Monday, April 28, 2014

A Man of Uneven Temper, or Satan's Favorite Wife

Kino Lorber and Raro Video are about to pump out a lot of nearly forgotten genre movies from places such as Italy and whatnot, and I've been fortunate enough to get an early look at some of them. That'll have to about do it for this introduction because guys, there are four of them to cover today. Four!
Death Occurred Last Night (d. Duccio Tessari) - This is a curious one, in that it turns out not really to be at all what it first appears to be. What it first appears to be is a quite possibly sickening piece of exploitation, but while the exploitation vibe lingers throughout, it's not so sickening. High praise indeed, I realize, but the set up here is that a single father (Raf Vallone) has a beautiful adult daughter (Gillian Bray) who has the mind, as he puts it, of a three-year-old, and one day she goes missing. As the film opens this has already happened, and we see her in flashback, a grown woman with clumsy pigtails who needs her father to help her brush her teeth and fix her breakfast and also put on her bra. This flashback is scored to a rather ridiculous bit of Italian pop that could also possibly work well in a strip club, who knows. There's nothing unseemly about the father's relationship with his daughter, nor is one meant to be inferred, even as a red herring, but choosing to show him putting on her bra while Bray camps it up in her best approximation of cartoonish innocence is perhaps not necessary. And almost completely beside the point, except to the degree that her appearance, and mental state, relates to the fact that she was kidnapped so that she could be sold into prostitution.

But as far as making anything of this, her appearance that is, the flashback pretty much ends matters, and Tessari's film becomes a mixture of a police procedural and a revenge film. With Vallone covering the revenge part, Frank Wolff as Detective Lamberti takes up the procedural end, and while this does take him and his partner from one brothel to another, which ramps up the flesh quotient, pretty quickly I got the feeling that what flesh was on display was mainly there due to demands by the financiers. There's nothing here that Tessari particularly wallows in -- what seems to interest him most is the father's rage and frustration (this despite the fact that when Wolff begins his investigation, Vallone disappears for a while). Death Occurred Last Night isn't a particularly twisty film, but there are plot elements that I shouldn't give away -- suffice it to say that when Lamberti's investigation reveals certain things, my instinct was to regard the film as very padded to distract from a lack of imagination, but in fact where we end up, the place that makes the film look padded, is in fact kind of vital to what Vallone's father is going through. None of which is to say this is a great film, and in fact the climax includes moments that are silly enough to have caused me to backtrack on some of my positive feelings about the whole thing (all I'll say is, sometimes in movies people die of things that wouldn't kill them in real life, and if this pet peeve is just nitpicking to you then so be it). Like a lot of films of this type that were made with certain financial goals in mind, and were made at a certain pace, Death Occurred Last Night has a hurried, get-the-boobs-in-there feel to it that can detract from Tessari's intent. That intent is still there, however, if you stick around.
Hallucination Strip (d. Lucio Marcaccini) - Almost certainly stranger is this story of I guess radical politics, drugs, murder, and hallucination, the only film ever made by director and co-writer Marcaccini. The basic story is pretty simple: a politically radical student named Massimo (played by the blatantly Italian Bud Cort), the kind of guy who thinks colleges shouldn't teach things like literature and history and who tells his girlfriend, after she's announced that she has to go home because she has stuff to do tomorrow, that he hopes she enjoys her "prison" and then expects her, not to mention us, to think he's pretty cool and not just some kind of prick shithead, steals an expensive tobacco box. This gets him mixed up with the cops and the mob, the most important thing for the head cop (Marcel Bozzuffi) being to use Massimo to lead him to a Mafia dope pusher known as The Sicilian. Massimo, a nice guy, only wants to help a couple of friends escape a drug charge, while also scoring a variety of drugs for his rich friend Rudy (Settimio Segnatelli). Which he does, and in fact Rudy, and the long, surreal party sequence during which Rudy takes those drugs, seem to have been of more interest to Marcaccini than any of the crime stuff. Not that the two are unrelated, because despite the film's politics, which are presented in a very perfunctory way, Marcaccini does not portray drugs in a very flattering light. Rudy's need for them has nothing to do with any attempt to expand his mind or go on a journey -- he wants only to escape what can only be described as a pretty nasty home life with his mother (Eva Czemerys), and the trip he goes on at this party is intended to be completely nightmarish. That part of this terrible hallucination put me in mind of the nude dance sequence in Vampire Circus, and other parts reminded me of cut-rate Jodorowsky (and I'm not in love with top shelf Jodorowsky in the first place) is to perhaps tell you only that your interest in such material could very well exceed mine. But this sequence did not exactly stop any shows that I was aware of.

