Sunday, March 24, 2013

I Found Myself

Many years ago, I was talking to one of my brothers about bad movies, and writing about them, not in the overly profane, comparing-them-to-deviant-sex-acts-or-scatological-situations way that's all the rage now, but in a way that is genuinely clever and funny, for a thing some of us Ryans were doing at the time that is frankly none of your business, and I was having trouble taking part because I hadn't seen any movies that would lend themselves to such a thing. I had recently rewatched Predator, a film that I realize is regarded as a classic of sorts but which I've never thought a great deal of, but that one didn't apply really because, I said, and my brother agreed, "It is what it is." Now this was without question an extraordinarily insightful thing for me to have said, and I stand by it. Predator has no pretensions about it, and is efficient enough, whatever I think of it, about the job it sets out for itself, and on at least one real level I don't actually think it's bad. I just don't like it very much.

I thought of this today as I ground my way through four films recently released to Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Each of the films is a type of, I guess, grindhouse, or exploitation, fair, and European in origin, and cheaply and indifferently made. Each one also left me thinking not quite that "it is what it is," but rather something that, when removed from its original, kind of dumb metaphysical context in Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, and applied here renders an even more distanced, disinterested, aesthetically spiritual judgment: "This is this. This ain't something else. This is this." In The Deer Hunter, Robert De Niro's Mike is talking about a rifle bullet, and I've always agreed with John Cazale's Stan when he says in reply "'This is this!' What the hell is that supposed to mean!? 'This is this!'" and then he says some other stuff I'd get in trouble for repeating, but as far as gists go, I'm with Stan. But anyway, as it pertains to Oasis of the Zombies, Zombie Lake, Schoolgirl Hitchhikers, and Zeta One, "This is this" sums things up rather nicely, I think. Or maybe, I'm afraid.

Because what good is it to say "Well these movies are terrible"? Beyond it being a reasonable thing to say to someone who asks you "Are these movies good?", it offers nothing to anyone who hasn't seen them but might have reason to be fully aware of what they'd be getting into if they chose to take the plunge. They are far from the only films of their type, after all. But having to "say something" about these four films is exactly the position I now find myself in, and I have an uneasy feeling that I've offered up the preceding three paragraphs by way of an excuse.

Zombie Lake (d. Jean Rollin) - Oh, but look! This one was directed by Jean Rollin! I have gone on record on a few different occasions about my love and admiration for the frankly stunning horror films made by this great French director, and if come to from a vacuum there would seem to be no reason to believe Zombie Lake wasn't simply the next great Rollin film for me to enjoy. But this film was masterminded by Jess Franco (about whom more in a minute), and is one of two Rollin films recently released by Kino that he made under a pseudonym (the other one, well, about which more in a minute). Franco is not a filmmaker I know very well, but from what I've seen he's the anti-Rollin: unimaginative, crass, interested only in getting exploitation on film, not in filming exploitation, if you get my distinction, not even slick, just a cheap purveyor of garbage. Some people like him I guess. It's still Rollin behind the camera, you might argue, and surely this counts for something. So I'd hoped, but no. Zombie Lake's goofball story about star-crossed Nazi/French World War II love, that somehow or another results in zombies being in a lake, is just a frame on which to hang endless nudity and shots of actors wearing green greasepaint and -- is that tape? -- tape, I suppose, on their faces, smearing stage blood on the necks of actresses. There is no spark, no hint of Rollin's mad, emotionally tumultuous poetry. The finale of Zombie Lake does feature an absurd bit of melodrama that I can actually imagine Rollin, at his best, which this movie is nearly the furthest thing from, making work, or making something out of, but not here. I don't know the story behind the making of Zombie Lake, but it reeks strongly of the product of a great filmmaker needing to work, and who has been given his orders very clearly.

