Friday, June 10, 2022


Snaking her unhinged voluptuousness through the breezy soundstage jungles, medieval forests, old wests and voodoo graveyards of drive-in independence, Allison Hayes was a special breed of star (aggressively sexual) at a special time (the mid-to-late 50s) for a special place (the drive-in). And what she did for America and its boozy good-time pulse cannot be fully known or measured. At her best playing the direct, carnal sexually available wanton, the well-bodied broad with an unfulfilled need for sex and violence, she was as recognizable a face in the late-50s drive-in as Vincent Price or Boris Karloff. Classic genre fans rightly revere her like Christians do Mary Magdalene. She was the antidote to the Marilyn Monroe/Annette Funicello dichotomy, as ravenous as a wolf and smart as a pistol. Here are three of her films not as well known as her most iconic (Attack of the 50-Foot Woman), but all are worth hunting down, if you love well-built and slightly crazy but all-the-way women.   

(1957) Dir. Edward L. Cahn

If you ever saw one of those cool plastic pirate skeleton or old-time diving suit aquarium ornaments--the kind that sit on the bottom of the tank, with the oxygen bubbles coming up from a small sunken treasure chest half buried in the gravel--and you really wanted one. But there was one problem: you didn't have an aquarium to put it in. Well, I have a movie for you. my friend: you should see this film from independent producer Sam Katzman. Old "Jungle" Sam doesn't have an aquarium either! But damned if that'll stop him from filling a film with a lot of underwater old time diving suited salvagers hunting out a gold chest in an old shipwreck, and tangling with its undead guardians. 

Many have tried over the years to recover the diamonds--guarded by the corpses of the ship's pirate crew--and all have died and joined the bubbly vigil. The undead captain's now-elderly wife (Marjorie Eaton) lives in the forlorn hope that one day the curse will be broken but the only way to break is "destroy" the diamonds. What? How can you destroy the hardest thing in the world? So she changes it to "get rid of them! Throw them into the sea!" They're in the sea already, lady, so what, just drop the chest back in the water? Why not just fish them out again once the curse is broken? Writers on these old yarns never seem to iron out curse logistics. At least Jungle Sam never does. He's a man who doesn't do rewrites, or monitor, it seems, his special effects crew (witness the dopey bird marionette of another of his 50s productions, The Giant Claw).

Jan (Autumn Hoskins) visits the coast to get the backstory after her incoming cab runs over a walking dead crewman and doesn't stop to check (proving the screenwriter saw White Zombie). She arrives to visit grandma at her coastal vigil, as does another doomed salvage team. There's the usual burly, long green-minded captain, Joel (George "Not the same Beatle" Harrison), his trophy mistress Mona (Alison Hayes) and the hunky-dopey 'hero,' first-mate diver Jeff (Gregg Palmer). Cue the flared tempers and aggressive come-ons, especially when jealous Mona gets a load Jan. Mona's so crazy over Jeff she practically stabs Jan just for giving him a drink of water after he's roughed up by a zombie. Joel hits her for that one, and she runs out in a huff. Guess how she comes back!

This movie gets a bad rap (called 'unimaginative' by one critic / "dull" by another) but in my inner TV guide it's got everything you want for a movie called Zombies of Mora Tau. Maybe it was badly panned and scanned for TV; maybe it was just too relaxing to keep viewers awake during late show TV airings back in the day. Unless you're expecting gut-munching, restored, HD-ified, and in its original aspect ratio, the Tau has near everything you want in a late-night drive-in relaxant, with nothing you don't. 

Then again, maybe I just love this movie the same reason I love Katzman's Giant Claw--for the dopey 'special' effects: the film's underwater treasure-recovering and old timey diving suit vs. zombie fights are all shot 'dry' (no aquarium), with the actors just moving really... slow. (with bubble overlays). The result evokes those WB cartoons where sleepy characters float into bed; or Cocteau through-the-mirror effects where characters fall up buildings. Mora Tau is a place that won't keep you awake, but it is a fine place to fall asleep. 

But probably the reason I like it is Alison Hayes. Wandering through the Tourneur-esque shadows in her cinched up nightgown--her knife, bra, and posture stiff as Frankenstein---treating everyone including their old lady host with uncouth scorn, openly suspecting their dinner is poisoned, goading Josh into insisting Jeff kiss her ("How dare you say no to a friendly kiss!"), Hayes' sexual energy makes a nice side dish to the leisurely zombie action. She's so mean they don't even realize she's become a zombie when she starts trying to stab everyone.

Scenes of sailor zombies coming at the living humans from bushes, and shadows, and the sea, and from all sides--never even flinching from point black gunshots--are dispersed well enough that there is nary a dull-- or exciting (the zombies are all rather slow)-- moment. When they're not guarding the treasure these (all-white male) undead are nosing around on the veranda, looking through open windows, skulking in bushes, ever ready for their cutaway. Their unstoppable slow momentum, and the moody black photography make Tau a key historical zombie link between 1932's White Zombie and 1968's Night of the Living Dead. If you can get around the weird nonsensical aspects--like that 'destroy the diamonds' curse, and the whole crew is buried in the same small mausoleum (like some sort of sailor's eternal rest home)--you'll find it a fine film to help you sail towards ye old catatonia.

(1957) Dir. Walter Grauman

Another of Allied Artist's drive-in back-end fucked-up, weird-ass bill-fillers comes a-calling. Hayes stars (in white 'native' bronzer) As "Tonda" a mix of slutty/sexually dissatisfied trophy wife of an old Germanic psychiatrist  (John Wengraf) doing research in the "jungle" and a homicidal voodoo priestess. Her appendage-squiggling, dagger-waving, hips and chest akimbo voodoo drum-spurred rhumba is perhaps the feature's sole attraction (the title likely refers to soul-transference, but it's hard to know for sure what part goes where). Her mixed blood implied by her name and a shellacking of bronzer, she does a lot of sultry veranda-stalking at their jungle compound. There's nothing to do otherwise but lust after her narc of a chiseled man servant Zuba (another white person in native bronzer) and try to kill her husband with voodoo dolls. But lo! The native drums are announcing a handsome jungle photographer Tom Maxwell (Paul Burke) and his lion-mauled buddy headed their way for the doctor's medical help. Tonda's eyes light up with lust at the size of Tom's zoom lens, but he's sure to leave immediately if the patient should die, and he's so weak with blood loss he won't last the night. What about the witch doctors of which Tonda speaks? And what about Zuba and her fixing to narc on Tonda's midnight liasons? Surely a voodoo shimmy will solve both problems at once. But then what of Zuba's vindictive mate (another white person in native bronzer) now that he's suddenly voodooed by mighty Tonda?

Look, I love Hayes to death, and maybe even beyond, but in general jungle movies don't grab me. They're too sweaty and stock footage-bogged. Even with Hayes in the cast. caged animals and stock footage narration alone could keep me away, but Disembodied is all shot on one big soundstage jungle set, free of  animals, bugs, compost, and realism of any kind. The only wild animal on display is Hayes' Tonda, stringing along her sweaty old doctor husband with the occasional kiss, strangling effigies of him and dancing at midnight dance rituals--"she's the voodoo queen!" observes Tom's (actual) black driver says Tom's guide as they spy on her secret ceremonies--she's divided even unto herself. We never can tell if her normal self knows there's a voodoo priestess side of her. Seeing a lot of movies like this may help fill in plot points the writers were too something or other to notice. 

Zuba's mate Mara (Eugenia Paul) may be the only one who understands his soul is in the healed buddy of Tom. She gets right away that his soul is inside a white dude who, as chance would have it, is now trying to kill everyone for some zombie reason. Maybe it was a case of rewrite-itis? One writer undoing the linear plot of the other? The gravelly German doctor husband is as surprised as anyone that his mauled-to-ribbons patient seems mostly healed the next day and only wants to stab people. As one of his buddies notes: "This whole thing is so freaky it gives me the shakes." Move over,  buster.

Competently acted all around ( Tom has that low register downtown New York-accented Actor's Studio-type of inflection; his precise but underneath TV cop show-style speaking voice lets you know he's not trying to be a ham), Disembodied is let down by two unforgivable elements: white actors playing natives by wearing bronzer to play natives, and Hayes' black fringe two-piece dance costume. What moron at AIP decided Hayes' skimpy tribal wear should be a formless black top with a long-hanging concealing black fringe? it's worse than a censor bar. Hard to believe this is the same girl who looked so young and alive in Corman's Gunslinger (below) and The Undead that same year. I do like her Asian-style cocktail dress and trim safari jumpsuit, and the fact that all three dresses include a front dagger sheathe, just big enough to get the job done without rousing the shame of low-hanging males. But that fringe? Oh boy. It cancels a lot of good feeling. 

