Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Friday, June 04, 2021

Acidemic presents: Erich's 4 AM Favorites - on Youtube!


Erich Kuersten's "4 AM Favorites" as 4 AM is a curated list for the magic hour whether you are just waking up or staying up all night. People not alive to the moment are asleep, There is no pressure to do or be something as the people who pressure people are absent. If they woke up they'd try and drag you to bed with baleful eyes. Film bingers well know this hour, it's often where we first saw an Ed Wood film on TV in the 60s-70s. Stewed to the gills, hopelessly high and twisted, coming home from a night and early morning on the town or waking up as a child to sneak downstairs because you can't sleep, it's all the same. We 4 AM film watchers are all in it together. For me, it's the best time of all to be alive and in front of the screen. Your superego checks out at three AM prompt. Now you got nobody to shout over. Magic is afoot.

Here are some of the weird and wondrous films meant for those hours, now culled onto a youtube list, so you can just press play, open the browser window wide, crack open another jug, and let the magic flow til dawn and beyond. Perfect for on the road travellin' too! Not as good as having the DVDs and a big screen, but sometimes emergencies. Sometimes there is no DVD to have.

(PS none of them were uploaded onto youtube by me. I'm just curating!)


Monday, April 19, 2021

Somebody's Sins: SAINT MAUD, VIY


One subtopic of horror cinema that never grows stale (when done right) is folktale-sourced religious mania. I don't mean the dull misogynist witch burning and repressed hysteria, I mean the hallucinating, stigmata-and-schizophrenia ecstasy and torment of the holy fools. I also like the literal interpretations of bygone era's living mythology, ala 2015's The Witch, transferring to the audience the mentality that may well leave us all to believing witches were real. and the Catholic Inquisition saved humanity from a pervasive barbarous pagan evil that might otherwise have rendered mankind into a state of perpetual fear and savagery (instead of just being sexually frustrated maniacs unable to tell when they're projecting because Freud is still centuries away). 

Myth is more alive than ever; just check out the supernatural documentary on the Tavel Channel, the plethora of ghosts, aliens, shrouds of Turin exposed to radiation, miracles and youtube videos run through idiotic talking head commentary. Ghosts, demons, sea serpents, yetis, and aliens hover ever on the edge of scientifically consensual reality. Like true mythology, the best shows never quite cross over to fiction (and being dismissed as hoaxes, paredoloia or mental illness) or scientifically-consensual reality (and moving wholesale into some world-shattering new reality paradigm). The best supernatural horror films tap into that 'maybe' - ala The Blair Witch Project, The Exorcist. As long as there's no ultimate signifier 'real' to contrast our protagonist's experience, we never know what is real or imaginary (i.e. if Shelly Duvall walked past the Gold Room and saw Jack at the bar, talking to an empty Shining air, for example, which would put a damper on the scary ambiguity.  Without that outsider/sane viewpoint, the first person experience of our main character has to be taken as real, in a vivid way we can experience in the safety of the theater or couch. We can, during this sacred temple space/time, believe everything we see kind of. The best campfire tales are the 'true' ones, the ones that happened to a friend of a friend, you swear it; even if we're 95% sure it's just an urban myth, the lingering jolt of fear wakens one's sleeping senses. When we know for sure you just made it up, that you're making it up on the spot--it loses a lot of its cachet. Watching a film, we can feel it's real even when clearly fiction; the same does not hold true in direct experience. 

When there's even the remotest chance it's real, Death becomes externalized and thus we become immortal, weightless, enraptured and divine. When there's no chance it's not real, our mortality crushes down on us like a great weight. 

Myth, then is truer than reality, because it creates a coherent language out of the randomness of direct experience. In myth, the devil literally lurks within every temptation, appearing in a cloud of smoke when someone mentions selling their soul for a drink. You can't say that devil is purely fiction. After all, the end result is the same. Just because he acts invisibly, his dark energy infusing its way into one's soul via fermentation rather than sulfur and smoke, doesn't make him any less effective. The extremes of light and dark breathe in myth the way they never do in reality (unless you're manic, schizophrenic, insomniac, tripping, and/or an alcoholic). I can't speak for schizophrenics, but I've been or am all the others on that list, and have seen both angels and demons, I've ridden the snake and walked inside the dragon. Once, for several weeks, I experienced that super rare 'pink cloud' where a flickering rose-tint infuses personal perception. AA members who stick the landing long enough to find the 'pink cloud' can tell you the same thing: the same Monday night meeting that at first was kind of a sad shuffle of broken nicotine-scented boredom and percolated coffee one week suddenly glows with a pink-hued love that makes just being there akin to paradise the next. Which one of the two is 'real'? 

Knowing these things can happen from firsthand experience, it make sense that the best movies I've seen in all of COVID--the age of internationally mandatory cabin fever--are about saints and spiritual pilgrims. The 2019 Irish horror film SAINT MAUD, one of the few newer films I've seen lately, is a slow-build minor masterpiece (written/directed by the improbably- named Rose Glass!) about a home care nurse (Morfydd Clark) sent to live with and care for Mandy, a terminally-ill dancer/choreographer (Jennifer Ehle) in a big artsy seaside mansion. Deeply lonely and an undiagnosed, the ascetic Maude gets these sexual current waves of pleasure when praying to her Catholic god; when the waves stop, she falls into a harrowing depression and puts broken glass in her shoes or kneels on pebbles for atonement, olidifying with ascetic intensity the link between modern self-cutting high schoolers and Middle Ages flagellants.  When Mandy grows afraid in the dead of night she she momentarily rides the Maud god train, and even catches one of the waves (maybe) while they kneel together. Taking this as a sign, Maud takes it on herself to ward off the dancer's partying lesbian hustler (a kind of anti-Maud) in a move I'm sure she doesn't realize is the sort of thing abusive caregivers do. But if you think she's going hobbles and starves Maud, or and makes her write with a broken typewriter or serves her cold parakeets, you're mistaken, I'm glad to say.

So where is this going. Maud, what are you up to? 

 We can never be sure 100% she's not a modern day Joan of Arc since we see only see and hear what she sees and hears. Thus we know there's no evil in Maud, just what we presume is her unmedicated paranoid schizophrenic hallucinations, misinterpreted as godly messages and interventions (as they often are). We feel for her especially if we've suffered from manic-depression or drug or alcohol addiction. She's addicted to the thrill of the touch of God, and when it dries up, she reaches out for booze and sex like she's drowning. 

Saint Maud veers with deft drunk savant brilliance out of the path of the typical cliches and snags that so often ensnare neo-horror psychotic female-protagonists, avoiding--though exploring--torture porn obsessions with, auto-mutilation / self-cutting (The Skin I'm In, Thirteen), romantic desperation (May), performance/ persona intertwining (Persona, Always Shine, 3 Women, Clouds of Sils Maria, Mulholland Dr.) or incapacitated victim/mentally-ill caregiver endurance tests (Baby Jane, Misery), Saint Maud's only cliche'd element are the usual smash cut ruts (1). The film's dusky cinematographic beauty and wild, cathartic transfigurative ending makes up for any stale passages. And if we've recently seen Dream No Evil (1970) and longed for a Ridley Scott cut (i.e. remove the pedantic voiceover).

