The Scarlet Empress (1934)

The Scarlet Empress (1934) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 05/16/2018

Josef von Sternberg’s biographical drama about Catherine the Great, The Scarlet Empress, has a lot of the Silent Epic about it: lavish sets, huge cast, and intertitles. Again, he dolls up Marlene Dietrich in lush, over-the-top outfits and figures her as the beauty among beauties, the woman above all others.

The Scarlet Empress comes at the very end of the Pre-Code Era, and it’s a decadent, bizarro piece of Hollywood extremes.  The Expressionistic sets are insane and wild, imaginative and evocative, while bearing only loosely to anything of historical or cultural accuracy. The matte paintings could use some work perhaps and the miniatures of Moscow are kind of silly. But those sets, they’re astoundingly weird and awesome.

Adapted in part from Catherine the Great’s own memoirs, the story tells of the young naif Princess Sophia, married off to the Grand Duke Peter of Russia to bear him a male heir. Peter is a simpering weirdo, trapped in a childish state, his mother, Empress Elizabeth, a cold and demanding ruler. Sophie is renamed Catherine, and herlessons in life teach her to take charge of her world, sex life (with a litany of lovers) and eventually of all of Russia as well.

I was struck as The Scarlet Empress could be a possible inspiration for Andy Milligan’s Torture Dungeon?

Sternberg depicts a world that is perverse, ornate opulence, heaped up in grotesqueries, doused with sadomasochism, lust, and icy passion. Such a visual fantasia.

 

 

Shanghai Express (1932)

Shanghai Express (1932) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 05/14/2018

If you’ve ever wondered why Marlene Dietrich is considered a sex symbol, just watch Shanghai Express. She is the definition of  movie star here, shot by director Josef von Sternberg and cameramen Lee Garmes and James Wong Howe into absolute iconic pure classic Hollywood cinema.

The cinematography is breathtaking, especially lighting and capturing  of Dietrich. Her outfits, stunning and sublime.

“Don’t you find respectable people terribly…dull?” – Shanghai Lily

Set during a Chinese civil war, the film takes place, largely, on the train of the title, en route for Shanghai but delayed and manipulated by Henry Chang (Warner Oland), a particular player in the country’s unrest. Dietrich is “Shanghai Lily”, an imported courtesan, who runs into an old lover (Clive Brook).  Anna Mae Wong is another mysterious figure on the crowded train, though there is just nowhere enough Anna Mae Wong in the film.

A pre-code gem, Shanghai Express is all intrigue, exotica,  and glamour. All dreamed up on some Hollywood sound stage.

She Shoulda Said No! (1949)

 

She Shoulda Said No! (1949) movie poster

director  Sam Newfield
viewed: 05/12/2018

She Shoulda Said No! but I guess it’s good she didn’t because otherwise we wouldn’t have this movie.

I kid, I kid, but in reality, star Lila Leeds was busted for MJ with Bob Mitchum in September 1948. The 20 year old starlet’s career was strangled by the scandal, while Mitchum managed to shrug it off and carry on being a big time star. Leeds hadn’t maybe had her breakout role yet, but outside of this Exploitation penance flick, she also never got a chance. And it’s a shame. She’s definitely got that certain something that could have made a star.

She Shoulda Said No! is a more polished and professional morality tale Exploitation than others of its ilk, maybe because of the notoriety of Leeds. It also features notable actors like Lyle Talbot and a young Jack Elam.

Not as sleazy or silly as some other marijuana scare flicks, I did like the kinda 21 Jump Street of its day thing, when a cop going undercover at a soda joint notes in voiceover: “I went home and dig out my old schoolbooks, loaded up my pockets with nickels for the jukebox and brushed up on my jive talk.”

The best sequence is Leeds in jail, initially unrepentant, eventually crumbling under those 60 days behind bars, and the guilt of her brother’s suicide. It’s a testament to the shame how something so petty ruined Leeds’ career, though such drug busts have been much worse for such petty shit on many other people by comparison.

The Being (1983)

The Being (1983) movie poster

director Jackie Kong
viewed: 05/12/2018

The Being is the first flick from director and burgeoning legend, Jackie Kong. Her all too brief career highlights have been getting more attention lately, especially, Blood Diner (1987), now higher than ever on my watchlist. But I give Kong an even further point of appreciation as hailing from Hanford, CA, a Central Valley town where my mom used to teach high school.

