Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Badass Ladies too Dangerously Cool for DVD: 9 Should-be Classics Held Back by a Scared Patriarchy

In honor of Women's History Month, here's a list of films you may not even know about as they feature morally ambiguous, powerful women, which means maybe they are a threat to patriarchy; I can't fathom why else the below films aren't easily available on disc or (legit) streaming sites or Blu-ray. It's a crime against classic genre cinema that most of them haven't been put out on Blu-ray, or DVD, or--for some--even VHS.  Probably because patriarchy is scared. They'd rather rerelease some super generic thriller no one cares about, so long as it's a man who's in charge.

Maybe that's why, up here in my crib--even though we have Prime, HBOMax, Hulu, Disney, Arrow, Criterion, and Kino-Cult and Tubi at our fingertips here in my house (it pays to live with a media critic) not to mention all the DVDs/Blu-rays I have laying around (they, Kino-Cult and Arrow and Criterion are mine of course)--I spend the most time watching YouTube. These 10 films (well 9 and a 70s science fiction show from British/West German television) can all be found on my curated YouTube list (see below) Badass Ladies Too Dangerously Cool for DVD.

Oh YouTube, how I love thee! Let me count the ways: 1) You carry tons of otherwise unavailable or indecipherable international films, often subtitled into English for the first time by committed fans. 2) Your screen/browser gives me the ability to scroll and search around while watching things - so I can check something out while looking for something else; 3) We can make numerous playlists like on Spotify. 4) I can fall asleep watching one movie and wake up and my list is still playing. That means I know how llong I was out based on where I am on the list. (Which I do every night, on my Old Dark/Sci-Fi Tranquilizer: Movies to Fall Asleep to. mix). 6) The weird shit just keeps coming --every day something new. And in the age when so much new stuff is being released that one can't possibly keep up, disappearing into the pre-CGI past is the safest way to travel, patriarchy be damned. And damned it certainly is.

(1968) Dir. Kenji Fukasaku

Dazzling in its dark green color scheme, sinuous and lithe in its poetry-infused high crime punch, irresistibly sheathed in Isao Tomita's mix elegant harpsichord and slinky bass, Fukasaku's 1968 Japanese spy/crime film is camped out high on the luxurious side of Stylish Caper Mountain. Imagine a Josef von Sternberg/Dietrich collaboration on a late-60s European spy caper, then replace Dietrich with a Japanese drag queen (Akiro Miwa) and make her a master criminal in the Irma Vep mode, squaring off against a smolder-eyed master detective named Akechi. Duelling throughout while winning each other over with their brooding poetic flair, they fill their exchanges with perceptive and moving poetry (well translated for the subtitles). It's based on a play by Yukio Mishima (Japan's answer to Jean Genet/Antonin Artaud) story by Edogawa Rampo (Japan's answer to Edgars Poe and Wallace) and enriched with the sublime poetry ("the law, my brother" "the prison cell, my gift")

From the wall-size Aubsrey Beardsley-esquw illustrations at the Lizard's dark green psychedelic dance club / bar hideout--rich with red and green gel lighting, twinkling lights, day-glo drawings on the black walls, and lots of ornate iron work to pose behind--to  the beautiful Bava-esque hideout, with her doll collection, preserved human displays she keeps next to her white feather fluffy bed, the settings are never less than sublime. As are Liizard's costumes, from victorian lace to black scales to white fluffy feather wraps over which her long black tresses cascade most bewitchingly.

1968 was a time when James Bond and master criminals like Kilink, Diabolik, Fantomas and Satanik, were all the high camp rage. Still, aside from Mario Bava's Danger: Diabolik and maybe the 1964 French Fantomas, not many films from that era have aged well.  Let the Lizard come to the front of the class! Its every moment is packed with zip and cool comic strip details, avoiding the ponderous filler, travelogue B-roll, broad scenes of frustrated cops, and overly hammed government officials demanding action, and tacky bumbling comedy, endless stripteases and cars driving around for no real reason, and smug leading men who cockily bust lame moves at the bar. 

Instead, Fukusaku's camera is always right where it should be, calmly, assuredly- trained squarely on the amazing Miwa in the title role. Wielding a sword with the buccaneer dash of prime Errol Flynn one moment and collapsing on her luxuriant bed it in a swooning whirl of girlish infatuation he next, she's is the perfect amalgam of drag styles: high camp without winky self-awareness; classic glamor without studied pageant queen self-importance; larger-than-life charisma without histrionic  self aggrandizement, and above all, richly sketched oscillating moods and emotional extremes, veering from cold criminal glee (she loves crime) to impassioned infatuation, poetic rapture, and sudden fury. She even gets a first class death scene. "I knew ot all along; your hearts was a genuine diamond. " 

