950's- IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (1956). It's 50 years old this year which means he made it when he was 30! I AM a slacker!

In this epic we have one of the greatest character actors ever, Lee Van Cleef, collaborating with Venusians to take control of our fair planet. Convinced by the alien creatures that they have only the most benign intentions Van Cleef's scientist character goes along with what he thinks will be the advancement of mankind. Instead they, of course, slaughter everyone in their way and enslave the survivors. The mighty Peter Graves uses his trowel-like voice to try to reason with Van Cleef but its not until hot, sweater wearing wife Beverly Garland is menaced by the evil scum that he comes around and kicks some alien ass! Shot in black & white with a budget that could best be described as miserly (if you were being) the film still manages to convey a good amount of suspence and has somevery well acted scene especially early on. Van Cleef and Graves throw themselves into their roles beautifully and Miss Garland is much better than a simple piece of eye candy needs to be.
There is plenty of creepiness as we build to the climax with the alien sending out it flying bat-like minions to attack the cast. One of the most memorable aspects of ICTW is unfortunately the one that always gets the most attention. At the end of the film Van Cleef attacks one lone (THIS is an invasion?) Venusian so the hideous monster comes rolling out of its cave hiding place. And it looks like an inverted cone on wheels. With some stubby arms. And silly eyes. And did I mention the pointed head? Its hysterically stupid looking and whats even worse is that it worked great as long as it was hidden in shadows and speaking in a threatening, deep voice. Designed by Paul Blaisdel with the knowledge that it would not be shown except in shadows it is a pretty amazing critter. If it had remained in the cave as originally intended it would have gone down as one of the great monsters of the 50s. But then Roger was the director you see. He felt that since hed paid good money for this sucker it had better get trotted out for a good view. (You can almost hear Blaisdel crying over the laughter as his beast rolls clumsily across the open ground.) That's one thing about Corman- there may not be a lot of money invested but every damned penny goes up in that screen. So the Venusian rolls out to be burned by the late comer military men and the world is saved. Roll credits!

I really love this movie and not just for the good parts either. I love it warts and all. Its a perfect Saturday afternoon flick that I never tire of watching. Roger made many better movies but today on his 80th birthday I'd like to thank him for this one. You made a bad decision that will be there for the ages but you got your moneys worth. And so did I.

Happy birthday Mr. Corman and many happy returns of the day!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

John Carpenter's CIGARETTE BURNS

With age and experience comes regret. There is no sadder moment in life than realizing you’ve made a destructive mistake for which you can never atone. Loss, regret, self-disgust and the knowledge of your own damned state are the cruel underpinnings of John Carpenter’s Masters of Horror episode CIGARETTE BURNS. Every character we meet in this story has the look of someone who knows they are already doomed.

As the film begins we see that theater owner/film procurer Kirby Sweetman is not a happy person. A distant man with an air of melancholy he is unkempt and disheveled, looking like the unmade bed he seems to have just rolled out of. Asked by a very rich collector find a print of a supposedly destroyed film he jumps at the job. Not only is he curious about the legendary movie (titled LE FIN ABSOLUTE DU MONDE or The Absolute End of the World) but the fee he has solicited will get him out of debt. And there lies the heart of Kirby’s personal Hell. Wracked by guilt over his past he appears to be holding onto life only out of habit. His monetary debt is to his father-in-law Mr. Meyers, a man who holds no love for Kirby since the suicide of his daughter Annie. But Kirby’s real debt is to his dead love. As the story progresses we learn that his promises to her, to ‘save’ her from her destructive tendencies are a responsibility he ultimately failed. The amazing Udo Kier plays the rich collector Ballinger and states plainly that he knows he’ll spend eternity in Hell but hopes the film will show him a glimpse of Heaven before he is dragged down. “You don’t make as much money as I have and not bury a few bodies.” Kirby seems to be running half-heartedly from his past, wanting to escape but knowing he should accept some form of punishment. Meyers has been ripped apart by the loss of his child, a loss he obviously feels to his core only wanting to lash out at Kirby to salve his own hurt. Damaged, conflicted, guilt-ridden and ultimately hopeless these people stagger toward their fate with the same sad determination Annie showed with the razor in her bath of warm water. As Kirby gets closer to finding the film his reality starts to come unraveled and his quest appears to be doomed even if he successfully finds the film.

The story of CIGARETTE BURNS is very similar to the novels FLICKER by Theodore Rozack and THROAT SPROCKETS by Tim Lucas and suffers from the same problem both of those books had. There is simply no way to concoct an ending that will equal the horror built up getting there. Indeed on my first viewing of the film I felt that it was very good even if the slightly disappointing ending hampered it overall. But a strange thing happened. For the next week I could not get the film out of my head. I kept coming back to it in quiet moments at work, thinking about it right before I drifted off to sleep and replaying scenes mentally as if I was looking for something hidden I had somehow missed. So it was with much anticipation that I sat down for my second viewing. As the credits rolled at the end of the hour I felt like I had been punched in the chest. I was weeping and I had experienced a revelation. This was brilliant! This film speaks to me in many ways but its anguished statement about grief and loss are most devastating. Death and guilt have been common themes in horror tales since time began and I've watched or read thousands but rarely have I been so effected by such a bleak story. I could see my own pain in Kirby, Meyers and even Ballinger as I realized that each of these men was searching for release. Release from guilt, loneliness, shame and even the sad pain of the survivor. These are deep, harsh emotions that I think none of these men could articulate even to themselves. Each acts in his own way to live with his sins employing violence, obsession or drugs to cope or hide. When finally LE FIN ABSOLUTE DU MONDE unspools before them its horrific central action forces them to confront their own dark hearts. It’s clear to me that younger viewers might not be as stirred by this story’s dark undertow even if the gore and well-crafted hunt for the mysterious film hold their attention throughout. This is a film made by an older man about the sins of his younger days. The questions being asked are what do those sins have to say about him and because of them should he have a future at all. CIGARETTE BURNS speaks to that horrible part of each of us that remembers every crime committed, catalogs each transgression, stores up all of our failures and occasionally makes us look at them unvarnished and with no rationalizations. It’s not a pleasant thing but for a movie it is a remarkable achievement.

I know why it took a second viewing to have this film effect me as strongly as it has. I am too much like Ballanger & Kirby in my love of movies. Like them I desire to see the rarest and most potent films in the world, especially if they have earned an extreme reputation. On first watching CIGARETTE BURNS I was caught up in the tantalizing mystery of the lost film so much so that I couldn’t look deeper. But like LE FIN ABSOLUTE DU MONDE this film worked its way inside my head and wouldn’t be ignored. At one point in the story a film critic calls LE FIN ABSOLUTE DU MONDE a weapon fired into the brain of the viewer. I think somehow Carpenter and his screenwriters have managed to get close to that mad idea here. Their accomplishment is all the more amazing for its audacity. Sadly I can’t imagine a film produced for theatrical release having the daring of this piece. An endless parade of remakes being today’s horror norm, I just don’t think something this smart would get the green-light. Thank goodness for cable television, huh.

My hope is that as I grow older I can learn to understand my inner demons so that I can live with myself. Maybe I can even learn enough to help others just as this film has, in a small way, helped me. It doesn’t show a path to redemption but it does show that without the hope for redemption there is nothing.