On EATEN ALIVE

 

Umberto Lenzi’s cannibal classic is a gory, goofy dose of vintage Italian terror

Out of all the vile, debaucherous post-Mondo Cane Italian junglesploitation movies ground-out in the 1970s and 80s, Umberto Lenzi’s 1980 chunk-blower Eaten Alive (Mangiati Vivi) is the one that Canadians love the most. Why is that? Because it’s the only one – perhaps the only Italian horror movie, full stop – that actually sets part of its action in the country, opening as it does in Niagara Falls, with a poor sod getting a poison blow-dart spat into his neck.

Now, this point may seem a silly way to open up a discussion about a Lenzi-lensed gorefest but it’s subjectively important for me, glutting as I did on all of these sorts of films as an impressionable teenager. Seeing my country represented on-screen in an Italian gore movie – which then felt as though they were being beamed in from another dimension entirely – was disorienting and gave the film a sense of tangible reality that other pictures of its ilk lacked. None of this is to say that Eaten Alive is better than other more notable films like Ruggero Deodato’s punishing Cannibal Holocaust or earlier Jungle Holocaust or even Lenzi’s own notorious dick-ripper Cannibal Ferox, but it does have the distinction of being the weirdest entry in the cannon and not just because of the curious Canadian connection. No, Eaten Alive is an utterly insane dose of jungle horror delirium that earns its unsavory reputation, ladling on the flesh-ripping, tempering it with animal snuff and tying it up with a charming rapey bow. And yet the entire enterprise is so daffy, it’s impossible to take it terribly seriously.

The films stars The Gates of Hell‘s Janet Agren as Sheila, a young woman whose sister Diana (Paola Senatore) has gone missing in the jungles of New Guinea. Seems the dudes running around Niagara Falls (and New York) jabbing needles into people are kidnapping average citizens and dragging them to sweltering jungle where they are then drugged and brainwashed by a maniacal cult leader named Jonas (Ivan Rassimov, who himself starred in Lenzi’s 1972 shocker The Man From Deep River and the aforementioned Jungle Holocaust). Sheila hires a smart-ass, cynical mercenary named Mark (Cannibal Holocaust‘s Robert Kerman, who also – under the name R. Bolla – appeared in many a hardcore porn flick) to help her liberate her sibling from the clutches of the cult but – surprise! – the kool-aid soaked community is surrounded by a savage tribe of cannibals who love to butcher and dine on human intruders when they run out of crocodiles and other beasts to rip to shreds.

As per many of these movies, those real deal animal murders are the toughest thing to take in Eaten Alive, heart-wrenching scenes of screaming critters stabbed and skinned by cackling natives. Lenzi’s defense – along with Deodato’s, whose Cannibal Holocast truly set the nauseating bar for this snuffy stuff – was that the natives would kill and eat these animals anyway, so hey, why not splice it Mondo-style into the fabric of a low-budget horror picture? We won’t cast judgement on their exploitative decisions but the sequences in question are rough stuff indeed. In fact some of said scenes – along with select shots of flesh chomping – were lifted wholesale by Lenzi from his own The Man from Deep River as well as Sergio Martino’s Mountain of the Cannibal God. This oddball, corner-cutting cut-and-paste padding stunt has – in many serious fan circles – further pushed Eaten Alive to the bottom of the Cannibal flick barrel, but to me, these redux shock-scenes just add to the wanton weirdness of the picture.

There’s plenty of Doctor Butcher M.D./ Zombi Holocaust narrative thrust in this picture too, as it shares a similar framework of natives in North America up to no good and leading a bloody trail to a tropical inferno where a madman ex-patriot holds court and cannibals run rampant. Agren even gets stripped and painted in a scene that echoes Alexandra Delli Colli’s show-stopping scene in Zombi Holocaust. But what really sets Eaten Alive apart from the pancreas-snacking pack is Rassimov’s Jonas and the central story of how the delusional self-professed prophet manipulates and abuses his “followers”. Jonas is clearly a stand-in for Jim Jones and Rassimov – with his cruel good looks and scowling mouth – is alternately chilling and outrageously, endearingly over-the-top in the role. And while seeing him assault Agren with a snake-venom dildo SHOULD be offensive, Rassimov’s comic-book leer and Agren’s reactions push the sequence into the level of near-HG Lewis camp.