I love too that she's never held up to any Crying Game-type gender unveiling, nor are there any jokes or cryptic allusions to gender.  We're never sure if she's supposed to be recognized as in drag or not. We do know that when she disguises herself as a man at one point to escape a hotel, it's then she seems like she's in drag! A man who can seem like a woman in male drag when he dresses like a man --that's the mark of a master. And stick around for the end credits which give her a big Bond-like TV movie send-off, somwherwerwe between a fashion show and the Avengers. There' nary a foot put wrong. Even Mishima himself shows up as one of the dolls, showing off his physique (lots of lean, striated muscle) 

(1969) Dir. Chang-hwa Jeong

When the average person thinks of Shaw Brothers cnon, they usually think of shirtless bald guys smacking the shit out of each other in big indoor/outdoor restaurants, Buddhist monasteries, and palace foyers; but there was so much more to them than that, like atmospheric wuxia, the kinky horror, swooning romance, war movies and spy films as well.! Especially now that most of them seem to have been remasered on beautiful HD, to dismiss them as those baldheaded slap downs to miss out on a wealth of wonder. In addition to their flowing misty soundstage cherry blossom orchards and vast secret lair sets (see my praise here), they score well on the Bechdel, with plenty of female fighters, sorceresses and--as in Temptress of a Thousand Faces--master criminals with armed armies of adoring underlings. A mysterious master criminal with a huge mask collection that lets her impersonate just about anyone to pull of high-end jewel heists, Temptress operates out of a vast, trap-filled, very cool underground cavern lair that would give Dr. No, Fu Manchu, Diabolik, or Fantomas a run for their money. The only one who has a prayer of catching her is Chi Ying (Tina Chin-Fei), female detective several levels smarter then the men around her--police chief included,. The whole film becomes, essentially, their duel of wits, fighting over--amongst other things--Chi Ying's man, who--once the Temptress wears Chi Ying's face, has only their kiss and sexual performance to tell them apart 

To remind us of its Shaw heritage, the highlight here are plenty of long, well-choreographed fights, including Chi Ying sliding down a water pipe on a ten story building to avoid capture; and a long chase from the street outside the precinct up to the top of a tall building, over several rooftops and down a drainpipe on a ten story building.  The climax starts with a great knockout brawl between the two Chi Yings (after the real one escapes her cell where she's being forced to watch her boyfriend get seduced by what he thinks is her). Sure it's a pretty cliche'd situation, but the way these girls through each other through doors and windows and walls of Ying's small apartment- is a sight to behold, foreshadowing the badass trailer fight between Uma and Daryl Hannah in Kill Bill Vol.2. 

And dig the big Bond style climactic gun battle in the secret lair, as Ying and her boyfriend manage to shoot a hundred bullets out of their pistols, decimating most of her vast army. And woe to the weird ending, which implies sexual abuse at the hands of horny low-ranking cops grabbing up the Temptress's concubines and carrying them off kicking and screaming into the sunset, while the cops and prisoners all laugh before striding off, leaving the Temptress's body lying there, bullet-ridden, on the ground, forgotten. Oh you Shaws! For every sixteen strides forward, one small kick in the shins to send you home smarting. 

(1969) Dir. Alberto Lattuada

Man, I'm seeing a trend as, like the last two films on this list, this one is from the late, late-60s, as time when women's lib was on everyone's mind, and people were taking chances that maybe are still ahead of their time. Is that why this big budgeted lesbian junky spy WW1 Zhivago-esque pulp epic from the Dino Di Laurentiis international juggernaut production company still hasn't received an HD or digital release of any kind? With a thunderous Ennio Morricone score and a bona fide reckless awesome Suzy Kendall performance as the lead---supposedly real life 'other Mata Hari' WWI sex spy (, i.e. the same character played by Marlene Dietrich in Dishonored and Myrna Loy in Stamboul Quest nearly 40 years earlier. This is way more adult than those though, with lesbian seduction, drug abuse, unspeakable chemical warfare, and dangerous seductions right and left, all marketed to associate with Dr. Zhivago, as an epic of historical sweep, with Kendall subliminally evoking Julie Christie, and the big trench warfare climax evoking all the Russian revolution and WW1 footage of Lean's masterpiece. 

gettin' high after a job well done

However, this ain't your mom's subliminal Zhivago, unless your mom is a lesbian junky super spy working for WW1 Germany (i.e. the bad guys). Epic ambitions or not, this is from Di Laurentiis, the epic-scoped European Roger Corman, who gave us Conan, Dune, King Kong, Orca, The White Buffalo, and so many other essentials. That means thrills and lurid entertainment takes center stage with the sweep as a backdrop (as opposed to the reverse in Lean). Fraulein's Ennio Morricone score delivers an irresistible concoction of avant-garde frisson and emotional sweep, trumping (in my opinion) Maurice Jarre's endlessly repeated peasant carnival Zhivago waltz theme, especially when he pulls out his swooning big guns for the Capucine/Kendall hook-up.

