Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception, for your aghast befuddlement

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Long Arm of Coincidence: SCARED TO DEATH (1947)

Bela Lugosi's only color film, and maybe the only horror film period from 1947, surreal poverty row quickie SCARED TO DEATH makes no concessions to atmosphere or tone in its zippy charge to the finish line, covering an array of weird bases with the reckless, sloppy speed of someone stealing home on a loping base hit, then running to first again, forgetting where he was. It was director Christy Cabanne's 162nd feature, writer Walter Abbott's first, and its production company's last. The resultant 70 minutes feature rollicks with a kind of gives-a-shit journeyman 'one-shot' fecklessness and everything-kitchen-sink-size 'I finally have a voice' irreverence we usually see only in foreign new wave vanguard films ala Godard's Alphaville, the sorts that--if done for a major studio--get one fired - like Suzuki's Branded to Kill. Both those auteurs were fans of poverty row and surely knew of this and other poverty row Lugosi films, and what they often signified in the realm of Brechtian anti-narrative. Watch it in this light and Scared to Death alchemically transcends its lowly state as a B-mystery Lugosi vehicle through recklessly genre-buckling surrealist brio to loom wobbly and large as a nonsensical exercise in Marx Bros/Beckett noir post-structuralism. Racing through an ornate plot full of gaslighting, shady pasts (what went on in war-torn Europe doesn't stay in war-torn Europe, even though you thought it was dead), and idiot-told/nothing-signifying fury, this resultant mind-bending gem might seem incomprehensible, but see it again and it gets weirder, not clearer, and that's something. As Michael Weldon lovingly wondered "where the people who made this on some strange, mind-bending drug?" [1] We'll never know, but one thing we do know for sure, is that you should be when watching. It won't help, but then again, it can't hurt.  

Narrated from a slab in the morgue, and set at a former mental institution (that was 'before the war'), the setting makes no attempt at atmosphere, what we get instead is wallpaper and a kind of Colonial-modern taste of townhouse decor the office and home of Dr. Van Ee (George Zucco) who harbors strange secrets about his past, secrets the film never does delve into. Why, for example, does he need a private duty policeman  (Nat Pendleton) if it's no longer a home of the insane. As with the hiring of the Ritz Brothers in The Gorilla (1939), the answer may lie in whom he hires, i.e. if you want to seem to have performed due diligence prior to a murder yet don't want to see it actually prevented, hire a licensed moron (or three). But who is to be murdered? Surely not the wife of Van Ee's son Ward (Roland Varno), the paranoid Laura (Molly Lamont)? Laura claims she's being kept a virtual prisoner in her room, though her physician father-in-law, Dr. van Ee (George Zucco) and shusband both wish she'd leave. She's being kept a prisoner only by her own petty spite and fear or some unknown person. Why, is she so anxious to stay in this gloom-less house if she knows whomever is after her has arrived and is somewhere in its walls right now? What's Van Ee's story that he keeps a full-time hired detective/bodyguard? The  suspicious way Van Ee acts, the weird double meanings and cryptic assurances in the initial scene where he's examining Laura, do nothing to clarify anything. One could almost think one was in that post-structuralist Blow-Up blast radius, next to Elio Petri's A Quiet Day in the Country

These strange beats suggest a stage mystery-comedy specially designed to neither scare, amuse, nor inordinately offend (unless you think narrating after your dead is blasphemous), and in not doing all those things, it succeeds voluptuously. Though Zucco probably gets more screen time, Lugosi gets top-billing as 'wanted' magician-hypnotist Professor Leonide (Bela Lugosi) who shows up at the door with his mute assistant Ingo (Angelo Rossitto), "one of the little men." They invite themselves to stay a few days (Van Ee says "I can't very well refuse." "How true, cousin Joseph. How... true"). He and Ingo spend most of the film creeping in and out of secret panels in search of some other unseen person or gesticulating at the moon. At one point he looks at Laura as she departs, snarling a weird poetry chant "Laurette... Laurette, I'll make a bet, the green masked man will get you yet."  Meanwhile, a scowling green mask regularly looks in from outside the window, but no one sees it. Bodies appear in one room and wind up downstairs, covered in a sheet on the doctor's examination table, as if by magic. Heads--delivered in boxes left at the door--doth roll. 

Its blithe inconsistency of tone might all be a passive-aggressive attempt by Cabanne and Abbott to do as bad a job as possible to get out of a contract but I like to think they knew they had to get it done quick and cheap, and so just 'went for it,' throwing continuity to the wind. Sometimes a kind of loose deadpan Mad magazine irreverence takes over when freedom and speed make 'art' almost by the not wanting of it.  This is why Plan Nine from Outer Space is endlessly rewatchable, while 'better' films appall with their mediocre consistency and realismzz. This being a while before Antonioni let us see through the cracks of cinema's symbolic code, we have to find these Brechtian post-modern 'see around the sets'-y kernels where we may, and--all through the 40s--the Monogram Lugosi films were giving us instances thereto. One could view them as an expression of contempt for the subject matter, or as harbingers for the post-structuralist landscape to come:

 From top: The Voodoo Man's script is written after the 'real' events happen, the writer/hero even
suggests Bela Lugosi to star; The Ape Man's author peers through windows all through the film,
a kind of 'WTF' through-thread. As a kid, seeing these films on afternoonTV a lot, these kinds of moments
were like insider winks. We didn't understand 90% of the dialogue, but these moments let us know we really
weren't naive. We got post-modernism (We read Mad). That same kind of enshrined ambiguity of inference
would become key European art cinema language, but until we learned it, only children and audiences
seeing movies in languages they don't understand, in un-subtitled prints, could share our sweet mise-en-scene
theory forming aesthetic arrest.  
And I make an Ed Wood association not lightly, and not just because there's a cross dressing surprise (SPOILER!) at the end. Lugosi's long downward slide really begins here, his leanest stretch, All he'd done in the last three years before Scared were some small roles in RKO B-movies, and one lead villain role, in the Val Lewton spoof-- Zombies on Broadway (1945). [2] Aside from Abbot and Costello Meets Frankenstein the year after Scared, times were only going to get leaner until Ed Wood came calling, like Bela's personal morphine-hallucinated cross-dressing angel of death. And though this isn't really a Lugosi showcase he does get star billing and it holds up today as a great example of how one might handle being handed a question mark of a role, with murky ambiguous motivations not even known to the writer, and turn it into a plum.

The unique things about Scared would go onto pepper later films, like Billy Wilder's 1950 show biz horror-drama, Sunset Boulevard -right), which is narrated, not from a face-up lady in the morgue but a face-down a man in a pool. Other than that, the same, though if you had to guess which film was set in an old dark house holding an ape funeral, how could you ever guess it wouldn't be the poverty row 40s Lugosi chiller, but an A-list Billy Wilder classic? This Lugosi chiller doesn't even have a single dark corner, or ominous statue: it's all light and normal decor, peppered with some heads and masks. But it doesn't matter. Sunset is brilliant even as it veers ever towards a kind of razzing ageist misogyny, while Scared to Death is brilliant because doesn't have enough of anything to be anti-something else. It stays constantly fluid, as if Holden, Von Stroheim, and Swanson, and Wilder and the writers themselves, couldn't decide if they were making Salome, a making-of documentary playing themselves playing roles, or the roles of Norma, Max and Joe amidst the haunted waxworks and--being clever--decided to keep events, dialogue and performance cryptic enough each line could serve all three or four different readings.

