Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Cahiers Du Cinema's Top 100, or How I Learned To Stop Making Lists & Just Love Movies

The long-running French film journal Cahiers Du Cinema (I can never pronounce it right) recently released their latest list of the 100 greatest movies of all time, as voted by French critics, directors, industry poobahs. I've never cared for such lists. I suppose this one provides as good an opportunity as any to demonstrate why. First, here's how they rank 'em:

Citizen Kane - Orson Welles
The Night of the Hunter - Charles Laughton
The Rules of the Game (La Règle du jeu) - Jean Renoir
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (L'Aurore) - Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau
L'Atalante - Jean Vigo
M - Fritz Lang
Singin' in the Rain - Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly
Vertigo - Alfred Hitchcock
Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis) - Marcel Carné
The Searchers - John Ford
Greed - Erich von Stroheim
Rio Bravo - Howard Hawkes
To Be or Not to Be - Ernst Lubitsch
Tokyo Story - Yasujiro Ozu
Contempt (Le Mépris) - Jean-Luc Godard
Tales of Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari) - Kenji Mizoguchi
City Lights - Charlie Chaplin
The General - Buster Keaton
Nosferatu the Vampire - Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau
The Music Room - Satyajit Ray
Freaks - Tod Browning
Johnny Guitar - Nicholas Ray
The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) - Jean Eustache
The Great Dictator - Charlie Chaplin
The Leopard (Le Guépard) - Luchino Visconti
Hiroshima, My Love - Alain Resnais
The Box of Pandora (Loulou) - Georg Wilhelm Pabst
North by Northwest - Alfred Hitchcock
Pickpocket - Robert Bresson
Golden Helmet (Casque d'or) - Jacques Becker
The Barefoot Contessa - Joseph Mankiewitz
Moonfleet - Fritz Lang
Diamond Earrings (Madame de…) - Max Ophüls
Pleasure - Max Ophüls
The Deer Hunter - Michael Cimino
The Adventure - Michelangelo Antonioni
Battleship Potemkin - Sergei M. Eisenstein
Notorious - Alfred Hitchcock
Ivan the Terrible - Sergei M. Eisenstein
The Godfather - Francis Ford Coppola
Touch of Evil - Orson Welles
The Wind - Victor Sjöström
2001: A Space Odyssey - Stanley Kubrick
Fanny and Alexander - Ingmar Bergman
The Crowd - King Vidor
8 1/2 - Federico Fellini
La Jetée - Chris Marker
Pierrot le Fou - Jean-Luc Godard
Confessions of a Cheat (Le Roman d'un tricheur) - Sacha Guitry
Amarcord - Federico Fellini
Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête) - Jean Cocteau
Some Like It Hot - Billy Wilder
Some Came Running - Vincente Minnelli
Gertrud - Carl Theodor Dreyer
King Kong - Ernst Shoedsack & Merian J. Cooper
Laura - Otto Preminger
The Seven Samurai - Akira Kurosawa
The 400 Blows - François Truffaut
La Dolce Vita - Federico Fellini
The Dead - John Huston
Trouble in Paradise - Ernst Lubitsch
It's a Wonderful Life - Frank Capra
Monsieur Verdoux - Charlie Chaplin
The Passion of Joan of Arc - Carl Theodor Dreyer
À bout de souffle - Jean-Luc Godard
Apocalypse Now - Francis Ford Coppola
Barry Lyndon - Stanley Kubrick
La Grande Illusion - Jean Renoir
Intolerance - David Wark Griffith
A Day in the Country (Partie de campagne) - Jean Renoir
Playtime - Jacques Tati
Rome, Open City - Roberto Rossellini
Livia (Senso) - Luchino Visconti
Modern Times - Charlie Chaplin
Van Gogh - Maurice Pialat
An Affair to Remember - Leo McCarey
Andrei Rublev - Andrei Tarkovsky
The Scarlet Empress - Joseph von Sternberg
Sansho the Bailiff - Kenji Mizoguchi
Talk to Her - Pedro Almodóvar
The Party - Blake Edwards
Tabu - Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau
The Bandwagon - Vincente Minnelli
A Star Is Born - George Cukor
Mr. Hulot's Holiday - Jacques Tati
America, America - Elia Kazan
El - Luis Buñuel
Kiss Me Deadly - Robert Aldrich
Once Upon a Time in America - Sergio Leone
Daybreak (Le Jour se lève) - Marcel Carné
Letter from an Unknown Woman - Max Ophüls
Lola - Jacques Demy
Manhattan - Woody Allen
Mulholland Dr. - David Lynch
My Night at Maud's (Ma nuit chez Maud) - Eric Rohmer
Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard) - Alain Resnais
The Gold Rush - Charlie Chaplin
Scarface - Howard Hawks
Bicycle Thieves - Vittorio de Sica
Napoléon - Abel Gance

I tend to see such lists as a waste of time. The reason I've never been fond of them is that they can never work--the cinema is simply too vast a realm to be done justice by such an instrument. No matter how good any such list is, it still has more holes than a Swiss cheese, and it's just as easy to effectively pick apart. This one is no different. To wit:

Sergio Leone gets the nod for ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, but not for ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, which is a better movie. OAUTIA is also great, to be sure, and probably belongs on this list, as well, but if one is going to pick only one Leone, it has to be WEST.

I've never seen EL, so I don't know where I'd put it myself, but that's the only Luis Bunuel film on the list, which seems very wrong. I'd certainly place him among the best the medium has ever produced, and would rate several of his films higher than any number that appear on the list. My personal favorite is also one of his most obscure: SIMON OF THE DESERT.

Like Bunuel, Akira Kurosawa is also criminally underrepresented here--only SEVEN SAMURAI. It certainly belongs there, but Kurosawa is arguably the greatest overall filmmaker who ever lived. There are more than half a dozen of his features that should be there. It's particularly surprising that RASHOMON is absent. It usually scores even better than SEVEN SAMURAI in these lists.

Ingmar Bergman has only FANNY & ALEXANDER, which isn't even his best work. That honor goes to THE SEVENTH SEAL, and it's rather remarkable to me that it's a film that doesn't even rate. For whatever reason, Bergman--once considered a god among filmmakers--was downgraded in critical opinion in the last few decades. I'm not sure why; he's still one of the best. Personally, I'd have also put HOUR OF THE WOLF and maybe even THE VIRGIN SPRING ahead of F&A.

Dreyer gets two nods, including one for THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC--probably his best film--but his DAY OF WRATH doesn't make the cut. Surprising, considering many of the films that do.

Hitchcock has the opposite problem; as usual, he's overrepresented. VERTIGO belongs on the list. The other two are gratuitous.

Stanley Kubrick is misrepresented, here; BARRY LYNDON and 2001. DR. STRANGELOVE is easily his best film, but doesn't even rate, and any number of his other movies belong ahead of BARRY LYNDON.

John Huston rates only with THE DEAD. No TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE. No MISFITS. No ASPHALT JUNGLE. THE MALTESE FALCON isn't there, either, but, as great as it is, I've never thought of it as top 100 material.

Speaking of asphalt jungles, noir in general is grossly underrepresented, here. Robert Aldrich's KISS ME DEADLY rates, and, in fact, always ranks high in these sorts of projects, but it has never been worthy of its reputation. Welles' TOUCH OF EVIL is the only other noir picture of the classical era included on the list, and the only one that actually deserves to be there. In film noir, Orson Welles, alone, made MR. ARKADIN, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, and starred in THE THIRD MAN, all of which leave KISS ME DEADLY in the dust. Nick Ray, who only gets the nod for JOHNNY GUITAR, made, within noir alone, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT,ON DANGEROUS GROUND, and, in particular, IN A LONELY PLACE. Jacques Tourneur gets no notice for any of his films, which is, in itself, a crime, but it's a particularly aggravated crime for the exclusion of OUT OF THE PAST, one of the absolute best noir pictures. Wilder's SUNSET BOULEVARD is nowhere to be seen. Robert Wise gets no notice for THE SET-UP. Kubrick's THE KILLING is AWOL. I could list these all day long. Noir was an astonishing genre. It produced a string of genuine classics, and KISS ME DEADLY wouldn't even rank in the top 20. Maybe not the top 50. Frenchies named film noir; come on, fellas--get with it!