VIY is the other of my new mythic religious faves, a 1967 Russian comic-horror piece about a young monk and a witch he winds up ensnared by after a spring break sleepover at a peasant barn.  Based on a story by Nikolai Gogol, Viy has the rock hard power of genuine myth behind it and a great, wild-eyed hero in clowning Leonid Kuravlyov. A monk in seminary school (with the terrible bowl cut and burlap robe to prove it) he finds himself forced to read prayers over a beautiful dead girl by a cossack landowner whose word is basically law, at her dying request. It does not go well, and by the third night the witch is calling out the big guns, enough trippy demons coming out of the walls to trigger any bad salvia flashback. Luckily, there is an endless supply of vodka... at least if you live until the cock crows. 

Though we can see it working just as well in a trilogy ala Black Sabbath (1963), this short  (70 minutes) never seems dull even during the many day and morning scenes of the Philosopher's incessant escape attempts. The Russian folk horror detail is so point we feel like we're hearing this told by the fireside after a hard day at the harvest - deep in the vastness of rural Russia, where the closest law enforcement might be a three days drive away. Scenes such as when the Philosopher (as he's called by the cossacks) is ridden by an old farmer hag through the fields and the dosed sky like a human unicycle, have a fairy tale surrealism that both beguiles and amuses. There's an almost Hemingway-esque--contrast between the cool, ghost-filled nights of terror and the idyllic pastorale of central Russian farm life: singing, whining, and napping in the warm sun, with big peasant food spreads laid out and a never-ending supply of breakfast vodka. The Philosopher keeps trying to escape, but there's only emptiness outside this weird daytime paradise/nighttime Hell. It kept reminding me of being at summer camp in the Maryland woods in the early-80s when our nights were spent in terror of the Goatman, rumored to be loose in the woods, and that terror making every moment of sunlight seem extra precious. 


The only drawbacks to Viy are perhaps how short it is (barely over an hour) and the over-the-top English dub (which is the only option on streaming). Me, watching it on Shudder inspired me to get the Blu-ray so I could watch it in Russian - much better. It reminds me of those days at camp, the way fear of the Goatman in the dark made us laugh and sing in the daytime, made Jesus alive in our hearts. We all slept with our bibles (it was that kind of camp) and the power of the Jesus made us alive with the kind of love and light that only those truly terrified of the dark can have. We heard the Goatman in every rustle of leaves, every noise in the night; we never saw him directly, but he was there.  Viy and Saint Maud both get it. Believing is seeing. It's never going to be the other way around. 

NOTES
1. You know what I mean, where boy meets girl with a kind of impersonal hello at some dingy bar and we smash cut to the last few seconds of some joyless hand job or mutually demeaning doggy style. Yawn. Maud, you're better than that!!  

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

How the Hell Was Won: DEMONOID (1981), CRUISE INTO TERROR (1978)


INTRO: THE ORIGIN OF SATANIC PANIC

Blame it on the foundation-rattling popularity of The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby if you want, but the 70s was occult down to its bones, wilding out adults and children alike (if we were too young to see them in the theaters, we caught them edited on TV). The devil was--all through the 70s--kid-friendly; he carried a current of underground electric jouissance that connected our elementary school playground gossip chakras in a unified field of ouija boards, vividly recounted movie plots, slumber party telekinesis and deep dish absorption of TVMs like Dark Secret of Harvest Home, Crowhaven Farm, Horror at 37,000 Feet and the discussed in this issue, Cruise into TerrorThe uncanny magnetism of the neighborhood covens often depicted in these films acted as a sort of tribal mask obscuring the mysteries of adulthood, which lax (in hindsight?) parental guidelines enabled us to often witness firsthand, even with inflexible bedtimes preventing us from seeing them to the end (denied closure, we'd lie in bed and dream the endings, and lurid and dark those endings were, way more lurid and far darker than the chaste denouements rattled off for us by a half-asleep mom the next morning). 

I forgot to mention the preponderance--as holy children's writs---of scary 70s paperbacks. These were so important because if you saw a movie either on TV or the big screen and you loved it, you had to accept the fact you might never see it again. The only way to 'own' it would be to buy the novel or soundtrack album (or the bubblegum cards). The child of the 80s could have his mind blown by the 'horror' aisle at the video rental store, but for the kid of the 70s, it was the supermarket checkout paperback rack that promised the 'real' scares. While mom shopped we'd stand hypnotized by the beguilingly cryptic occult covers, that underground jouissance current snaking right into us.

That all changed in the 80s, of course, when we could at last own these films, as well as rent stuff far too gruesome or sexual to have ever even graced out TVs before; But today... now... these final days, for some of us, The Car,  Beyond the Doorand The Devil's Rain and The Legacy, abide. 

Oh yeah, and....these two...

DEMONOID 
(1981)- Wr./Dir. Alfredo Zacarias
*** / Prime Image - A+

DEMONOID might technically be from 1981 but if you melted down a 70s shelf full of occult paperbacks, then wrapped the result up in a mix of R-rated nudity and gore + PG-rated TV movie covering, Demonoid would be what was left. Here we have at all, packed into a 92 minute thrill ride: a severed hand racing around, possessing one person after another; crazy train/car chases involving possessed victims; subliminal flash cuts of the severed hand's accompanying demon, its clawed hand raised with a mighty sword; dazzling fashion juxtapositions such as Eggar's mixing hardhat and high heels); absurd lines and misguided hamminess; Stuart Whitman's half-hearted oft-vanishing Irish accent as the priest doubting his faith; a whole TV mini-series worth of crazy twists and ridiculous contrivances welded into 92 nonstop minutes full of a familiar prime-time ABC TV movie innocence that makes the moments of nudity and goofy gore all the more startling.

But best of all, for bad movie lovers like me: talented actors trying to be convincing wrestling with a rubber hand. No one beats this hand; its demonic aura affixes to the next victim, now both evil and inexplicably driven to sever their own hand and, if possible, offer it to Samantha Eggar on a silver tray. It was her who discovered the original hand--last affixed to a Mexican Inquisition-era topless hottie-- buried deep in her husband's Mexican silver mine. The hand belongs to her. Do you hear? It crawls up her leg while she's sleeping and tries to initiate a ménage à trois with her drunk miner husband Mark (Roy Jensen). It possesses him for a consolation and soon he's leaping from his grave after Haji (Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill) sets him on fire for winning on 24 consecutive tosses at a Las Vegas craps tables. He cuts his hand off by slamming it on the car door of the cop called to investigate, then the cop drives off in a hurry to go make a plastic surgeon cut off his hand, at gunpoint - no anesthetic, while forcing Eggar to watch. The movie has barely begun and we're already in such fucked-up awesome territory one finds oneself longing to smash their hand in the doorjamb to join the party.

Devoted readers know I'm a fan of evil mummy hand movies, especially Hammer's 1973 gem  Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (the best of the many adaptations of Bram Stoker's 1903 novella "Jewel of the Seven Stars"). This is kind of a Mexican-Spanish Inquisition riff on those adaptions, with the tomb discovered accidentally and the hand being far busier. It's its own thing, baby - and it zips fast. The giddy flavors of De Palma's Fury are here coupled to some of the spiritual tropes of The Exorcist, It's got it all. 

Dopey Stuart can't believe any of it, even God's holy power seems beyond his belief system. Will he, like old Father Karras ("how can I be of service when I have such personal doubts?" he actually says this during his opening prayers - I mean c'mon! And instead of running track like Karras, Stuart works out at the local boxing gym), make the ultimate sacrifice? Who cares? As the hand makes its rounds, its chosen hosts get so frisky and loco, even after being burned down their skeletons, that you can't help but applaud the reckless high-wire idiocy of it all, reserving eye rolls only for the half-assed soul searching of Whitman's continuously wrong-headed padre (does he really think a security detail --a pair of cops in their car outside her apartment---are going to protect her from a disembodied hand? ("What are they gonna do?" quips Eggar, "arrest it?"). 