Eaten Alive is a revolting gem of cartoonish depravity and yes, the titular promise of characters being consumed while conscious does in fact play out, with a cheerfully fake (love those “severed” limbs hiding in the sand gags!) and wildly sickening final-reel gross-out where Senatore and cannibal movie legend Me Me Lai get assaulted and devoured by a gaggle of happy savages. Adding to the cross-eyed, gore-drenched groove is a schizophrenic score by “Buddy Maglione” (a pseudonym for composers Fiamma Maglione and Roberto Donati), that veers between ambient terror, stinky-funk sleaze and prog-rock doom.  Eaten Alive is a grandiose piece of gonzo Grand Guignol and you don’t even have to be Canadian to love it off.

 

Eaten Alive is now on Blu-ray from Severin Films

 

 

 

 

 

 

On ALICE SWEET ALICE

Discussing Alfred Sole’s 1976 American giallo masterpiece

I’ve been writing about and discussing co-writer/director Alfred Sole’s dark, effectively upsetting 1976 psychodrama Alice Sweet Alice for some time now. I first learned of the film when sifting through an early ’80’s edition of FANGORIA magazine, wherein there was a small, black and white still from the film of what looked like a charred human head.

It looked real. At least to me.

And I needed to know what this film was.

Leonard Maltin’s video book, a once indispensable pre-internet reference tool for young, burgeoning cinephiles, gave it a shrug review and two pithy stars. But then again, the book did the same for Taxi Driver, so that did not deter me.

Later, I would see the film appear on VHS via a myriad of labels and for rock-bottom prices (due to a copyright snafu many think the movie is in the public domain; it’s not) , in dump-bins at Kmart’s and Woolco’s everywhere and elsewhere.

I kept thinking about the film. But because of that damned still, that charred head, I was almost afraid to watch it.

One night, the movie was scheduled to play at 1am on Buffalo-based channel WGRZ-TV’s “The Cat’s Pyjamas” and I indeed mustered the courage to watch it.

Alone.

And from its first moments, from its whispering theme music and its right-of-title-card image of a veiled girl with a knife, I was in a state of dread.

That dread did not let up.

And it still hasn’t.

Sole’s film is a major work of psychological horror; grim, grisly and decidedly offbeat, it has elements that echo Italian giallo films, The Exorcist and most potently, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. It was originally released under the title Communion, then re-issued as Holy Terror before getting stuck with the moniker it now bears. The film is intense, emotionally draining and thoroughly fascinating and it needs fare more affection than it currently commands.

The prickly, favorably melodramatic masterpiece tells the tale of New Jersey divorcee Catherine Spages (Linda Miller) and her two daughters, sweet little Karen (played by a pre-Pretty Baby and The Blue Lagoon Brooke Shields in her movie debut) and the slightly older (and more than slightly emotionally disturbed) sister Alice (Paula Sheppard, who would grow up to star in the counterculture punk rock / Sci-Fi classic Liquid Sky).

Seems young Alice is none too pleased by the fact that her cherub-faced sibling gets most of the attention from not only their mother, but also from her shrill, overbearing aunt, her morbidly obese and pedophile landlord and even the far-too attentive parish priest. She displays this displeasure physically, with an endless array of histrionic tantrums, meltdowns and sister-baiting torments that further marginalize her into the realms of the less loved.

The fact that the doted on Karen is all set to receive her very first communion – something that had always been denied to Alice because she was born out of wedlock, thus being deemed illegitimate by the Catholic church – is the final straw and almost pushes the jealous, perpetually slighted girl over the proverbial edge.

Then, on the very day she is designated to ritualistically eat the body of Christ, Karen is murdered (a brutal, shocking, yet effectively bloodless sequence in which Shields is choked with a candle, stuffed in a drawer and set on fire). Almost immediately, suspicion universally falls upon the sloped shoulders of the gloomy, unstable Alice whose increasingly bizarre behavior appears to implicate her beyond a shadow of a doubt.

But as more and more members of the Spages family (and those that surround them) fall prey to a diminutive, plastic masked, butcher knife wielding, yellow rain slicker wearing homicidal lunatic (again, shades of Don’t Look Now), we quickly learn that the ties that bind are tenuous at best and that the church’s guilt-ridden stranglehold on its flock runs deep… and runs red.

Alice Sweet Alice is often dismissed as a “slasher” movie, but that’s a cosmetic observation. The picture is much closer to Hitchcock than Halloween.