There are several other glaring omissions. There isn't a single Martin Scorsese film. Not one. CASABLANCA (the absolute apex of the assembly-line Hollywood studio system, and one of the finest films ever made) doesn't rate. Werner Herzog is entirely unrepresented (No AGUIRRE, no FITZCARRALDO). Hawks gets the nod for RIO BRAVO (a programmer Western), but not for THE BIG SLEEP.

This being a product of the French, Charlie Chaplin has to be insanely overrepresented, but five films--more than any other director--is taking the absurd to new levels (for my part, I probably wouldn't include any Chaplin).

Then, there are those selections that just leave me scratching my head in befuddlement. FREAKS? THE DEER HUNTER? THE SEARCHERS? What the hell...? THE SEARCHERS always polls above its merits (Hawks' RED RIVER does, as well), so maybe that isn't such a surprise, but I keep expecting history to finally catch up with it. Looks like history hasn't done it yet. That doesn't make THE SEARCHERS any better, though. FREAKS is essentially a novelty film by a minor director that someone in France must have overhyped to an insane degree--it certainly doesn't belong anywhere near any such list of this sort (particularly when not a one of the genuinely excellent horror films of its era are included). Neither does Truffaut's THE 400 BLOWS, which seems forever held in a high esteem it does practically nothing to earn.

Even a genuinely great movie like NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is greately overrated by appearing here, particularly as high on the list as it appears. I say this as a sincere, committed fan of that film for much of my life. I love it. The movie is just incredible for most of its running time, but unfortunately, when it gets to the final act, it progressively disintegrates. The crash is hard, and it is jarring, a brutal shift in tone that takes us to a trite ending that looks and feels like nothing so much as one of those inane studio imposition on an already-finished picture we've seen so often over the years (shades of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS). That's enough of a flaw to drop its ranking well out of a top 100.

There are some pleasant surprises, as well. KING KONG and APOCALYPSE NOW certainly belong in that category, and it's good to see David Lynch and Pedro Almodovar get a little respect. Far more of the picks, however, are befuddling. A stray misfire or two would be somewhat forgivable, but, in this case, there are a lot of them, and their presence requires totally excluding too many obvious, deserving picks.

But, as I said before, any list like this can be torn to pieces with a little thought. It's why I don't like 'em. If I made a list of my own 100 personal favorites, I could then rip it to shreds in exactly the same way I've been ripping up this one. Pitting against one another films as different as CHILDREN OF PARADISE, SOME LIKE IT HOT, and APOCALYPSE NOW doesn't serve any useful end. The cinema is vast and has something for everyone. It should be enjoyed, not listed.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

THE DEVIL'S REJECTS: The Critics Rave!

Saw Rob Zombie's THE DEVIL'S REJECTS back in 2005 at a midnight show the night before its big national release. Came home that night and immediately put this together:

THE DEVIL'S REJECTS: The Critics Rave!

"Offensively inhuman, uninspired and cruelly unoriginal."
--Robert K. Elder, CHICAGO TRIBUNE

"A reprehensible and loathsome journey of excess...any redeeming value is well hidden. "
--Edward Douglas, COMINGSOON.NET

"The Devil's Rejects doesn't just deserve to be rejected, but to be buried in a hole so dank that no one will discover it."
--James Berardinelli, REELVIEWS

"A Reject Indeed. Zombie horror film unwatchable."
--Angela Baldassarre, SYMPATICO.CA

"Zombie doesn't appear to have any other goals besides assaulting the viewer with gore and callousness."

"...there's little pleasure to be found in a movie of this nature."
--Peter Debruge, MIAMI HERALD

"Crass, vacuous exercise in grind-house stylistics."

"Here is a gaudy vomitorium of a movie, violent, nauseating and really a pretty good example of its genre. If you are a hardened horror movie fan capable of appreciating skill and wit in the service of the deliberately disgusting, 'The Devil's Rejects' may exercise a certain strange charm. If on the other hand you close your eyes if a scene gets icky, here is a movie to see with blinders on, because it starts at icky and descends relentlessly through depraved and nauseating to the embrace of road kill."

See it! You'll be glad you did, you sick bastiches!


Monday, December 15, 2008


This remarkable film has been allowed to remain out-of-print for quite some time, now. Only a few weeks ago, Blue Underground was scheduled to re-release it, as they do with so many old Anchor Bay titles, but this has either been delayed or canceled entirely, which is very unfortunate. Here's my review of it, written back in the spring:

Fri., 11 April, 2008

Back in 1980, Polish director Andrej Zulawski had an idea for a movie. Trying to sum it up, he probably made it sound overly "arty" and convoluted so he simplified his pitch--he told an American distributor it was about a beautiful girl who gets fucked by an octopus. What's even more astonishing about that tale is that, on that description, the distributor bought it and ponied up part of the money Zulawski needed to make the picture. The result was POSSESSION, starring Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill. My cinematic studies were rather extensive last year--probably a few hundred movies in all--but POSSESSION was one of the absolute best I saw all year and one of the most intense movies I've ever seen. I felt utterly drained after watching it. It's exhausting, to be sure, but in a good way.

The aforementioned "octopus" wasn't really an octopus but it was a monster with a lot of arms and it did fuck Isabelle Adjani. The movie isn't "about" that, though. It's actually a very intense, visceral study of the disintegration of a once-functional marriage. Art reflected life--POSSESSION was made in the aftermath of the traumatic collapse of Zulawski's own marriage. His film offers an excruciatingly detailed and unflinching map of the emotional landscape of two people whose relationship has disintegrated and left them in absolute agony, their lives in pieces and the two of them trapped in a sort of emotional limbo. They can't stand to be together. They can't stand to be apart. Isabelle Adjani, lost in her pain and seemingly verging on madness, gives birth to a monster, a literal physical representation of her emotional state. At first, it's in a constant state of evolution. She sequesters it away, cares for it, nurtures it and yes, is fucked by it, until it finishes its last transformation. That transformation is a major plot twist. It's the sort of thing I should have seen coming but totally missed until the big reveal at the end. It is said that "a picture speaks a thousand words." The reveal near the end of this ups the word-count substantially.

And that isn't even the end, yet. Zulawski sees the end of this relationship as something akin to the end of the world. And in the movie, this is literally the case.

(How's that for a hook?)

Zulawski shot and edited the film in a raw, frenetic style. The camera, as agitated and unstable as the characters, is forever moving, moving, moving, covering most of the interaction between the two leads in tight, claustrophobic shots that bore in so closely we can almost count the pores in their faces. Adjani, in particular, has a remarkable face for film and Zulawski makes perhaps the best use of it of any of her directors over the years. For their part, Neill and Adjani are just excellent and in a pair--a quartet, before the end--of extraordinarily demanding parts that could have been disastrous in lesser hands (and, one suspects, would have sent most thespians running home, crying for momma). Adjani was unnerved, even horrified, by the intensity of the film, dubbing it "psychological pornography." The Cannes Film Festival awarded her Best Actress for her work on it.

POSSESSION is rather long, just over two hours. Back in the mid-'80s, it was released on video in the U.S. in a substantially butchered version--the distributors apparently tried to re-edit it into something like an exploitation film. Needless to say, it quickly died (I can't even imagine who would have come up with such a project, or how they'd have gone about it). Luckily, at the dawn of DVD, good ol' Anchor Bay--back before they'd become a recurring joke/tragedy themselves--came along and saved it, releasing it in its complete form in the U.S. for the first time, accompanied by a very good Zulawski commentary track. I bought this one virtually blind last year, having read a single laudatory review that told almost nothing of the plot. I'm very glad I did.

In a sign of how badly Anchor Bay has stumbled since selling out to Starz, POSSESSION has been allowed to go out of print and stay that way for quite some time. But they do offer us ROSEANNE: THE COMPLETE 5th SEASON. A real monster, to be sure, but one that fucks us instead of Isabelle Adjani.


Thursday, November 27, 2008

THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE in glorious black-and-white! 2.0

I discovered Robert Siodmak's THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946) a little more than a year ago on Turner Classic Movies. I was deathly ill one night and got up at some ungodly hour to violently unburden my poor roiling innards. I sat on the couch afterwards, turned on the tv and caught the first 15-or-so minutes of it and it put the sort of hook into me that a great, well-constructed specimen of cinema can put into a devout lover of same. I was hopelessly ill though and, furiously, had to cut it off and return to my bed--one of those moments when one really despises one's mortal weaknesses--but I got up the next morning and immediately sought out the DVD release for purchase.