Dipping its toes in a druggy kind of debauched super genius amorality that, personally, I adore, our Fraulein prides herself on her chameleonic efficacy and seductive ease with role playing, moving from London trollop to imperious master spy striding past the crew of her assigned U-boat, giving orders while looking through the periscope, to super demure, shy French maid, shyly acquiescing to the lesbian vibes of her French poison chemist employer (a seduction so central to the film it makes it on the original movie poster which may have a hand in it being so unavailable/unreleased on DVD - a little ahead of its time).,  The only time we sense we're seeing the real her is when her eyes dilate at the sight of morphine being given to a wounded soldier, or in the back of the sub, shooting up in celebration of wiping out her target ship. With the London counterintelligence spy master (Nigel Greene) and his turned German spy / Doktor's occasional lover asset in hot pursuit she deftly stays one jump ahead all the way. Based on supposedly real events, this Poison Ivy-style woman Capucine plays is allegedly based on a real person, supposedly (a kind of variation can be found in the 2017 Wonder Woman). Which is just so weird it's got to be true. 

Lesbianism was present in movies from 1968 of course, but still handled with sordid quotes around it, so we knew the filmmakers considered it perverse. Such things were either debauched displays for male consumption or lurid tableaux of deviancy meant to disgust us, i.e. what would be lurid and degrading in the hands of someone like Aldrich (ala his same year's Killing of Sister George) becomes--in Lattuada's hands--tasteful and enticing and even a little sad (we feel Capucine's gratitude at finding someone in this age of closets and fear who is open to her overtures; and are saddened knowing it's all a lie) Ennio Morricone delivers some amazingly, mythic, quiet, non-judgmental romantic balladry for their first kiss, giving it a way more of romantic sweep than that between the Doktor and her reverse double agent confederate (James Booth, refreshingly practical, cast and coiffed probably to subliminally evoke Omar Shariff's Zhivago, the way Kendall evokes Christie - just a theory of mine). 

Still, if this is a historical romance, more than with Booth or Capucine, it's a romance between the Doktor and morphine-when she stares lustily at the soldiers in her Red Cross train (she's disguised a nurse) you know it's because they're being given morphine and she can see the vials, not because she's horny (though you may have to be an addict of one stripe or another to pick up on that - it's not spelled out). Alas, the filmmakers miss a good ending by having her not shoot up in the back seat of her limo to celebrate, maybe with a big box of stolen from the French hospital train she helped set up while disguised as an altruistic Italian noblewoman,, crosscut with the nurses back on the train, overwhelmed by the influx of soldiers dying from the gas attack she helped into being, realizing the box holding their morphine ampules is missing so the boys are just going to have to bear the pain. 

Still, I forgive them. It's so rare in a movie like this you would feel that junky longing, have drugs and lesbianism be part of our antiheroine's story, but not the focus, neither one defining her chameleonic character, that they can be forgiven almost any oversight.  

And with Dino's other production it may be packed with extras, vistas and sweep, but it also zips along, high on the joy of forward momentum. Only the end, a muddy sea of extras in gas masks with helmets too similar to tell if they're German or French, all climbing over each other trying to escape or capture various trenches and roads, does it get a little Lean-ish--i.e. got to get your money's worth with those thousands of dying and gooey French soldiers-- but by then we're at the climax, so a little sweep isn't going to kill you. 

Oh Capucine, a chemist like you should have known: never trust a junky. (full review here)

(1957) Dir. Roger Corman

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 'revisionist' western, director Roger Corman keeps the tale lean, sexy and over fast, i.e. his specialty. Easily the best of AIP / Allied Artists' handful of westerns, this gender-reversed, mud-soaked saga of two strong women facing off to the death over the right to keep bars open past three AM (!), is criminally unavailable on DVD, or Blu-ray. Why? Is it because there are two deadly strong women locked in violent struggle and the patriarchy is basically portrayed as either cowardly, craven or conflicted? Beverly Garland stars as Rose, the wife of a murdered sheriff of Oracle, TX, who pins on his badge since the men in town are too cowardly, especially the lily-livered mayor.  Alison Hayes is Erica, the saloon owner/madame behind the killing, out to corner the real estate market by buying land then sending her smitten runt bartender (Jonathan Haze) to steal back the money. In addition to making her close at 3 AM, Rose also orders her three prostitutes out of town by the end of the week, and that's just going too damned far. Erica brings in the titular gunslinger Cane (John Ireland) to take Rose out at the end of the week; but he ends up falling for her! Considering Erica and he used to have a thing back in the day, that doesn't go over so well. 

It may sound pretty trite yet in Corman's hands, and courtesy Charles B. Griffith's and Mark Hana's typically tight script, this romantic triangle is actually pretty perceptive and even mature. Rose and Cane fall for each other but are both professionals who won't bend from their duties, making it doomed from the start. The countdown clock as the week ticks down to zero hour is ingenious (Erica is waiting for the telegram that will announce if the railroad is coming through, and will make her a wealthy woman, or if she's just going to start blastin'). Can you guess what the telegram is gonna say!