Ah well, despite the heartbreak, The Disembodied is not a total failure: Hayes still has that weird air of bitchy carnal aggression that made her so transcendent in all these probably tailor-made roles (she would have been sublime as the treasure hunter-cum-monster in Voodoo Woman made the same year and I think on the same set (1)) She may stray from form when getting all gooey over Tom but she can wring maximum Stanwyickian mileage out of her hatred for her husband, hurling blunt force lines delivered low under breath like, "I could kill you...." in measured whispers like spears through cake. There's a lurching unevenness at work, but then again it's a short movie. Tom goes from falling for her sensual heat to hating her for her hamfisted attempts to get him to kill her husband. Her husband worships her with a kind of jungle-rot sub-Sternberg masochism, his mind refusing to see her voodoo queen truth even as he buries himself in mumbo research. 

whoever designed this outfit was no friend to straight men

And you can't blame her for being evil: she's horny and  bored, and as the doctor says, "the natives are like children." You can't figure why she'd marry this coded impotent German doctor in the first place, unless you imagine some kind of backstory on your own (or borrow from another film, such as White Woman, or Voodoo Woman or any D.H. Lawrence adaptation). But there's really no need for logical sense in in this potted soundstage jungle, just good steady drumming and the crisp photography that captures well the shadows of the black soundstage night. Maybe that's enough. Sometimes an eerie night in a "jungle" full of dangers all you need, at least for an hour's distraction. And preferably with that Hayes woman, figure-hiding fringe or no. All it takes to know it's a keeper is the turned-on look in her eyes as she watches Tom and his disembodied friend fight over a knife.

Note lack of fringe and light dress shade
allowing alluring under-shadow in this glamor shot, compared to next photo up

(1956) Dir. Roger Corman
Roger Corman is mainly known for his horror and science fiction films, but did ya know he started out with four westerns? Gunslinger--a gender-reversed Wyatt Earp variation--is easily the best, and it's also criminally unavailable on DVD, or Blu-ray (you can only currently find it on yonder YouTube). Beverly Garland plays Rose, whose marshal husband is gunned down in broad daylight. She vows to get the men, and woman, responsible; she even shoots one of her man's killers at his funeral, nice and quick, before stepping in as substitute marshall (after the mayor and rest of the men prove too chicken-hearted to accept it). Her daytime no-fuss funeral gunplay is a blast of fresh air after so many of the more liberal revisionist westerns of the era. People get shot right and left here in her muddy town of Oracle, with no fanfare or drawn-out showdowns. Rose has no problem--no tears or misgivings--about racking up an impressive body count. Damn straight! 

I'm not sure if you realize how revolutionary this is! Corman is breaking from the 50s western fold--the sort of bland revisionism epitomized by patriarchal pacifists like Gary Cooper in High Noon--like a B-list gender fluid Hawksian, almost pre-Peckinpah-ian, calf outta hell. These ladies don't refuse to pack a gun or cry over all the violence they see and dish out. Death doesn't even get a close-up or a showdown --it's quick and the ladies are more ruthless than the men. Hayes rival is even more bloody. Erica (Allison Hayes), proprietor of a 24-hour saloon/brothel, has the bad but ingenious habit of buying land in the area (she thinks the train might come through), then sending her lovestruck little bartender Jake (Jathan Haze) out to bushwhack the men she just bought land from, reclaiming the $$ and using it to buy another piece of property, etc. Ingenious! But that's not why Rose is after her. The friction comes when Rose decides to finally implement the town's never-hitherto-enforced liquor and prostitution laws. She gives Erica's three dancing whores a week to get out of town, and she forces Erica to close her saloon every night at three AM. 

Of course you know, this means war!

Erica hires a professional gunslinger Cane (John Ireland) to take Rose out, in both senses of the phrase. Her little smitten barkeep assassin Jake (Jonatha Haze) is pretty miffed about not getting the job, but Erica realizes he's no match for a good woman. Cane is soon the only real man in town, dating both women on alternate nights, angering little Jake even further! And then, Rose and Cane of fall for each other! Who'd a thunk it? Erica is double mad now and if the railway doesn't come through, god knows what a bloodbath may be in store, especially when Cane starts a-gunning for the cowardly mayor, who led Cane's artillery regiment the Civil War and ran away when he got scared. Got to love the idea of Rose riding desperately to the rescue of a grown-ass man, and the way all the men in the story are either dead, short, cowards, or otherwise ineffectual. Even Cane proves inadequate when he's made wishy-washy by love when---in very cool and nicely underplayed and well-written scenes by future Corman regular screenwriters Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna--Rose and Cane fall for each other. She playfully but sincerely trying to change his outlaw ways, knowing full well she won't succeed, while remaining undeniably attracted to his bad boy sparkle at the same time. 

What a film! it doesn't even matter that--so rare for a western--the skies are overcast and rainy; and the ground is super muddy; the actors are pretending the wetness isn't soaking through their pants when they sit down for picnics or lay down after getting shot in the back. 

Corman is the first and for a long time the only schlock filmmaker who realized he could cast hot capable actresses roles usually reserved for men and not even change their actions. And Garland and Hayes are sublime examples of how a woman can be alluring and assertive at the same time. With her red hair, black velvet choker, tightly pulled corset and form fitting burgundy red dress, Hayes is an angry vision of loveliness and connivance in a western setting. Erica's mix of naked greed, amoral entrepreneurship, sexual jealousy, manipulativeness, aggression and combined with dark, worldly wit seems tailor-made. And casting her as the sexually-manipulative heavy going against a rival 'good' female sets the blueprint for another great Griffith/Hana script, my personal Roger Corman favorite, The Undead the following year. 

Executing a deft outflanking maneuver around all the liberal guilt-tripping, corny sentiment, and labored symbolism that usually dampens the mood in any 50-60s western, Corman keeps the tale lean, sexy and over fast. Perhaps the only reason Gunslinger isn't more widely celebrated today on a cult level (it rates a lowly 3.7 on imdb) is that western fans threatened by the gender revisionism? I usually roll my eyes at girl gunslinger movies as they're either campy, overwrought or saddled with tiresome moralists who don't approve of guns and murder so can't press the trigger on a disarmed opponent. This isn't like that at all, thank god. But Roger, if your film is about a battle between two strong, inflexible, beautiful, deadly women--they even have one of the best female-on-female bar fights in film history--why give it such a generic title? It is because boys are afraid of armed girls? I doubt it!

Though never released on DVD or Blu-ray (why, lord?), it's currently streaming on YouTube. Find it on my public YouTube playlist "4 AM Favorites") right next to another--never been on official DVD or Blu-ray--film, the Dino di Laurentiis-produced, Ennio Morricone-scored tale of a drug-addicted bisexual super spy, Fraulein Doktor. There are also two 70s TV series about cultures where women are in charge and men subservient--Star Maidens and All that Glitters. There are no streaming, VHS, DVD or Blu-ray releases of them, at all. Ever! 

Dear video labels, stop being threatened over strong women! Release Gunslinger, Fraulein Doktor, Star Maidens, and All that Glitters on DVD or streaming. Do it soon, or Allison Hayes' ghost just might get awful mad. 

click here for more where this came from! Awooo!

1.  Maybe she was busy making Zombies of Mora Tau? 1957 was her big year - she was in 4 films and made six TV shows. wth Voodoo Woman, which used to be on a double bill with The Undead (which co-starred Hayes) so maybe that's why they got Marla English instead (in her second go-round as a woman turning into an armor-plated She-Creature) in the villainess role. Two Hayes in one double feature, the same year may have confused half-watching audiences. But Hayes would have crushed it. (though English is clearly having a ball and is rather marvelous in a pint-sized sort of way. Keep your expectations even lower, and check it out).
2. their names and films shall be unmentioned as they constitute spoilers.) 

Friday, June 03, 2022

Recent Favorites: Ten Weird Cinema Discoveries

Don't panic, but picking out a movie to watch is becoming ever more impossible. No filmmaker, artist or writer can help but be dismayed by the internet's total everything all the time availability. With hundreds more movies coming out every month and none of older stuff ever disappearing, it's harder and harder to find choice nuggets since it's easy to close yourself off to new sensations. Thus content aggregators zero in on our specific tastes and so our tastes shrink instead of widen. Tubi chooses for me an array of 30s-80s horror and science fiction. And I have to obey --because otherwise I will be drowned in options. Just the number of independent SOV outsider horror films alone could send even the most open-minded film critics running screaming into the night from despair.

When I was working as a film critic I rarely got to pick my assignments; as a result, I had to see a lot of stuff I'd never watch in a million years on my own. I covered everything from cliche-ridden gay romcoms like Big Eden  to weird but effective black family-aimed spiritual comedic-soaps like Medea's Family Reunion. As a result my horizons were expanded far beyond my comfort zone. I wouldn't watch any of those movies today on my own, not ever, especially not in a theater or screening room where I was compelled to actually pay attention. Nonetheless, with the exception of Alexander Sukorov's closeted steam fantasia Father and Son (2003) and the the Ned Flanders-friendly The Pirates who Don't do Anything: A Veggie Tales Movie (2008), I'm glad I saw them. 

But that job is done; my comfort zone has gotten very narrow. Now if something doesn't grab me from the get-go, I stop watching. With a thousand channels, and hundreds of thousands of movies on each one why would I waste time with something aimed at a different demographic? Or something that has kids, animal abuse, pedantic Christian messaging, convincing torture scenes, depressing truths, fake breasts, snickering frat boys, or tacky 80s perms? Or anything other than shot on 35mm and given a solid HD translation with vivid colors? Not on my watch... list! Life's too damn short.

Yet the long hunt is worth it when I finally strike gold--stuff my aggregator's and I both like. Viola! 