Eggar is perfect in the role. Smart as a whip and never totally scared, only horrified. When she watches as the priest blow-torches off his evil hand while staring at her in an impressively unwavering, shadowy leer (above) it's as if great and terrible acting meters merge in the gas tanks of some tailspinning biplane and somehow keep it aloft for whole minutes after it should have crashed. When she widens them in horror, which is often, her eyes become almost perfect circles, so bright they shine right through the spiderweb spiral ironwork (top) from which she watches Stu blow-torch his hand while staring at her in shadowy, inscrutable Satanic gravitas. Richard Gillis' uneven score at times evokes the ominously advancing synths of Carpenter; at other times it's fairly generic TV suspense-ville, but if you love good-bad 70s TV movies, but all the sublimer for it, covering many abrupt tonal shifts and sublimely meshing with the nice cinematography, the shocking gore, and the environs of the different victims. It calls for us! As Sgt. Leo says, "In the name of evil, you and I must obey." 

------speaking of evil-confronting 70s priests, check out:

CRUISE INTO TERROR
(1978) Dir. Bruce Kessler
ABC TV movie - **1/2    

Here's a Friday Night TV movie nearly every kid remembers from the tumultuous year of 1978 on ABC. I think I just got braces on or wisdom teeth out or had a throat infection or something as I have a memory of excruciating pain and lovely pain killers in alternating currents, which elegantly gelled with its narcotizing mix of what was by-then the well-trod formula of cushy Love Boat drama (sunny poolside bathing beauties, sunny Caribbean scenery, adultish situations amongst a guest list of has-beens and TV actors) and mild horror or disaster drama. There's also the reason we all remember it, for it has a unique spin on the mummy: here we never see a mummy or a ghost of a mummy; we see instead a child-size breathing Egyptian sarcophagus... possessing a sexy passenger list on a sexy cruise to Mexico. It may make no sense but its ominous synth version of "Dies Irae" predates Carlos' version in The Shining by two years, but it's a truly original, nonsensical idea, probably born from some writer dropping acid at the "Treasures of Tutankhamun" exhibit which was then all the rage. Whatever the origin story, I knew I could at last see the film again even though I'd forgotten the title and everything else about it, just by googling the words "breathing sarcophagus." See? We all remember.

Still, I was too giddy and/or sick to remember if I liked it at the time (probably not) but it turns out this is a cute little gem worth rediscovering for those with the fondness. Would there was a Warner Archive DVR or some such thing the way there was/is for Bermuda Depths or Terror at 37,000 Feet (the film incidentally fits between them in terms of watchability), if for no other reason than the scenery, and attractive women gamboling to and fro on deck. It would be great eye candy, as relaxing as a lazy hammock Sunday. 

Robert "Charles Townsend" Forsythe is a hieroglyph-reading missionary priest on a cruise with his sexually frustrated, lingerie-wearing wife (Lee Meriwether). Noted archeologist Ray Milland is on the ship, headed for sunny Mexico to prove his thesis there's an Egyptian tomb there. A physicist, assorted babes, and first mate Dirk Benedict (Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica) are aboard as well, and they're expecting you... ooh...ooh.

No Love Boat this, though there is some bed-hopping (Starbuck is very busy) and sunny days scuba diving in beguiling bathing suits. What is the strange curse hanging over the ship, causing accidents and freak encounters, some fatal (amongst other 70s occult crazes was a fascination with the Bermuda Triangle). One of the near misses is a harrowing encounter between three lovely snorkelers and a "vicious" (small, blue) shark (any self-respecting child of the post-Jaws late-70s scoffed at the tourist's overreaction to this harmless specimen'). Then, the ship breaks down and leaves them anchored in the middle of the ocean, conveniently right over the spot where archeologist Ray Milland needs to dive for his missing Egyptian tomb, thanks to a handsome physicist named Matt Lazarus (Frank Converse) recalculating Ray's figures and tells him the tomb he's looking for is actually sunk below the waves, "two degrees off our present course!" Captain Andrews (Hugh O'Brien) can't say no to a dive when the ship stalls out over the exact spot. Everyone wants to dive for the treasure and be rich! Freak storms and accidents abound. Let's go diving!

Ripe for some Love Boat style ship corridor of shame cabin-creeping, the guest roster includes several cabins full of foxy ladies and hot-to-trot wives whose husbands are either frigid (Forsythe's priest) or too focused on work (Christopher George's wheeler/dealer stock broker). The others are mostly single: Stella Stevens, Lee Meriwether, Jo Ann Harris, Hilarie Thompson. Lynda Day George (with Christopher--her real-life husband). They're both still hot and bucking at the seams (George's crack about "I can still look at the menu" when the other bikinis pass by is the kind of passive veiled crack that makes a couple's single friends roll their eyes and snort like impatient stallions). Looks like Starbuck has to step in again with more late nights on, in the code used by him and the captain, "the 'entertainment committee.')

If you're a fan of 70s bad films you know the 'disparate slice of humanity forced to work together plotline was almost inescapable thanks to the popularity of Airport, Poseidon Adventure and 1977's Day of the Animals. And you know it's he 70s when virile men can rebuff the sultry come-ons of foxy ladies without judging them one way another; players like Dirk Benedict's first mate aren't depicted as sleazes in need of canceling so much as guys doing their manly duty to please the perfectly acceptable and natural desires of the passengers. If in our current climate you think that can't possibly be true, catch an episode of Love Boat, where the crew are all basically allowed and encouraged by the captain to bed down with the guest stars -- it's practically part of the job!-- and you have an inkling of how sex-positive we all were in the 70s. The national obsession with right-wing prudery had momentarily abated and mainstream America had what Alexander D'Arcy's gigolo piano teacher in 1937's Awful Truth call "a continental mind." 

That's one reason  70s TV movies are so fascinating, and remain so-- the openly sexually liberated prime time zeitgeist. 

As reverend Mather, Forsythe struggles just as much with seeming like a prude as he does with seeming to understand hieroglyphics (this was, after all, "Charlie").  When he reads an engraved tablet dredged up from below and exclaims"It's a serpent-headed bird!" or--reminding them of the fate of those sorry and/or dead archeologists who opened Tut's tomb and woke the "curse of the pharaohs"--demands the passengers not "mar that tomb!" can't help but draw laugh. Just like a buzzkill censorious reverend of the pre-code era, he seems determined to steer this vessel as far away from interesting and titillating as he can get it. On the other hand, at least he's not also having a crisis of faith  like Whitman in Demonoid or sulking and making shitty remarks like the mighty Shat in 37.000 Feet). Keenly aware of his limits as an actor, Forsythe never tries to hide himself in a 'performance' -- he knows his limits. 

And anyway, his priest is soon proven right. No sooner has the sarcophagus come on board than the cast is going full greedy savage arguing over where to sell the booty and how to split it, the evil spirit growing in strength the more bad vibes it sows. First its ruby eyes start to glow, then it breathes. We never even see it open! What is inside it? We never find out.  Its ruby eyes flash and cause sudden storms when someone tries to injure it, spooking everyone not under its malevolent sway. As more and more of the cast become sensually liberated agents of evil, the film gets funnier and freer. When Thomson snaps at her mousy friend Debbie (Jo-Ann Harris) for being too scared to even shoot a flare gun up in the air ("I'm scared, Judy!"). A flare gun for god's sake, if you'll pardon the expression. Of course Judy snaps! Finally and forever, full of devilish brio saying basically "stop following me around!" It's supposed to be the effect of the ancient evil at work (as in Exorcist) but it feels more like the effect of good, liberating shrooms. 

