Two Undercover Angels (1969)

Two Undercover Angels (1969) movie poster

director Jesús Franco
viewed: 09/05/2017

“Without fantasy one’s life isn’t worth anything. And one doesn’t need it only when drinking.”

I’m guessing Two Undercover Angels and Kiss Me Monster were made in quick succession because it’s hard to imagine the success of the first led to the second.

A.k.a Sadist Erotica, Two Undercover Angels is a slightly more conventional spy spoof sex comedy starring Janine Reynard and Rosanna Yanni in the hands of Jess Franco.

I preferred the sequel because it’s far loopier and nonsensical. Here the Red Lips girls are on the track of abducted models and a killer artist who likes to paint horrendous murder in the act with the help of his hirsute henchman.

There are some wonderfully dead line readings by the voice-over cast.

Kiss Me Monster (1969)

Kiss Me Monster (1969) movie poster

director Jesús Franco
viewed: 09/01/2017

“I just don’t understand what’s going on!”
“You don’t need to know”

————-

I had a terrible dream. I was taken prisoner by a group of queer virgins and was put in a cage. One of them worked me over with a whip. Then they let me out again and they gave me a funny kind of a whistle or something as a farewell present.”

————–

Kiss Me Monster is an apparent sequel to Jesús Franco’s Sadist Erotica/Two Undercover Angels, starring  Janine Reynaud and Rosanna Yanni as the Red Lips, a cabaret/burlesque act/spy buster duo. As noted by others, it’s Franco with a budget and a studio behind him, so the production values are sky high compared to other works.

The continuity and coherence are pure Franco.

The intentional comedy is maybe a little less funny than the unintentional, but you’d be hard pressed to figure out what’s going on either way around. It’s certainly entertaining, with a secret society clad in super-tall black klan hats to the really cool windmills to I don’t really know all what else.

Fun stuff.

Tenderness of the Wolves (1975)

Tenderness of the Wolves (1975) movie poster

Ulli Lommel’s Tenderness of the Wolves hews largely to the true life facts of German serial killer, Fritz Harrmann. The screenplay was written by star Kurt Raab, and the production features the troupe of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, including Fassbinder himself in a small role.

The Germany of the film is run-down, falling apart, and dismal, as are the lives and homes of the characters. The major transposition is placing the narrative in post-WWII Germany, rather than post-WWI, though this was said to have been for a financial rather than political reason. Either way, it’s not a pleasant time and perfect for the amoral and sinister Harrmann to abduct children and young men for exploitation and death without drawing much attention.

His role as a police informant gives him the power to elude police and futrther manipulate the vulnerable runaways and strays upon whom he preys.

Raab doesn’t instill Harrmann with exactly empathetic traits, but does portray him as a tortured soul as well as opportunistic murderer. Harrmann’s homosexuality is very much of the text, his longing and desire perverted into abuses. I’m not sure I have a fully coherent reading from that angle.

It’s quite depressing, really.

And yes, Fritz Lang’s M is echoed throughout.

I guess that’s the thing about the Tenderness of the Wolves. They’re not so tender at all.

Der Todesking (1990)

Der Todesking (1990) movie poster

director Jörg Buttgereit
viewed: 08/11/2017

I recall when I first saw Jörg Buttgereit’s Der Todesking in the 1990’s, I found it tremendously depressing. It is, after all, a film about suicide(s).

Unlike NekromantikDer Todesking is a much more moody affair. The vignettes vary in tone and mode of death, broken up between the images of a rotting corpse (was this a real corpse? how was this effect created?) Perhaps it’s not mirthless but it’s bleak.

Considering Buttgereit’s career, which took a significant break after his 1993 serial killer film Schramm, it seems he shifted from such dark provocation and contemplation. I was reminded of an interview I saw with one of the guys from Tears for Fears when asked about the gloomy/gothiness of their first album versus the rest of their output. He said something like “We made enough money on The Hurting to afford therapy!”

Who knows?

Nekromantik (1987)

Nekromantik (1987) movie poster

director  Jörg Buttgereit
viewed: 08/11/2017

Back in the mid-to-late 1980’s transgression was all the rage (in certain circles), and there was still a lot of material yet to transgress. It was in these days and in publications like Film Threat that stuff like Jörg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik became the stuff of outré curiosity and urban legend.