(1978) Dir. Kim Ki-young
via Mondo Macabro (Korean - with subtitles)

Here at Acidemic we have a yen for legit weird films but they got to be weird for a purpose. Sometimes weirdness is a specific code used to get critiques of Catholic or Communist ideologies past their home country's censors (i.e. the films of Bunuel or Parajanov); sometimes weirdness is just arch intellectual posturing (some Godard, Robbe-Grillet, Resnais, Carax) or merely a callow showcase for macabre art direction and effects (Burton, Jeunet). Sometimes weirdness translates to shamanic archetypes straight from the unconscious, captured on film prior to any conscious structuring (Jodorowsky, Lynch, Zulawski Rollin), that's the kind I love - and then sometimes there's Kim Ki-young's Woman Chasing the Butterfly of Death-- it's all those weirds and none of them, a surreal meditation on death and the eternal self that's at quietly absurdist, terrifying, and droll, resisting with ease any attempt to categorize or predict the origin or direction of its next offense--that kind of cinematic experience I'll give my steel pot to any day, to quote Gene Evans as Sgt. Zack. 

A man begins a long and strange odyssey by accidentally drinking poison with a girl he meets at a park while chasing an elusive and strange butterfly. Miraculously he doesn't die, but she does, so now the cops think he killed her, or was hallucinating. A wandering bookseller senses our hero's near brush with death and appoints himself his guru, announcing defeating death can be done through will alone. Our hero isn't interested. Even after he dies, the bookseller keeps hounding him. An ancient skeleton stolen from a huge cavern tourist area wills itself into flesh and become his cannibal demon lover. It turns out the daughter of his soon-to-be archeologist mentor/employer was going to drink the poison with that dead girl from the park but was late, and now is jealous and pissed our hero took her place and that now she'll have to die alone. She too collects butterflies (transfiguration's ultimate symbol!). They're pinned all over her room, and he's next. This club has everything: disembodied heads blow out birthday candles, excavators as assassination weapons; vicious archeologists fighting over a primitive man's skull, and gangster assassins. It all doesn't add up to much cumulative effect but then again neither did Holy Mountain, or Twin Peaks. It's the ride not the destination, because there's only ever really one destination, isn't there? No point arriving at it any time soon if you can avoid it.

The Mondo Macabro transfer has a kind of rough-around-the-gills look that doesn't do it much favors, but let's not ask for the wound, we have the scars. 

(1968) Dir. Yoshiyuki Kuroda
via Arrow streaming (in Japanese with English subtitles)

A wondrous Arrow release this year has been the 60s Yokai Monsters trilogy (plus a CGI-using Takeshi Miike remake). Of the three original films, this one is easily the best and the only one with a nonhuman villain. Like the similar but much less fun Giant Majin trilogy, the Yokai films are all set in small rural period piece Japanese villages where local peasants are subject to the cruel whims of human oppressors, until weird folk legend monsters finally show up and kick bad guy ass. The oppression parts can get pretty manipulative, especially with the Maijin series--how much more suffering can these peasants endure until that pokey statue finally lumbers into action for the unsatisfying pay-off (at a certain level of prolonged abuse, no mere stepping on by a big stone giant is sufficient catharsis). The Yokai are more child-friendly, to a point, and scatter monster vengeance bits throughout, but only Spook Warfare--the second in the Yokai series--stacks the deck more evenly, using an ancient Babylonian vampire monster who can assume any form--and even split himself into numerous different human forms via vampire bites--instead of a cruel human landlord, gangster, or tyrant for a villain. The resulting all out brawl between this powerful demon and 100 or so different folk monsters is like if the residents of the Star Wars cantina all went over to somebody's backyard pool after closing time to drink more beers and fight the monster from A Chinese Ghost Story. Like all the best spooky movies, it occurs mostly at single night, in beautifully-lit soundstage gardens and eerie graveyards, with moody low end ominousness pulsing in the score (courtesy Sai Ikeno). It would be fine choice for brave children, never talking down to them and directly threatening them at the same time (as the vampire villain especially loves to drink their virgin blood), and "adult" kaiju fans will find plenty to groove to. 

Lastly, the psychedelic warriors amongst you just need to know a wild umbrella monster with a very long tongue in appears the movie--you're not hallucinating. It's a real Japanese folktale spirit called a kasa-obake) and the way it bounces around with its wild eye and obscene tongue just may give you one one of those coveted acid flashbacks we're always hearing about but--for me at least--have never actually occurred. Either way, with so many other ghosts and goblins--even if they're more or less actors in suits-- Spook Warfare will make you rethink your lifestyle choices, in the best of ways.

(1983) Dir. Avery Crounse
Severin via Shutter  (English)

The awesome and otherworldly and long-unavailable (excepts as a chopped-up HBO cut or cropped old VHS) period piece is one of the real surprises of the year (coming in as part of Severin's unmissable folk horror collection All the Haunts be Ours). It's horror-adventure period piece magical realism along the same general plot and time frame as The Witch --i.e. late-1600s America, when the wilderness was still largely the domain only of Native Americans, trappers, a few British or French military-maintained outposts, wandering fur traders, and small, remote religiously uptight enclave, and--of course--wild witches and shamanic tree spirits roaming unchecked in the woods. As with The Witch, we have a an iconoclastic patrariach--in this case an itinerant preacher who takes up with the wife of a long-absent fur trader and her gaggle of kids. They end up needing to escape downriver when the town tries to hang a redheaded girl stepchild just because she knows herbology and how to speak with the trees. Sailing on a wooden raft, shot at by Native Americans, they end up finding a place of their own by setting up shop in a patch of woods the local tribes fear to tread, and--it turns out--quite rightly. 

See, it's haunted by a malicious soul collecting tree spirit magus who is soon sucking them all down to his web of interlocked roots and shroom filaments. Gradually the survivors barricade themselves into their fort walls defending against the tribes and even an evil changeling shuttled into their midst that the preacher takes as his own. The preacher himself gradually goes plum loco in an Aguirre thinking he's Col. Kurtz but actually being Royal Dano in There Will be Blood kind of way. The kids stand fast, under the protective wing of the barefoot wild-haired dirt-eating, herb-picking redhead in their midst. With great use made of the misty forest and a cockeyed Badlands-style child narration--as the story is told to the incredulous French officer (Mike Genovese)--highlight include all the spirts embedded in slimy grey tree bark; the running around and magically enabling gang of previous victims now ghost slaves glowing red, the blowing leaves and wild shamanic fights; the vanishing into the mist; and a bizarre and the sudden wink of an ending that left me, for one, feeling bullish about the natural world again.

(1972) Dir. Francisco Lara Polop
via Arrow (in Spanish with English subtitles)

Another all-in-a-single dark and foggy night wild ride movie, my favorite kind of spook show (ala The Old Dark House, The Black RavenHouse on Haunted Hill, Cat and the Canary, and Something Creeping in the Dark.) In a rather ingeniously-edited overlapping open stretch along the late afternoon, we follow a pretty hitchhiker (Lisa Leonardi), a young motorcyclist, and an array of cars full of interlocked rich connivers--and the rich they marry and/or prey on--along a winding one country road through and along a moody Spanish tree-lined woods and countryside. They soon all get lost in the rural Spanish fog and thus seek shelter at the same gloomy mansion owned by creepy-sexy Evelyn Stewart (Persephone in Bava's unmissable Hercules in the Haunted World) in a town gone empty and uninhabited after a lot of rumors about vampires. Rural Spain is superstitious! Analía Gadé is the dissolute redhead heiress who is probably being driven mad by the ghost of a brutish glowing red eyed chauffeur and the old severed head in the closet gag (a shout out perhaps to House on Haunted Hill!), Figuring out the twist-upon-twist ending in advance needn't diminish the shivery pleasures to be found, especially now that it looks so damned good (thanks to an Arrow HD clean-up). Besides, after the expected twists come several more. They don't call it Murder Mansion for nothing. 

 ("Im Banne des Unheimlichen")
(1968) Alfred Vohrer
Youtube (in German with English subtitles)

This beautifully color-restored HD German film--now seeable on Youtube with English subtitles! probably misses a lot of potential viewers because of its misleading American release title sounding too much like other films (and probably it was in a badly cropped print, with bad dubbing). But those days are about to change! Turns out, there are about three million Edgar Wallace adaptations from Germany from the 60s-70s, most from director Alfred Vohrer and featuring a sputtering Col. Klink-style Scotland Yard chief Sir Arthur (Hubert von Meyerinck) as comic relief, his capable little girlfriend assistant (this time Siw Mattson) and the handsome dashing lead detective Higgins (here Joachim Fuchsberger) dealing with, variously, supposedly dead people who may not be dead, masked killers, spooky fogbound estates, imperiled heiresses, mysterious criminal organizations and Bond-style escapes; the usually have an English language pop/rock theme song, color credits even if the film is in black-and-white, and a jazzy psychedelic look. Thanks to the folk hero Simon Bart bull they've been collected and subtitled into English on YouTube (see the list hier). 

As usual for Wallace films, the 'zombie' is probably not real, just a mysterious assailant in a glowing skull mask with glowing skeleton hand gloves who runs around offing people with that ultimate in Edgar Wallace murder weapons, a spring lauded scorpion ring laden with an undetectable poison. A scene of him attacking someone pulled over in the fog on the road--the fog itself and the green mask all aglow--is especially spooooky and fun, evoking Bava and the Batman at the same time. The cast are all either suspects, dead, or heroes, including Claude Farell is the intrepid young female reporter regularly getting to the crime scene mere seconds before Higgins. Wolfgang Keitling is a haunted aristocrat who inherited the estate from his brother (who's recently maybe killed in a suspicious plane crash). 