Director Sole (who incidentally is the uncle of indie horror filmmaker and composer Dante Tomaseli, himself planning a long-in-gestation remake) displays a sure hand at weaving obsessive imagery and boasts an almost Polanski-esque ability to milk queasy, sinister unease out of the working class urban lifestyle, creating an ever present aura of on-screen, everyday dread and a sense that the world these people inhabit is irrevocably bent and forever off its axis.

The film has a unique narrative rhythm as well, with the central mystery resolving itself almost half way through only to evolve from a “who-dunit” to “why-dunnit”. Though this tonal shift is initially jarring, it’s a testament to the picture’s power (and Sole’s ace direction) that it manages to keep you completely hooked – sometimes reluctantly so – right up until the final, chilling shot.

Credit must also go to composer Stephen Lawrence’s rich Bernard Herrmann-esque neo-classical score that’s subtly effective when it needs to be and more aggressive during the frequent shock scenes. But what truly gives the remarkable Alice Sweet Alice it’s frightening fingerprint is the amazing rogues gallery of offbeat characters that slither around the picture’s claustrophobic corners. Sheppard was actually nineteen when she was asked to play the role of the titular, possibly murderous preteen and this visibly wizened, physical maturity gives Alice an effectively world weary, tragically grotesque presence, especially when she’s nicking her baby sister’s dollies or choking Mr. Alphonso’s kittens.

Now, let’s talk about Mr. Alphonso.

The pasty-faced, obscenely overweight landlord and filthy, cat cradling shut-in has to be seen to be believed.

Played by the long MIA character actor Alphonso DeNoble (Joel M. Reed’s indefensible exploitation classic Bloodsucking Freaks), Mr. Alphonso is one of sick cinema’s most stomach churning pseudo-villains. Whether fanning his sweaty self in an easy chair while listening to opera, feeding his horde of mangy, mewling felines or lecherously pawing at Alice, he is a creation of brilliant slobbery and is just one of the many morally repellent adults in the film.

And perhaps it’s that lack of a clearly defined protagonist that has kept Alice Sweet Alice at an arms distance to many a film lover: there’s nobody to really root for in this movie, just a joyless bunch of terrified, damaged, working class hypocrites who offer up their children to the alter of Christ without conscience…and suffer gravely for it.

On THE BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE

A look at Vincente Aranda’s hallucinatory lesbian vampire film

In the late 1960s, as the old guard died off and a new wave of filmmakers slowly, surely seeped into Hollywood – and Hollyweird – American audiences became hungrier for more daring sorts of entertainment. Political and social upheaval was swelling, the 6 O’clock news dragged dying soldiers from the front lines in Vietnam into people’s living rooms, films like Bonnie and Clyde and Midnight Cowboy brought more explicit content into the mainstream and hardcore porn was championed by beloved prime time staples like Ed McMahon and Sammie Davis Jr. It was fertile ground for cinematic expression and with the vibrant, experimental films from Europe being suddenly embraced by this new American pack of creators, sexually aware, violent  and earthy movies made for adults became industry standard. And with American distributors acting on this sudden liberal surge, European genre filmmakers began really pushing boundaries. Look at the work of Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, the sexier side of Hammer Horror, Alain Robbe-Grillet , Dario Argento, Sergio Martino and others, all taking advantage of their homegrown movies being marketed around the world and all of them introducing more potent taboo-breaking imagery into their lurid narratives.

One of the byproducts of this unofficial “movement” was the “lesbian vampire” sub-genre, movies that fetishized – and naturally, exploited – the female form and female sexual desire for a primarily male audience’s titillation. But the thing is, many of these sorts of pictures were, by their very nature, feminist.  Many of them – like my favorite of the pack, Harry Kumel’s 1971 Les Levres Rouge aka Daughters of Darkness –  featured young women victimized by brutal men and then finding salvation at the hands and lips of a supernatural woman who “delivers” her from the barbarity of modern society and makes her immortal. And while many of these semi-progressive movies really just use feminism as a rack to hang their cheesecake on, a swell of them (like the aforementioned Daughters) were actually potent, sophisticated and intelligently designed works of art. And perhaps the most challenging and confounding Sapphic blood-sucker shocker of them all is Spanish director Vincente Aranda’s 1972 loose adaptation of J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s oft-mined source story Carmilla, The Blood-Spattered Bride (aka La Novia Ensangrenata), a movie that was mutilated for its American release but whose original cut reveals it to be a deft, cerebral bit of European psychosexual fantastique.

