On SCALPEL

John Grissmer’s sleazy 1977 thriller is ripe for rediscovery

Every dreamy thing you’ve heard about the 1970s in regards to it being a Golden Age of American cinema is 100% true, with audiences hungry for edgier offbeat movies, thus birthing a market for various madmen to make lower-tier, downmarket stuff and still have plenty of eyeballs waiting to receive their wares. And with the MPAA’s newly minted ratings system – born after the new wave of more extreme stuff like Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy and A Clockwork Orange dared to make their way onto mainstream screens – still in its wobble-kneed infancy, plenty of nasty little numbers squeezed through the cracks and sneaked away with mild PG (or the similar GP) ratings; this, despite the fact that many of these pictures were not geared for kids or family viewing and often were choked with sleaze, suggested smut and decidedly mature melodrama.

Among the endless spate of movies that your son Timmy could freely see on a Saturday afternoon in the cinema if he so desired,  is director John (Blood Rage) Grissmer’s tawdry and really rather mesmerizing 1977 shocker Scalpel (aka False Face). The movie was released twice in the ’70s to American hard-tops and drive-ins before slinking to VHS via a slew of distributors in the 1980s and then – like so many of these pictures did – faded into the ether. Now, with so many boutique labels dragging the celluloid swamps for “forgotten” genre product, Arrow Video have pulled Scalpel back from the abyss and given it their typical “surprise birthday party” treatment, a stunning Blu-ray rendering that features TWO (two!) color-graded prints (one in a greenish tint approved by DP Edward Lachman (The Virgin Suicides) and another in standard color by the Arrow brain-trusts themselves) and a glut of special features that put this greasy gem in proper historical context. It’s genuinely amusing for me –  and many other likely horror/cult movie admirers of my generation – to see such a grandiose, figurative red carpet rolled out for a picture as obscure as Scalpel but that’s what make this particular release so damned wonderful. Because Scalpel bloody well deserves it!

The film stars character actor Robert Lansing (memorable to me most potently for his haunting performance in the fifth season The Twilight Zone episode “The Long Morrow”) as the blank-faced plastic surgeon Dr. Phillip Reynolds, a brilliant architect of flesh who also happens to be of the biggest sons-of-bitches sliming around the deep South. Seems this prick murdered his wife (the film suggests as much in a darkly hilarious flashback sequence) and his daughter Heather’s (Judith Chapman, Eurohorror legend Patty Shepard’s sister!) beau, the latter incident of which was witnessed by the girl and set her to running. In fact, when Scalpel begins, Heather has been MIA for a year and despite this, her now-dead Grandfather has willed his entire 5 million fortune to her, cutting out his despised son-in-law entirely.

Presumably livid (but as played by the chill Lansing, only visibly mildly put-out), Reynolds hatches a scheme to take a mutilated stripper into his lair and “remake” her face to be a dead-ringer for his gone-girl daughter. The idea is to pull a Henry Higgins and “teach” the scrappy young hustler to walk, talk and act exactly like Heather, thus fooling the family and attorneys into thinking that she IS in fact Heather. The plan works and the duo split the 5 million and – in a gently sick twist – begin a torrid sexual relationship behind closed doors. But when the real Heather shows up (also played by Chapman) things go from sweaty mad-science to full-blown psychodrama and very quickly, an unsavory and decidedly unhealthy menage-a-troi develops.

To say more about Grissmer’s crown-jewel of secret-sleaze would be to spoil the ample fun it offers. But man alive, is Scalpel fantastic. It’s like someone hired Jess Franco to direct an episode of Love, American Style. It’s a leering, straight-faced free-fall into bad behavior and yet it’s not gory at all (save for a few blood-blasts) and there’s no explicit sex and I cannot recall even a bad word uttered by any of the cast. In a sea of schlock cinema where everyone just keeps trying to out-porn the next guy, this restraint is admirable and charming and recalls the early days of post-code Hollywood cinema, when filmmakers had to weave-in the taboo gingerly so as not to alarm the thought police, thus making the movie feel even MORE dangerous. The cast is dynamite, with Lansing’s relaxed sociopathic doctor alternately amusingly chilling and eerie, especially when he breaks from his boozy stupor to giggle like a toothy madman. Chapman is excellent too, in a challenging duel role that makes you legitimately believe that she’s two people, more than a decade before David Cronenberg tried the same stunt in 1988’s Dead Ringers. Tying this grubby Southern Gothic together is a lush score by Dan Curtis’ right-hand man, the legendary Robert Cobert, who mines his work in Dark Shadows to sculpt a romantic, melancholy and haunting tapestry of sound.