 Vying for the estate are competing charities his brother supported, including  a shady clinic operated by cold-eyed doctors and nurses (a Wallace staple), and a religious organization that tries to stop Higgins from examining the body of the supposedly dead brother.  There are plenty of suspects to go around: an evil nurse, a green-faced alcoholic grave digger; a priest and his evil looking right hand woman; a female author of a books about rare poisons; and a doctor who can't attest to his own whereabouts the night before. It's got the perfect blend of comic touches, all-in-a-night spook show momentum, stunning HD night photography, endless easy-to-follow plot twists, swirling fog, comedy, gloomy crypts, nightclubs,  Bava-esque deep gel colors and a fun Scooby Doo-style denouement that makes it just the right film to watch between Blood and Black Lace (1964) and The Ghoul (1933).

(1978) Dir. Enzo Castellari
Severin (in English and German)

Director Enzo Castellari sucks us in from the very beginning of this Dirty Dozen-inspired full bore over-the-top Italian WW2 action extravaganza. Like so many Italian imitations of American box office hits, it proves way more fun and faster moving than the original. Offering the same basic premise --a bunch of stockade-bound US soldiers vs. mostly anonymous Germans. Forgoing all the training montages, sneaking around, war games, brawls, lip service from arrogant generals, mission planning and carousing and anti-authoritarian posturing that ate up the first 2/3 of Aldrich's film, Castellari keeps his loose and in the moment. About five minutes in, a lucky shelling frees a group of prisoners on their way to the stockade. Boom! They decide wander through the war-torn landscape, hoping to find Switzerland and immunity. They end up teaming with an AWOL German Wermacht soldier (Raimund Harmstorf), accidentally wiping out a squad of Nazi-disguised Allied commandos, and then taking their place on a mission with the French or Belgian resistance to blow up a train carrying a Nazi rocket scientist and his new warhead aboard. So many explosions and guns! I started watching this more out of just searching around the web for a moment's distraction, and soon my childhood obsession with WW2 sparked right back up and I sucked down the whole thing like a desert wanderer sucks down a cold can of beer. How we would have loved this back in my tweenage war years if only we'd not been such snobs over post-sync sound and Italians in general. Well, it was worth waiting for (this would probably be much less effective on fullscreen VHS), all looking suave and majestic on HD widescreen. And man is it a bloody hilarious riot. All this, and Fred Williamson too! Count me in. 

(1980) Dir. Antonio Margheriti
Code Red (in English)

I loved Bastards so much I found and followed up with this far different Margheriti war movie from just two years later. This time he's imitating Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, i.e. a much less popular war than the one fought in Inglorious. A decidedly odd but engaging epic, The Last Hunter stars everyone's favorite Brit, David Warbeck (The Beyond) as a combo Martin Sheen from Apocalypse Now and Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter, but way cooler. After his crazy friend kills himself over his AWOL girlfriend at a Saigon bar, Warbeck is sent on a mission behind the lines to find and destroy a hidden Tokyo Rose/Axis Sally-style propaganda radio station operating somewhere upriver. A big twist at the end harkens it all back to the beginning and seriously jades our hero out so that the final shot eerily anticipates the big key image of Platoon Scrawny maniac John Steiner is the Col. Kilgore to Warbeck's Willard, holding shit down in a remote river outpost that's has a a snack machine and bar. Showing he's loco, Steiner's favorite music is his reel-to-reel of gunfire and explosions ("dig that beat!"). Tessa (Zombie) Farrow lends feminine presence meanwhile as the usual endangered but fearless photojournalist who's almost raped (Steiner's sex-starved soldiers "haven't seen a woman in months.") Luckily the crazy colonel distracts them by sending one of them across enemy lines to get him a cocoanut. Ah, the genius of command! 

This being an Italian movie, they're all soon besieged by attacking VC and NVA--bullets flying and people falling back into crates and through mud walls, and the crazy action resumes anew: gunboat explosions, lone survivor rescues, heroics, imprisonment in bamboo cages submerged in the rat-infested river (to get those Deer Hunter tokens) and of course, endless explosions. The climactic confrontation at the radio transmitter station makes this a sublime winner of disillusionment and pro-violence anti-sentiment. 

A big surprise here is how Riccardo Pallottini's cinematography makes the Philippine jungles look airy and crisp and inviting. Usually in films shot there the sky seems always white with a haze of solid cloud; the humidity makes everyone and everything seem shellacked and hazy with perspiration and gnats. I get sweaty and find it hard to breathe just watching 90% of movies shot there. That's not the case with The Last Hunter. The water looks fine, and the air is crisp as a new dollar bill. 

No surprise here is how cool, calm, and always with a sideways disbelieving smirk is our Warbeck. There's a reason he's so beloved of Italian genre film fans. A kind of a Cary Grant without the dandy feyness nixed with Pierce Brosnan without the Esquire vanity, all smothered in a "who the fuck are you kidding?" kind of a cock-eyed look that makes me wish he could be in every Italian action and horror film ever made. Of the ones he did, this is probably the best. It's certainly the best looking (I found it in HD floating around YouTube, but plan on getting the Blu-ray soon, cuz Code Red rawks.  

1988) Dir Ngai Choi Lam 
(DVD) in Chinese with English subtitles

Ngai Choi Lam doesn't waste any time or include any filler. We're plunged into the heady melange of a devil, his young daughter (Narumi Yasuda), and ancient curses destined to be fulfilled and the sky being blotted out by inky clouds of evil when she comes to her 16th (I think) birthday and opens the gates of Hell as foretold in the prophecy. There's no time to think twice or wonder why an animatronic dinosaurs exhibit is being set up in the midst of a grand opening department store--we know it's so the monsters can come alive and battle a pair of odd couple Buddhist disciples, separated at birth by their respective Zen masters, one from Japan (Hiroshi Mikami) and one from HK (Biao Yen), now there to save the soul of the devil girl. No need to wonder why they take her to an amusement park--it's so weird little touches like stop-motion animated little creatures hiding in the trash on the Hong Kong street are like shots of joy to the heart. So we have two separately trained young monks helping to turn Satan's little girl to the side of good before her key turning moment comes--at an amusement park! We're still reeling from how cool the dinosaur department store fight was and here we are climbing up a rollercoaster (for real) to rescue a person stuck up on the track.  

The only (minor) flaw I could find is perhaps that Lam is a bit too enamored of the special effects shots of a giant reptilian mouth emerging from a villain's bendable back, and the massive gates to Hell shooting up from the ground and slowly opening. Lam is so psyched for these two moments that they stretch on way too long and kill the momentum. The whole film seems to stand still while these effects slowly unfurl. But otherwise, from the get-go, it's a solid blast. HK's ultra sex symbol Gloria Yip is even along for the ride. Look out! In a lot of ways, Lam does what Tsui Hark does but better --less slapsticky and speed-addled/confusing, more fun and easy to follow, grabbing you from the get-go and never letting go. The only comparison I can think of how I felt watching this was the first time I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, the perfect flow from grand set piece to grand set piece, never exhausting or confusing or boring,  is hard to do but Lam does it here, and also in the equally great THE SEVENTH CURSE!

(1997) Dir. Jean Rollin
Severin / Kino-Cult - in French with English subtitles

No one who loves Jean Rollin will argue that in many ways he's not the greatest horror director -- but only he brings that dark, moody sense of kinky and uniquely French decadenceHe absorbed a great wealth of decadence and poetry as a child ("Story of the Eye"-author Georges Batailles was a family friend) and it meshes with the memory of his first kiss on the beach into a miasma of work that seems like the beautiful but macabre dreams of an absinthe-poisoned aesthete--classic vampire motifs, weird twin-Alice surreal imagery violent, sudden sex and death, and--of course--that same beach. Rollin fans know that beach very well. Expect a gory and fast-paced good time and expect in vain! But if you let the slow pace lull your mind into a receptive alpha state, his macabre Baudelaire / Corbière-esque poetic monologues--often waxed direct to camera by a deep-eyed beauty holding a skull--might just beam right into your subconscious-- and there's nowhere you'd rather it beam. This is especially true if he keeps his focus on his favorite archetypal image: two mysterious young vampire girls walking around old castles or graveyards in search of blood and adventure. And he has in just this in Two Orphan Vampires a pair of amazing actresses (Alexandra Pic et Isabelle Teboul) who have a great, wondrous rapport and a line of patter that perfectly encapsulates Rollin's oeuvre in a fun, almost playful way. Soaring on each other's wings of madness across numerous times and identities, they're more in the vein of Kate Winslet and. Melanie Lynskey in Heavenly Creatures than the usual, often mute, somewhat vacant Rollin heroines.  Scenes of them with their eyes glazed and Rollin's requisite big dopey hanging out of the mouth fangs are kind of dumb, but the rest is sublime. 

Rollin has never been comfortable with just wholeheartedly embracing the familiar vampire tropes, and here--instead of needing to sleep in their coffin to avoid sunlight-- these girls are totally blind by day, replete with canes and dark glasses but at night they come alive with delirious evil. It's an ingenious idea and I love that there are barely any men at all. Men are often either rapist crooks or effete dreamers in Rollin films, so when the two orphan girls are adopted by a widowed (?) businessman, we cringe--will he be abusive and/or unbearable? No, he's dutiful and often absent. His only crime is he shoots one of them by mistake after they're late coming home from one of their bloody wanderings. The closest thing to a villain in the film is a guy chasing the girls after catching them in the act at a nearby graveyard.