Perhaps the only reason Gunslinger isn't more widely regarded (it rates a lowly 3.7 on imdb with barely a review link to its name) is that western fans are threatened by the gender revisionism. I usually roll my eyes at lady gunfighter movies as they're either campy and overwrought (Johnny Guitar), brooding and overproduced (The Quick and the Dead), or winky-dink and cutesy-poo (Cat Ballou), but Corman does everything right, and doesn't waste a second on filler.  People get shot right and left and die in the mud (Corman was plagued by rain so this is far from your usual desert setting) with no fanfare or drawn-out showdowns. Rose has no problem--no tears or misgivings--about racking up an impressive body count. I think Corman gets at a real truth about gunfights here that few others really do, i.e. the killer instinct is everything: the resolve to fire while the other person is still working up the steam it takes to violate nature with such quick, irreversible finality, fully cognizant of the fact that by raising your gun your chances of getting shot rise past the point of no return - this is what wins battles.

But man oh man, Roger! If your film is about a battle between two strong, inflexible, beautiful, deadly women (who have one of the best female-on-female bar fights in film history) why give it such a generic title as "Gunslinger"? I.e. why presume the most interesting character is going to be John Ireland? It sounds like its deliberately hiding inside a thick herd of generic westerns, hoping no hungry critic spots its creative weakness and lunges.  I wouldn't have ever even seen it myself if I wasn't assigned the whole Corman oeuvre back when I wrote for the Muze Search Engine way in '99. Man, am I grateful I did, grateful I lived next to an UES video store that had it (duped) and grateful to the understandin' soul who uploaded this 'un to yonder 'Tube. Keep the faith, ladies. All aboard for Oracle!  (full review)

(1983)  Dir. Giacomo Battiato

Here's an Italian epic of swirling pre-Raphaelite beauty full of line-crossed lovers and knightly battlin', a kind Eschenbach Parsifal version of the Crusades. Edited down to a feature length from an Italian TV mini-series (like YOR, yo!) and seen in America--if at all--mainly idling on the shelves of early mom and pop video stores (in one of those early oversize cases). Never released on DVD or Blu-ray (yet) it's a movie that might be too romantic for the Conan crowd (unless your favorite part is the trysting with Valeria)--and too overwrought for the Excalibur crowd (unless your favorite part is handsome Lancelot getting it on with Arthur's wife in the misty glen) yet too action-driven and semi-sleazy for the Harlequin romance crowd. The plot finds a small cadre of noble Muslim knights ride around scrapping with the a similar number of Christians, occasionally rescuing fair maidens or getting cats out of trees and having a nice bloody time of it, until they fall in love with a maiden from the other side. Naked trysts in the lush and misty bower make it hard to go back to the usual Jetts/Sharks falderal.  But back they must go! Tanya Roberts--the fairest Moorish princess of all--bowers it up with a tow-headed Christian knight who rescues her from a mid-creek ravaging. Lovely Barbara De Rossi is a Christian maiden rescued from a (different) mid-creek ravaging by an invincible suit of armor which she then wears until the bower and a handsome Moorish knight doth beckon. Meanwhile a Muslim warrior women who actually looks remotely Muslin is shunted to the side. Uncool! But with De Rossi in that armor and all, what choice do you have, eh, blondie? There's also a stone that turns you invisible if you put it in your mouth. A sleazy monk uses it to start a temple-side ravaging but this time Tanya rescues herself (you don't need to see them for your knee to find a perp's balls - always remember that, girls) - and grabs that precious ring, I mean magic stone. 

With its lush cinematography making fine use of the deep shadows created by old growth forests (dig the pre-Raphaelite evocation in the screenshots above),  with high-fashion Italian armor designs (dig that rooster comb helmet!) and with her wild, long hair straying down u in lovely wisps over her gleaming armor, De Rossi is a real vision, like the knight and maiden in J.W. Waterhouse's 1893 "Belle Dame sans Merci." rolled into one. It won't make your sword & sorcery top ten, but it's still a nice addition to the post-Conan sword and sorcery boom. Aside from a few hairy situations, it goes down easy as a Sunday morning mimosa at an East Village brunch with all your prettiest hussy friends. 