The dialing back and forth to Laurette on the slab, for example, become almost comically nonsensical and redundant, as if the editor is venting some irritation with having to spread the length to over an hour. Even with the all-knowing perspective of the unmoored soul, she couldn't possibly know a lot of the details she shows us. Not only that, her comments are often unrelated to the scenes we see. "I became afraid and my mind started to crack" for example, dials back out to Bill the cop (Pendleton) hang-doggedly hitting on the brassy maid Lilybeth (Gladys Blake, taking a break from playing her usual brassy hairdressers and brassy telephone operators), calling her his "melancholy baby," his "wild Irish rose." Then we dial back to Laurette on the slab: "Then came a sinister pair!" We see Indigo and Leonide enter through the front door, like a pair of trick-or-treating funeral attendants. 

"then came a sinister pair' (centered)
The paradoxical conundrums and obvious discrepancies continue to accrue. Regularly using big words and then wondering what they mean, Pendleton's starts to ham his way through the whole show, at what point he even says "Which way did they go? Which way did they go?" while waving his fists around. Someone calls the operator to ask for the cops in an overreacting panic, then says it was a false alarm, but reporter Terry Lee (Douglas Fowley - the guy who "likes 'em stupid" in Cat Women of the Moon) shows up anyway, and brings his fiancee, the operator who clued him in on the phone call, Jane Cornell (Joyce Compton). What clue he has that something newsworthy is going on seems vague, and the way he shakes tales out of people seems intrusive, like a homicide detective trying to solve a murder in advance. Meanwhile a green death mask keeps 'looking' through the window (it has no eye holes), causing girls who see it to faint. And yet - if no one sees it but us, and it cannot see--for it has no eyeholes--how can a dead woman know it was there? Is this mask the embodiment of Laura's post-death all-seeing eye that allows her to comment on action she was upstairs for?  

Maybe not, but this sort of thing, and fine paradoxical examples of Ed Woodian ouroboros dialogue go looping around in lopsided orbit: Van Ee assures a mysterious lady in green that there are no abnormal things going on in his house, "nor will there ever be." She replies "Nevertheless, the way you were described to me, and the way your place was described to me, I am certain that I am in the right place!" Bull says to Laura he was hoping she'd get murdered so he could solve it and redeem himself with the homicide bureau ("who paid you to say these things to me?" Laura asks). He uses big words like "longitude" and "metabolism" then wonders what they mean. Vows to cook and slave and buy Lilybeth furs and jewels leave her cold ("I'd hate to hang by my neck until you got me those things..." Professor Leonide refuses to announce himself before coming in since "if I allowed myself to be announced I doubt I would be received anywhere" Van Ee lets us know Leonide (his cousin) helped pepper the house with secret panels when he was a "patient" there before the war. It was ostensibly so the guards could spy on the inmates, yet Leonide used one of the panels to escape! Who'd have thought!? Lilybeth drops dead after trying to blindfold Laura (her big phobia!) while in a hypnotic trance. She is then is revived by Leonide only because he can see that Bull "truly loves... this girl." Which is itself hilarious, and Lugosi knows it. Throughout his observations re: the women in the scene are bronzed in iron: he wryly calls Jane "delightful" and advises Lee "take good care... of her" and when Van Ee tells him Leonide he'll be staying in the room right next to Laura's he adds, "I know you'll like that." Why or how is never elaborated. Alas! And what does Lilybeth know that she taunts Laura about the man in the green mask ("I let him in! Maybe he's here right now, Miss Lavalle!") Did she really let him in?

These crazy quotes are just off the top of my head, but I could write you out the whole script and get the same surreal buzz I would transcribing Joyce, Nat Perrin, or Samuel Beckett, which is why my heart always sinks when I hear strange canned/echo-drenched French accented voice for the first time than announces Renee is ready to perform his magic act that acts as the film's climax. Hidden in some secret passage while speaking to the gathered players, he sounds not unlike Mel Welles' crab consciousness in Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957). There's no real build-up for this 'climax' and her past betrayal, odious thought it may be, hardly constitutes a war crime tribunal. Not can it be murder if she was scared to death in the process of confessing (maybe - it's never clear). In that weird sense it's hard to find something genuinely scary or punishable. Had post-war audiences seen enough murder? Film noir being already fading out, and 50s drive in sci-fi about to fade in, Scared is like the missing link in a chain that connects Arsenic and Old Lace-inspired wartime 'horror-comedy' (ala the underrated Boogeyman will Get You) to the psychosexual Freud/Kinsey flood of the late 50s-60s ala Suddenly Last Summer, Lilith, Three Faces of Eve, Psycho, Repulsion and Robert Bloch's semi-remake of Cabinet of Caligari (1962) starring Glynnis Johns (below).

Actually Scared and 1he 1962 Caligari would make a fine double bill, allowing us to consider the 15 year gap between them just how readily the population flux in the wake of the Second World War led to the frustrations of the 50s housewife, forced to give up her riveting job to a returning vet (if the factory stayed open at all). With the return of men and the old patriarchal headlock, the psychosexual neuroses of the cute starched blondes who'd learned to be independent by holding full time jobs in the homefront workplace (lady cab drivers, for example, in 40s films like The Big Sleep and The Falcon in Hollywood), now compelled to give the reigns back to dudes and put their apron chains back on.
If unable to find recourse in satisfying sex lives or a posse of hyper-active children, turned to murder and madness. Electro-shock and lobotomies, hysterectomies and, if all else fails, birth control and liberation from the confines of male 'protection' - i.e. freedom (the zone where clandestine lesbian relations might be feasible).

This where we find Laura in Scared to Death. Her Paris-under-occupation hypnotist act is in the past, she has no role other than wife, and to hide in her room, freak out over branches at the window, stand up to cryptic threats from her father-in-law, and harass the household staff. AND YET! Laurette/Laura is, a trailblazer -- her paranoia and madness, like a slowly gathering storm, will move across the warm ocean the Freudian 50s, the bra-burning 60s, and finally blossom into a full on 70s women's lib typhoon.


What makes Scared resonate as indoor-child beloved art is its ability to be seen again and again, each new viewing doing little to shed light on the cryptic allusions to past crimes never fully elaborated on. I recently saw Dinner at Eight (1933) for the zillionth time and this time what I noticed was how the good old days before the Crash are recalled so glowingly it illuminates the desperate straits of the present, of aging and death in general, or remembering bright lights helping ease the descent into darkness. Scared to Death could almost be Dinner's deadpan satirical inverse. Trying not to look back to the darkness of the Second World War, to--at least between Leonide and cousin Joseph--let bygones be bygones, and trade the self-destructive intellectual gamesmanship of old Europe for the mire of grinning middle class American New World idiocy. Itching for something to happen, trying to generate tension with screams and faints, these players find only banal small town sameness starting to creep in the moment their slapdash exiting and entrancing ceases. Instead of Dinner at Eight-style monologues about the good old days, everyone plays their pasts as cards close to the vest and then, the big reveal as collaborators are ferreted out by presumed-dead concentration camp escapees, i.e. dinner is cancelled. But Desert is served.


If yer scared of a little CALIGARI semi-remake, you should also see on a double bill with The Awful Truth (with which it shares two actresses - each playing a Cary Grant rebound - Irene Dunne rival). Both films get better and better as the layered fine print is shuckered loose from their deceptively shallow shells. As I point in my award-skipping 2003 film The Lacan Hour there are so many "Momento Mori" skulls, masks, and head effigies in Scared one can't help but read the obvious meaning behind them, and the meaning is that obvious meaning itself has no meaning. The quick dick pic sketched and pocketed by Jackie Treehorn in The Big Lebowski is the ultimate in phallic signifiers when using this yardstick to measure. 