Filmed in 1997 (we even see Pete Tombs' indispensable Immoral Tales--which includes a large chapter devoted to Rollin--proudly displayed on an altar at the ruined church) and looking very crisp and HD, it's clear this is kind of a Rollin capstone. After decades of terrible reviews and bad box office, he's now a legend, his films recognized as fine art as well as terrible trash.  Older, wiser, aware of what works and what doesn't, freed from the need to deliver rote sex and violence (and maybe too old to want to anyway), he changes to a macabre sense of playfulness . These girls spin flights of fancy, remembering their past incarnations via books from the nunnery library on Aztec history and French circus magicians (but not in the irritatingly twee way of some French films), as well as the expected graveyard hauntings. On their travels, they encounter various solo-flying versions of themselves--lonely loner monster women (a bat girl who flies over cemeteries at night; a werewolf girl who hides from packs of wild dogs in misty rail yards), each hidden but radiating a strong independent presence via proud explanatory monologues, explaining why they avoid all human contact, speaks to the deadening effect of masculine energy on creative female energy more elegantly than an ocean of rapey backstories.

Best of all, there are no sudden distractions from the front-and-center female friendship--no boys come between them. In the past, Rollin often brings in a Yoko-style pretty boy to come between them, and soon one is killing the other just for trying to kill him for coming between them. We get this little outcome in Requiem for a Vampire, Fascination, Grapes of Death and, in variations in Poland's The Lure (2015) and the Canadian Ginger Snaps (2000). This intrustion fits the fairy tale archetypal motifs at work (you gotta grow up sometime!) but can have a disillusionment aftertaste (that's not why we come to le cine). Instead, well, no spoilers, but f you took the marvelous Baudelaire but shocking but strangely moving climax of another French film with a similar thrust, Don't Deliver Us from Evil and spread it to a whole film, monsieur! No growing up needed.

This incarnation of Rollin seems calmer, happier, less inclined to either moribund emptiness, callow anima pining, or slow burn destruction of innocence. The girls declarations and past life imagination borders on whimsical but stays on the dark side of fairy tales ( Grimm rather than HC Anderson) so it's OK by me. Reality is more or less forgotten--for example, though they're clearly not carrying any baggage, the girls easily produce oversize volumes of magic and Aztec history they stole from the nunnery library wherever they happen to roam, and their experiences with the other magical girls are like mythic encounters in Greek or Brechtian dramedies or Cocteau's Testament of Orpheus. In my favorite scene, one of them has shot and is dying in bed, but the other brings her back to health by vividly describing memories of ancient blood ceremonies (which they claim to have witnessed firsthand) atop an old Aztec pyramid: thousands of hearts ripped out of sacrificial bodies, enough blood dripping down the upon the pyramid steps to color the entire edifice a deep red. The actresses nail the love and transfigurative power of blood with such pure hearted bliss our whole notion of good and evil are thrown in the dustbin. Viva la mort!

PS - Make sure you watch the subtitled version in the original French. I hear the English dub is atrocious.  

(1972) Dir. Jess Franco
Arrow, Kino, etc. - in French with English subtitles

Special Note: There are various versions of this film, some with hardcore inserts, some with dream-like slow-mo zombie attacks demanded by the distributor (zombies were very 'in' at the time) shot by Rollin shot them as Franco was busy and didn't want them added anyway. I don't think they detract, though the hardcore sex certainly does. Either way, you can always scroll past.

My admiration for both Rollin's and Jess Franco's works depends largely on whether a film of his breaks through to me in just the right place/mood/time. Often I find them insufferable but late at night when I'm half-asleep or delirious, alone in my chambers, bust of Pallas above the door and all that--magic. Now and then though, the doors between unconscious' dream and dream cinema open, Franco knocks one home and a kind of full scale magic overwhelms me - a timelessness envelops me like molasses and I'm suffused with an enjoyable melancholic delirium, a Rimbaud/Baudelaire kind of drug-like spell where the film and I merge.

I had been sober for a year before discovering his work and was far from an instant fan. This was back when seeing his work involved renting a lot of VHS tapes from the Kim's Video--unattractive pan and scanned unrestored images or worse, terribly faded and widescreen (vs. anamorphic) DVD or VHS. The first DVDs of SUCCUBUS and KISS ME MONSTER were terrible. Half the screen was missing, colors gone. Rather than pan and scan, they transferred by just cropping off the right half of the image so we saw a lot of people in profile talking to the tip of someone's nose. 

Even then, the magic could shine through in the right mood. 

Ah but NOW, now it's all different. 

Before I fall into hazy reverie, let me sum up by saying the films I like/love from Franco are few and far between. The man made hundreds of films and maybe ten are worthwhile: Succubus, Venus in Furs, and Diabiolocal Z  get me excitedly combing my Pete Tombs and Stephen Thrower volumes for a lead on my next big fix. But even they pale in comparison to the haunting elegiac beauty--with a little sex in it--of Virgin Among the Living Dead. It's everything great about Franco and is probably the one best to show doubters who 'don't get it' . A  truly nightmarish vision of an orphan innocence too bereft of parental guidance and starved for family to realize the danger she's in when she comes to her father's remote ancestral estate to hear the reading of his will. She comes to find the chateau occupied by a quintet of strange relatives. Her uncle (Howard Vernon, of course), a deranged bombshell (Carmen Yazalde) who is "one of the family" on some level Christina never quite gleans, a mute dopey but sinister servant (Franco),  and the beady-eyed aunt Abigail (Rosa Palomar).

Clues arise when neighbor boy tells her the chateau has been uninhabited for years; and other locals try to warn her away.  It turns out the Queen of the Night (Ann Libert--the blind bird girl from Franco's Erotic Rites of Frankenstein) is involved, holding them all - including the spirit of her father (Paul Muller) in her sway. Her father's ghost tries to warn her to leave before it's too late--but she's so starved for familial connection she can't. Anyway, she has nowhere to go. Even if they might drink her blood or attack her, she's too starved for familial connection to want to leave. 

Franco's cinematography never misses a natural light uncanny effect (particularly magic hour deep shadows over faces) hinting at the unknowable uncanny nature of even von Blanc's innocent beauty. There are shots and scenes so powerful they rank among the best poetic surrealism in 70s cinema. I avoided this film a long time mixing it up in my head with Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, which I heard horrible things about. It worked out anyway. Seeing it now is 'the right time' in my decades-long international genre cinema journey. 

Maybe that's why films have so much magic and why--in the end--all this paralyzing availability, this endless access to bottomless archives of films, is such a good thing. Fate is able to sometimes able to save just the right movie for just the right moment in one's life, so that art and self intertwine and annihilate each other. In a good way. For 90 minutes or so, we're truly liberated from the bondage of self. 


Tuesday, May 17, 2022


D'Amato captures a near-Frazetta style color and lighting scheme here.

"The dividing line between goodness and stupidity is very, very fine." - Zor, Ator 2: The Blade Master

Watching the Oscars last night week month in my usual squirrelly Sunday night stupor, all I could think of was.... Ah-tor. Ahhhh-TOR

I'm getting too old and weird to want 'great' movies that remind me of how racist, sexist, damaged and otherwise screwed up the world is, nor do I want movies to tell me, us, how love, hope, and the movies themselves can transform and effect social change. In addition to moving itself to tears with its own humble self-congratulations, Oscar seems to insist on telling us what to feel, which is love. Of the Oscar movies, I did dig Dune. That's as far as I'll go. 

Here's an example of how bad it's gotten. As you know, Sword and the Sorcerer finally came to Blu-ray. I got a review copy and I started to watch it and was instantly bored and bummed by the mix of way too much plot. There's an innocent naive and unprepared good king overthrown by evil magic-borrowing social climbing Richard Lynch, who's only real competition is a man called Lee Horsely who finds himself recruited in a tavern by an in-disguise princess offering sex in exchange for a hostage rescue. I needed instantly and suddenly to take a break, which means weeks have already gone by and it's collecting dust. The kind of escapism I need is too simple and pared down to get lost in big set pieces, writerly overthink, dated sexism, and derring do scored to bombastic hack sweep. 

To reiterate. For this old alcoholic, no more Oscar bait, no expansive sweep, no sexist blather. I need a film so cracked it crumbles into dust with the strike of a gong and the gleaming golden skeleton of true myth is revealed beneath its B-movie bones. That's ATOR! (It's pronounced "Ahh-tor." AHHHH-tor). Someone at Time Out once called Xena a "brain cooler". That put it so well. That's what I want, but even Xena got too complicated after the first season, what with the dips into musical episodes, Joxer's baggy pants routines, and sudden detours into profound social sermonizing and way too much female bonding. Now that we've come so far, Xena's cautious lavender hand-holding seems timid. And if there's no sexy frisson, why are we even watching? 

Brain, uncooled once again. Save me Ator.... the pool of escape is shrinking under the global warming summer sun.