(1993) Dir. Tsui Hark

Tsui Hark is definitely--like fellow Hong Kong auteur Stephen Chow--an acquired taste for a lot of mainstream American audience, wizzing by so quickly, veering crazily from one emotional height to another: romantic hijynx, crazy myth-building, sudden flashbacks, highwire action, HK music video-style sex, Steadicams zipping around like hopped up taxis, practical and--sometimes--CGI effects, soapy love story, comic interludes of bumbling scholars, horror/gore shocks, etc. it all flits by like shuffled cards, made all the more confusing thanks to often too literally translated English subtitles that--at best--provide a kind of avant-jazz counterpoint or koan-style poeticism to the action rather than clarifying events (you have to kind of trust yourself to understand the plot on faith as you don't get time to process; if you pause to unpack you'll get even more lost. His big crossover hit was 1987's A Chinese Ghost Story, and its love story between a naive young human and a sexy spirit, threatened by a soul devouring androgynous forest demon. Here's kind of an inverse variation, adapted by Chinese novelist Lillian Lee from a popular Chinese fairy tale. HK superstars Joey Wong and Maggie Cheung star as two sisters water elementals, serpent daemons who get to come onto land as humans during a big festival, setting up shop in beautiful empty house perched along a floating lotus-filled pond, leading off to the sea. The younger Green Snake (Cheung) is mischievous, curious, a little wicked, eager to experience the strange emotions of love (even faking crying at one point); Wong is the more mature White Snake who ends up falling for naive Buddhist scholar Hsui Xien (Wu Hsing-Kuo) and learning all about sex (her orgasm floods the river); and heartache (after he finds out who she is and bails in fear)

There's no doubt the Buddhist monk Fat Hoi (Vincent Zhao) has mad power; when he meditates, rainbows shoot out o fhis head (left) but he's very inflexible in his need to imprison any demon who crosses his path in his demon-trapping bowl, even a spider spirit turned devoted monk whose glowing prayer beads prove a hunting reminder to him that he can be wrong. With clarity of purpose being a pre-requisite for enlightenment, this muddying of moral waters threatens to undo him. When the beads wind up in the hands of the snake spirits he's forced to let them go, but that doesn't mean he wont try to break it up the White Snake/Hsiu Xien romance, spiriting Hsui off to a rocky island monastery full of dead chanting monks, determined to keep the snakes away from him at any cost, regardless of what he wants, neither of them knowing White Snake is giving birth to Hsiu's son. 

The cool thing with Buddhism-based horror and fantasy is that the monks and Buddhas have just as many if not more magical powers as the evil ones do. In Catholicism-based demon movies God is usually silent and basically impotent. His faithful are left alone against the overwhelming force of the demon until the very last minute, usually martyred for their troubles. If The Exorcist was made in Hong Kong, for example, Max von Sydow would be shooting lasers out of his mudras and spinning chakras and light sabre cross, and so it is here, with the taoist monk clearing out the flood waters with a wave of his stick and bringing about a magic rainbow- or shooting vast lengths of cloth out of his sleeve to trap spider spirits. Only gradually does he realize his inflexibility --labeling all demons as bad --is turning him into the villain. Things reach a climax when he becomes determined to deliver ------ from the two snake spirits that have him bewitched. Whisking him off to an ancient temple full of dead monks chanting and trying to save him - converting him from his love into the way of the boddhisatva, or whatever, while Green and White snake try to rescue him by eroding the temple into the sea, not realizing their blasts of water are flooding the town nearby - things build and build to a head and one wishes American films were this Jungianly complex. It's a bit like Mozart's The Magic Flue but with the queen of the night and her daughters the good guys and Sarastro and his monks the bad, with Parsifal caught in the middle. What, you don't get that reference? The Buddhist scholar is like Hopsy in the Lady Eve, with Jean an Emma (1) rolled into one (thus "snakes are my life" can continue to be his motto while still being a devoted spouse)  That better?

As with Sturges' film, we in the audience are 'in the know' The Little Mermaid, The Lure - it all goes on the same mythic frame - the woman spirit/unconscious/water/anima and her ultimate surrender as she comes into the light of marriage with male consciousness. - Ideally they merge totally - as in the union of Prince Eric and Ariel where the father from the sea is present at their wedding to wield his triton - i.e. land and sea unified. At its worst, she's screwed over patriarchy, ends up dying for a worthless man who the wilder sister--the one who never sold out--promptly and quite rightly kills (as in The Lure.)

One thing though - the translation on the YouTube video I saw is the typically abstract. Especially when the monk and the snake sisters--the girls eroding the monastery rock from all sides--the monk shooting out giant rolls of red cloth at them-- it gets really wacky:

"This spell? I accept it," says the monk when they launch mojo his way "You guys! The cassocks."

"Come out and he want to make us in," shouts Green Snake. "Sister who can still go."

"Cassock - have you thought about my cassock?" 

And my favorite, a parting jab at the monk's manhood: "What magic weapon do you have when I am out of the shower?" If you can translate what those subtitles mean, and you kind of can if you've ever taken a poetry class or tried to communicate in a language you barely know, or both at the same time, and there you are. The Cassock is you.

It's spiritedly acted (Cheung twisting and undulating and crawling along surfaces or swimming silently through the water in an unforgettably delightful sight), swooningly romantic (yet perceptive about human relationships), spirituality profound, Jungian, and exhibit A in how sublimely alike are western fairy tales and eastern fairy tales/myths - pointing at profound truths of Jungian archetypal psychology no amount of fractured subtitles can obscure. The patriarchy can obscure it though - so cherish yonder YouTube upload while ye may. You never know when Green Snake could slither back into the murky river and never be seen again outside of some OOP Tai Seng non-anamorphic, faded DVD. 