Kong wrote and directed The Being starring her producer Bill Osco and an interesting motley crew of name actors and obscure characters ranging from Martin Landau (giving his B-picture all), José Ferrer, Dorothy Malone, and Ruth Buzzi (Ruth Buzzi! When is the last time I saw her!!? Did you know she is still alive?). But that’s not all. There is also Kinky Friedman and Murray Langston (better known ironically as “The Unknown Comic”).

Kong’s The Being is the mutant monster result of nuclear chemical pollution, and no conventional rules apply to this monster or this movie. He can leap through the air, ooze through a vent, claw your head off. And there are almost as many fake-out scares (it’s a cat!) as there are actual scares. And half the time the movie seems to want to be a straight-out comedy (Kong’s next film, Night Patrol, apparently moves rather unsuccessfully in this direction).

More than anything, it’s a throw everything and the kitchen sink approach to horror and it’s endlessly entertaining.  I don’t know why people complain about the monster, I thought he was pretty cute. I also loved the scene with the toddler seeking Easter eggs in the hole where The Being was hiding out. Cute and toddling on the edge or horror…and comedy.

Hey, this stuff is not for everybody, but for those of us for whom it is, it’s a gas.

Homicidal (1961)

Homicidal (1961) movie poster

director  William Castle
viewed: 05/11/2018

Arguably, William Castle directed more movies before he became the William Castle we’ve come to know and love. I’m sure no character like Castle just suddenly started being William Castle, but it wasn’t until he began financing his own films and adding his persona and his requisite gimmicks that the real William Castle started making movies.

Homicidal was the fifth of these pictures and is often brushed off simply as a cheap response to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). While it’s no secret that Castle imagined himself a true competitor of Hitchcock, and Homicidal came out on the heels of Psycho, it’s maybe best to see it on its own terms than in comparison with Hitch’s masterpiece.

It starts with a pretty confusing, if titillating opening, in which Emily (star Jean Arliss) shows up at a Ventura, CA hotel and entices a bellboy to marry her toot sweet. Trying to follow along logically is the real rub, because when she stabs the justice of the peace and takes off, it takes a few minutes to make sense of what is going on. The whole plot is such a tangle of confusion and high weird nonsense, which could be great, but then when it’s all spelled out and done and everything makes sense, it’s less satisfying than when it was confusing.

The key to Homicidal is Jean Arliss, who apparently landed the lead by coming in dressed as both her striking blonde self and also as a convincing man. Gender gets bent but not broken in Homicidal, and Castle is more interested in “the twist” than in the underpinning pop psychology that could have made this more salacious.

Still, pretty fun stuff.

 

Kalifornia (1993)

Kalifornia (1993) movie poster

director Dominic Sena
viewed: 05/09/2018

“If you looked in the dictionary under poor White Trash, a picture of Early and Adele would have been there. But I knew if I was gonna be a good writer , I’d have to ignore the cliches and look at life through my own eyes.”

Kalifornia is such a screenwriter’s film that the main character is of course a writer. And that writer is David Duchovny, perched on the cusp of The X-Files here in 1993, not yet big time famous.

Actually, Kalifornia features a cast that was pretty red hot in 1993. Namely, Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis, Early and Adele, as mentioned above. Also, Duchovny’s photographer girlfriend, played by Michelle Forbes, who would also go on to lots of notability on the small screen.

Conceptually, Kalifornia has a pretty good set-up, with Duchovny and Forbes having picked up Pitt and Lewis as road trip help, driving across the country researching horrible murder scenes. Only, they’ve not just picked up cartoons of White Trash, but their own genuine serial killer.

For my money,  only Lewis is able to infuse her character with elan and esprit de corps, eclipsing the script’s shortcomings. Pitt runs into a bit of a wall with Early, hocking snot rockets, having to be vicious and cruel, and also be a decent bloke.

Is it me or is it funny that this only came one year before Natural Born Killers?

Being Different (1981)

Being Different (1981) movie poster

director Harry Rasky
viewed: 05/08/2018

Being Different is a quasi-Exploitation documentary about “human oddities” or “freaks.” Director Harry Rasky mixes titillation with a more humanistic approach, interviewing his cast of characters, allowing them to tell their own stories of lives of difference.