When I finally got to see Nekromantik in the early 1990’s from a San Francisco video store with tons of bootleg VHS, it was still pretty fringe, though it had already begat a sequel.

It’s interesting, re-watching it so many years later. I don’t recall how comedic its tone was, maybe because that really pushed back on expectation? But this story of boy and girl and their sexual love for corpses, until boy loses job, then girl, then corpse, isn’t played completely straight-faced. Because the Nekro is the necro but the Romantik is played romantic like in soft-core porn or a shampoo commercial. Clearly intended for laughs.

And the finale, with sperm and blood ejaculating like an over-the-top geyser from a Saturday Night Live skit? That too is quite humorous.

It’s interesting, though, the playing backward of the skinning and killing of a rabbit does have some uncanny effect, as if violence can be undone and what is dead can be brought back somehow. The real gore, such as it is, like it or not, does have that aspect of reality that pushes the rest of the material a little further. The last scene is oddly affecting.

She Killed in Ecstasy (1971)

She Killed in Ecstasy (1971) movie poster

director  Jesús Franco
viewed: 07/06/2017

As many Jesús Franco movies as I’ve seen (I think this makes 9), I’m still intimidated trying to draw bigger conclusions. I think I’ve only got 190 features to go to have seen them all.

But here is what it seems to me: She Killed in Ecstasy (1971) comes from Franco’s middle period, having left the Spanish studio system where in enjoyed nice production values in black-and-white fare, and started making more purely Jesús Franco movies.  Some of his best movies come from this period, and several of them star the beautiful Soledad Miranda who died tragically at 27 in a car accident in Portugal, even before She Killed in Ecsatsy was released.

Is it possible that her death posed another shift in Franco’s filmwork? I’m not sure when he started making hardcore pornographic films and endless variants of film versions from pornographic, soft-core, and mish-mash remixes. But at some point, not long after the start of the 1970’s he started releasing up towards 10 films a year, and the production values and quality control swung wildly around like a long, gold chain at a period orgy.

She Killed in Ecstasy is a revenge picture, in which Miranda is seducing and killing the doctors who had ruined her husband’s career, for his ethical violations in medical experiments. What we see of these experiments is little, and frankly, certainly questionable. But she loves him and keeps his corpse around while she takes revenge. And interestingly, this surreal picture has quite a heart to it. The emotion is there, for lost love and tragedy.

Sadly the real tragedy was that of Soledad Miranda. And the legacy? I’m still working on that.

The Silent Star (1960)

The Silent Star (1960) movie poster

director  Kurt Maetzig
viewed: 02/06/2017

The Silent Star is mid-century a mainstream science fiction film through an alternate lens: not dramatically different, yet significantly so. It’s an East German/Polish production, one of only an handful of scifi genre films to come from those countries in that era. It’s a remarkable production, with some really interesting aesthetics and designs and some interesting differences from other films of the time.

The Silent Star is indeed about the first manned space travel to Venus. It’s inspired by the finding of an odd damaged piece of technology that turns out to be a message from Venusians of some time in the past.

What’s interesting is how multicultural the crew is, considering this is pre-Gene Roddenberry and also behind the “Iron Curtain”. And it’s not tokenism as is common today in a multicultural cast, but the world depicted is one inhabited by many people of different races, co-mingling in a common united culture. It’s not quite as progressive regarding feminism, but ah well.

Cold War nuclear fear strikes a different tone here. Nuclear weapons are acknowledged as deadly to all life and the bombing or Hiroshima is significantly cited. The Nazis are cited too, but only once in reference to the then present day fears.

Once Venus is actually reached, what is left is a petrified forest of destruction left by nuclear explosions. Were the Venusians intending a warning for Earth, or were they destroyed in their planned nuclear destruction of our planet?

The story is adapted from Polish writer Stanisław Lem, whose work was the basis for the Andrei Tarkovsky Solaris (1972). Lem was apparently unhappy with the adaptation, but it’s a very interesting artifact of an earlier era in science fiction from a culture on a different side of the Cold War fence from most of us.

Fata Morgana (1971)

Fata Morgana (1971) movie poster

director Werner Herzog
viewed: 11/27/2016

Werner Herzog may now be a national treasure (he lives here so he’s ours, right?), and he’s still churning out films, fiction and documentary, like a machine.  But what cemented Herzog as an important figure in cinema was his early works, radical, weird, profound, and often “out there”.