(1994) Dir. Michael Almereyda

A loose unofficial hipster downtown NYC b&w remake of Dracula's Daughter (1936), with Elina Löwensohn in the Gloria Holden role? Am I in heaven?  Our antiheroine is in town to steal her father's (Dracula's) body from the morgue and burn it (so he can't come back) after Van Helsing (Peter Fonda!) stakes him shortly before the film begins. The zonked 'love child of Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy' Galaxy Craze plays Lucy, the drifting wife of Van Helsing's nephew (Martin Donovan in an early role as perhaps the most unconvincing boxer ever), here doubling for Jonathan Harker once Lucy falls under Nadja's spell. Could it be that-- as in Bell, Book & Candle and Bringing up Baby--there's some kind of archetypal feminine magic at play in their chance meeting? 

Director Michael Almereyda proves himself quite adept at overlaying classic noir and Universal horror elements over familiar beats of black-and-white hipster downtown young people conversation, i.e. Jim Jarmusch peanut butter crashing into Todd Browning chocolate.  Nadja have a great round of expository meet-cute dialogue that mixes poetry, exposition and dark humor, all mixed together rather marvelously if faux-pretentiously. You can get an idea of it in the following exchange at the bar: Nadja tells Lucy she wants to see her brother (Jared Harris!) even though h wants to destroy her. 
"Does he live in Carpathia," Lucy asks.

"No," Nadja eyes her coldly, as if the answer is far more remote, "Brooklyn." 

The score is always on point (nearly every track is something I had in my CD collection at the time)--Portishead, Spacehogg, the works--and the black-and-white photography is luminous. You don't have to have been a nocturnal druggie hipster poet in 1990s NYC and a classic horror 'monster kid' who can pretty much quote the entire original 1931 Dracula, but it helps. (Have you seen my "Ten Minute Dracula one man show, recorded before a hip audience on an East Village rooftop in 1999?). See it with The Addiction (which came out the same year, is also in black-and-white, starring a hipster vampire, but is set in the West instead of the East Village and more about drug addiction than love), and then add A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night for a Black-and-white druggy downtown vampire triple feature!  And also check out Almereyda's similar unjustly forgotten hipster update of Blood from the Mummy's Tomb, The Eternal,(1998), 

(1931) Dir. Edward Sloman

Thanks to decades of unavailability (never even on VHS), very few critics and classic horror and mystery fans have given themselves over to the pre-code lurid greatness of Murder By the Clock, nor waxed sufficiently euphoric over the gleefully homicidal performance of Lilyan Tashman as Laura, the conniving and super-evil wife of lily-livered Herbert (Walter McGrail) who stands to inherit a fortune once his irascible, locked-in-the-past, bitter, premature burial-fearing aunt Julia (Blanche Friderici) kicks off.  Living in a giant super dark Addams-esque house with only her totally deranged, inhumanly strong simpleton son (Irving Pichel) and his no-nonsense housekeeper/caregiver for company, it's going to be pretty easy to sneak in and speed that process along. That is, if Laura can browbeat him into enough homicidal submission.

We know what's coming in the third act, because in the first scene we see Julia, her son and his caregiver visiting the family crypt to check the 'alarm horn' inside; she can let everyone know if she's entombed alive. After Julia makes the mistake of announcing she's changed her will over to leave everything to Herbert, you can guess who's going to put her in there.

Man, like Night of Terror (1933), the filmmakers make full use of the temporarily lax production code to throw a lot of high weirdness into the mix. It would be a good enough old dark house movie just between Julia's morbid rantings, Pichel's lunatic laughter, the eerie expressionist graveyard across the street, and all the midnight creeping around. But then....here comes Tashman, grinning ecstatically when watching her husband get strangled. Oh! Oh, that Lilyan! Oh! what a gal!

Plying her strange, ugly/sexy seductive 'charm' with all the subtlety of a punch in the face, Tashman proves one thing ably: shy, backwards, and horny men will always let themselves be manipulated by sexually forward women no matter how unpleasant said women may be. It can be oh so tough for shy guys to resist an assertive girl, even (or maybe especially) if--like Tashman-- she's only slightly attractive. It's sex as a coarse but palpable fact; you can practically smell it. First, she manipulates her husband into killing Julia; then manipulates her sculptor lover into killing her husband; then, after Pichel is jailed on suspicion for his mom's murder, she lets him all but molest her through the bars while convincing him to break out and kill either the husband or her sculptor lover, whichever is still alive by then! So she's got every man killing every other man to be with her. Whoever survives is who she'll turn on, claiming all sorts of coercion to ensure they get the hot seat, especially with her damning testimony (probably while shooting hungry looks at the male jurors) and now that she's basically inherited her way into being the wealthiest widow in town, the chief of police isn't about to accuse her of anything.