(1982) Dir. Joe D'Amato 
Pity poor Ator (Miles O'Keefe), in love with sister Sunya (Ritza Brown). But how can they be married when it is forbidden? Don't worry, you're adopted, Ator! As the son of Torin, you are destined one day to defeat "the Ancient One" - so as is custom in these things, a wise warrior swept you away from danger and left you with some farmers. Now you're all hot and in love with your sister, but it's OK! You're adopted! But at the folksy wedding, horse-riding brigands led by "the High Priest of the Ancient One" (Dakar) ride in and slaughter most everyone at the wedding except the bride and groom, making off with cute Sunya, and leaving Ator in the frustrated dust. Quick, Ator, time to harness that sexual angst training with a mysterious stranger named Griba (Edmund Purdom, in a terribly hacked-up Mongol warrior wig), the same one who brought you to your adopted parents so long ago! Meanwhile, Dakar makes his single digit army stand around for hours while he plays with his pet tarantula. Oh yes, Ator's travels will be fraught with sun-dappled danger, such as when he's caught by Amazons and forced to breed with a hot warrior named Roon (Sabrina Siani, who is in nearly every early-80s Italian post-Conan sword and sorcery film) and seduced by a foxy witch (Laura Gemser). What other sexy challenges will he face en route to his destiny as killer of the Ancient One (aka a giant spider)? 

Maybe it's his languid sexually uninhibited postures, the dreamy look in his eyes, the tastefully provocative fur loincloth, his golden toned skin and flowing 70s metal hair and copper/gold chest plate, but whatever, Miles O'Keefe cools the brow as Ator, the Fighting Eagle.  To paraphrase Murray Ballstein in Zoolander, he's dumb as a stump, but I love him. That love is important with the bad movies I keep on my emergency 'speed dial.' In order to make that hallowed list, everything must be right, that means no caged or abused animals, 80s perms, tight hair buns, tacky Roman-style bangs, act of courtly treachery, broad comic relief stooging, narcissistic male leads, fake breasts, tacky colors, realistic screaming or convincing torture. A tough order but Ator delivers on the lack of all those things and so much more. 

Everything about it hits me just right: D'Amato's cinematographic palette of purples, golds, and yellows; the rumbling timpani, Jerry Goldsmith-style piping and occasionally Wagnerian brass of Carlo Maria Cordio's subtly soaring score; the relatively short time frame; the long flowing wigs, golden skin, and cute fur boots and wrist bands on the young leads; the right lack of self awareness or narrative urgency; the endearingly clumsy fights (no stunt men were harmed--or even, apparently, employed); the clevery use of shadows and reflections--it all serves to put me in a calm and happy state. Squarely in a bloodless PG camp, somehow its lack of nudity and sex makes everything paradoxically sexier, more alive with a kind of erotic haziness. (1)

Stabbing, the easy way.
My affection for this all may have something to do with age and nostalgia so your mileage may vary. I don't have any kids but this movie makes me feel like I have grandkids, and they've made this on super-8mm and I'm watching it every night after dinner. My childhood friend Alan and I would screen our violent Conan homages for his grandparents and they never got tired of projecting them again and again. They adored us. I feel like I've become those same grandparents when I watch Ator, I feel the same indulgent pride, like Miles and D'Amato are my grandchildren and Ator was filmed in the park across the street and so all its flaws and limitations are just fine, part of its folk art/outsider art tradition. Take the stabbing scene at left, for example -- you can tell O'Keefe is stabbing behind the stuntman bad guy rather than through him, and somehow that makes it adorable. It has that same dunderheaded innocence. For example, though it's implied a long journey is underway the travelers never seem to need to get anywhere, and indeed double back over some stretches of where they've been (it looks like a relatively well-manicured park, replete with stone walkways and artificial waterfalls). 

But even all that doesn't totally begin to explain the appeal, the pull of Ator. A great example of it I think can be found in the two scenes of O'Keefe's resting a goblet on or near his genitals (above), splaying his legs out, when sitting, as if trying to get some air flow to his balls or obliging a waiting-in-the-wings. In your average 80s sex comedy this laid guy pose might be done by some loathsome frat boy with a plastic beer cup, and it would be rapey-vile instead of sexy-cool. The difference is between wanting/inviting vs. muscle memory of having. In short, Ator/O'Keefe seems like a very laid guy (always consensual, and usually instigated by the woman) and too naive and young to become a dick about it  Rumor has it that D'Amato was routinely frustrated with O'Keefe's continued listlessness during the shoot, but he was probably just sexually exhausted! No blood flow getting to his brain. What guy can't relate to that in the age of Cialis for daily use? To me he's at the perfect "low" setting for this kind of affair, and he even has a good (familiar-voiced) actor doing the dubbing who manages to inject just the right note of deadpan knowningness to every cliche'd line ("First I must complete... what I was born to do.") without crossing over into camp.

I think the appeal for me might lie in this sense of Edenic pre-sexual sexy cool. Any young boy knows the pain of those long years of childhood when you're caught between the pangs of sexual awakening and the maturity to understand why it's happening and what to do about it. Until puberty there is no outlet for it so sex is tied up with going to the bathroom (what Freud calls the anal phase). There's no chance of succor, no real idea how even to achieve it, thus fantasizing in bed at night has a sweet masochistic torturous edge. It's all about spanking and being each other's horses, or dogs, or slaves led around on leashes (at least it was for me growing up trying to seduce my babysitters). It's that prepubescent sexuality that fuels Ator. No one ever has any sex and as a result the whole thing falls into a hazy erotic miasma.  Instead of mating as she's supposed to, Roon teams up with him (he reminds her there's lots of treasure in the tomb of the Ancient One and she's very greedy). But the pair have barely begun to playfully shoot arrows at each other before D'Amato regular Laura Gemser as a horned enchantress lures Ator away, drugging him with another goblet at his crotch. Roon spies his goblet resting from a hole in the roof and sends their pet bear cub through a crack in the rocks to run a Toto-style cockblock. And so, again and again, sex never happens but almost happens --with Ator fought over as an object being used for sex and seed, always too languid and reposed to resist, preferring to just rest his flagon near his pelted crotch as if a grail light for wandering maidens. Not to mention, Ator plans to marry his own sister (even before knowing he was adopted) -- their early scenes together pulse with a yearning primal energy, of the sort I imagine only opposite gendered twins might repress from their polymorphous childhood. In other words, it's the allure vs. the follow-through. The Eden I seek to escape the Oscars with exists only in the delay of gratification, the fairy bower of erotic inertia.  

Like all good D'Amato movies, a close analysis reveals just how truly fucked up this all is. Michele Soavi was an uncredited co-writer and I'm guessing he maybe helped keep a kind of surrealist lid off things. Surely his absence is felt in the later sequels. The weird non-erotic eroticism vanishes altogether. 

Lastly, there's something about the look and feel of the film that reminds me the smell of 1980s Grateful Dead tour. Watching it I smell the mix of patchouli, unwashed bodies, hashish and sizzling meat and charcoal, all mixed together. One cheap acid that smell opened my 21 year-old third eye like a burning ember in the center of my forehead. Maybe you know it too? The earthy complexity of fire, roasting meat, bodies, earth and ancient perfumes commingling to tap into something ancient, spreading into past lives, helping you feel connected to the lives around you, deeply aware of gravity and the earth's rotation in the stas. The sound of the sizzling of a tailgate grill cracking open kundalini serpent eggs up your serpent spine --it's all there in Sabrina Siani's gleaming light-blonde princess wig, the dusty purplish cave walls, the big googly eyes of the giant black fur covered spider hiding in the columns on the hill, the shadow Ator convincingly sword fights with, the shiny mirror flashes, the long dark hair of the Ramones-evoking blind blacksmiths and warriors of Roon and Ator fight, in Cordio's grounding timpani and Wagnerian crescendos, in the gorgeous but unfussy cinematography (by D'Amato himself, a master cinematographer up there with Bava and Sergio Salvati when he applies himself), the fog-enshrouded zombie scene that goes nowhere, the Zeppelin wigs, the nicely small cast, the endearingly clunky violence, the cute black fur boots on Ritza Brown, the golden smooth limbs of Sabrina Siani, the horned crown of Gemser, and every strand of oversized clothesline web. 

(1982) Dir. Joe D'Amato 

We know we're in trouble from the get-to: the opening stretch is clearly from another movie, perhaps one D'Amato was starting to shoot, called Cave Dewellers (when Italians weren't ripping Conan in the early 80s they were ripping Quest for Fire, a big hit in Europe). He dropped that idea upon learning a Conan. sequel was in the works, and set about making his own Ator sequel because that's what Italian exploitation heroes do, they don't wait to imitate something after it's a big hit, they find out what's in production and venture as to what will be a hit, so they have a similar movie finished and ready to go at the same time. It's genius when it works, but when it doesn't.... 

To add running time, D'Amato keeps the cave men intro anyway (and even the US release is called "Cave Dwellers"), then eats up another reel of running 'previously on Ator' footage from the first film, taking care to omit ALL of the female characters. Didn't D'Amato suspect there were numerous women in Conan the Destroyer in addition to the requisite jailbait princess? Destroyer had Venessa Redgrave as a magical villainess and Grace Jones as a wild warrior! Actually Conan the Destroyer came out in 1984, and Blade Master is credited as from 1982 on imdb. WTF?

Gone too is Ator's innocence. He's  no longer the once blank barbarian slate who just wantsed to marry his comely sister and live a peaceful life in the country set to kickass pop ballad as they ran off in a freeze frame toward Edenic tomorrows. Now Sunya is forgotten and Ator is a combination Lone Ranger / Batman and Obi Wan Kenobi, training alone in his cave with his faithful Asian sidekick Thong. I can presume the reason Ator lives in a cave, and the king/wizard and his daughter live in a cave, and the bad guys hang out in a cave, is that D'Amato had reserved those caves for Cave Dweller and there was no refunds. So Ator and Thong read giant books and draw each other lifting weights in the mirror, you know, guy stuff. He now knows about herbs and how to make explosives from what's lying around in the walls of his cave. And women have no place in his life, even as drinking partners. 