So does a sudden contempt for weakness and morality and unreserved attraction to earthly delight and fiery power make one evil, or just cool? Countering Forsythe's bland gospel is Milland ("I do not believe in biblical fantasies!") The captain (Hugh O'Brien) tries to explain all the deaths and storms and ship failures as coincidence, though it gets harder and harder as the freak events accumulate. 

Still, there's no arguing with a skeptic, and sometimes that's a good thing: "There is a devil --it's in here, all of us --his name is greed, fear and all of the ugly things we can never face." So deep, bro. He even has a fancy poem to send us all to bed in a cautionary mood:

There is a devil, there is no doubt,
but is he trying to get in us
or trying to get out?
Gee dad, why can't it be both? As a Pisces, I'm comfortable with that kind of ambiguity.

The 70s will all end soon enough, the age of Pisces gone deep to Davy Jones', where it began- splattered like a glass goblet on the sidewalk outside the Dakota. (1).

But was the evil of libidinal freedom vanquished, or was the good of libidinal freedom stifled?



=====

Some Other Good Occult Movies of the 70s:
1. The first Dakota death-- Terry Gionoffrio in Rosemary's Baby in 1968 (the first attempt at impregnation, inside a fiction that manifest in culture as a televisual reality) to Lennon in 1980 (in a reality dictated by fiction) - in each case a metatextual rupture - the devil's favorite kind, though the early 80s Satanic panic hysteria effectively drove him underground by then, back under the rug of our collective unconscious, the covens replaced by a sea of slashers, just as the paperbacks were replaced by video rentals

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Fuest in Show: THE FINAL PROGRAMME (1973) aka THE LAST DAYS OF MAN ON EARTH

 
What to do about Jon Finch? He can look as wan and bloated as any British drinker but when the dialogue and co-star is right, boy oh boy, he's like a prime era Peter O'Toole (in richly Shakeseparean, commanding voice crossed with a delightfully dissolute feyness) possessing a young Jim Morrison's dandy jaw line and heroic drug intake. Robert Fuest's dark, freewheeling, and--for a long time--hard to find British sci-fi satire from 1973, THE FINAL PROGRAMME (distributed stateside by Corman's New World Pictures as The Last Days of Man on Earth) is finally here in a stunning new transfer. Now we may marvel and swoon over Fuest's beguilingly surreal production design (he's the man behind the Phibeses), Finch's alcohol-enriched roaring, literate energy, and a roster of sublimely-etched side characters. Marred only by the occasional groan-worthy satiric jabs at consumerism's future ouroboros vanishing point (the world's supposed to be ending, but the budget can't afford crowd scenes or anything too dystopian, so we have to take Finch's word for it) and a kind of disappointing resolution, it's worth checking out for the game and hearty. 

Taking leaps of adaptive liberty (I'm told) with Michael Moorcock's countercultural touchstone (in Britain) novel, it's the tale of dissolute hard-drinking bad boy billionaire super-genius scientist military hardware collector and helicopter and (off-camera) jet pilot Jerry Cornelius (Finch). After a native funeral up in Lapland for his genius billionaire father,  Jerry plans to take resolve his family differences by dropping napalm on the ancestral mansion and jetting off with his (implied incestuous) sister. But first things first, he has to get the napalm, that means running around London meeting eccentric arms dealers. As a result of some bizarre passive-aggressive urge to be helpful, he agrees to help the three Quentin Crisp-ish scientist cronies who were working with his father before his death, mainly to find them a missing computer program tape (the "final" one) dad was working on, now hidden deep in a safe inside a vault inside the tricked-up mansion. To this end, he teams up with the scientist's sexy androgynous computer programmer Miss Brunner (Jenny Runacre) who has some (off-camera) habit of absorbing her lovers and/or anyone whose knowledge she seeks to possess (like military secret peddler Patrick Magee). Jerry only knows the program seems to involve involves some Italian pretty boy waiting in the car, and it's supposed to bring about the savior of the new dawn, a self-replicating perfect hermaphrodite human --the best of all man and woman has to offer -- a fusion of two brains, two genders, into one, a being that can finally formulate and answer the ultimate question.... why?


Sure, in its mad bid to be drolly satiric, and painfully hip, the result has not aged as well as one would hope: superfluous cameos like an ineffectually mugging Sterling Hayden as eccentric arms dealer Wrongway Lindbergh ("the Wrong way. is the right way!") reek of that late-60s 'older stars trying to fit into the counterculture via eccentric cameos and kooky glasses desperation.. There's also that bit where the ride up to Lapland in a balloon (which is I guess, kept handy for films that can't afford a Phantom F4, which Jerry supposedly pilots). But the whimsy and twee touches are kept at a distance. I do like the three wise men scientists (Basil Henson, George Coulouris, and Graham Crowden) who follow Ms, Brunner around; they more than make up for all the elements that seem to be missing. For example, Jerry's quest for napalm (he pronounces it "Nepal-m") and the rescue of his strung-out sister from his junky brother Frank's druggy clutches. We never really see the sister until much later so any inkling of what kind of strange incestuous reason he has for this is left unexplained. This is a film that blithely skips over vast and possibly interesting mythic arcs that may be in Moorcock's novel in favor of hit and miss (but at least it swings for the fences). Futuristic satire like a restaurant where wine and alcohol comes in dehydrated cubes (Jerry orders French toxic river sludge, demanding to know 'which bank' it was culled from.) or a pinball arcade where Jerry meets his stoned connection (Ronald "Why don't you tell me where the Ark is... right now?" Lacey) are well executed but may induce groans in those who by then have higher hopes for this strange, otherwise very hip movie. 

He is... nefarious

Perhaps the only film that comes close in its style is 1971's Hammer film Blood from the Mummy's Tomb. In that film too, a strident dominatrix-y intellectual badass female (Valerie Leon) runs roughshod over trios of stumbling old men scientists (George Coulouris and Aubrey Morris appear in both) while teaming up with a fey amoral aristocratic hipster (James Villers instead of Finch) to bring about some earth-shattering prophecy by ushering in a new kind of woman. Here, Runacre handles her carnivorous authority with cool throaty confidence and instantly establishes a deep in-the-moment sultry rapport with Finch's Jerry, one cool young super genius sexy cool titan to another. One can't help but wonder as to what a great Lady Macbeth she would have made opposite Finch in Polanski's 1971 film (instead of Francesca Annis, though she was fine enough). It's their scenes together--and her beating up Jerry's brother, the manipulative junky Frank (Derrick O'Connor)--that really crackle. 

Luckily most of the film involves the pair of them, with the three scientists making the perfect back-up band. Far from the usual stuffy bowler-and-brolly types we'd expect to be harumphing in the background or the dreaded reverse (that Richard Lester-ish style of conservative faux-hipness), these three-four older scientists manage the hitherto impossible - each being cool and individual while functioning as a cool ultra-dry comedy team. Aging scientists unconcerned with the surface flash, they're in pursuit of completing--with the straight facedness required to convey now-or-never urgency--a complicated experiment that's beyond mad/daft and that needs to be executed at a certain, looming time. 

Overall it's a film free of villains, unless you count Frank, who's taken over the family estate, setting all the futuristic alarms and traps --including psychedelic light attacks ("designed to cause pseudo-epilepsy:), elaborate inflatable tunnels (a mix of a carnival bouncy castle and Corman's Masque of the Red Death), poisoned gas, and poisoned needles shooting out of walls while the siblings shoot at each other in weird homemade futuristic air guns (just to be extra weird and save on blood expenses).