Of coruse in order to 'get' this truth, you need to have seen Scared to Death so many times it ceases to make sense at all. Is staying indoors strung out on allergy medicine watching this film obsessively over and over not a kind of secret pathway to post-structuralist enlightenment? Or is it  a living death which, nonetheless, like the lowering of the shroud, may bring air conditioned peace? (3) See it on a triple bill with the 1962 Caligari and Antonioi's Red Desert  -in that order, while comfortable and, ideally, alone and strung out on allergy meds. See if I'm wrong! 

I know I'm not alone in loving this cockeyed caravan of a film: shout outs to renowned raconteur d'horreur classique David Del Valle (though even he admits it's "not Voodo Man") and a thanks and RIP to my old Scarlet Street mentor, Ken Hanke, who steered me to the best available transfer of this often-crappy PD title back in 2000 (PS, it's the 1999 Sling Shot DVD w/ Devil Bat "The Bela Lugosi Collection - Vol. 1" - worth getting, as the colors are upgraded and the detail is sharp. I think you can get it for $8 on Amazon -- yer welcome. 

and many the Woodisan gems from:


1. Weldon, Michael Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film (1983)
2. See: At Long Last Lost Lewtons
3. Allergy sufferers know that 'air conditioning season' usually signals the end of allergy trouble. What pollen remains is filtered out of the air during the AC process and for those of us with Nordic blood and allergies who hate humidity and heat, air conditioning + Bela Lugosi = nirvana.  

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Suki of the Wasteland (Escape from Burning Man): THE BAD BATCH, FUTURE WORLD

British model-turned-capable actress Suki Waterhouse has become indie cinema's de-facto psychedelic-sampling post-Burning Man desert wasteland wanderer, thanks to two very similar post-apocalyptic desert-set films from this and last year, each with a hip pedigree and each with a lot of interesting touches that seem to stem from some writer's mind-blowing but alienating experiences from when Burning Man was still cool: Future World and The Bad Batch. I may be wrong, but the comparison between Burning Man's metallic desert sun-gleaming fire effect neopagan artsy-gritty subculture and the aesthetic of the Mad Max series is so apparent it's hard not to--after being sufficiently dosed/altered/mind-blown via whatever substance you happen upon (sources tell me toad secretions are 'in' again)--that you don't wonder if the big burning effigy might have Mel Gibson tied up inside it.

He's not. Sooner or later, it all devolves back down to 90s trip-hop. Even these two movies Suki is in.  Portishead, thou shalt never die. And Suki Waterhouse shalt looks slowly around in slow motion to some really low end fuzzy bass, man--whew all deep deep deep down in the spinning world void man--lots of hair billowing in slow motion and colored lights flashing and a sense of unity with the night or the groove. Or wait, man - the night and the groove are one. I star see, I mean I see far... stars.. star-see... I see stars I mean seen sea and seen stars sea.

Dig it. Max would never be able to stay Mad with all that weird kinetic lysergic hydration in the wind. On the other hand, without the druggy raves, the vibe of these two recent apocalyptic world movies can seem more Fyre Festival than Burning Man, albeit after the richer kids have finagled a ride out and only the scrabble survivors are left - the rest become de facto homeless, seen in low tracking shots. nodding off on busted spring, legless outdoor couches and piles of trash; filth-encrusted wanderers stopping to either accept or offer single flowers to urchins; zonked cult leaders  DJ-ing or coordinating fights to the death in an empty pool; stray acts of cannibalism and kindness; hardscrabble civilization reduced to a Dead show parking lot barter system, with whomever holds the water rights being the band, and whomever has gas for a dirt bike running the equivalent of roughshod over the devil's yellow umber kingdom. Each makes fine use of the peculiar desolation and meth-pocked tracts of the Salton Sea. Burned-out dispirit infects the films like a case of crabs, until the club pedigree is renewed, and hot Suki gambols into town to restore hot model beauty. Let the lamp affix its beam!

In FUTURE WORLD (2018) the ever-sketchy James Franco serves as co-director and producer/star, giving himself the dirt bag bad guy villain role of "Warlord" (which comes with godawful yellow-brown veneers he never gets tired of showing off), leader of a marauding gang of bikers and outlaws. He controls the only robot left in the world, Ash (Waterhouse), a foxy, high-fashion killer android mix of Angelina Jolie in Cyborg 2, Pris in Blade Runner, Eva in The Machine, and SIRI (Warlord gives her commands by speaking into his remote). Once killer Ash is up and running, and dressed (in perfectly-fitted and stressed haute couture fatigues), Warlord shows her by ordering her to first snog with, then strangle, one of his drooling gang. It's kind of self-defeating and--in the first part, rather slimy--but Suki's contented focus as she chokes the life out of a snickering misogynist type is, of course, satisfying to all concerned.

While Warlord and his gang roam the wasteland, far away at a desert oasis, all is a sunny paradise... just waiting to be despoiled. Fisher queen (Lucy Liu) is dying, and her dangerously naive son, "the prince" (Jeffrey Wahlberg - Mark and Donnie's nephew) decides to ride his dirt bike off into the wasteland seeking "Paradise", a stop that's supposed to have a cure. Once he ill-advisedly stops off at the Snoop Dogg-operated, shock-collar sex worker-staffed 'Love World' to ask directions. Betrayed, tricked, suckered, beaten up by Ash, stretched over and over by the neck until he finally gives Warlord directions back to that cushy Oasis (and in this reality, no well-organized outpost can stand up to six dirty dudes on motorbikes). Luckily for the story, during pretty cool tracking shot ride through the desert, with Suki actually on a real bike, she switches sides, then the real action begins. Then is over.

Like a lot of the film, it skips over the how and why involved. This is a film that assumes you've seen 'the canon' of both AI and post-apocalyptic sci-fi. It fills in what those other films lacked. You've seen the best, now take a rest!

The scene stealer of the film is Milla Jovovich as the queen of Paradise. She does the manic speed freak psycho nutter trip better than most I've seen and her big slap-down with Franco once Warlord and his boys catch up to Ash and Prince is pretty unforgettable. On the other hand, Milla's 'World' (above) seems to be blown-out old Salton-sided health club foundation, with an empty pool, some window frames (most glass long gone) and some "rooms," operating as a kind of meth/heroin/MDMA lab (?) with all sorts of cures and remedies somehow churned out of a few test tubes in a lab so bare it would shame Ed Wood. There's an under-directed and lifeless cage match, wherein a few denizens of the place stand silently around, forgetting they're supposed to be cheering or banging on pots. Hey Franco, I know y'all have seen Escape from New York and Beyond Thunderdome or we wouldn't be here. Was the shoot too hard for you to maintain enthusiasm? Only Milla seems alive; her eyes alone make the film worth a late night nod.

Even so, at times I was ready to write this FUTURE off as a waste of talent with a few shine-through performances and moments. But, then, Ash finds love, not with the Prince but SPOILER - with another girl! Lei (Margarita Levieva) is the lonely cool lesbian tech who patches Ash up and they're the ones who come together. Their love is the future worth fighting for. They even stop by Snoop's  on their way back through 'town' to separate him from his remote so the girls can kick the shit out of him (so be sure and watch to the end of the credits).