When it arrived, I hungrily devoured it and was so impressed I then sat through it again. The movie ticks like a clock, one of the all-time great horror movies. I couldn't believe I'd never heard of it. I'm sure I'd read of it over the years but I had no memory of ever having done so. It just came out of nowhere for me and I was genuinely astonished that something so good and so high-profile (a major studio picture) could have escaped my notice for so long.

There's a mystery afoot in THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, one involving family secrets, hidden history, a creepy old house and a killer on the loose. We're all lost in the dark with our heroine until the final reel. Then, as the mystery unravels, things get really dark!

The movie is a showcase for the expressive use of black-and-white photography. The film was made at the height of the film noir era and reflects those influences in every frame but while noir can have a strong horror element, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE is the full treatment. Siodmack weaves a stylized cinematic dreamscape of light and shadow, deftly stage-managing what he allows us to see and leaving us to guess--and worry--about what we may not. There may not be anything in all that darkness and we all know it's silly to fear the dark, right? But then again, something feels very wrong and it's getting worse. Let the movie take you where it wants you to go and the anxiety that generates is very effective. Even if we maintain some distance between ourselves and the film though, we can appreciate the artistry of it.

I was really impressed with just about everything in the movie, which was well ahead of its time. Among other things, the film, which was made twenty years before Mario Bava invented cinematic gialli, is exactly what an Italian giallo should theoretically be but never is. Siodmak's direction, which is what initially hooked me on the picture, is wildly inventive--crazy angles, creepy images, an atmosphere of stifling dread. I love it, and study it often.

It's a movie that wouldn't have worked in color. I've always disliked hearing b&w called "monochrome." Actually, "black-and-white" itself is a misnomer. It isn't just black and white--it really is another sort of color palette. When it comes to making a film, the choice of color or b&w isn't, as is to often assumed, neutral. A director and cinematographer design the look of a film around whatever palette they're going to be using. As John Huston put it, "I shot in black and white the same way a sculptor chooses between clay, bronze or marble." It's confounding that so many people--including nearly all of the misguided souls who agitate for "colorization" of old b&w films--should be so apparently oblivious to so obvious a thing. I've long held that a skilled director and cinematographer can get as much "color" out of the format as they can from outright color stock. THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE is a prime example of this.

An unfortunate phenomenon of recent years is a growing lack of appreciation for b&w cinema, particularly among young people (and I say that as if I'm some white-haired old duffer myself--I'm definitely not). I worked in video rentals for a number of years before the vampire chain-stores entirely sucked the blood out of the trade and I often ran across this peculiar malady. My early impression was pure old-fogey-ism; this distaste for b&w wasn't directed at b&w photography itself but at the implications of a film being done in b&w. It suggests something older, something more dialogue-driven, something bereft of today's rapid-fire editing and computer animation and something without an explosion or fight every two minutes and thus overly challenging to those without attention spans. Old-fogey-ist sentiment though this may be, I still suspect it accounts for most of the aversion I've observed.

But not all of it. I'm not so much the old fogey that I confuse a comfort with the familiar (contemporary films) with the idiocy of the terminally unwise (in which the past is held in contempt). Not everyone afflicted with B&W Aversion Syndrome is hopeless. I have, in fact, personally managed the recoveries of more than a few of its victims.

Think of what those victims miss out on. Their affliction effectively cuts them off from a large portion of the history of cinema, including many of the greatest films ever made. No CASABLANCA. No CITIZEN KANE. No SEVEN SAMURAI. And no SPIRAL STAIRCASE. I was recently watching the new 75th anniversary DVD re-release of Karl Freund's THE MUMMY (1932), a film of which I'm particularly fond, and some remarks on the new commentary track about the failure of younger viewers to appreciate films of that sort made me want to write something that would express my own profound, sincere love of same and maybe even do it with sufficient flair to convince those afflicted with this malady--those who aren't terminal, that is--to give their condition a second thought or two. Perhaps that will become a recurring theme here. Perhaps these comments on THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE are, for someone out there, the first step toward a cure.


Thursday, November 20, 2008


My take on an interesting Italian feature that is far too often carelessly filed in the "nun-sploitation" folder:

Sat., 19 April, 2008

I'd read about Gianfranco Mingozzi's FLAVIA THE HERETIC (1974) for many years, but I only got to see it early last year, when I went on an insane movie-buying binge, and, for whatever reason, it has been on my mind lately, though it's been some months since I watched it.

It's a striking film, set in Italy somewhere around the 15th century. Definitely Medieval-era (though I don't think any specific year is ever given). This being the time of Christian ascendancy, the age is a time of utter madness, and the movie captures this very well.

Flavia, our protagonist (Florinda Bolkan), is a young lady who encounters a fallen Muslim on a battlefield. He seems a warm and intriguing fellow, and she's immediately taken with him. Her father, a soldier of a a family of some standing, comes along, almost immediately, and murders the wounded man right before her eyes. But she'll continue to see him in her dreams.

Her father ships her off to a convent that seems more like an open-air insane asylum--the residents, so harshly repressed by unyielding Medieval Christianity, slowly go mad. Flavia comes under the influence of one of the nuttier nuns. But in a mad world, only the sane are truly mad, and this sociopathic sister clearly recognizes the insanity around her. Her take on the times in which they live strikes a chord with Flavia, who, being young and apparently sheltered, is beginning to question everything about this world in which she finds herself trapped.

The movie is unflinching in its portrayal of that world, showcasing a lot of unpleasantness. We see a horse gelded, a lord rape a peasant woman in a pig-sty, the pious torture of a young nun. Through it all, Flavia observes and questions, rejecting, eventually, the Christian dogma that creates such a parade of horrors in terms that would gain the movie some criticism over the years for seeming anachronistic. I disagree with that criticism. Flavia's views, though sometimes expressed in ways that vaguely mirror, for example, then-contemporary feminist commentary (the movie was made in 1974), revolve around what are really pretty obvious questions. It is, perhaps, difficult to believe she could be so much of a fish out of water in her own time, but that's the sort of minor point it doesn't do to belabor. Flavia is written in such a way to allow those of our era, or of any era, to empathize with her plight. As well as it works, getting bogged down on such a matter would be missing the forest for the trees.

Flavia is heartened when the Muslims arrive, invading the countryside by sea, and she finds, in their leader, a new version of the handsome Islamist who still visits her dreams. Smitten with her almost immediately, he allows her to virtually lead his army, and Flavia becomes a Joan of Arc figure in full battle-gear, directing the invaders to pull down Christian society and wreak vengeance upon all those she's seen commit evil.

Is she the herald of a new and better world? She may think so, but Muslims of that era weren't big on feminism, either, as she soon learns the hard way. As they say, meet the new boss...

This is really just a thumbnail of some of the things that happen in FLAVIA THE HERETIC. The movie is quite grim, and with a very downbeat, direly depressing ending. Not a mass-audience movie at all, to be sure. It's quite good, though, for all its ugliness, and doesn't belong on the "nunsploitation" pile on which it is often carelessly thrown.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

BCI's Spanish Horror: An Evaluation

The last of my vintage pieces on the Spanish horror line from BCI/Deimos:

Mon., 7 July, 2008

It looks like BCI/Deimos is closing the tomb on its Spanish horror line. That's too bad, because it's been a hell of a run. Their most recent pair of films were, admittedly, botched--CURSE OF THE DEVIL (1973) has an horrendous authoring error that renders it unwatchable, while WEREWOLF SHADOW (1971) lacks the advertised American version (including, instead, some butchered monstrosity no one recognizes). One suspects these, issued after it was apparent the line was ending, may have fallen victim to a shove-it-out-the-door-before-the-house-burns-down attitude, with accompanying minimal quality control. Aside from these, all of the releases in this line have been first-rate discs indeed, even when the movies themselves were less than stellar (EXORCISM and VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES, I'm callin' you out). Beautiful transfers and frequently solid extras.

I made some real discoveries through those releases. HUMAN BEASTS (1980), a Paul Naschy flick that seems to have been almost entirely overlooked by everyone, turned out to be a wonderful discovery. Ditto with Amando de Ossorio's LORELEY'S GRASP (1974), a very ambitious monster movie that, in spite of budgetary shortcomings, mostly succeeds. Another discovery: Ossorio's NIGHT OF THE SORCERERS (1974), much heralded in some quarters but difficult to find for many years, turned out to be a ludicrously overhyped turd, a film whose good reputation over the years seemed to be entirely based on youthful--and, one suspects, quite foggy--half-memories of old late-night cable airings. Still another: Leon Klimovsky's DRACULA SAGA (1972)--not very well known--was a good, crazy little movie.