It's not all bad, though, and in fact I'm pretty fond of the film's ending. I'm not necessarily fond of what it represents, or what I think it represents, if anything (though one could connect it to one of the storylines in Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah, and maybe get something out of that, if one wanted to), but because it's an example of a kind of approach to, well, I'll just say it, to violence that I usually think works. The idea was best expressed, if not conceived by, Bruegel in one of his most famous paintings. I'm about to disappear up my whole ass in just a minute here, so I'll sign off quickly by saying it's a powerful idea, one that Marcaccini handles well.
The Demons (d. Jess Franco) - How do you even talk about this movie? A Jess Franco skeptic, I've recently been able to see the late horror filmmaker's genuine gifts in films like A Virgin Among the Living Dead and especially The Awful Dr. Orlof, which I guess makes me an agnostic now, but I'll be damned if that agnosticism has a hope of being tipped towards faith if films like The Demons are what I'm up against.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy the film, which is an aggravating thing to have to admit. In truth, it's hard to not enjoy, on some level, a film whose simple premise is that back in witch-burning days, a witch is burned, mainly at the order of three powerful individuals whose lives and families are immediately cursed by the dying witch. That witch had two daughters, Kathleen (Anne Libert) and Margaret (Britt Nichols) who at the time of their mother's death are living in a convent, as nuns. Kathleen is pretty "sensual," so that's a problem, and indicates some amount of witchery within her, so the villains -- Lady De Winter (Karin Field), Thomas Renfield (Alberto Dalbes), and Lord Justice Jeffries (Cihangir Gaffari) -- would like these girls rooted out, tested for witchness, and burned. The short version is that one girl is a witch, in fact, another escapes and is hunted, not all villains are so villainous, and Karin Field steals the whole damn thing by being a real firecracker and playing a pretty awful person, and being, as so many of the actresses in this film seemed to be, up for whatever.

If I say I enjoyed the nudity in this film, how much closer can I possibly be to understanding the regard with which some people hold Franco? If I say that despite the former, I was often simultaneously bored by how long the scenes revolving around it were dragged out, then the answer is obviously "Not a bit closer." As a piece of storytelling, The Demons is often clumsy, as when, for instance, a climactic moment of vengeance should not have ever worked, based on information provided earlier but it had to so the movie could end. And the three tests to determine if a woman is a witch often don't seem to reveal what Franco is saying -- and what the film's audio wants to confirm -- has been revealed. This could be explained as sadism or hypocrisy or corruption on the part of the test-givers if in this film witches weren't real, and if these tests didn't apparently prove as much. But anyway. "It is what it is" isn't much of critical stance, and I won't say it's one I'm taking, but with films like this, as I sit there watching them, I think of that phrase, and I get it.
The Black Torment (d. Robert Hartford-Davis) - For my money, this classic, even straightforward, Gothic horror film from 1964 is the best of the lot. Sir Richard Fordyke (John Turner) is returning from London to his family’s sprawling estate with Elizabeth (Heather Sears), his new wife. Elizabeth hasn’t met anyone in the family, so as she meets, for example, Richard’s father, Sir Giles (Joseph Tomelty), confined to a wheelchair and rendered speechless by a stroke, or Sir Giles’s nurse Diane (Ann Lynn), so does the audience. It’s a time-honored and neat excuse for exposition, not any kind of a big deal but graceful and even entertaining in its way, as the relative brightness of these moments quickly turn to shadow as Seymour (Peter Arne), one of the servants and an old friend of Sir Richard’s, takes him aside to reveal that another servant, Lucy, has been brutally raped and murdered while Sir Richard was in London, that she was heard to cry out Sir Richard’s name before she died, and that suspicion among the townspeople has fallen on him as a result.

And we’re off. The story that director Robert Hartford-Davis and screenwriters Derek and Donald Ford are telling is just complicated enough to keep the mystery and the horror compelling – there’s much to do with Sir Richard’s first wife, Anne, who killed herself after being harried into it by Sir Richard’s grandfather due to her apparent inability to conceive an heir. As if that’s not enough, people in the town, and even in the family home, claim to have seen Sir Richard in places he couldn’t have been, and Sir Richard also sees a ghostly, white-shrouded figure walking near the woods outside. It’s all great, professional and sharp and enormously entertaining, but never, thank God, camp, or anyway, not to me. This may be because my tolerance for camp is somewhat low, while my tolerance for taking the sort of film The Black Torment is seriously is pretty high. It might cross my mind that John Turner probably deserved the BAFTA for Shouting for this performance, but that doesn’t stop me wondering how the hell Sir Richard is going to get out of this mess. It doesn’t hurt at all that Hartford-Davis’s talent for the Gothic is assured – he’s not interested in smothering the audience with atmosphere, and in fact seems to realize that a ghostly figure walking silently through the grass is quite enough atmosphere to get the point across. There’s one moment in particular, a great one that I’d rather not spoil, that involves one character happening upon a terrible sight, and there’s a quick cut to what is being seen and then a quick cut back to the person seeing it, before finally cutting back for a lingering shot on the terrible thing, that actually put me in mind of Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs finding the dead cat in the closet, turning on the light, seeing it, turning the light off as a thoughtless reflex, turning back on for the same reason: an uncontrollable spasm. In The Black Torment, the spasm isn’t physical, but found in the editing, yet the effect is the same.

At the end, you get a terrific showdown on a staircase, then some rather less graceful exposition complete with a vital piece of information the audience is learning for the first time. This is unfortunate, but fine, and anyway right after that there’s a sword fight. It may not be Flynn vs. Rathbone or Neeson vs. Roth, but I’ll tell you, it ain’t bad.


John said...

What it first appears to be is a quite possibly sickening piece of exploitation, but while the exploitation vibe lingers throughout, it's not so sickening.

Damn it, you really had my hopes up there for a second.

bill r. said...

I know! I'm sorry!