The film stars doe-eyed Mirabel Martin (The Bell From Hell) as Susan, the blushing newlywed bride to a nameless, ruthlessly wealthy hunk (played by Night of the Sorcerers‘s Simon Andreu), who ends up in his looming manor for a relaxing spate of sex and generally gushy Honeymoon rituals. But almost immediately things start to feel “off”. As Susan goes to their room to unpack, a pantyhose-masked brute – who may or not be her husband – pops out from a mirrored closet, forces her down and savagely rapes her. Or does he? When minutes later her husband re-appears – Susan’s dress now un-torn, the young woman sitting on the bed looking haunted – it’s clear that Aranda’s film’s chief aim is to disorient and disturb and that its terrors unfolding here will be intimate and internal and upsetting. And for the next 80 minutes, the movie fulfills that prophecy. In spades.

As husband and wife begin to get to “know” each other better, Susan begins to see traces of the savagery in her man that she imagined in her opening sequence hallucination. She also begins seeing a beautiful, veiled woman from the corners of her eyes, lurking around the grounds. When Susan later notices that all the previously-hung portraits of her husband’s family’s women-members have been oddly relegated to the basement, she discovers that one of those paintings is that of the same woman she keeps seeing. Said elegant femme is the late Mircalla Karnstein, who murdered her sexually voracious mate on their wedding night and was entombed alive for her crimes. At this point an already meandering, abstract melodrama falls hard into full-throttle dream-state experience, with Susan being visited by the ghost of Mircalla, most alarmingly in a psychedelic sequence of strobing lights, colored gels and lite-lesbian antics. And when a mysterious naked woman appears buried in the beach one day, calling herself Carmilla, the story becomes a volatile, explicit bloodlust triangle, with the lithe Carmilla – who is a manifestation of Mircalla – drawing Susan into her sexual web and convincing her to eliminate all of the men in their lives. None of this ends well, naturally and the blood flows freely while composer Antonio Pérez Olea’s nightmarish soundscape snakes around in the background.

The Blood Spattered Bride is a film that demands attention, discussion and analysis. It lacks the frothy lesbo-vamp Gothic pageantry of Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers, or the breezy pop art of Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos and the purring comic book evil of Daughters of Darkness, rather it feels far more dangerous. There’s ample nudity on display and sometimes staggering amounts of blood, but that’s not its focus. It’s certainly not for the average horror fan seeking an easy swallow. It’s an immersive picture, one that weaves a kind of spell that – if you let it take hold -is defiantly hard to shake.

The film is available now on Blu-ray from Mondo Macabro.

On SHOWGIRLS

Paul Verhoeven’s notorious Vegas stripper melodrama Showgirls might be a horror movie in disguise

Decades after 1967’s Valley of the Dolls and decades prior to 2016’s The Neon Demon, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven‘s Showgirls, the over-the-top tale of ill-gotten fame, busted dreams and the skeezy, grimy underbelly of Las Vegas, dragged its garish arse across screens across the world. That the heavily-hyped project (a reunion between Verhoeven and his Basic Instinct writer Joe Eszterhas) fell flat on its busted back, much like Gina Gershon’s Cristal does in the film, just made its myth all the more potent. And though Showgirls has been universally reviled and is now rather forcibly embraced as a cult film, the misleadingly-marketed movie is really yet another in a long line of Hollywood horror films masquerading as something else entirely.

Showgirls casts Saved by the Bell actress Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi, a scrappy young dancer who hitchhikes her way to Vegas with her heart full of hope and her head full of dreams. Those dreams are damaged almost right off the bat, when a cute young Elvis clone steals her suitcase and leaves her stranded in a casino parking lot. There she meets Molly (Gina Ravera), a friendly young seamstress working backstage at a big topless revue on the strip. For whatever reason, Molly takes Nomi under her wing and gives her a place to stay while she finds her footing. Nomi spends her nights peeling at a low-grade nudie bar, but after Molly takes her to work one night, she is dazzled by the lithe Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon), a superstar dancer who is the centerpiece of a garish show that makes Staying Alive‘s “Satan’s Alley” number look restrained. Once Nomi locks her eyes on this prize, there’s no stopping her. Though she has admirers like the plucky blue-collar dancer James (Glenn Plummer) warning her not to crawl to deep into the belly of the beast, she refuses to listen and soon, she’s in way over her head in a parasitic world where flesh is a commodity and femininity is distorted to fit the bleakest sort of fantasy.

