Aenigma (1987)

Aenigma (1987) movie poster

director Lucio Fulci
viewed: 06/16/2018

“How does a young girl who is brain dead experience a violent emotion?”

Well, she’s brain dead but controlling a human avatar and seeking vengeance on schoolmates who pranked her into a coma in Lucio Fulci’s Aenigma.

Revenge is a dish best served … weird … and is meted out in dollops of reflections, snails, and living statuary.

Aenigma is derivative of a number of films and directors, coming in what would become the autumn of Fulci’s career. But it’s not not fun. It’s still Fulci.

The Devil Is a Woman (1935)

The Devil Is a Woman (1935) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 05/21/2018

“If It Isn’t Pain (It Isn’t Love)” is an excised musical number by Marlene Dietrich, trimmed from Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman. It’s an apt conceit for what the film portrays, which many have read as a thinly veiled interpretation of Dietrich and von Sternberg’s relationship, with Lionel Atwill’s Don Pasqual standing in for the director. Dietrich, as Concha, is as always, herself.

Cut down and re-titled, The Devil Is a Woman isn’t as successful as other films of Dietrich and von Sternberg. The director also shot the film, and the sequences of the carnival are lush and vivid as anything from his earlier films. But the story and the writing, told in a large part in flashbacks as Atwill regales the young, good-looking Cesar Romero of the way that Concha has strung him along, feels less sophisticated than perhaps it should.

While the film portrays something romantic and dramatic, there is also something farcical running through it. A tone I took as intentional, a self aware sense of irony, perhaps?

The Devil Is a Woman isn’t my favorite, Dietrich-Sternberg film, but as always, Dietrich’s wardrobe is amazing.

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.

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.

 

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.

Isle of Dogs (2018)

Isle of Dogs (2018) movie poster

director Wes Anderson
viewed: 04/07/2018 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Even as a fairly inveterate Wes Anderson film aficionado, it’s pretty easy to see the problematics of Isle of Dogs and its version of Japan and the Japanese. Even while trying to be overtly respectful (the film is meant in part as an homage to Akira Kurosawa), you can still wind up with something that is culturally tone deaf and resultingly offensive.  The fall-out from responses to Kubo might have been a signal if caught early enough in production.

In part, I think Anderson’s approach here works. The whole film is taken as translations. The dogs barking is translated into English. The Japanese is paraphrased in translation, whenever actually translated.

The film is totally gorgeous. And if you’re apt to like Wes Anderson films, it’s certainly that with snappy dialogue, amusing characters, deadpan humor. Though Anderson himself is not an animator, this stop-motion design and animation team is so perfect for his aesthetics, which I’ve compared before to cinematic dioramas or shadowboxes.

What’s most interesting to me about this movie is that its Wes Anderson doing speculative fiction. The story is set 20 years in the future and the world is totally garbage and destroyed (or at least Garbage Island is, where we spend most of the film). It starts from a pessimistic point, in which “man’s best friend” and a metaphor perhaps for what is good in humanity is removed from human society due to a variety of diseases. To further the dystopia being shoved down society’s throat, the replacement dogs are robots, capable of viciousness only.

Ultimately, the film resolves itself too easily. The villainous Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has a change of heart for no apparent good reason. The stakes in a Wes Anderson film are typically not so high, and viewers can usually guess that things will work out in the end more or less.

I enjoyed the film, as did my teenage daughter. But I tend to like Wes Anderson constructions. It really is beautifully rendered.

Torture Dungeon (1970)

Torture Dungeon (1970) movie poster

director Andy Milligan
viewed: 03/30/2018

Among Andy Milligan’s many claims to fame (or infamy), add to it that he made a Sweded version of Game of Thrones decades before Game of Thrones or “Sweding” was even a thing.

Torture Dungeon is the first Milligan flick I’ve seen since reading Jimmy McDonough’s biography of him, The Ghastly One, which by the bye, was brilliant. And though it seems now that every successive Andy Milligan picture I see becomes my new favorite, I agree with McDonough that Torture Dungeon is perhaps the most fun.

The costumes, the camp, the joyous and miserable sleaze, the character names, misanthropy and cheap gore. And Milligan himself! Though not onscreen, Milligan is everywhere in his movies. You can almost feel him shooting the footage, hear him breathing life into his dramas of discontent.

It’s tragic that most of his earlier pure Exploitation films are lost because they sound AMAZING!! I still have several more to seek out, but I’m already eager to revisit the first movies of his I’ve seen.

Torture Dungeon is a total lark.