If the cliches and the ugliness of Franco's teeth are to be overcome it's going to be through this surprise coupling and, something maybe just as valuable, there's the idea Ash and the prince can have a strong bond, beyond loyalty or even siblinghood, where sex doesn't enter into it (i.e. he's not sulky or heartbroken he doesn't score with his hot model robot friend). The straight girl / gay boy friendship in cinema is by now so lionized and holy it is beyond reproach, but the straight boy / lesbian version has been oft-maligned (and as a past sponsor of lesbian AA-ers, it always irked me).  Finally, maybe, our time has come, in the future!  (END SPOILER)

SUPER SUKI MOMENT: Near the 1 hour 18 min 30 sec mark, during the climactic chase, Suki dismounts a moving dirtbike. As it spins to a halt in the sand, she kind of corkscrews herself into a vertical position via a reverse twirl, done with such ease of serpentine hip movements--keeping her neck and back fluid and long the whole way--it's like this former top model is strutting the catwalk the whole way, from the start of her skid on through to walking forward towards her quarry there's not a moment when she's not H2T fierce. This girl is so cool and graceful the camera barely knows how to capture her. Did the director even notice how damned cool she was in this moment?

FORMATIVE BURNING MAN CONVEYANCE: I visualize the idea for this film coming while zipping around the outskirts on a noisy dirt bike, high on mushrooms, imagining being a marauding Viking from the future coming in to pillage (shrooms also acting to short-circuit socially conditioned empathy and increase a sense of moral freedom - take it from me, if you want to feel fearless and ready for a battle, take a few shrooms!)

THE BAD BATCH (2017) is the second feature from Iranian skateboarder Anna Lily Amirpour, and marks a return to all the things that made Girl Walks Home Alone so unique: genuinely trippy rave scenes; fingers in mouths (Amirpour's choice form of erotic contact); skateboards (her choice mode of transport); the 80s band White Lines (here playing over the end credits), and the way falling in love means sticking by someone even when they eat you (Batch) or drink your father (Girl). Suki Waterhouse is Arlen, an unsmiling southern-accented girl in smiley face yellow shorts who finds herself exiled to a vast and semi-hostile desert that serves as a hybrid of Manhattan in Escape from New York (or LA) and Mexico in the era of Trump. Immigrants, crooks, radicals, hippies, i.e. America's 'bad batch,' its problem children--anyone not willing to get with the neo-conservative paradigm--are thrown across the fence into the zone. The desert seems to have enough sources of water to keep things going, there are copious drugs and free acid, but then cannibals and free-roaming marauders, all more interested in foxy Arlen as a source of food rather than sex. She goes from being kept alive only as so much livestock, slowly dismembered for irregular meals by a loose cadre of taciturn desert families, to escaping while lying on back of her skateboard (one leg and one arm already gone), rescue and delivery to Comfort (the hydrating druggie enclave), to kidnapper of one of the cannibal's children and killing his wife, to an incumbent sister wife to 'the Dream' (Keanu Reeves) in a mansion with AC, a pool, cocktails, and endless drugs. We never learn where she got the artificial leg, or how it just happened to fit her. But she seems to do all right for herself in Comfort in the space of a single dissolve. Hey, it's her business how she came by a gun and artificial leg so easily or how it happens that drugs flow plentiful everywhere (the cannibals even shoot Arlen up to ease the pain before cutting off her limbs).

When Arlen wanders out into the desert on LSD, bumping into one of her cannibal assailants, Miami Man (Momoa) who's looking for his daughter. Even though she abducted her and shot his wife, he either doesn't know or figures it's fair since his family ate half her limbs. It doesn't make any sense, but hey - Arlen likes those muscles, leading to an ending that's straight-up Morocco, if you get the thirsty drift.

Suki receives lysergic communion
Luckily, Suki again hits the task running: her uneducated southern yokel accent usually spot on, her terror, trippy wonder, and courage all vividly etched on her perfect features) she's the kind of model-turned-actress where you don't get the feeling--as you kind of do with the hot warlord wives in Mad Max: Fury Road--that they just flew in from Belize. She may be gorgeous but she also looks like she's there. The most there thous is Jim Carrey as the saintly old mute hermit, his skin blackened to leather by the sun, wearing cardboard slit glasses to reduce the glare, shuffling slowly from one lone piece of shade to the next, never seeming to die of dehydration. Reeves, one of those few sterling actors who seem cumulatively saintly nowadays, gives us a rare side of himself too: slightly soft around the edges, big black mustache and tinted shades and evoking a touch of Jason Molina in Boogie Nights albeit if he was flanked like Manson with armed female harem (flash forward 10 years, and he could be the War Daddy in Mad Max: Fury Road.)

Speaking of there, all throughout, the flea market art direction is sublime: the dwellings really do look like junk, the dumps look truly toxic. Amirpour nails the way language vanishes in the haze with people bargaining human captive meat supplies for gasoline cans. And, after all that suffering, just seeing Arlen with a cool blue drink in her hand and a face enraptured by drugs, almost brings tears to one's eyes. With a critique of American consumer society and the divide between the rich and the poor, young and pretty, hungry and fed, showered and filthy, old and withered, it's tempting to just be relentlessly downbeat but Amirpour's film is full of stray grace notes, like Claire Denis balanced by Agnes Varda. Still, the cannibalism as capitalism metaphor is mighty weary, even for the French!

But as with Future World's 'big' desert dance party, the highlight is the editor's intensive use of delay-trail imagery for drug trips. Between these two films and Mandy the year of 2018 seems to have arrived at the place I used to dream of around the start of this site back in 2003, that one day psychedelics would be seamlessly integrated into film and therefore society, not demonized or glorified, but accepted as both a heightening of and escape from reality, a chance to unmoor from our stodgy structuralist signifier chains and see the world anew, all labels and reductivist shortcuts temporarily lifted, making us, in a sense, children (or schizophrenics) and all via emerging post-structuralist cinema. Alas, the devil's bargain of the poison path is that with the vision to change the world comes the torpor and derangement that keeps us from doing anything about it. The vision for a post-structuralist cinema becomes yet another psychedelic rave scene that goes nowhere but to the inevitable hangover and disorientation of the following day.

Even Armirpour's vivid depiction of rave-desert sky freedom is undercut in BATCH when Arlen is given a silly voiceover inner dialogue narration while wandering the starry desert high on a Comfort tab. "Wow, it's so big... is that what it always looks like?" Oy vey!

In fact, this creates in a way a kind of opposite reaction to any sense of proxy wonder in the viewer. Prior to it, we're kind of an Antonioni/Jess Franco amnesiac cinema headspace, signifiers are gone:  when a drifter materializes out of the horizon heat shimmer, we don't know what they want, if they're friend or foe, going to eat Arlen, help her, or ignore her. As I discuss in Amnesiac Cinema, this taps into the European language gap (which helps make the 'Tower of Babel' style countries and environments more susceptible to emerging trends in art) but American viewers aren't used to it, unless they're cool, as in broad-minded, psychedelically 'experienced' or globally inclined. As in the best parts of Amirpour's previous film, a blessed unknowingness overtakes us. But with the acid voiceover, however, we're suddenly situated in language's prison..

Waterhouse really brings the knowing tripping-at-Burning-Man starry desert night sway to it all though, which helps. When she finds herself gyrating against the heaving muscles of Somoa, that she would forgive him for eating half her limbs makes sense. A lot of us would give it all up to follow Suki into the desert, even after she eats our hearts. That's death is for a purpose - ex fictione verum. 