Gone too, his glorious Zeppelin hair. Now, as befitting sanctimonious zen student, he has appropriated a Japanese style samurai headband / top knot.  

Gone too--unless there's a nice Blu-ray out there somewhere in Asia or Germany or something--D'Amato's usual peerless cinematography. Those original's dusky Frazetta-esque interiors and dappled green park exteriors have been replaced by a scrubland and grunge, probably due to never having come out on a remastered DVD or Blu-ray. The copy I saw (on Youtube) is a pan and scan (presumably) VHS tape transfer which does it no favors. We also miss a cool pop song to play over the end credits, and a score as fun and rich in Wagnerian brass and timpani. 

So, the pointless cave man intro and 'previously on Ator' scenes over with, the women excised from history (just like in the bible), we now learn that Ator's old mentor has in his possession of the "Geometric Nucleus" and Zor wants it, so where is it? Mila (Lisa Foster) the mentor's comely daughter must find Ator, now retreated from the world of men! To find him, he tells her, she must travel until so far "it seems that nature itself declines to follow you on your journey. Then you will have reached the land of Ator." Like nature itself, we may be also thinking of declining, but for love of the first film, perseverance! Thong, my sandals!

With her vaguely nerdy informal accessible vibe; Lisa Foster takes her role as Mila seriously enough that she helps balance out the blandness around her; her deep black eyeliner and black headband, straight shoulder length dark blonde hair and black dress on pale skin makes a nice complimentary contrast that pops against the washed out and muddy analog mise-en-scene. Then again, she's Canadian, so kind of too balanced and nice to deliver that wild sexy-dangerous edge of someone like Sabrina Siani or Laura Gemser. You can't have everything. At least she's got that popping eyeliner. And though it's nice to see some diversity, Ator's shadowy Asian partner Thong (Kiro Wehara) barely registers as anything more than 'Asian' and the sudden detour into Japanese-ness in Ator's whole schtick is odd and makes no sense. Where the hell are they? Some of the foes they run into look like they just rode off the set of Kurosawa's Ran. Apparently they were working with no script, just kind of coming up with ideas, and it shows. They never really decide if they are in feudal Japan or the dawn of history. And it shows. 

So with Ator a bore, Thong a silent cliche, and Mila nice but bland, it's a good thing they've got wondrously fey Brit David Brandon (left, with Foster) as the bad guy Zor. With his Vlad the Impaler facial hair and a giant Black Swan helmet, he's like a mid-80s fusion of Mick Jagger and David Warbeck. I love Brandon as the fey director in Michele Soavi's Stagefright; black-eyed Ariel in Derek Jarman's Jubilee; the tortured priest in Claudio Fragasso's Beyond Darkness (not to be confused with D'Amato's Beyond the Darkness); and even a werewolf aesthete in Avi Nesher's She. Too bad in Blade Master his lovely face is hidden behind the oversize black wig and mustache. That's his voice though, and he's serving charm and catlike menace. Enduring his old mentor's put-downs ("Patience is a virtue found only in the strong") with a fey grace ("you do amuse me") he's way more fun and easygoing than the cranky killjoys he's up against.

Alas, aside from some half-hearted cave-set battles, including a listless attempt at fighting with invisible warriors (I would have loved to be behind the scenes for that day), most of the lazily-choreographed fights are outdoors; a lot of time and energy is wasted on a side plot wherein Ator tries to convince villagers to fight back against the cannibal ravagers that demand monthly human sacrifice (the old conveniently decide to sacrifice their young), only to wind up drugged by some wine and tied to a pole, forced to watch as these town elders are (deservedly) massacred anyway by Zor and his goons (shades of Dogville). "Your eagerness for good deeds has betrayed you, Ator!," Zor chides back at yet another cave. 

This all leads to the best/worst interlude in the movie, one of only a handful of legit bad movie moments, though even it is undone by excessive bad screaming. Ator and friends are brought to the sacred cave or something where the prisoners from the village are thrown one by one into a pit with about six real snakes and one huge coil of thick rubber hosing meant to be a giant snake. The female victims have to hide in a corner and scream for hours as the life-size snakes avoid them on the other side of the pit. Watching these poor girls pretend to be scared and devoured by a couple of half-asleep boa constrictors would be hilarious, as would the dialogue of the bad guys ("And now, the fourth victim to appease our omnipotent god.") but the welcome sounds of snake hissing and a distant growling noise is also contrasted with feminine half-hearted screams that go on and on until the giant snake finally wakes up. By then Ator and the princess are also in the pit and a wondrous grimy time is had by all.  Except us, of course, since the scene is so dark we can barely see the outline of this marvelous snake. Was it so bad that D'Amato realized he had to keep it totally obscured by darkness or is this just the result of the fuzzy transfer? Will we ever know?  Then, because maybe O'Keefe got one for Christmas, Ator is suddenly hang gliding. He's dropping bombs on Zor's fortress. Oy! It would be a great anachronistic WGAF mic-drop moment except it goes on waaayy too long. Then, at the end, he can't hang out with this cute Canuck as he's got to escort that dumb nucleus safely into no man's land where it mushroom clouds our way to a more hopeful tomorrow. 

And Ator? I guess he'll be ready whenever outlaws rule the west once again. We don't see him after he leaves with the bomb. The narrator has to fill us in over a nice mushroom coud. I guess if trouble comes again we just got to look where nature itself wisely declines to follow. 

It's the pits, but if anyone knows of a good Blu-ray import or something give me a shout out. I can only find one dubbed in Hungarian with no subtitles. Maybe I'm better off without one, maybe the world just isn't ready. 

(1987) Dir. Alfonso Brecia

"Eternity.... passes... quickly" 

Continuity is left miles behind, as is Joe D'Amato, in the third ATOR film, 1987's The Iron Warrior. Alfonso Star Odyssey Brescia has stepped in as director to save the series from the awful dregs that was Blade Master. Actually there is almost no resemblance to the previous two films at all, other than snatches of Cordio's score, O'Keefe and the name ATOR (which isn't even in the onscreen title). What we get instead is more like an occult matriarchy's high fashion take on a fairy tale on the island of Malta. Recently released on a spiffy Blu-ray, with glistening cinematography showing off every detail of the beautiful Maltese scenery and the eye-popping contrast of bright red and green haute couture against the azure oceans and milky cliiffs. Artsy tableaux take precedence over continuity, evoking some 80s high-end perfume ad ("Ator- the new fragrance by L'Oréal"). People emerge from swimming across the sea but their clothes are dry when they come out. Dresses and hair styles change color from shot-to-shot. The wind allows the oversize (80s, remember) dresses and oil rags to flutter evocatively, providing as well a good excuse for scarves over the actor's mouths allowing for easy substitution of stunt doubles. 

Just to add to the challenge of discerning the plot, the sound mixer hit upon the happy idea of running the whole soundtrack through what sounds just like my old guitar flanger. Sword swings sound like jets; horse hooves like gun shots fired in an echo chamber; the roar of the ocean wind sounds like a swarm of drunken bees, drowning out most of the opening voiceover narration and any dialogue not shouted. Composer Carlo Mario Cordio (he's back in form!) underscores certain emotional moments with Morriconey minor key schmaltz, and over-scores bigger battles with unfortunate major key John Williams Raider of the Lost Ark-style pomp. Actually, all the best passages of music are those returning from the first film. But all the Italian composers steal from themselves as well as each other. 

Luckily being able to hear doesn't matter because it looks marvelous. Every image is a poem. Witches pose in silhouette against boiling moons (below) issuing directions from beyond ("Ator - you will have to manage on your own.") Princesses and handmaidens frolic like a merry fauns by the colonnade. In some post-modern black box theater, beyond space and time, three color coded witches/fates chant the sins of the evil witch Phaedra (imprisoned in a pair of revolving red hula hoops) via multimedia rear screen projection (as if the Wooster Group was making a multimedia disco Macbeth). Ator poses and practices his mighty sword in soaring helicopter shots atop a white cliff overlooking the sea. Ator, you're needed once again!

Taking motifs from Sleeping Beauty, as well as Macbeth, ancient Greek tragedies, and Clash of the Titans, we get Phaedra, a wild red-haired bad older witch (a hammy Elizabeth Kaza, all wild gleaming eyes and mocking movements) being imprisoned in glowing red hula hoops for 18 years after stealing Ator's kid brother to use in her evil deeds. When released, she's allowed to once more sway events on the mortal plane. Lickily Ator is all grown up and ready. The good witch, Deeva (Iris Peynado, Fred Williamson's pale blue-eyed love interest in Warriors of the Wasteland) alerts Ator to the adventure ahead like a girl dusting off an old action figure for use in her latest bedroom adventure. Phaedra's boy--his brother--now commands all things iron! He's the IRON WARRIOR.  And if e'er Ator was "the Son of Torin" (as in ATOR 1) or an ascetic student of ancient samurai ways (ATOR 2), now he's neither. On the other hand, we're never sure just what he is, other than... a hero. 