But all of that is fine with me because of the cocky actorly rapport with Runacre and Finch as these kind of super-cool amoral hedonist next-gen scientific wits in fabulous clothes and --in his case--a kind of foppish arrogant feminine elegance; hers, a Bowie-esque androgyne sexy-cool. With her tousled orange hair and natty slacks and his too-tight black velvet blazer and black nail polish, they're a superb-looking team, like they've spent a lot of time improv --they're destined to entwine! 

Hint: Fans of Hammer films (and their ilk) might recall Runacre as playing a great insane red-dress wearing schizophrenic Folies Bergère dancer in the same year's The Creeping Flesh.


There's a great climax set in an abandoned Nazi submarine pen deep under Lapland, where "the best brains in Europe" are kept in jars (groan-worthy but still interesting), working overtime to answer the "ultimate question", and sunlight is harnessed and accumulated during the midnight sun period of summer to power the special device Jerry's dad was working on before he died. It ends just how you'd think, though I shan't spoil it. Anyway, I recommend it. Take it for what it is, and just enjoy Fuest's wicked sense of design style (the submarine pen and other futuristic sets evoke fond memories of Fuest's Avengers episodes and Dr. Phibes Rises Again's ancient Egyptian tomb). I kept thinking I wanted to live down there, and get drunk with these people ("The classic sanctuary fixation" notes Ms. Brunner) to wind up safe and sound after the Fall, ready for the new dawn.


Note the empties behind them while brainstorming in Jerry's flat. His freezer is empty except for hundreds of McVities' Dark
Chocolate Digestives. I can really relate

Navigating the family mansion's "defences"

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Swirling Mists of Chu Yuan: 70s Shaw Brothers Wuxia on Prime: SENTIMENTAL SWORDSMAN (Trilogy) HEAVEN SWORD AND DRAGON SABRE (1&2)



There are seemingly hundreds of old Shaw Brothers kung fu and wuxia films on Prime, enough in fact you can find a whole sub-school of them that fit your exact likes for your own massive bender. Me, I avoid the "Shaolin" ones, full of sweaty young bald dudes smacking each other and going through their callow revenge/shame-training montages in bright exteriors, with nary a female marital artist in sight. These are usually dubbed, often badly, with the same nasally Brit doing half the characters. I prefer the more esoteric "swordplay thriller" wuxia, from Shaw Brothers, in Cantonese with gorgeously-lit nights rich with elaborate decor, expansive sets, swirling mists, and strong female characters as deadly as their male counterparts, or more so. The best and weirdest are ussually directed by Chu Yuan (aka Yuen Chor) you know it's one of his when an old woman might triumph in a fight to the death with three experienced male martial arts heroes, as in the climax of The Proud Twins). The Chu Yuan output can be uneven, but generally come stocked with dazzling swordplay, wire-aided spins, jumps and kicks, recurring characters, period fantasy garb where everyone is dressed like gossamer princesses and plots that avoid corrupt governments and peasant exploitation in favor of cool supernaturally-tinged mysteries, where all the food is poisoned by smiling princesses and "Devil Grandma" and everyone is challenging each other to duels over magical weapons and hidden kung fu manuals as the plum blossoms shed their snowy petals in a slow, regular rain against the gorgeous soundstage night sky. Heroes wander from one beautiful background to another as they seek to level up against the one or two ranked swordsmen left to challenge their skills. There's seldom any vengeance to seek beyond some ancient grudge of the hero's teacher or parents passed on to the next generation. The battles tend towards almost Leone-level cool (Leone is clearly a big influence on Yuan, to the point that in many films hero Ti Lung walks around in a Clint Eastwood pancho) and Hawks-level gallant, wry professionalism between foes. Rather than duplicating some past reality, Yuan's wuxias snake through a land of mysticism, strange invincible light-shooting weapons, with colored Bava-style gel lights running through vast impeccably-lit soundstages that seem to stretch out to the infinite and--during magic hour shots created by a blazing visible circle of orange studio light--create a rarefied neither/or space that, to me, evokes the essence of my favorite dreams.

Also, they've probably never looked better than they do now, via Prime's seemingly endless collection of HD prints coming in on the Celestial Pictures distribution label. Since Shaw studios cranked out so many of these, they wisely kept all their sets seemingly mostly standing, connected to each other so they often seem to occur in the same netherworld of ornate plum blossom-filled gardens, temple ruins, secret lairs all aglow in foggy green and purple gel spot lighting, waterfalls, cliff face alcoves, little green water pools in the rock, meditation chambers, secret caves, ancient ruins, bamboo forests, indoor/outdoor restaurants, brothels, gambling dens, palace reception halls, booby trap-filled hallways, clan meeting halls, thief-filled roadside inns, and mystical fox ghost dens. While the more fight scene-centric Shaolin films seem to forego beauty in the name of athleticism, the Chu Yuan swordsman thrillers all keep the focus on the beauty, the strange characters, droll wit, and elaborate charade-style plots where one mystery reveal tops another, and every setting has its own colorfully-named gang of killers waiting in ambush. Swordsmen heroes uncover elaborate assassination plots, protect invincible clan weapons, search for lost siblings, discover long-missing kung fu manuals (and attain the mystical powers therein overnight), and above all, seek vengeance the one opponent who can finally give them a real challenge to their acquired skills. Some of these champions and villains have chi of such power the practitioner glows red and shoot rays of light out of their palms. They can all jump straight up two or more stories, do endless midair flips and super high kicks (via unseen wires) and all regularly take mid-fight breaks for bits of conversation confessing elaborate crimes, making grand threats, and/or professing innocence and being set up before resuming rounds of high-wire swordplay and kung fu combat.



Here are some of my favorites (all on Prime), and of course, check out my round-up of more fantastical supernatural based wuxias from my last big wuxia bender: Wild Wild Wuxia!

 THE SENTIMENTAL SWORDSMAN 
(1977) Dir. Chu Yuan (aka Yuen Chor)
***
Sentiment is not always a plus in the martial arts world, or so the bad guy--the evil Plum Blossom Bandit--says to the venerable ace swordsman hero Chi Lu-hsiang (the venerable Ti Lung) after praying on his sense of honor and loyalty. Now in self-imposed exile from his wealth and lady love, the venerable Chi Lu just coasts around for ten years, knocking back jugs wine, pontificating with Taoist realizations in that unique 'talking to the air' Ti Lung way, and slowly getting a Doc Holiday style consumptive cough. Since he's ranked the #3 best martial artist in the world he has to duel constantly; he prefers to gaze wistfully at the plum blossoms, or watch the world go in fitful fights and boasts behind his back at the bar. He drinks because his one true love wishes she was with him instead of the husband she has, the friend Chi Liu gave his everything to out of gratitude ten years ago. Or is that --like many alcoholics (myself included)-- he'd rather drink to to numb the pain of losing his only love than get the love back, even if she's right there, pining for him in lonely solitude. If that sounds like Geoffrey Firmin to you, then, cheers, old man! It maybe sounds like me, too. Or any drunk.

Cool characters include Lin Xanier, the whore of martial arts world,  offering to marry the man who finds and kills the Plum Blossom Bandit. She's contrasted w the modest beauty of the sad, sober creature Lin Hsin-ehr (Li Cheng) pointlessly sweeping up this empty courtyard, for no conceivable reason, waiting for Chi Liu to return to his home, the beautiful estate he gave up out of his woefully misguided sentiment.  