In the meantime, we can always dance. It's the ones who never stop dancing in Climax, after all, that don't get into any self-immolating mischief. For some of us, the ones who love the glint of madness in a foxy lady's eye and don't need much else, beyond a beat, it would just be quite a party. Until the hungry ghosts swooped in. And unless you hide even farther out past the fences, they always do.

Holding a gun to the belly of one of the pregnant sister wives in order to rescue Miami Man's daughter, all without changing her deadpan expression (above).

FORMATIVE BURNING MAN CONVEYANCE: Zipping around the festival perimeter on a golf cart while zonked on martinis and LSD, winding up getting lost in the desert at night, driving around in circles, looking up at the stars, wishing her skateboard could roll on sand.

Sorry if this trip proved meaningless, man. It's not the same as it was. By the 100th trip, no matter how much toad secretion and shrooms and MDMA we guzzle, or how cool and slyly gorgeous is our navigator, it's just not the same Burning Man. Just the name "Burning Man" used to pack a Summerisle-ish cult edge that if you were tripping hard enough gave you an uneasy chill. If you went, you worried the man being burnt alive that night might well be you. If you were high enough, it became a certainty. The paranoia was good for you, as the burning man was you- your old self- in effigy, leaving you free, soul cleaned of barnacles. This year, the man might not be a man at all - why not a woman? And can she be holding a Sprite can?

And then, just Ash, wondering if maybe this year, there'll even be a wind for her dust.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Cocaine + Calvins = Conan / Pulp on Prime: 4 Post-TARZAN Barbarian Wonders (1982-88)

I was walking to work the other morning, the horrors of FINDING NEVERLAND playing over and over in my head, wondering how on earth we collectively managed to ignore all the signs--when a seemingly unconnected epiphany took hold (bear with me, for--ala Rachel Maddow--it all eventually connects): when guilt is instilled in childhood--via Catholic school, fundamentalist or overbearing mothers, etc--and it lingers all through adult life, then cocaine and meth, once used, become as liberators, freeing them from the heavy, crushing weight of that guilt (one of its effects is the relief from all empathy and its associated emotional baggage). Protestants, public school-educated, atheists without maternally-instilled guilt, can't imagine what it's like to have it lifted from our psyches because we never had it in the first place, except fleetingly, here or there, when we got caught. That's why cocaine is depicted as such a mystical symbol in Scorsese, Schrader, Ferrara, De Palma's guilt-drenched films. Those of us from milder climates, who have no weight to lift to be free of merely stand there, irritably, holding the string, and trying not to sneeze. Worse, cocaine makes us merely sociopathic. Dark dirty desires we'd never entertain during our normal sober state (indeed would be horrified by), are released. For us, it's the Mr. Hyde elixir, it's the pineal From Beyond vibrator.

This is just a working theory, but since cocaine plays such a huge part in the films of the
70s, whether in front of or behind the camera, it behooves us to look into it while discussing the era's intense interest in icons of sexual purity and the permissiveness of the social order leaking downwards like melting ice until slavering over young girls was somehow socially acceptable.

For in the height of the drug's popularity (late-70s) there was disco and there was a 15 year-old Brooke Shields inferring she wore no underwear underneath her Calvins, creating quite a lot of tabloid and water cooler arguments  as to where naughty fun ended and licentious statutory leering began. Shields already had a lightning rod signification, having appeared two years earlier in a film by Louis Malle, Pretty Baby, about a New Orleans child prostitute. The jeans ads rocketed her into a weird, unique, odd place in the zeitgeist, one that--nowadays--would be unthinkable. The more the press condemned her exploitation and licentious positioning the more the jeans were sold.

But there's another trend, shorter-lived: the 'innocent' first premarital sexual encounter, ideally in a remote paradise, promoting the idea of extra/pre-marital sex being 'okay' before Jesus died for our slutty sins, or when no priest is around to marry you, thus allowing a deep soulful stare into each others' eyes to substitute as a wedding. Tie the cocaine-fueled lust for innocence--the dirty thrill of corruption and initiation--and you have some huge hits of the time that are all but forgotten today. JUSTIFIABLY!

One sniff makes you wilder.... 
To set the scene: 1978 was a special year: Saturday Night Fever (1977) was no longer in theaters but the album was still #1. We elementary school kids listened to it and danced obsessively. The film itself was depressing and sordid (when I finally got to see it I was depressed for weeks), but we kids would get a relatively cleaned-up Travolta figure next year - for Grease was the word that we heard. Looking back, was "grease" slang for nose candy? Was the magical fairy dust that changed Olivia Newton John overnight from a goody two-shoes to a freeze-licking biker chick - toot toot!? "You better shape up!" she sings, blowing Travolta's mind (left). He would.

Looking back at it, man it had to be that she tried coke the night before, and was still up by the next morning.  In an effort to win her man she said yes to her first line of coke and was blown out of her goody two-shoes. By the second line she was borrowing Roz's trashiest black leather, and by dawn she was chain smoking. This is the power of drugs, and especially the insidious power of meth and cocaine, to remove one's sense of empathy, guilt, shame, and responsibility - all the things that keep a girl virgin pure. Just like Laura Palmer or some victim of Monarch mind-control, give any girl cocaine, it seemed, and she'll turn bad.

At the time all this was going on, I was just a kid myself, two years younger than Brooke Shields. She was, in a sense, too young for me, though, a little too generic for my tastes. I remember having zero interest in either Blue Lagoon - below (1980) the following year's Endless Love (1981) but as someone unable to buy a ticket to an R-rated movie (which they both were), it was fascinating that, actually, neither could she.

Shields reclines by the BLUE LAGOON
Looking back to the silent era and their never-ending exotic locations with innocent waifs marooned, taking showers in waterfalls and running along the beach, girls who never knew of men, or of sin, so how could they be ashamed of these strange feelings? etc., the 'tropical island mood' of the first bathroom snort -  this return to Eden surge at the end of the powder-coated 70s led to a plethora of "corruptible innocence" films at the box office. Not just Malle's Baby, but Polanski's Tesss (1979), The Blue Lagoon (1980), even Allen's Manhattan (1979) in a way. They all feature innocent, wide-eyed, sexualized nymphs (Mariel Hemingway, Nastassja Kinski, Shields) that fit the mood of the moment perfectly, and if they caught any flak, it was the groups who flung it that were judged--as prudes--rather than the debauched directors.

America was still in a pre-AIDS hedonistic mindset and nudity was still something you could only get on the big screen at an R-rated picture (or-X, gasp - for there were no video players except in the homes of super rich a-holes); we saw sex as 'good' maybe because we hadn't seen that much of it. We were all curious. How could there be anything bad about it, especially with adorable Dr. Ruth dispensing prime time sex advice?

We were too innocent to know how dangerous it was to let coked-up producers capitalize on our prurience by promoting innocence itself as sexy.

As recent events and movements indicate, we're still learning.

In this light, it's clear 1982's Conan wasn't born in a vacuum, but because people were confident about the success of the insanely-hyped Bo Derek film Tarzan the Ape Man (1981 -above) a kind of adult's only-Lagoon meets the violence and macho of classic pulp, a short jump from Burroughs to Howard - indeed, the paperbacks looked almost alike.