My pick of the litter, though, was Paul Naschy's NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF (1981), a movie that showcased exactly why Naschy has such a devoted cult following. Plotwise, the movie is a virtual remake of WEREWOLF SHADOW. Naschy is, once again, Waldemar Daninsky, the Polish nobleman afflicted with lycanthropy, battling a resurrected vampiress who once claimed him as a slave. In addition to starring in the film, Naschy took up directing chores on this one and in a time in which slasher films virtually consumed the horror market, the movie was full-blown, unapologetic old-school gothic horror--foreboding castles, dark, cobweb-bedecked tombs, ancient curses. This was Naschy peaking, hitting his prime and the result is the film all those earlier Naschy werewolf sagas were trying to become. It perhaps runs a little too long for its own good but that's a very minor quibble.

The series also gave us a pair of commentaries by Naschy and Carlos Aured on HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB (their best collaboration and a fantastic piece of inspired madness) and BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL (not a great movie but worth a look, if one is in the mood). Aured died very soon after those commentaries were recorded, making them much more significant--a pioneer of Spanish dark fantasy offering some of his final recorded comments on his own career.

As wonderful as they are as a group, I have been critical of some of BCI's decisions with regard to these releases. They have to run their business as they see fit, of course, but as a consumer, one who belongs firmly within the target audience of such movies, a lot of their decisions didn't make a great deal of sense to me and these decisions, I suspect, did some of the harm that led to their eventual decision to abandon the line. The very fact that COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE (1972), one of the most anticipated Naschy releases by fans, is now going to be released as part of some other BCI line, having been left gathering dust since BCI acquired the rights to it and all of these other films as a group, seems rather astonishing. I also suspect BCI's decision to release in Blu-ray proved, as I anticipated, a costly misfire (while Blu-ray is a marginal format, at best, Sony presently demands enormous fees for releasing anything on it). Still another: Both of the two most recent films released--the botched ones--were merely retreads of relatively recent, readily available and already-acceptable releases from Anchor Bay. And instead of being broken up or just put on the back burner for a while, they went out together (to be fair though, even these included the superior Spanish language tracks absent from those earlier Anchor Bay versions). And so on.

Still, what's done is done and maybe the folks at BCI/Deimos had what they thought were good reasons for all of those things. They still managed a solid series of releases and I raise a glass to their efforts and wish they were going to continue.


Monday, November 17, 2008


Continuing my vintage reviews of Spanish horror releases via BCI/Deimos:

Mon., 21 April, 2008

I'm just not much of a giallo fan. As a sub-genre, it's wonderful in theory, and usually godawful in execution. I was somewhat hesitant about picking up the new BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL disc, because, as its title suggests, it's an intentional effort to ape the Italian gialli, this one brought to us by the Spanish. It stars the most excellent Paul Naschy, Spain's Lon Chaney, and was directed, in 1973, by Carlos Aured, a fellow pioneer of Spanish dark fantasy who has recently died. Those two facts helped prompt me to pick up the movie, but the two real selling-points for me were that I also wanted to help feed BCI/Deimos, who have done a fantastic job on their series of Spanish horror films, and I wanted the Aured/Naschy commentary, recorded not long before Aured's death, and probably his last public words on his career. That, in particular, made it a must-have item. Still, I didn't have very high hopes for the movie itself.

Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a pretty solid film. Our man Naschy is a drifter who breezes into a town in the north of France and goes to work for three odd sisters, living a reclusive life in a big, old house. Almost immediately after he arrives (and starts getting very friendly with two of the sisters), blue-eyed ladies start turning up dead around town, each one having their eyes stolen by their killer. Naschy's drifter, it turns out, has a past from which he's on the run, and when it emerges, all suspicion turns no him.

But there's more to this mystery than meets the blue eyes.

The movie, though certainly worth a look, is far from perfect, and it would probably be fairly ranked as a relatively minor Naschy outing. It suffers from some of the shortcomings that so violently sink most gialli, but, unlike so many of the Italian films, it isn't sunk by them. The police procedural elements are fairly minimal. The "big reveal" at the end is, as in practically every giallo, utterly ludicrous, but the final sequence is so odd and so well played that viewers will tend to forgive the film for failing to solve a critical piece of the mystery (a major character is stabbed, but it's never revealed who did it), and for building up a minor one, then leaving it completely unexplained (the matter of the accident that resulted in the injuries to the two sisters). We're given at least one red herring that is never explained--one of the sisters spies Naschy's boots covered in mud, which was potentially very important, but no explanation for their being muddy is ever given. As a mystery, it has far too much of the giallo in it to be very good. As a movie, though, it's pretty consistently entertaining, with plenty of nifty directorial flourishes and a really good score.

I may be going easy on it because I was so surprised it wasn't a complete waste of space. Still, all the caveats I've offered in mind, I'd give it a marginal recommendation.

(As a footnote, one of the film's retitlings over the years was HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN, which has always seemed to me a much better title. Interestingly enough, Aured mentions this on the commentary, and seems to like it better, as well).


Sunday, November 16, 2008


Another vintage review of one of the excellent Spanish horror releases from BCI/Deimos:

Mon., 7 April, 2008

HUMAN BEASTS (1980) is the newest vintage Paul Naschy release from BCI/Deimos. Just saw it this morning, and I liked it a lot. While I thought it a relatively minor film, at first, it has grown on me as the day wore on, and as I've given it further thought. I like that a lot.

(There will probably be some spoilers, here, for those who haven't seen the film).

Naschy is a mercenary, roped into stage-managing a robbery by his girlfriend and her brother. He gets greedy, makes off with the booty, and bumps off the brother in the process. Wounded and pursued by his spurned and revenge-minded paramour, Naschy finds refuge in an old dark house populated by a cast of oddballs with more dark secrets than you can shake a stick at.

HUMAN BEASTS takes a lot of turns. It begins as a crime thriller about a diamond heist, then about a diamond heist gone wrong, then becomes a horror piece, with a voyeuristic killer, seemingly spectral appearances by a mysterious dead woman, a house full of rich wierdos, and the Man, Naschy himself, as a nightmare-plagued anti-hero thrust into the middle of it all. The odd fusion works very well, for the most part. Everyone in the film is, as the English-language title suggests, a human beast--they put up a "normal" front to those around them but, inside, they're thinking only of themselves and ruthlessly feeding on their fellow man in various ways. Naschy's Bruno comes out looking the best, but only because he at least feels remorse for the lousy things he's done. Not that this will necessarily save him in the end...

This is another great release from BCI/Deimos, who have been doing Spanish horror fans proud (and, hopefully, making some more of them, too). The plot of HUMAN BEASTS sounds awful similar to the simultaneously released BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL, which I haven't yet seen, but that film is said to be essentially a Spanish version of a giallo, and, as that particular sub-genre produced virtually nothing noteworthy except mass, I suspect I'm going to prefer HUMAN BEASTS. I'll know soon enough!

As a footnote, I still seriously question the release schedule of these discs. If the two films are as similar as they sound, why not release them at least a few months apart? And the next two simultaneous releases--WEREWOLF SHADOW and CURSE OF THE DEVIL--are both re-releases of already-available movies. Wouldn't it make more sense to mix those up, too? Ultimately, I don't suppose it really matters, but I really like these movies, and I'd like to see them do as well as possible, niche items though they are, and their release schedules, with a few exceptions, have just seemed, from the beginning, like one unnecessarily bad decision after another.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Carlos Aured has died

Actually, he died months ago, but this was my write-up from then:

Wed., 6 Feb., 2008

Writer-Director Carlos Aured, one of the pioneers of Spanish horror cinema, died Sunday, from reasons undisclosed in the press.

Aured entered the cinema as an assistant director in the late 1960s, and iummediately gravitated to Spain's blossoming horror genre, only then beginning to emerge from beneath the thumb of fascist-era censorship. As an A.D. on WEREWOLF SHADOW (one of Spain's first horror mega-hits), he first worked with Spanish horror maven Paul Naschy, and, as he stepped up to director, the two would collaborate on a series of films that would continue to run, intermittently, until a few months before the directors' death, producing some of the finest work of either man.