Showgirls may have been made in 1995, but its soul is in the 1950s. The writing is arch, the tone of the film is pitched to 11, the drama is bubbling and boiling over. Really, it’s as if Douglas Sirk directed Suspiria. It’s a cautionary tale masquerading as manic insanity and I don’t think audiences understood what they were getting. Showgirls isn’t an erotic thriller. In fact, it’s not erotic at all, this despite the endless female (and male) nudity, spurting fluids and berserk sex (watching Berkley give lap dances and screw men in swimming pools is the stuff of legend). But the sleaze here is upsetting. Ugly. Forced. Empty. Showgirls is as tawdry and lurid as it is reputed to be, but and that’s what gives it its feral soul; its grime is essential to the story.

But really what Verhoeven and Eszterhas are doing here is painting a sperm and blood-stained black velvet painting of a festering sore of a world; an empty, black hole that sucks in delusional, naive, men and women, turning them into meat-puppet mulch and excreting them back out, robbing them of their souls and leaving them to stagger around the blinking, flashing, electric-sex-soaked landscape as something less than human. In the case of Nomi, she’s already damaged when we meet her. But she’s crawled out of some sort of muck — which we find out about explicitly in the icky climax — and she’s obviously convinced that life can’t get any worse. She’s seen the ugly. She knows the hideous. But she has no idea just how sickening a land this evil Oz really is.

I’m not sure what or who is more vile in Showgirls. Is the monster Gershon’s Cristal, a slinking star on the decline who sexually manipulates big time hustler/producer Zack (played with gross boyishness by Kyle MacLachlan) to get what she wants, toying with Nomi in order to suck her dry and destroy her? Or is it Zack himself, who womanizes, decimates and then keeps the she-demon husks he helps make around as busted trophies to amuse him? Is the leering choreographer who jerks his desperate dancers around emotionally and degrades them physically? Is it the malevolent Andrew Carver (William Shockley) who uses his fame, privilege and greasy charm to assault his admirers within inches of their lives? Is it Nomi, who really is such a narcissistic woman that we feel little pity for her pain during her claw to the top? Is it sex? The city itself? Or is it simply that poisonous side that pulses in all of us, the one that is desperate to be loved and admired and remembered; that ego that tricks us into thinking we’re more than we are?

This is not a bad movie, despite the dipshits at those Golden Raspberry awards telling you otherwise and the cabal of sniggering cinema hipsters who laugh at like they’re at a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. No, Showgirls is really a very, very good exploitation picture about the very nature of exploitation and its dehumanizing effects.

It may not be an outright horror movie, but it’s certainly a film of many horrors…

Originally published at comingsoon.net

On DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS

 

A musing on Harry Kumel’s elegant, erotic vampire masterpiece

Ever since Gloria Holden first made ghoulish goo-goo eyes at her girl victims in 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter, horror films have been fascinated by the lesbian vampire. Blame J. Sheridan LeFanu, the Irish writer whose risqué short story Carmilla broke the boundaries of homo-erotic bloodsucking and whose taboo allure helped eventually launch this evolving spate of increasingly explicit dark fantasy pictures, many of which reared their horny heads in the considerably more liberal 1970’s. UK horror studio Hammer were the first ones to really make their muff munching mark with Roy Ward Baker’s LeFanu adaptation The Vampire Lovers and other films, like Jose Laraz’s almost hardcore 1974 epic Vampyres and Vincente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride continued to push the envelope, mixing fangwork with female nudity to grand (and grandly exploitative) effect.

But there’s one incredible film that always gets lumped in with those lower brow sex-soaked exploitation pictures. A movie that, while ostensibly playing by the rules of the erotic Sapphic vampire picture, is actually something far more elegant, kinky, exotic, sinister and sophisticated. I speak of course about Belgian director Harry Kumel’s grinning, impossibly Gothic and hypnotically sensual 1971 melodrama/morality tale Daughters of Darkness, a wicked and quintessentially European exercise in intelligent, witty and stylish filmmaking and one of the most cynical cinematic musings on male/female relations the horror genre has ever offered us.

The film opens, appropriately, on a speeding train, as Francois de Roubaix brilliantly throbbing, trippy jazz/post-mod rock score saturates a scene of carnal coupling between newlyweds Stefan (Dark Shadows star John Karlen) and Valerie (French Canadian erotic starlet Danielle Ouimet). After this intense sequence, we learn that these two lovers have met and married after a recent whirlwind courtship and don’t really know each other very well at all. Before Daughters of Darkness’s lurid narrative runs its course, they’ll have rectified that social problem for the worse.