In the late-70s, you see, things, crazes, ran in quick succession. We were all 'on the same page' in a lot of ways, interests flared up across the country and then were replaced by the next big thing (in the age of the internet that's not really feasible). Thanks to the surprising box office of Blake Edward's "10" (1979), its 'focus' (the '10' herself) Bo Derek was the goddess at the top of a big pyramid (everyone was giving everyone else a number all of a sudden). Girls got those tacky micro-dreads--or tried--then combed out the damaged hair, the resulting frizz leading to the perm. John Derek, Bo's husband/ photographer was the 80s American equivalent of the 60s Roger Vadim (see Pimps: The Devil's Auteurs). He would direct her next film - a kind of Blue Lagoon 2 (implying nudity amidst the fronds) for a slightly older pair of naturalist lovers to entwine within.

That was the hype. But a critical bomb was born instead. Hoots and hollers and not in a fun The Room kind of way, but a boring way... Bo began a descent as meteoric as her rise.

Yet - just because Dereks' Tarzan, the Ape Man became a DOA laughingstock doesn't mean it wasn't profitable, or that the engines of Italian 'draft rider' pulp hadn't already started up behind it. Dino De Laurentiis' Conan (1982) was another 'adult' adaptation of classic pulp (Robert E. Howard instead of Burroughs -above) with a fetishized male body (Arnold) instead of female, and this time it worked! People liked it, boys like me especially. And the best element was the genuinely touching romance with Sandahl Bergman as Valeria, a character we loved from the comics and were worried would not be represented well and Arnold - whose accent endeared us immediately. We adored these lovers' openhearted moxy. Valeria (left) was a strong, capable character - Bergman did most of her own stunts, and wielded a real scimitar -- she was no kibbitzer. She was worlds away from the innocent naifs of Tarzan, Blue Lagoon, and aught else. This was a movie where corruption of innocence was met not with musical numbers and leers but with sharp steel. This was barbarians sneaking downstairs to crash the party and send the reptilian cokehead directors running for the door. Brooke Shields was safe again, brought home to her worried Max Von Sydow father to sober up, and the doors of the orgy were sealed shut.

The film was a hit. And so the draft riders pulled in behind that, and the sword and sorcery age of the early-80s was born. The hedonistic debauching of innocents was out - the disemboweling of hedonists by the innocents was in. 

Imitators came especially from New World, and of course, Italy, where they mixed and matched with the other big hits of the moment (see my list of awesome ROAD WARRIOR rips from last month) and hey -- many are on Prime. Four of them are worth mentioning, for they give the right kind of viewer a peaceful, easy feeling of nostalgia and archetypal alignment - making them perfect for napping to... on a lazy... Saturday... after... nnnz. And hey, onr og yhrm stars Miles O'Keefe, Derek's Tarzan himself! Everything comes full circle. 

(1982) Dir. Joe D'Amato 
**1/2 / Amazon Image - B+

Maybe it's the languid sexually uninhibited postures, the dreamy pace, the tastefully provocative furs and armor; maybe it's the muted cinematographic palette of purples and yellows, or the rumbling timpani and Wagnerian brass of Carlo Maria Cordio's score; maybe it's the long flowing wigs on the young, lovely actors, or their flawless faces conveying just the right level of blankness, but goddamned it there's something about this terrible movie that really gets me. There's little nudity or sex in it, which helps, paradoxically to make it sexy. More overt sexual versions of this tale, like Deathstalker, or Sorceress for example, may miss this special erotic haziness. Look at the above, for example: is that supposed to be a cave wall or a frumpy tent tarp behind our plate-chested hero? Look at his splayed posture! Look at who he is, the Derek's Tarzan himself, Miles O'Keefe!

He plays Ator, a young warrior type raised by farmers after escaping a 'first born male son' purge by an evil warlord (a not uncommon procedure in these films). Though surely worlds more awake than he was as the Ape Man, O'Keefe is still a sleepy presence. But here it works! He lacks the ability to play his role any other way than deadpan straight (there's not a shred of self-awareness in performance, god bless him). Rumor is, D'Amato was routinely frustrated with his star's continued listlessness. But you won't be. Even as you want to shout to him from beyond the pale: "Miles! You're playing Ator, a naive young warrior whose bride/sister is abducted by a band of roving spider-worshipping brigands! You must rescue her! G'head! Git!" And all he does is mill around in a clearing.

Inevitably, he does start moving, and soon hooks up with an enterprising young Amazon named Roon (Sabrina Siani- above) after she wins him in combat over breeding rights. She's not in the same league as Sandahl Bergman, fighting skill-wise, but she does all right, carrying more than an equal share of battling derring-do once they team up, and I'm a fan of her big blonde wig. You can call their many fights with guards, boors, slavers, etc. amateurish but why bother? They're not using stunt doubles, and they're probably tired, and D'Amato doesn't know where to put the camera. I don't find any of that a problem, since it reminds me of my own filmed (super-8mm) Conan-inspired battles made around this same time. We used all the same unconvincing tricks (their swings miss by a mile; their stabs are just behind the person) which is maybe why I love this movie so much -- it's so damned innocent. D'Amato spares us gore and torture, sleazy sex close-ups, and all the other things associated with trying for an R-rating. That's maybe why I find it so relaxing. Compared to Game of Thrones it's like Lawrence frickin' Welk. There's no trauma, no investment, it's got that sublime terribleness all over itself. I've already seen it three times since discovering it last January!

But that doesn't explain the appeal, it's not what's so drowsily sexy about Ator. I think it has to do with O'Keefe's habit of resting his goblet on his genitals (he always seems to have one), splaying his legs out, when sitting, as if trying to get some air flow to his balls or presuming a fluffer is going to be down there rummaging amidst the luxuriant pelts of his furry loincloth momentarily (as in the above) so he can rouse to easy rider action. In your average 80s sex comedy that pose would be icky, but there's a difference between acting like you're hoping that happens, like a smirky frat boy, and acting like it's already happened so much in your life it's carried over into your regular posture, i.e. it's just unconscious habit -you're not expecting or hoping for anything. In other words, our Ator/O'Keefe seems like a very laid guy. Maybe that's why he's so listless?

Like many truly sexy films, though, Ator is seldom overtly sexual (i.e. think of Bunuel or Cronenberg), and when it is it's strangely frank - maybe that's another reason - it's sexuality is more akin to the kind of thing I used to fantasize about as a seven year-old, all tied up in power and submission: the Amazons choose one of their sisterhood to mate with Ator since he looks healthy, and so he's locked up in a hut and the victor comes in to claim him like a prize stud (but without any soft focus or jazz) and there's also the alluring witch who seduces him while Roon spies from a hole in the roof and sends his pet bear through a crack in the rocks to run a Toto-style cockblock. Again, the sex never happens, as Ator is put in a powerless position, an object being used for sex and seed, but too languid and reposed to resist, preferring to just rest his flagon near his pelted crotch as if a grail light for wandering maidens. This movie's so fucked up Ator plans to marry his own sister (even before knowing he was adopted) -- their early scenes together pulse with a yearning primal energy, never falling over the side into the abyss of puerility or camp. Michele Soavi was an uncredited co-writer and I'm guessing he maybe helped keep a kind of surrealist lid on things.

Other highlights:  Ator fighting his own shadow (surprisingly well choreographed) and a hilarious finale that seems like 20 minutes flashing his shield's solar reflection onto a giant spider monster hidden in the recesses of a cave/temple. Then he goes up to battles it, the real size spider arms poking feebly out from between the columns. If nothing else, it's failure to convince as a real spider may give monster movie fans a new respect for Bert I. Gordon and his use of miniatures and rotoscoping in films like Empire of the Ants and Food of the Gods. Man, you can feel the tiredness of the effects guys in the shadows waving those big legs. Between the sleepy Prince Valium-ness of O'Keefe and the feeble leg action, the whole movie feels like its settling down to sleep... mmmm why not join in?