Aured directed such chill-fests (and, often, howl-fests) as VENGENACE OF THE MUMMY, HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB, CURSE OF THE DEVIL, and BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL. His screenplays include HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN (one of the greatest movie titles ever) and TRIUMPHS OF A MAN CALLED HORSE. Earlier last year, genre fans were delighted at the news that Aured, who had been essentially retired for some years, had been roped back into a new project by Naschy, SEAGULLS. This was followed by puzzlement when, without any real explanation, Aured left the production, turning over directing reins to Naschy, and, his death falling so close to that decision, one can't help but wonder if some illness that eventually claimed his life may have dictated it. (My Spanish isn't good enough to scan the Spanish press for details).

Aured's work was being introduced to a new generation of fans in the U.S. (and reenjoyed by some of us with a little more grey) via DVD. His BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL is scheduled for a special edition release next month by BCI/Deimos, a company which deserves particular credit for bringing early Spanish horror cinema to the format. Back in November, they'd released a very nice edition of his HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB, one of thie wildest, wackiest horror picture shows I'd seen in ages. Aured had participated in the production of that release, contributing a solid and quite animated (if not so well recorded) audio commentary with star Naschy. He gave the impression of someone who'd really loved his work, and loved talking about it.

And though he's dead, we haven't heard the last from Aured, either. At the same sessions in which that commentary was recorded, he and Naschy also recorded one for that upcoming BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL release. And his last collaboration with Naschy, SEAGULLS, is still on the horizon.

I'd only began to see Aured's movies last year, after having read about them for decades, and I've had a great deal of fun with them, particularly HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB. It's the sort of movie you watch partially in stunned disbelief, partially in utter delight, and conclude with a rip-roaring howl about how, damn it all to hell, they don't make 'em like they used to. They don't make 'em like Carlos did anymore. They don't make 'em like Carlos, either.

Carlos Aured was 71.


Friday, November 14, 2008


Another vintage review of a pair of Spanish horror films from the good folks at BCI/Deimos:

Fri., 16 Nov., 2007

A double-shot of Amando de Ossorio from the Spanish horror line of BCI/Deimos. Watched them both for the first time, and back-to-back last night, and it made for quite a contrast.

I'd heard some pretty terrible things about THe LORELEY'S GRASP (1974), but it turned out to be very good, almost excellent, for what it is. It's set in a small town by the Rhine where young women are being horribly killed by some sort of creature, their hearts torn from their chests. A girl's school hires a professional hunter to protect the students and bring in the beast, which turns out to be the Loreley of Germanic legend, taking hearts to prolong its life. Ossorio takes what could have been a standard-issue monster movie and ambitiously infuses it with a mythical element that is surprisingly effective.

LORELEY is certainly hampered by budgetary considerations, but not cripplingly so. I could have done without the radioactive recreation of Siegfried's blade--why not just stick with the mythical elements of the film and write it so the Doc had found what he believed to be the real one? Loreley's business face was a rubber-suited atrocity, but good ol' Amando realized it from the beginning, and, having thankfully never been corrupted by the Lucio Fulci School of Talentless Hackwork with regard to lousy effects, never allowed us to get much of a look at it. At the same time, her public relations face was that of Helga Line, and we get to see plenty of it, which is just dandy. Great locations, too. Amando is almost Franco-like in making solid use of interesting surroundings. He manages, at times, to imbue the movie with an otherworldly feel, as though it's a fairy tale; something that isn't necessarily taking place in a fixed time in the real world. Our heroes' stripey pants do unfortunately date the film. Put him in some khakis, and we'd be talking Timeless.

Overall, a very solid effort--a movie I'm glad I bought.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for NIGHT OF THE SORCERERS (1974). Like LORELEY, I'd heard it was rancid butter, but it also had a reputation, in some corners of genre-dom, as a most worthwhile effort, and I prayed the hype was to prove more accurate than the hooey. Unlike LORELEY, though, the dire estimations of the films' merits were not only correct but actually understated. It just stinks. Worse than limburger. Worse than the stinkiest of stinky feet. Worse than George Bush Jr. Well, maybe not that badly--no film is really that bad. But it's still pretty awful. So awful there isn't much point in listing its deficiencies. There are some beautiful ladies on display, and that's the only thing good one can say about it. Oh, and it ends.

Even though NIGHT sucks like a black hole, both of these discs are first-rate. Beautiful prints. Not much in the way of extras (in spite of the "Special Edition" tag on the label), but the folks at BCI/Deimos deserve nothing but praise for the loving attention they display on every one of these releases. Even releasing such obscure niche-market titles deserves a round of applause. That they do it so very well is just gravy.

I would, however, question the wisdom of releasing NIGHT before LORELEY. It's impossible to imagine anyone who watched, as their first Amando de Ossorio film, NIGHT OF THE SORCERERS ever being compelled to watch another. Active avoidance will be the most likely reaction every time. Its release, when LORELEY is in the wings, is like the situation, on the Naschy films, where the putrid EXORCISM was chosen to precede HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB. The recently announced plan to release NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF and VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES on Blu-Ray sound pretty dubious to me, as well. I want these films to succeed. I'd guess that Blu-Ray release will be a rather pricey venture, and I'd just as soon the company didn't put too many of its eggs into what is, honestly, a fringe format that shows little sign of ever rising above the niche occupied by laserdiscs in the '80s, and is just as likely to die off entirely in the near future. But these are really seperate matters. These two were my first non-Blind Dead Ossorio ventures, and even handicapping for SORCERERS, his work is looking pretty damned good to me.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008


While it was ongoing, I wrote several reviews of films in the excellent line of Spanish horror films released by BCI/Deimos. I'm going to be putting them here in the coming days. First up...

Fri., 16 Nov., 2007

Alaric de Marnac (Paul Naschy) ran into some problems with the law a few centuries ago; it seems the authorities of his day didn't appreciate his more murderous habits. What's an evil warlock to do? If you're Alaric and it's 15th century France, looks like the next item on the agenda is getting one's head chopped off. Alaric doesn't appreciate his executioners' poor sense of humor about the whole business and before getting his lid bobbed, he puts a curse on their descendants. Five-hundred years pass, then HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB!

Finally saw this one two days ago and what a whacked-out movie! A stubby weightlifter-looking warlock/werewolf (or at least one who howls and is accused of werewolfism) who spends half his screentime in the movie as a severed head, his most excellent vampire girlfriend, mind-control mayhem, more than the mandatory-minimum of nudity, a beating heart being torn out of a chest, fantastic use of a great location in winter, vampire fu, some first-rate backwoods justice, the Hammer of Thor as a talisman against evil, lots of evil to wield it against, the best Naschy visual character design EVER, AND the living dead, AND a score drawn straight from 1940s radio melodramas.

Anyone who doesn't love this movie just sucks.

On the other hand, it's not a movie to approach rationally--nothing in it makes one lick of sense and one could write a long and mean review cataloguing its many idiocies. It was obviously an impoverished production, and could have used something more closely resembling a budget here and there. It's very poorly edited at times--director Carlos Aured was a first-timer behind the camera and it shows. Some truly terrible transitions, among other problems.

These things were noticeable, sometimes nagging, but none of them even came close to robbing me of the very real fun I had with the movie. Look at all the wonders encompassed in the running time of HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB! No one is going to go into it expecting CITIZEN KANE--to be put off by its shortcomings to any real extent would be far more lamebrained than the lamest of the many plot elements with which the viewer is besieged. This one is a definite keeper.

BCI/Deimos also gets a thumbs up for yet another first-rate DVD release in their Spanish horror line. Unlike many of their others, this one actually lives up to the "Special Edition" label on the cover and sports many worthy extras. There's even a commentary by Naschy and Aured. A minor quibble about that though: the commentary is recorded in what sounds like a large room with the mic too far away from the participants. They speak in Spanish and subtitles are provided, so the translation can be read by those who don't speak the language as it goes along, but I'd also like to have heard it and the relatively poor recording makes it difficult, at times, because the film's sound, kept at too high a level beneath the commentary, often all but drowns it out. As I said though, a relatively minor quibble. Shouldn't detract too much from the hearty praise those at BCI have earned for this release.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Early Impressions of Jesús Franco

Beloved by some, hated by many, Jesús Franco has become one of my cinematic heroes. This is an appreciation of his work I wrote a few years ago, when I was still relatively new to it:

Back in the mid-'80s, my uncle gave me Phil Hardy's "Encyclopedia of Horror Movies" as a Christmas gift. The book was the first--and, so far as I know, only--attempt at a comprehensive worldwide survey of "horror movies" (Hardy's definition was often rather rubbery), from the birth of cinema in the 1890s to the then-present. It was a remarkably ambitious work, filled with interesting descriptions of little-known and long-forgotten cinematic gems. I had already been an enthusiast of cinematic ecclectica, but the book, by giving me a glimpse of how truly vast a landscape there was to explore, opened a whole new world for me.