The couple wind up the sole guests in a looming, off season hotel in picturesque Ostend where they make love, eat, talk and where Stefan nervously avoids Valerie’s urgings to call his “mother” and tell her about their nuptials. At this point, though we can’t quite put our finger on it, Kumel manages to create a genuine sense of menace and unease: why is Stefan afraid of making a phone call to his mother? What is he hiding from the sweet and naïve Valerie? Read on…

Suddenly a car pulls up to the hotel and out steps an elegant woman and her traveling companion. She’s the Countess Elizabeth Bathory (the ravishing French film icon Delphine Seyrig), an elegant, smooth, smiling and charming aristocrat who is also checking in to the remote hotel. Upon seeing the young, fresh faced (and lithe bodied) Stefan and Valerie, Bathory immediately befriends them, slowly seducing and manipulating their affections in what appears to be an attempt to pry the beautiful Valerie away from her increasingly brutish man.

As the serpentine narrative weaves along, we learn that Bathory is in fact the legendary Hungarian ‘Blood Countess’, a real historical figure who bled thousands of virgins to death in order to maintain a glowing, youthful appearance. Only now, Bathory’s become a kind of love starved, sexually charged, immortal vagabond vampire, in town looking for a replacement for her increasingly melancholy mate Ilona (the better than perfect German model and soft porn star Andrea Rau). And, as both Stefan and we the audience quickly learn, this is a woman who always gets what she wants.

Daughters of Darkness is a pitch perfect exercise in mood, tone and tension and, if you’re willing to let it work you over, it casts a slick, strange and chilly spell that sticks long after the screen has faded to red. It also has a wicked sense of black humor. In one of the picture’s most disturbing and uncomfortably hilarious sequences, Stefan, for all his brutish, Stanley Kowalski gone Eurotrash macho bravado, is revealed to be a closet (and apparently “kept”) homosexual. When he finally makes his reluctant call to “mother”, the domineering matriarch turns out to be a decadent, older, lipstick wearing queen (brilliantly played by the actor/director Fons Rademakers), one who dryly scolds the younger man for doing something as “unrealistic” as marrying a woman. This bizarrely funny episode is followed shortly thereafter by a darker scene in which Stefan obsessively snakes himself through a crowd in Bruges to see the body of a viciously murdered woman and, when Valerie attempts to pull her apparently necrophiliac husband away, he hits her, knocking her to the ground. What horrors await this unsuspecting girl in her marriage into Stefan’s “family” the audience can only guess…

The driving theme behind Daughters of Darkness initially appears to be a feminist one, with the soft spoken lesbian vampire Bathory “liberating” Valerie from the oppression of her potentially dangerous husband. But really, Valerie is just being manipulated by another, far more lethal and selfish predator. And that’s the real force behind the film, a shadowy, cruel amorality that is as icy and reptilian as it is both appealing and amusing.

Visually, Kumel’s picture is breathtaking, with its gorgeous cast, authentic European locales, fluid camera work and elegant use of the color red (the film’s original title was actually Les Levres Rouges, or The Red Lips). And though it does unofficially belong to that aforementioned cannon of 70’s lesbovamp pictures, it’s not only an infinitely more evolved piece of cinema than say, Jess Franco’s groovy and voyeuristic Vampyros Lesbos, it also keeps the vampire shtick to a minimum. Nary a fang is revealed and blood is consumed only once, in the balletic last reel sequence that smacks of a quasi-crucifixion metaphor. And if we are to read it that way, suddenly, the film is even further removed from any sort of feminist-leaning than we thought…

This is one of my favorite movies of all time and though some may see it as a dash pretentious, I’ll be damned if I can find anything wrong with it on any level. It’s seductive and addictive. It’s pure cinema as a gauzy, sensual dream. Perhaps I’m blinded by this love, but any movie that features a central menace as effortlessly sexual as Delphine Seyrig (it’s been noted that her portrayal of Bathory somewhat channels the chilly purr of Marlene Dietrich) locks itself into my heart for life.

On TANGO OF PERVERSION

A look at what might be the crown jewel of “Greeksploitation”

For serious cinephiles, there is nothing more joyous than the act of discovery, to stumble upon something secret, or to be exposed to a previously unknown strain of filmmaking that life has long denied you.