Working a weird languid artistic spell like that more than makes up for its countless inadequacies, and isn't that, in the end, what great bad filmmaking is? Maybe the zombie-like lagging of O'Keefe compelled the usually slipshod Joe to smell the roses? Either way, we get to smell them. And they smell like patchouli, hash, sage and bodies - the smell of Dead tour, the smell that LSD-added senses 'see' as the maroon bewitched core of life itself, the sizzling of a tailgate grill cracking open kundalini serpent eggs in the back our neck as we walk the rows looking for that miracle ticket. It's all there in Sabrina Siani's gleaming blonde wig, in the purple hues of the cave walls, in the golden shine of O'Keefe's magic breast plate, in every strand of web. 

(1982) Dir. Jack Hill
*** / Amazon Image - A

The usurping, wild-eyed sorcerer Traigon (Roberto Ballesteros) needs to sacrifice his firstborn child but his hot young wife (Silvia ManrĂ­quez) has twin girls and won't tell him which one came out when. A wild-haired good wizard, Krona (Martin La Salle) strides forth to zap Traigon into a 20 year-long period of oblivion, alas, too late to save the mom from Traigon's sword. As is the custom, Krona leaves the babies with farmers so they don't attract despotic attention. He drops back in twenty years later, alas, too late to save the farmers from Traigon's soldier's sword. The twins have gestated into beautiful Playboy playmates (natural breasts, most excellent) Lynette and Leigh Harris and they vow revenge! A hearty, if unusually short, red-bearded Viking named Baldar (Bruno Rey), his curly-haired romantic-lead rascal buddy Erlick (Roberto Nelson), and a ridiculous horny satyr, vow to help the twins get revenge against the revived, reviled Traigon, who still needs that first born! Traigon's right hand woman, Delissa (Ana de Sade) promises the second-born twin to her pet monkey monster, and the monkey uses druggy fruits to disorient the gang and abduct the right one. Hair-raising escapes, magical spells, fights, gods fighting in the sky while zapping the battlers below with lightning, remote orgasms (the girls are linked psychically), and undead warriors culled from their crypts ensue.

To call back to my long-winded out-on-a-limb opening introduction, there are copious drug references here: the idea that a fruit spore cloud - created by throwing rare fruits on the ground by the good guy's campsite, will reduce them to laughing idiots, allowing their shady dealers (the apes) to carry the girls away with no resistance - dude, I've been to those parties. And the later drugging and hypnotizing of the first born of the twins and Erlick so they'll get it on during a big pre-sacrificial sex magick ceremony to appease one's reptilian overlord? That's so Illuminati-Monarch7!  (1)

It was director Jack Hill's final film (alas, and woe to us!), this was made for Corman's New World down in Mexico as part of a multi-picture deal. Its production values are a little higher and the extras and supporting cast a little sexier than we're used to in a New World film of the time (no day-for-night or other lame tricks), and Amazon's streaming source is pretty solid, presented HD and with deep, blazing reds (see below) and blacks. My only issue is that, perhaps to enhance the night scenes and presumably, and bring out that red, the color correction effort gives a lot of the actors an orange-sunburnt tint. I didn't get this issue on the Scorpion Blu-ray (see my review here), where the blacks are jet deep. But hey, it beats having to get up and plunk the Blu-ray in the machine.

Sorceress's release year (1982) was a high point for A-list sci-fi and horror/adventure, and amidst that year's B-list, Hill could have rocked out for at least a few more classics or even moved up to the big leagues. Today enough Hill fans are in high enough places that he could get a film funded in five minutes if he wanted. Hell, Tarantino alone could hook him up! Do it, Jack! Do it!

Hey, Jack, I get it. Age and experience brings wisdom at the expense of exuberance. And Spielberg was coming along to leave decadent deadpan larks like this -- too dirty and weird for the young kids and too cheap for the adults-- lurching along solely with the 16-20 year-old males at the video rental store looking for a post-Conan fix. And then, 30 years later when they get nostalgic pangs for a simpler age. So thanks, Jack, for putting in the extra effort, and leaving some of your cool self, even in rote epics like this, so even if we never heard of it back in 1982, we can enjoy it now because we know we would have loved it back then. Your weird genius endures. Would there'd been a trillion, that you'd been a Crio Santiago, a Wynorski, or a prolific guy like Matt Climber, the director of...

(1983) Dir. Matt Climber
** / Amazon Image - C

By now you know the story- a peaceful Amazon village is overrun by slavering invaders, killing men, enslaving women, etc. But one brave woman escapes to seek a mate and return to whatever in the name of her fallen sisters. No one's ever stayed awake through the opening to get the exact details but there's a bouncing Ennio Morricone score and vivid Spanish desert locations and a reasonable amount of action courtesy director Matt Climber. As the unstoppable, untamable Hundra, Laurene Landon does all her own stunts, which is pretty cool but she seldom loses her doofus smile, which can be confusing in the action scenes. Probably cast due to her resemblance to Bo Derek (and another big California nature girl-type star of the late 70s, Linda Evans) she has no problem literally picking up guys and spinning them around. She jumps on an off horses onto and across roofs, knocking guards over right and left like a merry Errol Flynn in fur bikini. She seems to be having a kind of sloppy boozy time of it- hanging back on her lines and reactions like she's waiting for a cue card, smiling confidently before leaning into a guy or throwing him over her shoulder like she's Tarzan and he's Maureen O'Sullivan, all with a buzzed smile on her face. How are we supposed to read this? Morricone isn't going to help --he's no Mickey Mouser and not about to add comic effects or ominous undercarriages. He's going to go the antithetical route regardless, just pumping the lady up like a cheering papa with Wagnerian orchestral urgency. Since she's proving her mettle right in front of us, it's hard not to forgive her trespasses. I even forgive her dated hair (were they trying for those Bo Derek braids and then gave up and just hot combed them out?).

Alas, as an adventure of feminist empowerment, the ramshackle tale tries to do too much and in the process gets old fast (it's taken me three years to finish watching). It may help to consider that the writer/director, Matt Climber, was once married to Jayne Mansfield, and more importantly, shepherded the original GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) TV show, shortly after making this film, making him the obvious inspiration for the character played by Marc Maron in the Netflix series of the same name (see also Climber's masterpiece, The Witch Who Came from the Sea, both also on Prime). When you realize Laurene Landon played one of the lady wrestlers managed by Peter Falk in All the Marbles (1981) it gets clearer. Whether or not Climber has some weird women wrestling 'thing' or not, his love of strong women makes him an ally, of some sort of another.

Pros: That big chase scene I mentioned really benefits from Landon doing her own stunts as we see her leaping around in single takes not unlike Errol Flynn or Buster Keaton, albeit a bit sloppier. It goes on an on in and around this small gated village, from parapet to rooftop to second floor balcony and back again, the horse and dog keeping perfect time below (the dog leading the horse!), all three together in an elaborate and quite impressive centerpiece action scene. It ends with her falling through the roof and onto the bed of a brooding doctor (Ramir Oliveros). Without even pausing to shake off the wild ride she just had, she jealously eyeballs the girl who's leaving without missing a beat, not even being out-of-breath. Eating an apple from his table, she starts pinning him to the wall with hurled daggers proclaiming she intends to mate with him! She's like Kate and Petruchio from Taming of the Shrew, rolled together and sheathed in odd furry raiments!