In its pages, I first discovered Spanish madman Jesus "Jess" Franco, one of the most prolific filmmakers the medium has ever seen. Hardy's descriptions (even when disapproving) made his work sound utterly fascinating, but both Franco and his films were virtually unknown in the U.S. at the time. A few years later, Tim Lucas wrote a groundbreaking survey of Franco's films in "Fangoria." A few more years go by and Franco was the subject of a chapter of "Immoral Tales," an excellent book on European sex-and-horror films authored by Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs (the latter later a founder of the most excellent Mondo Macabro DVD label). Still, it wasn't until the advent of DVD that his films began to circulate like mad in the U.S. and I began to get my first look at it.

I took the plunge with TWO UNDERCOVER ANGELS, which turned out not to be the best film in which to plunge! It isn't bad, I suppose; just mostly a silly diversion. From what I'd absorbed from the literature, Franco is noted for intense, claustrophobic sagas of sex and seediness, told through free-form dreamlike narratives, recorded with crazily experimental camera work. ANGELS was basically a light comedy. It had a pulp aesthetic I could appreciate but it wasn't the full-strength Franco treatment for which I was looking.

I carried on.

My next outing was VAMPYROS LESBOS (1970), and if I'd had any doubts, this one turned out to be a film that safely guaranteed there would be a third, fourth, and 50th Franco film in my future. It's very rare to come across something so utterly bizarre and unorthodox in every particular but to "get" it instantly. That's what VAMPYROS LESBOS was like for me. I'd read about Franco for years but nothing I'd read did justice to the reality. Bela Lugosi's DRACULA has been sequelized, remade, rehashed and referenced more times than can be easily counted but as far as I know, this is the only time anyone set out to produce a "remake" that consciously reversed everything in the movie. Franco's film is like a negative image of the original. Night becomes day, cold Carpathian environs fall to warm Mediterranea, hetero Count becomes lesbian Countess, Puritanical vampire hunter becomes a degenerate obsessed with becoming a vampire himself. The perversity of it all--particularly that last touch--is just delightful. Soledad Miranda, as the vampire Countess Carody, dominates the film with her remarkable presence. Bela never drank... wine, but when Franco zoomed into Soledad's exquisite face as she tells us "I love this wine," well, I may not have literally danced a jig in joy but the impulse were certainly there.

Next came SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY (1970), a positively hypnotic film, also starring Miranda. In this one, a naively idealistic scientist engaged in fetal research he hopes will offer tremendous benefits for mankind instead finds himself scandalized, his work condemned as ethically abominable. How's that for a timely premise? Distraught, he eventually kills himself and his horrified lover (Miranda), psychologically broken by it all, sets out for revenge against his persecutors--one by one, she hunts them down, seduces them and kills them.

The film's most astonishing sequence features beautiful Soledad consumed by grief to the point of insanity. As she confronts the horror of it all, Franco zooms into her face and seems to zoom into her soul. We see her thoughts and memories of her previously happy life and their violent collision with the realization of what's become of it. She struggles to maintain some grasp on her sanity. She's lost to it. We witness the point at which the madness finally consumes her--we almost experience it ourselves. A remarkable sequence that leaves the viewer gasping for breath. And that's far from the film's only moment of brilliance.

Like all Francos, the movie is, unfortunately, plagued by obvious budgetary shortcomings--the final suicidal plunge, in a car, off a cliff was reduced to a rough drive down a moderately steep embankment. In such cases, the viewer just has to let his imagination more properly fill in the details. Fortunately, the merits of the film so outweigh these sorts of problems that the viewer is more than willing to do so.

Both VAMPYROS LESBOS and ...ECSTASY feature another Franco hallmark, an inventive, jazzy score. The work of composers Manfred Hubler and Siegfried Schwab, the music is an often bizarre melding of jazz, progressive and pop--the combination is unlike anything I'd heard and sets the perfect tone for the films, while further solidifying them as utterly unique works.

It's impressive work, indeed, that can successfully live up to--and, in most cases, surpass--two decades of anticipation, and how sweet it is for the seasoned film connoisseur when it happens. That's how it was for me with Franco. Apparently, I'm not alone. DVD has made him a full-fledged cult legend.

I've seen something less than two dozen of his films, so far. Maybe a little more. Nearly all of them are plagued by a lack of money--Franco has maintained his creative freedom over the years by working with microscopic budgets. He films on the fly and the finished products often have a careless look, are crudely assembled and, as overall films, they're often as bad as Franco's critics claim. Very few of them, however, are without some redeeming merit, some flash of the remarkable genius that hooked me on his work in the first place. It is difficult to describe exactly what it is he has that makes his films so special. Perhaps that's why so little that is written about his work does it justice. It has to be experienced to be appreciated. Media often don't translate well into one another. With Franco, cinema is his language; anything that's written about it is just an adaptation.


Monday, November 10, 2008

Thoughts on THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004)

Mel Gibson's Jesus epic stirred a whirlwind of controversy then rode the self-invented storm into a big pile of money. It wasn't any good, though, and its success bothered me. I saw it just after its video release. These were my thoughts, at that time:

Written very early in the morning, on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2004:

I just watched Mel Gibson's much-talked-about opus and find that I'm unable to sleep without at least trying to put some of my thoughts on it into writing.

First, the more mundane comments:

This is a bad movie. Not just run-of-the-mill bad, either--we're talking suck-fest of epic proportions. Whatever else one wants to say about it, it just doesn't work as a movie at all.

The performances are almost universally awful, and not at all disguised by the director's insistence on using archaic period languages. Star Jim Caviezel is particularly bad, playing Jesus as a near-comatose idiot who refuses to say much of anything in his own defense through nearly the entirety of the film. The recurring comments, in critical reviews, about the "superb" quality of the acting are... amusing.

The movie really is, as several reviewers complained on its initial release, plotless. We're merely invited to sit and gawk at a man being tortured and murdered in drawn-out fashion. In a sense, "The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre" moniker hung on the film by one of its more irreverent critics was entirely appropriate. The much-touted violence is there, but it's so over-the-top that it becomes cartoonish. The scourging of Jesus is a violent scene, but as we're seing flesh being ripped from his body, it begins to take on that edge of the absurd. The beating goes off camera and gets really ridiculous, going on and on, enough to have killed anyone dozens of times over. When we cut back to the beating, Jesus isn't even remotely injured as badly as such a beating would have left him. Movies abuse our willingness to suspend disbelief all the time, to be sure, and this would have been a relatively small thing if the movie had anything else going on, but it doesn't. The rest is just more of the same, and I'd already gone past my tolerance point by the beating. As Jesus is made to haul his cross through town, Gibson throws in a scene of Jesus, weakened and being driven by the lash, collapsing into the dirt, shot in slow motion so as to make it more dramatic, or, more precisely, to make it what hack directors think of as "more dramatic" (and what conscientious film fans will tend to see as cliche'd crap). Then, it happens again. Then it happens again, and by the third time, I was laughing at the idiocy of it. By the, yes, fourth reoccurance, I was beginning to get hysterical, and it wasn't even close to over--we get a variation on the same scene no less than 8 times, by my count (with "the Black Knight always triumphs" echoing in my ears). And they haven't even nailed him up yet.

One of the things that genuinely surprised me about the movie--and that was no laughing matter--was that the anti-Semitism it was said to contain was far, far worse than even the harshest critics had alleged. The Jews in this movie are portrayed as nothing more than mindless sadists thirsting for blood, led by Caiphas, who is Evil Incarnate; a guy who makes Darth Vader look like a pussy. Pilate, bizarrely enough, is the hero of the film, if it can be said to have one. He comes to Jesus' defense over and over again, and only consents to allow him to be killed after exhausting every other means at his disposal to placate the Jews, and, more importantly, after being threatened with an open rebellion. A pair of Roman soldiers charged with roughing up Jesus are shown as ruthless sadists, in what looks like an amateurish bid to provide some sense of "balance," but the movie makes clear their actions are frowned upon by their superiors, which sort of defeats that point. Pilate's lieutenant is shown as sympathetic to Jesus throughout--he yells at his sadistic underlings over the beating they deliver, and, later, seeing Jesus exhausted during one of those "falling down in slow motion" scenes, orders them to help him along. His frequent looks of disgust are quite a contrast with Caiphas' smug sadism, taunting Jesus even as he's nailed up. Overall, I think the anti-Semitism angle was actually grossly underplayed by the film's critics.