Furthering the post-modern disconnect, there's a feeling of all eras going on at once as Brescia makes use of Malta's unique scenery and architecture, notably "Sweethaven," a huge, still-standing and very quirky and quaintly ramshackle cliffside fishing village left over from Altman's 1980 musical Popeye (it's now a still-standing amusement park - but they only celebrate Popeye there, not Ator, which is a shame). Seeing Ator hide from clattering horsemen under a dusty Sweethaven Chinese laundry store window makes one feel like he's wandered into a spaghetti western. We also get rope bridge crossings that look pretty real and dangerous, tunnels, caverns, and cliffs towering above the glowing blue ocean, and even a brick castle replete with pane windows, sewer gratings, and probably trash cans and souvenir shops just off camera. . Compared to the first two films with their easygoing ambling, Iron Warrior seems far more ambitious, strange (lots of weird demented dream sequences and magical illusions) and pretty to look at han one might expect for a sequel to what was an impoverished sub-Conan to start with.    

There's also a strange gender-bent aspect about O'Keefe's Ator now. When I first saw him in a profile close-up (above)- with his hair pulled back in tight, small braids, a dangling thin straight earring, sharply slanted high cheekbones, straight graceful neck, all lightly dabbed in make-up with that serious expression, he reminded me of an androgynously striking girl I knew in high school. And I like that he seems to embrace it. If, in the first film he conveyed a languid innocence and earnestness that was refreshing, like the good looking kid with all the Zeppelin albums who was still nice to the nerds, and if, in the scond one, he was dour, grimy and self-important (his vegan years?), now he's grown up and developed a genial collegiate knowingness which suits the off-Broadway Vogue-ry on display. 
Three faces of Ator! 

He and Jenna--the endangered princess he rescues--have a very sexy low-key chemistry that makes even dialogue like: "Is the king in danger?" / "Yes, Ator,"  seem like whispery come-ons. 

Taken all in all, I love most everything about this movie but with several glaring caveats: aside from the high fashion-emulating costumes, hair and make-up. The cherry red oversize kaftan princess Jenna (Savina Gersak) wears is fine when it's billowing in the Malta wind, but strikes one as très gauche when worn at midnight dungeon soirees, especially with her hair pulled up tight in that hideoys fantail top knot (above) giving her a kind of radis récolté look most at odds with all the flowing of her garments (and the one magenta eyebrow smacks of teenage desperation). The flowing hair metal locks of "Ah-tor" meanwhile have similarly been symbolically castrated into a reverse dread center braid (though a big improvement after his greasy samurai top knot in Blade Master), his signature gong-shaped chest plate now obscured with an array of tattered garage floor oil cloth furs flung over football shoulder pads (ugh, the 80s). Man, it's a shame as their long hair blowing in the Malta winds would have been sick! 

Maybe the wind had something to do with it. Did it get in your hair, Ator? At one point the Iron Warrior's signature long red scarf blows up over his eyes and Ator has to patiently halt their to-the-death sword fight so he can move it. In several scenes the wind compels them to wear scarves over their mouths, which makes it easier to sub in a stuntman when needed. Suddenly Ator can really fight and zips through the slow-mo bad guys so fast the climactic fight is over in a few seconds, and he still finds time to show off an array of warrior poses. Then, it's back to normal, O'Keefe can hold a sword and be can swing it. Period. When it's time to do some moves, put on the scarf! 

check out the witch in the middle, eating... something

Unlike the first two films, magic, dreams, and hallucinations reign supreme. The Iron Warrior is so named because he can float, disappear, and make spears stick out horizontally from the wall, and even make swords appear in his hand should he lose them, and rise to the top of the cliff behind Jenna he's some kind crazy William Castle spook show phantom. And evil Phaedra has the power to assume any form, so can change ages (as young Phaedra she's played by Tiziana Altieri and she looks a bit like Billie Eilish (above) crossed with Natasha Leggero and is probably cast because she looks like the hot witch (Cassandra Gava) in Conan. And even look like her rival, or the princess herself, if she chooses. When she starts eating ribs while gyrating pantsless, staring mockingly into the camera, surrounded by revelers in tacky red face scarves and owl skin should pads and other costumes that seem rejected from The Wiz, I was in weird dream heaven. Here's a typical progression: Phaedra turns into her younger sexy self, and lets herself be chased by a bunch of evil horsemen while Ator is practicing nearby. He instantly changes armor and hair style and rushes to her rescue. Before you can say don't fall for it, Ator, he's passed naked out in her bed and she's getting dressed turning back into her old witchy self and setting the place on fire. The voice of Deeva the good witch (crystal-eyed Iris Peynado) from beyond wakes him up saying "She for whom you are fated, needs you now"  and off he goes to one of Cordio's tumbling synth timpani rolls as Jenna lies atop a stone bed on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean with a magic sword posed over her neck as a bunch of skull faced jawas bang rocks around her stone altar bed.  Ator chases them off! Iron Warrior appears by floating up from below the cliff!  They tussle! An open smoke pot blows in the ocean wind behind them they duel atop the cliffs! Suddenly the Iron Warrior vanishes and Ator stabs a pile of his clothes. Phaedra laughs from someplace outside of space and time. Now Jenna and Ator are wandering through the woods at magic hour as the setting sun sets. All this happens in about two minutes!

The dialogue, shouted over the wind, is great throughout, especially when Phaedra flubs a line, shouting "you are no--you are no match for me, Ator!" at one point. In nine times out of nine, they'd retake that or edit it out or redub it, but the fact it stays in gives me no small amount of happiness, as does the way the whispering oracle statue Ator and Jenna visit is impossible to hear it over the flangered wind. Later a giant rolling tone ball like in Raiders of the Lost Ark chases her, and then a different one chases Ator, as if they're all in a giant pinball game and they eventually collide. Every time anything violent or cool happens things slow down to slow mo and the sound gets flanger-modulated, which rocks my world no end. 

Brescia keeps the action and scenery humming. All the boring stuff and--after the opening narration which we can't hear anyway-- narration and plot continuity are gleefully stripped away and everything is whittled down a series of stunning tableaux vivant. Every shot is like a fashion spread still by someone who didn't want to pay for hair spray. Compared to the dull by-the-motions chore of the Blade Master the amount of effort lavished here restores one's faith in the Ator juggernaut. So what if there's no rhyme or reason to who these four masked riders are or why they're riding away with Jenna's splayed limbs tied between them like a flying draw and quarter. Good thing for Ator all these spears just hanging there along the chase route so Ator can grab and throw them as he goes. It almost seems like some kind of race course set up just for him to practice his riding and throwing. Don't think about it. Just endure Coridio's hackneyed majestic action orchestration and try not to roll your eyes. It'll be over soon. 

A feminist matriarchal thread runs from text to subtext. For example, at the end, the color-coded witches enclave talk about how Ator belongs to Jenna now. There's never a thought of Jenna belonging to Ator! And not to spoil things but this time Ator isn't getting away to go back to no cave. In a great penultimate shot we see her face as she embraces Ator (his back to us), looking dead at the camera with an "I got him now" kind of wicked smile. The inference she's actually Phaedra in disguise is instantly put to rest by the witches rhyming away like a Greek chorus in their multimedia black box theater beyond space and time, with Phaedra immobilized once again in her revolving red hula hoop prison. The implication can only be Jenna herself is sort of evil, as all women must be apparently, when ensnaring wandering faux-Ronin to their bosom clutches when all they wants to do is get back to showing off their swords in the mirror. 


Ator's whole origin would change yet again for a fourth in the series, also knowns as QUEST FOR THE MIGHT SWORD (1988) with D'Amato returning to direct but O'Keefe inexplicably replaced by beefy Meatloaf-meets-Roddy Piper-esque Eric Allen Kramer. This new Ator seems to  have drunk seventy thousand beers too many, maybe hanging out at Chicago ale houses, gaining about six inches of height, a hundred ponds of beef ("like he's ten years out of military service and eating his way through PTSD" notes Cheapsteak). He now has long light blonde hair, and a throne, which he quickly loses through one too many ill-advised trials by combat much to the horror of wife and son. 

He dies, deservedly, and mom and his child end up on the run as their kingdom is claimed by the challenger, who is evil of course. The pursued mom decides to leave Ator Jr. with an ugly troll in order to get a magic ring or something like that. The troll, a true douchebag kind of anti-Yoda drugs her on her way out, rapes her, blows her mind, and sends her out as a sex slave, or something while young Ator grows up to, unfortunately, be played by Kramer, too. No offense meant to Kramer. I'm sure he'd be fine in his usual role as a bouncer or henchman but he's all wrong as either young or old Ator. Though it's nice to see that old Troll 2 mask trotted out again, yeesh! What an au pair mom has picked for her son! That's two terrible hiring choices in one film, one meta, one textual. Question is, when will Ator Jr. figure out how to steal the troll's magic sword or ring or whatever and free himself without getting caught in his ugly guardian's web of illusion? I don't know either. I can't get around Kramer's casting as the son too. I could buy Ator gone to seed as an older dad, but as the son he's twice as miscast. How did he even get this part? Did D'Amato see Roddy Piper starring in Carpenter's They Live (from the same year) and think beefy Chicago/Toronto-style guys were 'in' as leading men? That old troll must really know how to pull some magic strings.

And so... after 6+  months, my 12 Days of ED WOOD CONCLUDED! Yer welcome. 

1. By now, with all the smash-cut rutting on AMC, and HBO ("HBO, where foreplay is forgotten!"), sex onscreen is no longer forbidden, and therefore not spicy. In ATOR it's always about to happen, but something prevents it, just like in dreams. 
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