Cons: Alas, the inevitable temple orgy sequence that follows the lengthy single-take / clearly  great chase sequence, is sordid, full of hot girls pawed by fat ugly middle-aged drunks, however, which gets old fast. It seems present mainly to show how vile temples were before the Christ our lord did pass amidst them. We're subjected to gross men loudly announcing their superiority to women, who are all there solely to serve them, etc. and making women bow down to a bull they worship (how and why is vague). The snotty king (Cihangir Gaffari) likes to have interminable snit fits,  letting girls know who's boss while his little toadie does the close-up bullying. It's all paving the way to Hundra teaching the court virgins to kick their men's asses and --in a big slow motion climax set to dynamic Morricone howling Wagnerian ecstasy--killing them all with her mighty sword. It's cathartic but at the same time very odd that she'd wait so long, and submit to make-up regimens and how to walk in heels, rather than just wiping them all out and odd that Climber keeps it all in slow-mo. Though not as odd as the super slow and unconvincing deaths in They Call her One-Eye, nonetheless are slow enough we have time to notice the punch pulling in some detail.

Maria Casal - right
Caution: Even if you like Hundra, I'd advise you to steer clear of Climber's western follow-up with Landon (also on Prime), Yellow Hair and the Fortress of Gold, wherein she's a half-breed after Aztec gold with her bumbling Mexican sidekick. It looks even worse than this, both figuratively and literally. And Hundra looks pretty bad. "Clearly" sourced from a letterboxed (not anamorphic) video source, it has a very blured streaky look, with digital edge enhancement added as an attempt to make it more palatable. The color contrast issue is not helped by the over reliance on daylight outdoor scenes, all tan/brown sandy deserts.... with a cast full of blondes... in brown buckskin outfits. The occasional purple tunic, as in above right, is so jarring it seems like it was superimposed.

(1987) Dir. Jim Wynorski
**1/2 / Amazon Image - C-

Even if, like me, you have problems with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) you still love John Lazar as the insane and charismatic record mogul. And even if, like me, you have serious problems with the oeuvre of Jim Wynorski, you still love Deathstalker 2, because Lazar is the evil villain, Jerek, and though he's not looking quite as dashing as he was 17 years earlier (spending most of the film 'practicing' swordsmanship, killing off his warriors with a drowsy hooded-eyed flatline level of bemusement) who is? John Terlesky stars as the titular Stalker and his 'B-list Bruce Campbell' self-aware grin is free of the snarky puerility that undoes so many of his ilk. Toni Naples is Jerek's evil henchwoman; bewitching-eyed Maria Socas is the Amazon queen. They're all fine but the movie really belongs to Monique Gabrielle as the pauper/princess. Her tanned and toned limbs, buckskin minidress, cool punk rock blonde hair and pouty eye rolls go a long way towards absolving her flat line delivery. Lucky for us, what she and Terlesky lack in acting chops is made up for by their youthful chemistry. They may plow through the classical screwball rhythms of the conceivably clever dialogue like a lawnmower through a victory garden (they maybe saw His Girl Friday like, once, though it's clear from Wynorski's script he knows it as well as he knows The Thing) it's not their fault, they are lovely and young, and that forgives almost any transgression. The passion, youth and beauty is all there... but crazy Jim Wynorski is no Oscar Jaafe.. (three Hawks references in one paragraph... about a movie called DEATHSTALKER 2!

The plot is a variation of the familiar "princess disguised as beggar/seer recruits wandering warrior to help her reclaim her stolen throne by an deposing evil sorcerer usurper" story. And though parts are certainly innuendo-laden, even during Deahstalker's trial by combat with a gigantic lady wrestler (Dee "Queen Kong" Booher -- from GLOW - second GLOW reference in one post!)--it's a film that never courts misogyny or grotesque undulance.

Riding through the Ed Wood-esque graveyard
Another thing I like about this film is how much of it occurs at (actual) night, leading to a fun kind of cool breeze atmosphere not present in films usually bound by using natural light which can give things a washed-out patina even before they age. It was filmed in Argentina as part of a multi-picture deal, so the craftsmen down there must have known how to light their backlot so it glows beguilingly in the moonlight (as in the green-tinged cardboard cemetery at left). With castle mattes courtesy The Terror (New World's eternal wellspring) to seal the deal, I tend to watch this fall into B-movie five-AM stupor heaven. Will you, too? Keep your expectations at the bottom, and you just might have a swell early morning experience (it's the ideal film to have end as the sun is coming up when you're still debating opening another jug or slinking up to bed and hoping to be able to get into your usual supine position before your significant other wakes up for work.

The first Deathstalker is also on Prime and worth checking out, but cropped for full frame, and looks way better in widescreen. Also, the print is kind of messy looking - something that hurts it far more than it hurts its sequel (which was clearly shot with full frame more in mind). I'd say if you like either film, get the Shout Factory set, where both Stalkers are anamorphic widescreen and look real good. (and come with commentary tracks). Don't waste your time with the other two films on the set, though. Just a hint from one right guy to another. Take it or leave it. 

If you must continue along these schlocky lines, you can also try the Bakshi-rotoscoped, Frazetta-templated Fire and Ice (1983--what else?) but it's a little too sophomoric (lots of near-naked fantasy babes, lazy animation shortcuts, and a very tired storyline) and as far as teenage boy boob-and-blood animation you're better off with that extended bit in Heavy Metal. But if you're over the age of thirty you may feel slightly embarrassed by the fact you used to love either one.  But hey, look at you now, all grown up and healthy -- why you're a regular 'ally'! You've seen now how the chain of event that began with cocaine's rise in socially-accepted popularity, coupled to the risque use of minors in ads and movies begat the sword and sorcery anti-drug backlash, or slash. There's no more excuses. You can't go back to the blithe ignorance that made such dehumanization possible!

The Dregs of Prime
(To be Skipped at all Costs) 
If you want to keep on the Tarzan/Conan rip tip, stick to the above and avoid these:

MISTRESS OF THE APES (terrible quality, misleading cover)
GOLD OF THE AMAZON WOMEN (decent image but very dull, pictured above - the only cool bit, lots of gorgeous broads with nothing whatever to do while we slog around with dull dudes)
WARRIOR AND THE SORCERESS (murky, full frame and vulgar)

* YOR: HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE (1983) - Now on Blu-ray or for $$ download
Great ancient aliens / dinosaurs / ape creature movie with Reb Brown as Yor and a bevy of comely Italian actresses vying for his... love.

*SHE (1984) Starring Sandahl Bergman
 it was once on Netflix! Now... in the void. By cracky, it must be released! If you're the one holding it hostage hear my demand: Release SHE! (not to be confused with the 1935 film or Hammer's Ursula Andress remake)

* HEARS AND ARMOR (1983) - avail. on VHS, but needs a good Blu-ray upgrade - Tanya Roberts as the Muslim princess! A beautiful Italian girls lying in beds of flowers wearing full armor - never was all that is cool and lovely so succinctly in a single image wrapped.

DEATHSTALKER (1983 - get the anamorphic shout DVD with Deathstalker 2, and two forgettable other films)

Sigh - this concludes my lengthy and obsessive journey into Amazon Prime. See them all! I'm moving my focus to the Criterion channel. I need art, damnit! I have depth. Krona - come save me!


1. See (for starters)L The Illuminati, Hypnosis, Paranoia, Schizophrenia, Kubrick, and Tom Cruise
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