And with the swell of high-quality home video over the past 20 years, it’s been a virtual renaissance for people like us. To unearth pictures we’d only read about and, in many cases had no idea even existed. And then to see them is such lovely shape…

For this writer, so in love with the bizarre, stylish and exotic, discovering the existence of “Greeksploitation” was a virtual revelation. I have long been a huge fan of the less-loved British-Greek horror film starring Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence called Land of the Minotaur (aka The Devil’s Men). That film (an ambient doom-horror movie with a pulsing Brian Eno score) was directed by Kostas Karagiannis under the name Costa Carayiannis and, though a glance at his credits reveal dozens of pictures, almost all of them were made exclusively for the Greek market. The thought of taking time to track down some of these pictures never even crossed my skull. Life is brief, after all…

But, as it turns out, I was a rather ignorant sort. Because, as it turns out, Karagiannis was an exploitation movie machine; a veteran slinger of cinema who, under various nom de plumes cranked out well over one hundred films for his “people” and has been on occasion compared to his Spanish contemporary Jess Franco. Not a fair example as Franco’s works were, no matter the genre he was toiling in, almost always laced with elements of his own persona, his obsessions always struggling to push through and, as such, many of his pictures were difficult to enjoy on their own terms. But Karagiannis is interesting in that he very early on tapped on to homegrown commercial success, creating pure product to be mass consumed. Greek audiences were at odds with international cinema as they by and large were not interested in subtitles and rejected dubbed films outright. So Karagiannis started making endless features of every sort: comedies, musicals, thrillers and yes, horror films. And he made a mint doing so.

Which is not to suggest his movies “behaved”! Two of those films that, outside of MINOTAUR are probably his best known international pictures, crossed my desk last year from UK label Mondo Macabro, and my God are they spectacular works of cinematic delirium. Echoing US and European thrillers and piling on the sex and blood and unique Greek culture, this pair of Karagiannis capers are a kinetic blast of delirious weirdness that knocked this writer’s socks off and one of them, 1974’s Tango of Perversion, might just be one of my favorite trash films of all time.

Also known as Tango 2001, this breathless, kinky and thoroughly entertaining romp is indeed perverted, ripe as it is with murder, deviant sex, voyeurism, necrophilia and worse. And yet, it’s an oddly charming, cheerful picture , recalling early 1970s Spanish exploitation, gaudy fashions and eccentricities intact. In it, Karagiannis regular Larry Daniels plays a nickel and dime pimp/drug dealer whose girlfriend is having a hot and heavy lesbian affair with another stacked grafter who, like everyone in the picture, hangs out at the grotty Tango Club. In the middle of the melodrama, nibbling his nails and twitching, is social outcast Joachim (Vagelis Voulgaridis), a well-coiffed nebbish who is used by all and lets these miscreants regularly use his house for all manner of fucking. Unbeknownst to the fuckees, Joachim is a pervert who hides behind a two-way mirror and films their frolics. This footage comes in handy when Daniels finds his girl shagging her lady-friend in Joachim’s pad and promptly kills the lover. Joachim opts to dispose of the corpse…but not before he has sex with it!

Soon, more murder, more corpse-shagging and ample blackmail spring up to stress out the characters and give the audience ample pleasures.

What a film! Tango of Perversion is an outrageous pig-out of upbeat sleaze and is even more fun in the badly English dubbed version. The music is fantastic, blending kitschy lounge rock laced with a traditional Greek folk music sound; the ties are huge and the ladies look great sans clothes. Best of all is Karagiannis’ direction; lively and leering, he always remembers to do the job he set out to do: entertain.

Daniels returned for another Karagiannis’ joint, 1976’s The Wife Killer , which has often been compared to a traditional Italian giallo but is still very much a product of its country and director. Daniels – who, with his spray on beard looks like a more handsome Chuck Norris – plays a broke playboy who pretends to love his comely and ultra-rich wife (Dorothy Moore, who was also in Tango of Perversion) while sleeping with his feral mistress (Leslie Bowman). Luckily, Daniels is good chums with a psychotic rapist/murderer who he struck a partnership with years ago, the result of blackmail and a need for a friend in his drug trafficking operation. He hires the killer to take out his wife and make it look like just another one of the psycho’s victims. But, of course, complications arise and crosses are doubled, sex is had, slaughter is plentiful and we, the viewers, clap our hands in infantile glee.

Not as joyously depraved as Tango of Perversion, The Wife Killer (which is also known as The Rape Killer!) is still a bang-up, grease-ball thriller, with lush Greek locations, ladies and matter-of-fact cruelty. A big, brightly lit noir that, like Tango, is so much fun, it just cannot really be offensive, no matter how hard it tries.