By 1981 a lot of the classic freak shows had stopped touring, and yet, many notable stars of the scene were still available to interview. As cultural mores were changing, and as the freak show was falling away into the past, the beginnings of interest in this disappearing world were stirring. Perhaps this started with Daniel P. Mannix’s 1976 book Freaks: We Who Are Not As Others, but Being Different also winds up being a nice document.

The most famous fellow detailed here is doubtlessly Billy Barty, who was leading the way with his Little People of America at the time. But we also have Johann Petursson (the world’s tallest man), Dolly Reagan (the human doll), Siamese twins Ronnie and Donnie Galyon, Sandra Elaine Allen (the world’s tallest woman), and the “World’s Strangest Couple,” Percilla “The Monkey Girl” and Emmett “The Alligator Skin Boy” Bejano.  Rasky even employs a classic barker to introduce some of the folks in the lively patter that drew the curious into the tents.

This was a timely re-watch for me, having just finished re-reading Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. I’m kind of in the mental milieu.

The Elephant Man (1980)

The Elephant Man (1980) movie poster

director David Lynch
viewed: 05/07/2018

Back in 1980, when The Elephant Man was released, I was 11 years old. And I don’t know exactly how much I knew about it, I certainly didn’t know who David Lynch was yet, but I wanted to see it. And I remember a friend’s mother wouldn’t let us go see it, instead making us go see The Private Eyes (1980) starring Tim Conway and Don Knotts. Oddly enough, both films were rated PG. I obviously bore a grudge over this as I’m recounting it nearly 40 years later.

I did eventually see The Elephant Man, probably on HBO at some point. I’m still trying to figure out if it was my first David Lynch movie or whether Dune (1984) was. Not that it matters to anyone but me.

The Elephant Man is an interesting counterpoint to Eraserhead. Shot in a similar gritty black-and-white, featuring shadows and industrial imagery with occasional moments of stark surrealism, it’s a much more typical biographical narrative film, and in many ways as conventional as Lynch ever got, until his much later The Straight Story in 1999. It’s also Lynch’s most conventionally acknowledged and appreciated by the Academy, garnering 8 nominations in its day.

David Lynch is a national treasure, whether the nation treasures him or not. And The Elephant Man is an excellent oddity of his oeuvre.

Massacre Time (1966)

Massacre Time (1966) movie poster

director Lucio Fulci
viewed: 05/06/2018

Fulci’s first Western has requisite grit, perversity, and blood, the stuff that set the Spaghetti Western apart from the Hollywood ones and revitalized the genre. Also Massacre Time is a pretty badass title and that poster is killer too.

Massacre Time itself is not all meat, but it is pretty toothsome featuring Franco Nero and George Hilton as brothers, reunited to inflict some vengeance on a clan of nogoodniks who have taken over their small town.

There is a similar, if less effective, half-brother twist as in Adios, Texas (also 1966 — released in the same month, no less). There is also a foppish Sadist archetype (played here by Nino Castelnuovo – how old is this archetype, I wonder).

Fulci pulls off some stylish shots and sequences, but it’s the violence that elevates the film, from the more pointed cruelty of the whipping scene to the somewhat elegant shootout towards the end.

I also liked the scene with the kid playing the diegetic harmonica.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daughter of Dracula (1972)

Daughter of Dracula (1972) movie poster

director Jesús Franco
viewed: 05/02/2018

Daughter of Dracula is a little confusebslls but what good Jesús Franco flick isn’t? It does, however, feature a more substantial acting role for Jess than in a lot of other films of his.

What is it about Jesús Franco that makes him compelling? Not simply that he cranked out movies prodigiously more than competently. Per IMDb, Daughter of Dracula is one of nine films he directed in 1972 alone. He displays sometimes amateurish skills, heightened by passion and aesthetics, often incoherent but sometimes cohesive yet still inconsistent. 

A lot of people seem to see Daughter of Dracula as more giallo than horror. True, it’s got a detective working a series of killings. It’s also got a girl turned vampire upon her mother’s deathbed confession relating a family history and then, yes, Dracula (Franco stalwart Howard Vernon). And lesbian sex scenes.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Franco. I just can’t articulate why exactly.