So, cops aside, all the men are easily seducible murderers, the women either bitter, manipulative, or dead. Only the homicide cop on the case, William Boyd, has any integrity or suspicion of Julia. She may have the other guys cowering, drooling, or at each other's throats, but Boyd rejects her advances with practiced ease. Still, he seems to admires her relentless confidence. He even admits--before hauling her away-- he's genuinely impressed.  

What a gal! They don't make 'em like that anymore, and maybe this film shows why, even while making us wish they would. Tashman's Laura is so unique in the annals of evil femme fatales and horror monsters she should have a Famous Monsters of Filmland cover to call her own (maybe a painting of that gleefully homicidal look, her claws bared, above).  Her brand of aggressively carnal pre-code horror seems strong even today.  Tashman is like the evil mirror image of Mae West, as sexually subtle as a bag of hammers and just as damaging.

(1976) British-German TV

From the start of this very 70s very Europen sci-fi TV show we know we're in a world very far ahead of our own. `Over cool worldbuilding effects and a pumping loungecore theme song, a female narrate announces we're on tthe planet Medusa, a world far ahead of our own on almost every level. Their secret: women rule and men are considered inferior so kept as 'male domestics', 'nursing fathers', or labor.  As a result violence is almost totally abolished (men are kept in check via a harmless freeze ray. Earth is considered too backwards and "disease-ridden" for them to visit; and they worry their 'illegal men's movement' may hear the rumors that men rule over there and want to escape. That fear is not unfounded! Soon Adam. a handsome rebel and his nerdy tech geek buddy Shem are escaping Medusa in Adam's mistress's pleasure craft! "It is said the Earth is a male paradise where women are kept subservient!" Adam crows. 

If you're already wincing at the thought of Wynorski-esque camp parody at the inclusion of that last line rife with cleavage and blonde perms, you can unroll your eyes. After all, this is England! And West Germany! In the 70s! A rare perfect storm of progressive ideas, the show occasionally veers close to dopiness but overall never gets too strident or campy.

The clothes are an amazing--but relatively functional--brand of 70s Euro fantasia: thigh-high leather boots, tastefully kinky choke-collared shirts, flowing dresses, and elaborate long hair. There's one great main Medusa set, a kind of very dangerous looking bi-level mall style main area, and a few cool intergalactic crafts.  acting stays deadpan. 

Retrofuturist to the hilt, it's an invaluable record of the decade that

his used to be on PBS over here - which is how I first saw it as an impressionable ten year-old. So you know, it's got class and--unlike most Brit sci-fi of the time--it seems to be shot on 16mm rather than video tape. To make this a joint operation we have a Fulvia (Judy Geeson) an elaborately coiffed member of Medusa's elite, and the frowning and suspicious German chief of security, Octavia ( Christiane Kruger) they're worse than we every were to women, well... in the first and second worlds anyway... in the last 100 years or so. Women even get to vote over here! At least, in the western world... now.

The sets and costumes off the Planet Medusa are great, prime retrofuturism; there's no liveable outdoors there (due to asteroids), so the vibe is--as in Logan's Run--a kind of harbinger that the entire future world would be all indoors., one giant mall. This was back when malls were something new (I remember the afternoon I first saw this show on TV, my dad was watching it when mom, my brother and I got back from the Montgomeryville Mall in PA. That was also the day that Dan Fogerlberg's "Sometimes when we Touch" premiered on the radio. Between that song, and the show, and the mall, the whole ethos of masculinity I grew up in (i.e. where if you're a man, crying is the ultimate shame) seemed to crumble like an impacted colon after a warm saline enema. All I remember about it was that the idea of being a kind sexual slave to Judy Geeson seemed very appealing, to the point I remember that afternoon so well, even we though we never saw that show again, and I never even knew its name--and no one I knew had ever heard of a show like that--for decades. On the Scarlet Street message boards, they tried to make me think I imagined it!

Anyway, alas, Medusa is only where about 1/3 of the action is, the rest of the time bulk of the film is spent on Earth, set in and around bucolic castle of the sort the BBC has been Masterpiece Theater-ing since the dawn of time. But that's OK - it's so very British, so Dr. Who-esque that the Brits--a geriatric scientist, his female assistant, her fiancee, a French scientist under the old guy, and a line of bobbies--barely raise an eyebrow over the arrival of the boys, offering them political asylum even as the girls show up in their big floating patched silver inner tube saucer, demanding their men's return. The girls start bossing around the men at the precinct, and address all their questions to the female assistant, which is awesome. To them, Earth is no threat and --since this is not America--no one shoots at them or reacts with violent knee-jerk hostility. Fulvia is a bit of a pill: "There's only one thing I can teach you about our civilization," she tells the curious elder scientist, "it does not suffer the pomposity of foolish little men, that's why we are more advanced than you." But it's pretty fun watching them boss around the bobbies and researchers with imperious authority. 