If you’ve never seen Scalpel – and I’m willing to bet that many of you have not – I highly recommend you make time for it. They don’t make movies like this anymore.

Scalpel is available now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video

On NOT AS A STRANGER

Stanley Kramer’s 1955 melodrama offers one of Robert Mitchum’s most nuanced performances

With his lazy-lidded resting face and macho. swaggering gait, Hollywood has rarely ponied up a more unique looking superstar as Robert Mitchum. And the actor’s off-camera life was just as singular. He was a tough talking rebel of the highest order who made no apologies for his manners and famously snubbed his nose at the very system that supported him. Most of you know the infamous story of his 1948 pot bust, where when asked by a frenzy of reporters upon his release how he liked prison, he retorted “It’s like Palm Springs without the riff-raff.” While other actors of the time would have withered from the scandal and had their careers clipped, Mitchum owned his perceived transgressions and emerged not only unscathed but even more successful. Mitchum was indeed a bad boy, a baddass…and a great goddamn actor.

And while I pride myself as having seen most of Mitchum’s output (his signature role in Charles Laughton’s haunting 1955 American Gothic Night of the Hunter – my second favorite film of all time, incidentally – is the stuff of legend), Stanley (On the Beach) Kramer’s sweepingly melodramatic adaption of Morton Thompson’s then-popular (and even more soapy) novel Not as a Stranger eluded me. What a treat then, to find the film via Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray release and discovering that the picture  features one of Mitchum’s most restrained, nuanced and deceivingly muted performances, woven into a well acted, written and directed entertainment that does his work justice.

Not as a Stranger sees Mitchum cast as Lucas Marsh, a deeply driven and gravely serious medical student whose dreams of being a doctor are sabotaged by the fact that he’s dead broke. His widowed, alcoholic father (Lon Chaney Jr.) has drank away Marsh’s life savings and he is forced to do odd jobs at the university to cobble together the cash needed to keep him in school. But when the well finally dries up, the icy young man exploits the affections of an older, well-off nurse (the legendary Olivia de Haviland) and asks her to marry him. And while his best friend and dorm-mate (played by a frail looking Frank Sinatra) chastises him for clearly using the woman for her money and positioning himself as a “kept man”,  Marsh blazes in to the union and becomes what must become.

Marsh’s single-minded adherence to medical ethics make him a brilliant doctor, but he soon isolates himself from his fellow man and begins treating his doting wife like a doormat. When he takes over a small town practice, his ego goes into overdrive, threatening to steamroll over every and any good thing he’s built.

Not as a Stranger is in line with much of Kramer’s work,  shining lights on peripheral actors and giving them plenty of space to shine and enrich the main narrative with only a few choice lines. Broderick Crawford’s no-nonsense professor (seen in the clip below) is commanding and Chaney (known mostly for his work in horror films) is especially a revelation. While only on screen for minutes, he manages to deliver a career-best performance as a ruined man who cannot drag himself out of the gutter and is fully aware of his self-destruction and his affect on those around him. He also is the one who first calls his son out, remarking that while Lucas’s mind is magnificent, his heart is pure ice.

But he’s only half right.

The beauty in Not as a Stranger lies in Mitchum’s work, though upon release and even today, many critics have cited his turn as Marsh to be blank, expressionless, lazy. But that’s just it. Marsh IS blank. He’s still a little boy who lost his mother and watched his father drown himself is booze and his home life, his stability, dissolve in front of his face, helpless to stop it. Through medicine, that same boy latched on to something larger than he was and would or could ever hope to be. He turned himself into what he had to become to survive, his eye always on the prize. People weren’t to be trusted. Only he mattered.

In that respect, Marsh is a kind of sociopath and Mitchum nails the character, giving us an automaton that, when backed into a corner, explodes into quick bursts of rage, before retreating back into his armor. And when the final moments of the movie wind down and Marsh finally fully hits the wall and Mitchum finally dissolves, it’s startling and heart-wrenching.

Not as a Stranger was released the same year as Night of the Hunter and while Mitchum’s performance as the mad preacher Harry Powell in that film seems on the surface seems to be the superior example of the actor’s craft, his work here is far subtler, a kind of puzzle box that takes a patient viewer to carefully, thoughtfully unlock.

Not as a Stranger is on Blu-ray now from Kino Lorber

 

 

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.