Monday, November 10, 2008

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).

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