As for the men, it's endearing to watch them freak out and run when a young girl threatens to call her mom. Little lines like "the ship controls are too hard for a man" float by so dryly you have to find them for yourself. Little bits like Octavia smirking when the minister is unable to turn on a megaphone when yelling up at the hiding males up in the castle; the lads worrying the castle's sole elderly security guard will call his army to stop Shep and Adam, so they zap him ("the castle is ours! Lock the gates!!") Their childlike glee at feeling like they're breaking loose from their maternal prison is something every older boy goes through; the way it's done so low-key with funny bits just flying right and left under the radar of the director and composer who might try to underline them with comic stings, (wah wah waah)  and sitcom pauses.

Another fascinating element is how it seems to anticipate wireless remotes and the internet. Everything the aliens do is via devices connected to a remote mainframe computer, which lets them access information and even control earth cars remotely. Say what now? And I also like that the nightmare canon produces images of what the boys fear most, which turns out to be their mistresses.

"You think all men have a subconscious fear of women?" asks the doctor. 
"On Medusa, naturally," says Octavia "Isn;'t that the way true of earth? 
"no" he says
"I was talking to you Dr. Becker" (his female assistant) she says ignoring the scientist. 
"I wouldn't know" she says, surprised and almost protective of her relative subjugation.
"Pity,' Octavia says."It's the key to good government."

 It's not perfect and critics whose voices I respect chide me for recommending it. The last episode is kind of hard to accept, i.e. hat some predatory space ship rolls up on the girls and all they can do is meekly acquiesce since they've never learned to fight back or strike first. Dude, we've watched these girls use their freeze ray on men all over the livelong day, and now they're just meekly surrendering --to robot-coded men! Even Fulvia orders Adam not to fight back, which makes no sense, like Gandhi beating his  followers with a stick for fighting.  

Fulvia is the most eager to have her man back after he escapes to Earth, a little 'too' eager. But she's awesome when she protects the frightened prime minister as if he's a five year-old. Octavia is less interested in her man and more in the big picture: She doesn't want earth's barbaric patriarchal social structure infecting the purity of their own planet. Together they're a bit like a female version of Spock and Kirk, though by the second half of the season Fulvia (the Kirk) is on Earth dealing with the runaway men and Octavia is on Medusa dealing with typical sci-fi hazards like a berserk cold storage computer, an alleged assassination, and crazy meteors. Both planets get their share of humorous moments but nothing really tops the scenes of the escaped men running around with their puffy shirts open, shouting "I'm frightened!" Or when Fulvia soothes a rattled male politician like a fireman talking a kitten down from a tree.

But all in all, what a strange, crazy, highly advanced show this was. Now that I'm watching it again, I find that, in light of its subversive gender power switch, its unavailability is most suspect. On a post-feminist level its absence is downright conspicuous. It still stands alone in daring to imagine women not just in positions of authority usually (at the time) reserved for men, but as masters of a society that's evolved far past what we usually imagine. By switching the usual gender bias, suddenly the whole usually invisible patriarchal blueprint is suddenly illuminated. Damn, isn't that what all art is supposed to do, dearie? 

See Also:

1. I hope I don't have to remind you who Emma is in The Lady Eve. Do yourself a favor and watch it this instant! 


  1. Johnny Neill28 March, 2023

    I saw the Neo lounge act Pink Martini a few years ago (Quite a scene, very cool band) and they raised the roof performing the theme from Black Lizard, leading into it by telling all about the movie. I was intrigued and tracked down the disc, and yeah! Wow! This movie doesn't play like any description of it would lead one to believe, but your review comes close to both explaining and celebrating it to the level it deserves. Your curated YouTube playlists alway surface the treasures. I'm looking forward to diving into these. And I am really glad to hear that Nadja is available on YouTube. I never think to look there!

  2. thanks Johnny, Yes -NADJA - I think there's also a good YouTube transfer of THE ETERNAL, Almereyda's post-decadent Blood from the Mummy's Tomb semi-remake, again with Jared Harris and an amazing Christopher Walken in the James Villiers role - Inescapably Her Iron Age Druid Bog Mummy Telekinetic Alcoholic Hottie Self: THE ETERNAL (1998)

  3. Ed LaLonde06 April, 2023

    Off topic, but I caught your link to Movies to Fall Asleep To and just happened to wake up near the beginning of "The Amazing Mr. X." Did you happen to catch the
    Big Book reference (page xxxii) at about 25 minutes in 'come to scoff...remain to pray?' A quick search shows the original quote is from "The Deserted Village", a poem by Oliver Goldsmith (1770)

  4. thanks Ed, I need to see that movie again - it was on there because it's got that ghostly hypnotic soundtrack of wind, surf, and voices. Lots of mood and very little shouting, that's the key to that list. I didn't notice come to scoff in either movie or Big Book (I don't read that as much as I ought), but I've shared along those lines many times in meetings, ala, 'I trick myself into coming by figuring I'll just judge everyone, and then, once I'm there, the miracle can happen. Ego is a too much thing, but it is gullible.

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