(This strong anti-Semitic angle comes from the text from which the film is actually adapted, which isn't any biblical text but, instead, an 1833 book called "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ." Gibson has tried to downplay this fact, and for good reason: the book catalogs the delirious ravings--or, if one prefers, "visions"--of an insane 19th century nun named Anne Catherine Emmerich. Gibson is much enamored of it, and reportedly carries around in his wallet what is purported to be a piece of Emmerich's habit.)

Last, I come to the heavier remarks, the ones I've so far been putting off by writing about other things at such length:

I'm disturbed by this film. Not by the movie itself, which, as I've said, is a ridiculous cartoon. What bothers me is the reaction to the movie by a not inconsequential contingent of my fellow man.

A few remarks by way of set-up: I don't often write about religion in public forums, and only discuss it very rarely in private with close friends. I've always felt it was a profoundly individual personal matter, and I know many people would be offended and perhaps hurt if I was to vent my true feelings. I don't go out seeking to antagonize anyone over such a personal matter, so I usually don't touch the subject. I'm going to touch it a bit, here, though, because it's the real reason I started writing about this movie at 5 a.m. this morning, no matter how much I beat around the bush to avoid getting to that point.

After my laughing spell while watching "The Passion," I started turning over, in my head, the reception the movie has had. A huge money-maker. A cadre of devoted fans. A friend told me, yesterday, that it sold by the truckload when it hit the video market Tuesday. What are these people seeing when they watch the movie?

I'm a pretty radical fellow from a small town in the American south. My regular thoughts, feelings, views tend to, shall we say, set me apart from those around me. It's been a good, long while, though, since I had thoughts that made me feel this distant. I sometimes entertain the idea of Christianity as a death-cult. It's a thought that can't help but occur from time to time to ancient world buffs like myself--early Christianity clearly was a death-cult. Throughout history, hardcore Christians have always been nasty, brutish people who go around trying to spread their doctrines with a fist in the face, and proactively take to barbecuing their fellow man for (mostly imagined) heresies. The real sequel to "The Passion" wasn't a bright, shiny day where the world is redeemed and everyone goes skipping through the tulips singing "Kumbaya." The real sequel is the Dark Ages, where the newly redeemed death-cult very nearly destroyed civilization, bringing human development to a screeching halt for centuries. It was only when their influence began to wane that we sort of got back on track. These are some of the thoughts that run through my mind at times, and, boy, did "The Passion" ever revive 'em with, well, a passion.

Those sorts of ruminations are all good and fine as historical analysis, but I almost never see those around me--by which I mean friends, family, acquaintances, etc.--through that prism. Those days are over, and the world has moved on, right? I know these people and know they aren't really like that, right? Except maybe, in some way, they are. There's virtually nothing in the movie of any of the philosophy of Jesus which Christians insist, when trying to recruit, is so wonderful. It's just a lengthy torture/murder staged as a spectacle. I know contemplating that is the point of any passion play, but that, alone says something. What have people seen in this movie that makes them so devoted to it? I find myself thinking very bleak thoughts about what must be going on in their minds. I feel as though I'm seeing a manifestation of some ugly little corner of their soul, one I've never noticed, and one of which I don't like the looks.


The Good Works of MONDO MACABRO

Here's a piece I wrote this past spring about one of the best DVD labels for which any lover of weird and wonderful cinema from around the world could ask:

Tues., 15 April, 2008

For the serious cinematic archaeologist, DVD has been a gift from the gods, even more so than the early days of VHS. The birth of DVD brought about a Golden Age for lovers of weird and wonderful cinema. I fear it's running down, now, exactly as happened with VHS when it became overly mainstream. There are still dozens of small companies out there turning out celluloid oddities from around the world. Of late, the writing, unfortunately, seems to be on the wall for a lot of them but what a run they've had! I've seen dozens and perhaps hundreds of movies as a consequence of their efforts that I probably never would have seen otherwise.

Last week, I was watching DON'T DELIVER US FROM EVIL, a French drama that was inspired by the same bizarre New Zealand murder case as "Heavenly Creatures." In spite of its awful title (a good name for an exploitation film--not so good for this), it's quite good and became notorious in its day for running afoul of even lax French censorship. Specifically, it was attacked for being blasphemous. And it is. And it's very good, a story of two teenage girls in a repressive, devoutly religious upper-middle-class environment who live in a sort of self-contained fantasy of their own making, rarely allowing the real world to touch them. When it does, it's usually with devastating results. They fancy themselves disciples of Satan and stage ceremonies mocking those of the Catholicism they find so stifling. The movie features a lot of noteworthy imagery and ideas and builds to a shocking finale. I'm glad I was able to see it.

DON'T DELIVER US... came to me via Mondo Macabro, the DVD label of Andy Starke and Pete Tombs. In the 1990s, Tombs authored and co-authored a pair of excellent books on the sorts of cinematic oddities the company now distributes. IMMORAL TALES, co-written, by Tombs with Cathal Tohill, explored the then-lesser-known corners of the world of European cinematic fantastique. MONDO MACABRO, by Tombs alone, extended the focus to the rest of the world, covering films from Indonesia, Hong Kong, the Phillipines, Brazil, Japan, India, etc. Now, Tombs, through the Mondo Macabro label, is involved with distributing the movies about which he wrote and he and the others from MM come up with one gem after another.[1]

One Mondo Macabro release with which I had a lot of fun was their Turkish Pop Cinema Double Feature. Before a military crackdown ended it forever, Turkey (another country covered in the Mondo Macabro book) went through a period of very lax censorship in the '60s and '70s. Television had virtually no penetration into the country at the time and the locals went to the movies in droves, much as had happened in the U.S. during the Great Depression. The Turks were huge fans of American serials, Westerns, period spectacles and they began producing their own versions in large numbers, often blatantly stealing music, FX shots and other elements of the American imports. For a while, cinema was a booming industry.

MM's Turkish disc features a pair of movies from this period and let me tell you, if you've never seen these movies, you've never seen anything like them.

The disc starts with TARKAN & THE VIKINGS. A mash-up of Tarzan and Conan, Tarkan was one of the most popular Turkish celluloid heroes of those years, a fierce barbarian warrior raised by wolves who now roams one of those Times Before Time seeking adventure and fortune. In this installment, his foes are "vikings" but they aren't like any vikings you've ever seen--decked out in Wagnerian horned helmets and wearing, as one reviewer described it, pastel costumes made of what looks like those little throw-rugs one puts down in a bathroom. Tarkan travels with a couple of wolves, a father-and-son pair, who are, of course, his family. Early in the film, one of the wolves is killed in a viking raid and Tarkan, shedding tears of anguish at the fallen creatures' grave, swears revenge. The moment is capped by a shot of the other wolf crying profusely over his fallen father! Bowed head, a thoroughly miserable look and tears streaming down its face! Encountering such a moment offered with such solemnity, it's difficult to believe one's eyes and after I finished howling (not unlike a wolf, actually), I immediately fell in love with the movie. TARKAN & THE VIKINGS has a naïve sincerity and relentless enthusiasm not unlike that of Ed Wood's pictures and it's executed with just as little talent (but with a budget that would have probably been quite large by Wood's standards). One can't help but love it, even if for reasons entirely unrelated to the filmmakers' intent.
The second part of the double bill, DEATHLESS DEVIL, is also a riot, a Turkish version of an American serial adventure featuring a masked superhero, an over-the-top-of-the-top villain with one of the wildest moustache-eyebrow combinations you're ever likely to encounter, a purloined Henry Mancini soundtrack and a "robot" that, supposed to be terribly menacing, makes the crude stacks of milk cartons pawned off as mechanical beings in the American serials of the '30s look like state of the art tech by comparison. The film is a blast.