While I’ve seen several of his early fiction films, Fata Morgana is the earliest of his documentaries I’ve managed to see.  The title refers to mirages, optical illusions of distant objects, and the film opens with a series of airplane landings followed by long tracking shots of desert landscapes.  The soundtrack starts with a strange melange of things, I think from the Third Ear band, along with a version of the Mayan creation myth.

It’s the kind of ethereal, meditative stuff that could really aid insomniacs.  Though it is also interesting and contemplative.

But the film shifts gears and moves away from landscapes to the people of the landscapes, from group shots to live portraiture, eventually into moments of discussion where a German naturalist describes the life of a desert-dwelling lizard.  And then Leonard Cohen music.  And this strange two-piece band.  And suddenly you’re kind of on the other side of things, wondering how this all fits together. With chapter titles like “Creation”, “Paradise”, and “The Golden Age” you can draw your own conclusions about implied meanings.

For my money, it was interesting, starting out sort of like Koyaanisqatsi (1982) but venturing into unexplained weirdnesses with people and animals and goggles.  Where the weird meets the sublime.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) Red Vic movie poster

director Werner Herzog
viewed: 06/19/2016

How do you solve an enigma like Kaspar Hauser?  Werner Herzog’s interpretation of the real life story of the roughly 16 year old foundling is to hew as closely to the “facts” as possible.  Those facts have been in question since the very discovery of the German boy in 1828.  Herzog ignores the haters and follows Hauser’s claim to have been held captive in a close cellar chained to the floor with little or no human interaction until a somewhat sudden release.  Entering the world for the first time with very few words and limited knowledge, Hauser is for Herzog a human blank slate.

Bruno S., the mentally ill street musician that Herzog discovered from a television documentary, plays the teen despite the fact that he is a middle-aged man.  Bruno S.’s unique performance is exactly what Herzog intended, as is the cognitive dissonance of trying to interpret man as child, or man as man-child?

Herzog disputes none of Hauser’s claims, plays them as they were known, and turns Hauser into the figure of the individual, placed into even the reasonable arms of society, is somewhat a bird in a cage (many surround him in his own prison home) somewhat a fish out of water.  Though one might think him a fish for whom no water exists.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser might be an apt name for a typical biographical narrative about the boy, but Herzog’s original German title, Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle, Every Man for Himself and God Against All is both more apt and far more Herzogian.

Warning Shadows (1923)

Warning Shadows (1923) screen capture

director Arthur Robison
viewed: 06/01/2016

Warning Shadows or as it is in the original German, Schatten – Eine nächtliche Halluzination (“Shadows – a Nocturnal Hallucination”), is an obscure but impressive sample of German Expressionism, nowhere as well known as its contemporaries.  It may not achieve the sublime qualities of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) or Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), but it has many interesting elements and is well worth discovering.

An entertainer (Alexander Granach) who employs shadow puppets visits a mansion at a dinner party and uses his craft and crafts to play a twisted morality show on the dinner guests.  All of the guests are lusting after the wife (Ruth Weyher) which is driving her husband (Fritz Kortner) into fits of rage.  The play goes from paper cut-outs performing on a screen by candlelight to an inverted shadow world, where the players act out their inner desires.

The entertainer, the shadowplayer, invokes the cinema in his pre-cinematic entertainments.  The best scene (or effect) is when he inverts the shadows of the guests, pulling the shadows into the people and then flipping them from the viewing side to the side of the stage/screen.  His role may be that of trickster, but what he wreaks is a morality play, unleashing the inner shadows and showing what will come of it.  Whether Freudian or not, it is definitely highly figurative psychology on display.

Director Arthur Robison opts to tell the story sans intertitles, so the story ads no explanatory words to break to scenes.  This is a very effective technique, one not often used in silent cinema, already so visual a narrative medium.

Apparently, the film was made by many of those who had worked on Murnau’s Nosferatu, including art director/designer Albin Grau, following the fall-out over the rights to the “Dracula” story that ended the studio at which is was made.  I recommend reading the write-up about Schatten at The Devil’s Manor, quite informative.

The opening sequence, which introduces the players and their roles is the one part of the film with titles at all.  It’s also a very inventive and theatrical sequence, featuring shadow hands grabbing or erasing each figure.

The whole film doesn’t retain the same level of visual inventiveness throughout and can drag through sequences of more narrative build up, but it is tremendously interesting at its best moments, at times quite funny, and extremely unusual.