On NOSFERATU: PHANTOM DER NACHT

A look at German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s haunting 1979 vampire film

Immortality. We all want it. The chance to defy that black specter of death that equalizes us. But to live forever, drifting through time like a ghost; residue of a memory, unattached to anything, anyplace…anyone. Hiding in shadows until the earth stops spinning. The crushing loneliness of it…would it really be worth it?

That’s the central driving thematic force behind director Werner Herzog’s dark, dreamy, full color remake of the immortal 1922 German expressionist classic Nosferatu. A film that, although deeply indebted (sometimes almost scene for scene) to the iconic, silent original, still manages to evolve beyond its experimental horror roots, taking its essence from F.W. Murnau (like a vampire would, in fact), assimilating that blueprint and then injecting liberal amounts of lyricism and a driving force of deep, bittersweet melancholy. The resulting work is among the inimitable Herzog’s most powerful and important films.

After a string of incredibly successful art house favorites throughout the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Herzog, who alongside trailblazing filmmakers Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders, was a major figure in the German new wave movement, turned his gaze to the film he correctly acknowledged as the single most important German movie of all time. Indeed, the director had set his sights on remaking Murnau’s shuddery unauthorized Dracula adaptation, shooting both German and English language versions and applying his own unique cinematic aesthetic to the oft filmed tale of the bloodsucking undead.

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On HELENA

A 70’s Europorno with a dark, psychological edge

People speak of the golden age of hardcore pornography spurting from the 1970s like they were hallowed, horny works of reflexive art. This is due in most part to nostalgia (what isn’t) when comparing these classics to the contemporary gynecological jack-hammering iPhone porn that now stink up every corner of the internet. And I mean, sure, Deep Throat and Cafe Flesh might as well be Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Alphaville by comparison to any of the antics on PornHub, but that doesn’t mean these pictures were the bold works of hormonal vision we deify them as today.

I think there’s also the factor that 70’s porn was shot on real deal 35mm film and more often than not were more couple-inclusive than run-of-the-mill stag films and most had plots and were publicly exhibited often in hard-top theaters with big splashy premieres and mainstream media coverage. But look closely and all you’ll see are standard-issue exploitation films, most of them crass and goofball comedies jazzed up with blowjobs and genital pumping. Even the aforementioned, highly regarded Cafe Flesh just swipes a science fiction hook to hang its graphic coupling on.

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On THE SADIST OF NOTRE DAME

A look at one of Jess Franco’s most fascinating and personal movies

It’s gratifying the level of admiration that global cinema culture now has for Spanish sleaze architect Jesus “Jess” Franco. And while it’s a shame that more of that adoration and intellectual dissection of his work didn’t thrive more prominently when he was among the living, it’s still wonderful that so many learned, passionate writers, thinkers and daring dark film lovers spend so much time talking about him.  And so they should. In the annals of film history, I cannot think of a more fascinating figure than Franco, not just because of the sheer volume of movies he made (over 200 that we know of) but because he was so driven and dictated by his obsessive need to make them. Here was a man who truly lived to make pictures, in some ways because he made pictures to live.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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