The ironies compound: despite the title, Chi Lu doesn't even carry a sword, preferring to parry with his fan. He bats his opponents around, blocks strokes with his fan (folded), and when things get tiring, just whips it open, wizzing some of the darts out of the folds, killing his foe instantly via at least one to the neck, the opened fan bearing the words: "Little Li's Darts That Never Miss." Who would want to duel with a guy who does that? Isn't that cheating? Either way, he's doing a lot of killing with those darts --a bunch of martial arts social climbers have been duped into thinking he's the Plum Blossom Bandit (who throws poison plum blossom darts and dresses like a pink ninja). Luckily a young bumpkin wanderer-- the irrepressible Ah Fei (Derek Yee)-- shows to cover Chi Lu's back. Other bad guys include a fake plum blossom bandit, a despicable old member of the 'Seven Incredible Men' who poisons Li's wine, and a doctor who notes that "Nothing is better than drinking to death" and then cures Master Li with another glass of wine! You were poisoned by wine and the cure is more wine! "Why would trivial matters such as life and death get in the way of drinking?" Lu gets it; he keeps drinking though his consumptive coughing (or is it an ulcer?). Whatever the reason, he doesn't let it stop him. Go for it, bro!

Under Chu Yuan's direction, the rich atmosphere and expansive shadowy, mist and water-enshrouded indoor/outdoor sets keep the eye continually seduced, like cold wine down a parched throat after walking out of the hot sun into a chilly lounge, with just the right amount of wit, mystery, exotic atmosphere, emotional sweep, and Sergio Leone-style cool dude posturing to keep one's attention.

Cons: There are two too many draggy moments between Li and his "past in the past" philosophy as he refuses to even talk about how why he gave away his wealth, woman and house ten years ago. Another rarity: lots of exterior shots -- a relative rarity in the Yuanverse-- as they walk to Wudang Mountain to see if Li is the Plum Blossom Bandit. We get lots of long shots of these traveling heroes in dwindling numbers walking all the way to Wudang, and not eating for many days  (they keep running into the Five Poisons Kid, who manages to poison everything in advance of their arrival). Fights are all on the soundstage but occasionally cut to outside (and there's a comparative lack of mist and moody atmosphere compared to the other two films in the trilogy, though still plenty compared to any non-Yuan).


THE RETURN OF THE SENTIMENTAL SWORDSMAN
(1981) Dir. Chu Yuan (aka Yuen Chor)
***1/2

"There is no truth in the marital arts world - only dead people, gold, and fame"

Correctly considered one of the few sequels better than the first. Laden with swirling mists and plum blossom evenings ("they've bloomed too soon," notes Ah Fei "and will die sooner.") it has an almost mystical reverence for alcohol coupled to savvy awareness of the process of alcohol addiction (and evocations of Rio Bravo and My Darling Clementine). Rather than any Plum Blossom bandit (the masked pink ninja villain of the first film) it's the real plum blossoms that count here, seen at night, under softly falling snow, amidst tiny waterfalls and glowing lanterns, with mist rolling over the ground. The beautiful plum blossom trees of his estate being in bloom in in fact what lures ever-drinking and coughing titular swordsman Chi Lu (Ti Lung again) back home, where his lady love still hopes he'll come back to live finally. But Chi Lu is also looking for trusty Ah Fei, who's been missing from the martial arts world for awhile. Where did he go? He's cohabitating with that slutty martial art groupie Lin Xanier (Linda Chu) and has become a tranquil nonviolent early-to-bed health nut, spending his days counting the plum blossom blooms, blinded by love and tranquilized by the drugs she spikes his tea with at night so he falls asleep way early and she can sneak down to the whorehouse and whoop it up with the head of the Money Clan! Once he finds out, heartbroken Ah Fei plunges into alcohol addiction and winds up imprisoned in the Money Clan's brothel, groveling around on the carpet for a drink as the prostitute's laugh and pour wine in his face. We're reminded of the opening of Rio Bravo, especially at the climax when Tung Li's lady love brings Ah Fei his old clothes and sword after he's finally sobered enough to join his old friend in a duel at Summit Mountain. The duel is set at dawn, and the Money Clan leader's golden robe looks great in that artificial early light as the red sun pierces through the mists and trees, the sky gradually getting brighter as the duel wages on, 


While the echoes of Rio Bravo are clear, there is also evidence of Chu's familiarity with the Sergio Leone westerns: various Morricone-esque electric guitar and weird rhythmic strains erupt on the during big duel squaring-off staring contests. There's also a nod to the numbering system with each martial artist ranked fourth or fifth and all trying to climb the top and go up against #1, or at least the next person up, evoking the yakuza films of Seijin Suzuki. What a world! As with the first Sentimental film, there might be one too many frustrating melancholy exchanges between Chi Liu and his glum platonic love, but the scenery is gorgeous and Yuan knows how to parlay the need for fighting and position jostling amongst martial artists into an endlessly fascinating series of sword battles --Leone-like exchanges of midnight cool, honor and last words amidst the blossoms. Fights on a silent flowing stream, each fight better than the last. More slow motion than one might expect for a Shaw Brothers film. But hey.



----

PERILS OF THE SENTIMENTAL SWORDSMAN
(1982) Dir. Chu Yuan (Yuen Chor)
****

Perils of the Sentimental Swordsman skips the mopey romantic sudsy drama of the previous two films and works as a stand-alone adventure, with Ti Lung's consumptive wanderer Chi-Liu pretending to turn outlaw in order to infiltrate the 'Ghostly Village,' an apparently transdimensional extradition-free settlement accessible only via a disappearing cloud bridge! It's one of the coolest of all Chu Yuan's Really Cool Places, evoking the fox ghost realm in Full Moon Scmitar (1979) coupled to Bat Island (seeable in another Chi-Liu Hisiang stand-alone adventure, Legend of the Bat (1978- not on Prime but there's a non-HD DVD). The first thing the Charon-like guide shows you after you arrive is the liquor store ("Hell's Cellar --do you need to buy any wine?") so you know I love this film. His fame ensuring he gets handed a gorgeous little pad, with a servant ("this is a blanket"), Chi-Liu has to find his contact amidst the new neighbors: a mincing gay stereotype, a foxy siren known as "The General," and a wild gambling lunatic played by the irrepressible Lo Lieh. Turns out the masked 'phantom' who runs the place is organizing a revolution out in the real world, so they can all come back to 'Earth' without fear of incarceration. 


The thing is, who is a spy for the current throne and who isn't? People try and confess being a spy to out each other, so who can you trust? Meanwhile some ghosts fly around in an immaculately green-lit mist-shrouded haunted ruin atop a nearby hill.  Spending a night up there on a bet, Lo Leih does the Costello monster comedy bit, quaking with fear while being gaslit by the ghost stealing his food one bite at a time, etc. with Chi-Liu as the Abbott. Great stuff. The sword fights are okay but it's really the spooky elaborate beauty of the sets and eccentric characters I vibe with; the always dark or at dusk/dawn inner/outer mist-enshrouded otherworld of the Ghostly Village and the colorful never-ending parade of villains, like scruffy elderly rogue named Dugu Fei, aka "the Handsome Loner," known also is "the one who disdains his kinfolks." And this time there are no exterior shots or even daytime shots. Everything occurs from dusk to dawn, aka the time of ghosts, eddying through the gorgeous swirling mist like whirling vape-nados. 