If you have yet to discover these movies and this skeezy sub-genre, I suggest you do so. I do declare Greeksploitation and the cinema of Kostas Karagiannis is a newly minted obsession of mine and I sure would like some company…

On LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF

A look at the obscure 1975 British werewolf movie

One of the rarest of lycanthrope-centric films is the unfortunately late, Oscar-winning British cinematographer (David Lynch’s The Elephant Man) and noted horror filmmaker (Dracula has Risen from the Grave, Tales from the Crypt) Freddie Francis’ little discussed 1975 Hammer-esque wolfman shocker Legend of the Werewolf. And really, I have to ask why it’s so obscure, because the movie is rather fantastic.

As the films’ star Peter Cushing (whose work here is first rate as always) so helpfully explains in Legend of the Werewolf’s weird opening sequence, it has been said that the beasts of the forest shall watch over and protect human children on Christmas Eve, because, well, their forefathers and mothers did it for Jesus, so if they didn’t do it too they’d be jerks. This bit of made up myth provides credibility for the ensuing tale of poor little Etoile, a baby who, after his immigrant parents are chomped on by a pack of starving wolves, is inexplicably adopted by the now sated pack. He grows up like a sort of lupine Tarzan, a wild untamed thing who is eventually ‘rescued’ by a sleazy carny (the amazing, wild eyed actor Hugh Griffith from, among many, many other fine films, Ben Hur) and top billed in his skid row circus as the feral ‘Wolf Boy’. Eventually Etoile grows into a strapping young lad (played by veteran actor David Rintoul who appeared in Roman Polanski’s excellent thriller The Ghost Writer) who makes the rather startling discovery that, when under pressure of full moon, he grows fangs, sprouts fur, pops his shirt and end up looking a lot like Oliver Reed did in Terence Fisher’s 1961 Hammer horror classic Curse of the Werewolf.

In fact Jimmy Evans’s Roy Ashton-esque make up schemes for Etoile’s furry face and transformations and the idea of a Christmas curse aren’t the only things that recall that admittedly superior film. See, Etoile ends up ditching his promising career as a rabid roustabout and flees to late 19th century Paris (the Fisher film was based on Guy Endore’s novel “The Werewolf Of Paris” and both pics were penned by Anthony Hinds, under his pseudonym John Elder) where he gets a gig working at a zoo run by Oliver! heavy Ron Moody and falls in love with a beautiful whore, a woman who – like Reed’s squeeze in CURSE- seems to temper his inner lycanthrope. Of course all goes sour when a jealous Etoile turns wolfy and rips the throats out of the local bordello’s patrons (complete with red optical effects, the kind that Francis was fond of playing with) and it falls on the narrow shoulders of Peter Cushing, here playing an intrepid police pathologist, to line Etoile’s homicidal cloud with a sweet silver lining.

Legend of the Werewolf was produced by Tyburn Films, a tiny, short-lived UK studio founded by Francis’s son Kevin and one that sought to capitalize on Hammer’s massive, decade spanning, international success. Problem was, by 1974 Hammer Horror was already passé and, after one more picture (1975’s fine John Hurt/Ian McCulloch vehicle The Ghoul) Tyburn took a permanent dive.

In Canada (where I was born, raised and still live) a little budget video distro outfit called Interglobal Home Video ended up distributing Legend in the 1980’s. I bought that VHS cassette for $10 at a local Kmart and I’m certainly glad I did. Because I’ve never, ever seen the film legitimately available in any other format on these shores. Needless to say, I treasure my copy…

Though hampered by its low budget, and aforementioned plot familiarity, and though its not necessarily Francis’s best work (though it’s about a gazillion times better than his worst film, 1970’s awesomely insane caveman vs. Joan Crawford opus Trog) –Legend is a well paced, blackly humorous, creepy and oh-so-very British slice of rough-around-the -edges, modestly budgeted Gothic horror. And Hammer vet Harry Robinson’s brash, often romantic score amplifies the production value considerably.

You should find it. That beaten up tape of mine has seen the insides of no less than 7 VCR’s and it still goes strong, it still pulls it’s LP recorded weight with blood dripping, hairy backed finesse and flesh shredding, electro-magnetic grace. A muddy rip of that VHS is on YouTube (and on bootleg DVDs) and it’s a perfectly acceptable (though faded and fuzzy) version to at least get the sense of the film. Here’s hoping someone cleans this wonderful little flick up and dresses it up for Blu-ray someday…

Originally published in Chris Alexander’s Blood Spattered Book