Oasis of the Zombies (d. Jess Franco) - I realize I said of Franco that there would be more in a minute, but I don't actually have anything to add about the man here. Curiously, though, Oasis of the Zombies is a good deal less exploitational than Rollin's cursed Nazi zombies film, and has one or two nice shots, which is one or two more than Rollin found room for. It's ending is even dumber, though, and the only thing I can find of any interest here actually applies to both. Zombie Lake was made in 1980 and Oasis of the Zombies was made in 1982, some years after the zombie genre, as George Romero unintentionally defined it, began. But while both films do feature zombies feasting on the flesh of the living, that's about all Franco -- I'm placing this all with him, as I really don't think Rollin had or cared to exercise any creative freedom on his film -- takes. In both films, the Nazi zombies are referred to as ghosts, and indeed they have an occasional tendency to vanish when defeated (sometimes they burn). And they're zombies because the Nazi soldiers in both films have been cursed, and they're guarding specific areas (a lake and an oasis, respectively), and they only appear when those areas are threatened by outsiders. They're old-fashioned campfire ghost story zombies, which is a thing that, to my knowledge, does not exist anywhere outside of these two films. I admit I kind of enjoyed that, even if I enjoyed nothing else. Outside of the nudity, which I mention favorably only because I want to be honest, and I don't want to be thought of as a prude or a scold.

Schoolgirl Hitchhikers (d. Jean Rollin) - Yeah, so, this one. Here, Jean Rollin very clearly saw no point in even trying. Or perhaps I'm desperate to swaddle him honor beyond a point he would've been comfortable with. He made lots of movies, and lots of sex movies, and I have no particular reason to believe that he came to those projects in a state of misery brought on by his stature as a serious artist being threatened by this gutter filth. It's just that, like Zombie Lake, Schoolgirl Hitchhikers was filmed with no style whatsoever. The only thing that can be said to set this apart as a Rollin film is the setting, which is an old estate in the French countryside that looks exactly like the kind of house that popped up in a number of his great horror films -- and this specific one might well have done so. "Where are the vampires?" I asked myself upon seeing it here. "There should be vampires there." But no vampires, I'm afraid. In fairness, and because I don't want to appear like a prude or a scold, I will note than there's another Rollin connection here, one that is better than any house and possibly any vampire: Joelle Coeur, a jaw-dropping woman who played a real pistol in Rollin's The Demoniacs, among other Rollin films. Here she's paired off with another Rollin regular, Gilda Arancio, and the two trespass into the abandoned French estate for a lesbian tryst, which leads them, of course, into a world of crime. Crime committed with cap guns, apparently.

Zeta One (d. Michael Cort) - If there's an outlier among these four, it's Zeta One, a bizarre James Bond send-up that doesn't even have the decency to in any way resemble any Bond film ever made, least of all the ones that had been made by 1969, when this film was released. The only halfway decent joke I could detect -- and the film is so wretched I'm not at all convinced this was intentional -- was the fact that Robin Hawdon's Bond stand-in never actually seems to do anything, and is intent instead to spend as much time as possible in bed with the various women who throw themselves at him throughout the film. The bad guys are defeated by several of those women, the ones who are aliens I think. There's another planet here I think. Space alien women who are almost always naked must defeat the Earthbound villains because, goddamnit, who gives a shit. There's a strip poker scene early on here that lasts about twenty minutes, at least. I refuse to go back and check, the fuckin' thing is twenty minutes long. Zeta One is a "comedy," of course, but it's a comedy in the same way that Schoolgirl Hitchhikers is a crime film. I'd say this is the one truly painful film out of these four to actually sit through, but also like the other four, you know, "This is this." See it if you want to.


Roderick Heath said...

What - wait - does that chick reflected in the sunglasses have a dick?

bill r. said...

What'm I, her doctor?

Adam Ross said...

It seems noteworthy that ZOMBIE LAKE on Netflix has an amazing cover art shot and description. I can only imagine how many people it has disappointed.

John said...

Sure, plenty of classic ghost stories feature ghosts that resemble zombies, at least superficially.

"The Monkey's Paw" is an obvious example.

bill r. said...

That's closer to a straight-up zombie story than it is a ghost story.

John said...

I still consider it a ghost story. Especially for its mysterious ending, which leaves us in the dark, literally and figuratively, as frightened and dismayed as the people in the story.

Unknown said...

It seems noteworthy that ZOMBIE LAKE on Netflix has an amazing cover art shot and description. I can only imagine how many people it has disappointed.
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