-----------------

HEAVEN SWORD AND DRAGON SABRE
HEAVEN SWORD AND DRAGON SABRE 2
(Dir. Chor Yuen AKA Yuan Chi)
*** 

Good luck keeping up with the byzantine plot of this strange two-part affair, especially since it kind of starts in the middle of some probably massive novel by Louis Cha (the Prime blurb lets us know it's also a popular TV serial). If you read the whole thing in advance I presume you wouldn't be scratching your head as we whizz past one crazy fight scene after another. If not may help to have seen The Battle Wizard first, as it borrows a lot of the same elements, like the hero finding a special oasis halfway down a cliff where the hero mends his wounds and finds ancient power in eating or drinking the blood of glowing toads, red frogs or giant pythons, and Hsueh-Erh Wen as a snake-handling venom-loving girl, and kung fu manuals that impart instant super power. This time we follow a dashing young hero (Tung Shing-Yee) this time seeking to find out who's behind his foster father going crazy after an evil monk killed his family and sewn seeds of dissent against the Ming clan with all the other kung fu schools.  The two titular magic blades are--when brought together--possessed of some dynamic magic but really don't figure that prominently. Mostly there's poison, antidotes, hair-raising rescues, and strange deals, interrupted weddings and people once thought friends becoming bitter enemies and vice versa. 

As with most of these Celestial Shaw Brothers films, one of the unique aspects not often found in western action genre is the prevalence of female led-fighting clans like the Er Mei (the female counterpart to the Shaolin Temple). At Er Mei they keep their women sharp by forbidding all sexual contact with men, and they take an especially dim view of pregnancy. Here the Er Mei clan is led by a rigid white haired old super Buddhist nun with super deadly kung fu schools, who kills the girls who transgress, and eventually passes the reins to the secret love of the leader of the Ming clan, which makes his rival in the other clan super jealous, and around and around. 

The first film flows much better as the focus stays on young Tung-Shin Yee, curing himself from a Buddha's palm wound inflicted on him while a child, growing up under the protection of a renowned pharmacist who tries every cure in the book to keep him alive. All this will lead him to the promised land, eating the red frogs, finding the secret manuals, saving and taking over the Ming clan and getting to the bottom of all the grudges that have led to the Ming Clan being unfairly blamed for all sorts of calamitous behavior. The result, everyone watches various duels at the Gang Ming Summit showing off what they know, and the good don't kill the losers, that's how you know who's good. 


At the end, even the villains may well take note of the power of the Buddha by renouncing their past, shaving their heads and joining the Shaolin monks in humble contemplation of the Amanita Buddha. Glory to Amitabha. I kind of like that kind of ending as it vibes with my own saving through the power of AA. Glory to the higher power as you understand it. 

All is emptiness...



Friday, November 06, 2020

Welcome to the Zugsmithery: SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE (1960)


If you don't think film critics can make mistakes, consider the terrible reviews given the sublime SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE, a C-list 1960 madcap comedy (once likely called SEX POT GOES TO COLLEGE but changed due to pot references) about the effect a super genius doctor of medicine,  psychology, and physics (plus ten other degrees) has on a small town college when she arrives from Vegas to assume the role of dean (hired by "Thinko" the computer/robot who is "never wrong!") Why is she causing such a stir? Just because she happens to arrive in the body of "the Tallahassee Tassle Tosser," Mamie van Doren. Often billed as being to Jayne Mansfield what Jayne Mansfield was to Marilyn Monroe, Mamie underplays with such calm authority that even those who sneer and deride her 'type' would be impressed if they could leave their male sexual panic at the door. Not only can she can carry a film, she can stay cool and grounded as a photographic memory and 13 doctorates-having genius. No doubt she is the right woman to lead this cocakamamie college into the "space age" she 
can give you the page # of any given text. In short, Thinko is not wrong; she's qualified above and beyond the rest of them. The sparks fly because no one can handle the fact of her hotness. This inability is never depicted as anything but 'their' problem, and reflects perhaps the irrational hostility of critics (similar to the unearned scorn heaped on Myra Breckenridge.

And she's not the only assett: a stunning Tuesday Weld is the hitherto raining beauty queen. (she accuses Van Doren of "making every other woman in the world feel flat-chested"). Weld has been trying to get lumpen football star "Woo-Woo" (Norman Grabowski) to try at least for first base rather than just running off in a stuttering virgin panic. Trying to help Weld out, Dr. Mamie gives him some good counsel --just one of the surprising moments van Doren handles with a sensitive aplomb worthy of a real therapist, yet hitting all the right comedic notes with a deadpan feather ("boys with nicknames are usually sensitive"). No wonder he ends up falling for her instead of Weld, but it hardly matters. There's too much else going on as the film slowly builds to one of the stateroom scene-style 'everyone onstage' madhouses. One can't forget (though she doesn't make much of an impression) Maila "Vampira" Nurmi is around as a sexually frustrated lab assistant. And there's so much more. 

Mijanou, in a nice color photo (I couldn't find a good Sex Kittens still that does her justice)

For all Van Doren's range, the secondary romantic lead, Mijanou Bardot (Brigitte's sister!) basically steals the bulk of the sex appeal as a Russ Meyer heroine-style, sexually voracious exchange student out to bed a cross-section of ze American male for her term paper. The forthright way she explores a cross-section of manhood for her term paper is inspiring, the stuff of semi-terrified fantasy. She ends up zeroing in on a "real live Chicago gangster" in the form of Allan Drake as "Legs" --whose squeamish semi-reticence is met with bewildered academic urgency ("Do you want to set science back thirty years!?") He and his pal are there to lean on this guy "Thinko" whose been gambling rather too successfullu Though far from the most interesting of the Mad style cacaphony of crazy characters, Drake's rattled "Legs" becomes more interesting purely through his gradual tolerance of Bardot's unswerving affection, eventually, like some Anna Karina anti-heroine, she joins the bad guys ("This dialogue, pure Roaring 20s, no?!)

"I"One of the most possible people you'll ever meet."
"One of the most possible people you'll ever meet" 

And that's good Legs comes around and conquers his sexual panic. Hey, you'd be surprised how many normally red-blooded American males can't handle a beautiful girl suddenly throwing herself at him like a freight train. A man might fantasize all through his pained adolescence about such moments, but if one actually comes, it's--and Lacanians know this all too well--his reaction isn't aggressive cool, but panicky; he starts to stutter, spills his drink, and before you know it, finds himself running away, covered in sweat, desperate to get home and begin his lifetime of self-reproach over this this chickening out. To go from tortured adolescent longing for this golden chance to tortured adult regret about blowing it is almost a rite of passage; hopefully one can glean the message - you are a complicated person and the unconscious half of yourself is a spiteful anima out to keep you for herself, so she can occasionally creep up from the attic and molest you while you dream. This is the comedic gold mine understood only by a chosen few in the comedy business. College is, in this film, the zone of endless Lacanian objet petit a proximity; campus life is visualized as a zone where fantasy is freely imagined by those who have only been there in passing and thought 'man if I was in college I could score with all these chicks' and suddenly they have to put up or shut up.  The women--namely van Doren, Weld and Bardot--have all the brains and assertive libidos, and the men are reduced to terrified deer in the headlights. Such is the Russ Meyer-esque vein mined by Albert Confessions of an Opium Eater Zugsmith in the long-derided Sex Kittens Go to College. 