Putting such movies on the market isn't just a way to make money, it also helps preserve them by making a much larger audience aware of them. A lot of the movies released by Mondo Macabro are in danger of disappearing forever. After the military crackdown in Turkey, for example, large numbers of the movies released during the period of freedom have been lost or destroyed. MM's efforts ensure at least two will survive and perhaps it can help revive sufficient interest in the films to save more of them. My latest MM disc is SILIP; THE DAUGHTERS OF EVE, an arty Fillipino drama from the '80s that critiques the destructive effects of foreign Christian-imposed notions of sexuality on the domestic culture. MM was able to acquire the original film elements for their transfer, only to discover that those elements were beginning to deteriorate due to poor storage. The film had simply fallen through the cracks and been forgotten by all but a handful of serious cinephiles. The DVD release revived the film and presents it in the best condition in which it's ever likely to be seen. Without MM, it would have probably been allowed to quietly disappear. Similarly, MM tracked down the only known surviving elements of THE LIVING CORPSE, a Pakistani version of Dracula. It's the first Pakistani horror flick and the first--and last--movie of any kind ever to be tagged with an adults-only certificate in that country. As a movie, it is, like so many found by MM, like nothing you've ever seen--basically a sort of remake of Hammer's first Dracula movie (complete with purloined music), rejiggered to suit local tastes. It has a Frankenstein/sci fi prologue about the foolishness of this man who challenged Allah--he ended up turning himself into a vampire by his forbidden experiments--and it features (no kidding) musical acts throughout the movie. The film is playing, we're getting a very tense horror movie and right out of the blue, people suddenly break out in song and dance! The filmmakers didn't think this strange--local audiences demanded that all Pakistani movies feature this element. MM located, as I said, the only print of the film known to still exist and released it.

Here's to Mondo Macrabro. May they keep up the good work.



[1] MM is the only company from which I will blind-buy anything simply because it's released via that label. I don't have MM's entire catalog (or anything near it) and I'm sure there are probably some clunkers but of what I've bought, I've only been let down once (by THE DEVIL'S SWORD, a pretty wretched Barry Prima flick that attempted to ape Chinese wuxia, and did it pretty badly).


Hello, and welcome, all who may care, to "The Dig."

J. Riddle. 'Round these parts, I blog as "cinemarchaeologist." Hailing from a small town in Georgia, USA, I'm a writer, a lifelong cinephile and an aspiring filmmaker. The combination has meant I've written a lot about movies over the years. The idea for "The Dig" was originally just to have a place to put all my old movie-related meanderings. I was initially going to make it a more conventional website but the blogger format seemed to be well-suited for it, so I figured "why not?" I can post my older material in increments and mix my ongoing movie commentary with it.

I'm not a big fan of most contemporary mainstream Hollywood cinema--what serious movie fan is, right? My taste in film tends to be quite a bit off-the-beaten-track. I'm always searching out something new and different ("new" meaning new to me, not necessarily newly created). I usually have something to say about it. This, it seems, is where I'll now be saying it.

Archaeology has always been an interest of mine and while writing about movies, I've sometimes described myself as an "archaeologist of cinema." I guess I liked that, so I've adopted the theme here. Like an archaeologist, I dig up hidden treasures from the past. It's just that the dusty old bones I'm picking over come out of movie cans. Still treasures and often little known, so I do my little part to spread the word. And I just like to run my mouth about the subject.

That's my story. Comments on anything here are most welcome.

The Wasting of Indiana Jones

Though Hollywood blockbusters certainly aren't going to be the regular focus, here, something Indiana Jones-related seems only appropriate when launching a blog devoted to cinematic "archaeology." Here's a piece I wrote this summer, some ruminations about the latest Indy Jones adventure:

Tues., 8 July, 2008

Saturday night, I went to see INDIANA JONES & THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. I saw it because I was taking my family to a movie and knew it would be one they'd enjoy. I held to no illusions about the chances of it being worth my own tie. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is a modern action classic and one of the best films of its kind but the sequels went from bad to worse, with THE LAST CRUSADE being virtually unwatchable. Still, I've been, for 27 years, an enthusiastic fan of RAIDERS, I love the Indiana Jones character and there's always that tiny little glimmer of hope that maybe those behind the franchise will have finally come to understand why that first movie worked and get the new one right, for a change.

It's a good thing that little glimmer is so tiny. CRYSTAL SKULL is another mess, combining all the flash and noise of the worst of Hollywood summer blockbuster cinema and filled out with one unspeakably stupid CGI-laden set-piece after another. It's so awful that I'm hesitant to say much of anything good about it for fear of leaving a misimpression that it's anything short of awful. It isn't. Short review: It sucks.

But it made me really think about something.

Not new thoughts, mind you. And not the usual depressing "what's the world coming to?" thoughts one has upon seeing the excretion of such a wretched turd while pondering its massive box-office take. Rather, it made me revisit some thoughts I'd already had about the previous Indy outings. CRYSTAL SKULL didn't just raise them--it put them into much sharper relief than any of the other films.

Indiana Jones is an archetype, the scholar hero. We don't get a lot of those anymore. It's one that has rather dramatically fallen out of fashion in popular entertainment in recent decades. With so few, it's even more rare to get one who is as utterly likable as Jones (thanks, in no small part, to Harrison Ford). The characters' value as a scholar hero has been widely discussed. Dr. Jones isn't the action hero that has dominated popular entertainment for so long. He isn't a monosyllabic muscleman. He isn't driven by a thirst for revenge or the pursuit of wealth. Indy's quest is a noble one--he digs through dusty temples and ponders ancient puzzles for the purpose of expanding man's knowledge, routinely risking life and limb in the quest. His greatest tool in this venture is his mind.

And if he has to sometimes crack a whip and even a few skulls to do it, it's just more entertaining.

To those of us who value learning--quite a devalued commodity in this conservative age--Indiana Jones has been an icon. The Archaeological Institute of America has even elected Harrison Ford to their Board of Directors.

All of this hasn't been lost on Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. CRYSTAL SKULL, in fact, puts this matter front-and-center, providing Indy with a foil in the form of a young punk without proper respect for education (Shia Labouff). Throughout the movie, as the two struggle to solve the riddle of the crystal skull, Indy takes the boy to school, as it were.

This is the only aspect of CRYSTAL SKULL worthy of praise, and not just because of its intentions but because of how well the film usually pulls it off. The dialogue through which all of this is played out genuinely works.

Here, however, we run into the problem that has plagued all of Indiana Jones' celluloid adventures. Indy is all about using one's mind, and about the pursuit of knowledge as a good in itself, but what he's always pursuing in these films is some object that would be more at home in the crackpot literature of what may broadly be called Pyramidiots, the not-insignificant cult of simple souls who have endlessly plagued real scientific research (and basic cable channels) with their crackpot conspiracy theories, their tall tales of men from Atlantis, their nonsense about beings from another world building the pyramids of Egypt and more other cynical con-games and baseless, anti-informed speculations than can be easily listed.

The problems with this contingent go all the way back to the birth of archaeology, when they began stomping all over the Middle East "with spade in one hand and Bible in the other" trying to "prove" the Old Testament true and succeeding only in making a mess of things. They continue to this day, when the internet has given every crackpot with a phone-line the means to proselytize, and we see cable networks like the Discovery Channel and the History Channel running endless televised "quests" for Noah's Ark or rehashing "Chariots of the Gods." The success of "The DaVinci Code" (both the book and the film) brought a new round of such nonsense, particularly centered around the Holy Grail. The grail, as every serious scholar acknowledges, is a myth of the Middle Ages but in THE LAST CRUSADE, there was Indy Jones seeking it out and finding it.

CRYSTAL SKULL is even more offensive in this respect. A contingent of our Pyramidiots begin with the fact-free premise that humans of the ancient world couldn't possibly have built ____ (fill in the blank with whatever ancient wonder one likes). Therefore, it must have been aliens or some lost, technologically advanced people (from Atlantis or wherever) who did the deed. This is outright insulting and runs violently contrary to everything we know about said wonders but CRYSTAL SKULL endorses that point of view, disgracefully dragging extradimensional aliens into the mix. It even endorses the crackpot UFO conspiracism surrounding the Roswell "incident."

The Indy movies, then, are a contradiction. They give us a sort of hero the world desperately needs, one committed to the quest, then wastes him in quests for phantoms, one after another. The dissonance created by these elements is remarkably strong in the new movie, and they have the effect of almost completely neutralizing one another. All that's left, once the content is neutralized, is infantile, CGI-generated sight-gags about Shia LaBouff getting his crotch slapped by trees or doing a mindbogglingly stupid Tarzan impression amongst a hail of monkeys. Noise. And a waste of what should be one of the most enduring fictional characters of the last three decades. It's unfortunate that Indy's creators don't have anything to say as filmmakers and aren't interested in anything other than making a quick buck by wowing bumpkins.