L-R: Tuesday, Mijanot, Mamie
I don't have all the answers; I have no idea why this awesome comedy gets such a bad critical rap, unless male critics are too threatened by the idea of a genius bombshell who's not evil, passive, helpless, materialistic, or moronic. As of this writing it has a 2.2 on imdb. and Lenny Maltin gives it a BOMB ("don't say you weren't warned!"); Glenn Erikson says "Compared to Sex Kittens, Otto Preminger's Skiddoo is a profound statement on the human condition." An uncredited imdb writer calls it "one of the most legendarily worst films ever produced." But I say, if you've been to college and like to get wasted and love Russ Meyer, Ed Wood, and Roger Corman, used to read Mad and Cracked then at least consider checking it out. I think a lot of these low budget zany comedies get a bad rap, especially if they don't have big recognizable directors (like Frank Tashlin or George Axelrod) so that critics can guess how they're supposed to respond right away. This isn't a guffaw style comedy, but how often did we laugh reading Mad as kids? 2/3 of the time we didn't even get the jokes. We had no idea what they were talking about running satires of films far too dry and adult for our interest, like The Sandpiper and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.  Some comedies don't have to be funny. Ask Albert Zugsmith, the strange figure who could go from producing films like Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind, to directing unclassifiable strangeness like Confessions of an Opium Eater, The Beat Generation, and Sex Kittens Go to College. He also produced Russ Meyer's Fanny Hill! 

If you don't see that list is all connected, then you need to learn so very much about the spirit of revolutionary cinematic anarchy in the service of sexual stimulation. (Behind me right as I wrote that phrase a Quaker Oats commercial said "Where new normals are created.") That's the beauty of the Zugsmith touch.  Watching Vincent Price sailing madly down the sewer towards Frisco Bay oblivion in Opium Eater for example, leaves us more questions than answers (it a horror film? A white slavery expose? A surreal odyssey worthy of Bunuel? 

It is all that and more; it's the Zugsmithery. 

The simple fact is, there are so many things to zero in on here in the Zugsmithery that if one element annoys you, there are ten more to delight or flabbergast. For me the annoying element is Van Doren's assigned romantic lead, college PR rep Martin Milner (the supposedly hip jazz guitarist who had to have weed planted on him in Sweet Smell of Success). Talking fast in a kind of high-voiced style, sort of imitating Cary Grant at his most flummoxed in Arsenic and Old Lace, Milner tries to steal scenes as if he;s feeling the need to give the film a square white fall guy center, to link the film to every other banal desperately mansplaining-flooded "sex" comedy flatlining on big screens around America at the end of the 1950s. Tather than letting the women rule as they do anyway, Milner lets a kind desperate flop sweat reduce his square lead idiot to tatters. That said, he still comes out a few yards ahead of Eliot Reid's smarmy detective in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as far as worst male counterpart to a busty comedic titan

There's one other caveat: I also don't like the cop-out ending (SPOILER ALERT!), when Mamie hangs up her shingle and goes back to Vegas to continue her tassle-tossing, so that Milner can romance her without feeling threatened. When she says "for the first time I feel like I'm really using my brain" one wants to track down writer Robert Hill and beat him senseless (I feel the same way at the end of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls when smarmy David Gurian is accepted back into the fold and the lesbians are blamed for their own deaths.)  Ugh! If there's one thing I loathe it's those smug white privilege-touting SWMs (i.e. Smug WASP Morons), often young men with clean cut hair and a pipe and an unearned lordly air, as if they believe the Madison Avenue plastic fantastic wave that tells them they--by virtue of their educated SWM status-- are in charge of any other genders and races they might encounter, determined to solve whatever bothers them until their comfortable patriarchal homogenization reasserts itself. Sure, not all these guys are insufferable; watching them today becomes more insufferable with every passing day of my work's sensitivity training. Ugh! (Of you can't get enough of my ravings on the topic, check out: CinemArchetype 13: The Skeevy Boyfriend. and Vanishing Caloric Density: The Queen of Outer Space.

 Luckily, balancing out Milner's forced hysteria, there's wondrously wry turns by Jackie Coogan as Admiral "Wildcat" McPherson (borrowing W.C. Field's drawl wholesale as the college's financial underwriter) and John Carradine, proving he isn't limited to shady butlers and secondary Draculas as a professor. Turns out Carradine is adept as hell at deadpan comedy as one of Mamie's firm supporters. Unthreatened by her mix of sex appeal and brains he calls her "a positive vision" while helping her into his faculty-packed jalopy (her chimp sidekick sneaks into the rumble seat) for a night of buzzed carousing (or  "simple homespun country fun" as he assures her) at local college tavern, "the Passion Pit." To overcome any further doubts as to her qualifications as either genius or stripper, she hypnotizes the gathered faculty and patrons to join her in a crazy rhumba. Conway Twitty watches, moved, and sings. But that doesn't phase the benevolent and respectful ardor of the older men, who are--essentially--too debauched to be troublesome (the greatest libertines never mash or paw; they lean in only to spook off the riff-raff). 

Small bit parts and great lines float around ("I'm a selectman of the church!" rants the cop who arrests the admiral when his morality is on the ropes); Charlie Chaplin Jr. (as a bewildered fire chief); the imposing and magnificently bullhorn-voiced Babe London, who arrives in town representing "the Paddy Pad Brassier for the larger figures gal"  - At the end she's heading off once more into the great beyond: "You people don't deserve Paddy Pads! I'm taking my brassieres to Europe where they'll be appreciated!")

And over all, it's one of those great fantasies where all the women are stacked and leggy, and the men well-written and acted (Milner aside) nincompoops. With poops like Coogan and Carradine, how bad can things get, no matter how much Milner dashes around like some kind of universal chaperone (telling Jayne "You are a bit much for a growing boy to face at nine-AM in the morning.") or the flash-frozen "Woo Woo" mopes and Moranises? Sure, the ending is total chaos as all the disparate parts come together in a big science lab/classroom climax (with the gangsters and Thinko finally squaring off) but at least half the gags hit home and if you don't really laugh, well, one of the beautiful gals is usually onscreen to rest your eyes on while you wait for the next zany character to come tumbling into the scene. For all its faults, I think I like it better, as a whole, than either Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (which has an icky homophobic/misogynist subtext) or The Girl Can't Help It (which has an icky Tom Ewell smarm). Sure it's not as good as Lord, Love a Duck but what is? Even that's not perfect, though it sure is Milnerless.

 The question is, does Sex Kittens link up with Opium to delineate and auteur style for the Zugsmith? Maybe not, but it does indicate a termite interest in veering from audience expectation and letting the sewer carry us where it may. If Vincent Price were to show up, waving an opium pipe as he sails past, we might well find one. I don't think he is going to make it, but really, it's probably just because he was under AIP contract and in 1960 was making House of Usher.  Hey, maybe I am crazy or just benefitted from a nice buzz and low expectations. I think you can't pin high hopes on it, it's not any better than Invasion of the Star Creatures but if you tolerate that, there's plenty of galakazoom and maybe even some ringy-dink; best of all there's full-bodied and nuanced performances from Bardot (casually carnal), Van Doren (sensitive and balanced - she talks, not shouts, further stranding the sub-par actors--Milner in the ham flats) and Weld (less to do than in Duck but still ravishing with some good rapport with Van Doren--with whom she remained fast friends--and Bardot, who together have a kind of sisterly ruling benevolence, watching over the male college co-eds and faculty the way proud cowboys watch over the herd in Red River. Even with the cop-out coda, this baby isn't Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, this here's the Pussycat! Follow the lead of Prof. John Carradine and Coogan instead of the dopey Milner. A girl with youth, brains, education and hot blondeness is not a threat or an object, but a great drinking partner.   
 



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...