On MARY, MARY, BLOODY MARY

Words on the undervalued erotic vampire drama

Mexican horror filmmaker Juan Lopez Moctezuma’s 1975 American co-production MARY, MARY, BLOODY MARY is a true anomaly. On one hand, it’s an obvious – if somewhat late-from-the-gate – entry into the “lesbian vampire” cycle of exploitation film that reigned throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. It certainly is kin to movies like Jess Franco’s VAMPYROS LESBOS, the Hammer Horror riff on Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and especially the Stephanie Rothman directed, Roger Corman produced Southern California sex-vamp oddity THE VELVET VAMPIRE. And yet there’s so much more going on within its meandering running time. And while it lacks the stylistic flourishes of earlier Moctezuma fever dreams like THE MANSION OF MADNESS and ALUCARDA, it is no less hypnotic and surreal, albeit in a much different, much more manic way. It often feels like a perversion of a 1970’s American prime time drama, complete with wonderfully tacky lounge music, eye-level framing and brightly-lit action.  Hell, even the fonts used for the opening titles feel like they’re ripped right out of FANTASY ISLAND.  But every time MARY, MARY, BLOODY MARY settles into some class of  clean, safe, even borderline banal groove, Moctezuma steers it into absolute insanity. There are plenty movies like it and yet…there’s nothing quite like it.

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On THE ULTIMATE THRILL

Long lost “ski-sploitation” thriller is ripe for rediscovery

In the pantheon of stories distressingly over adapted and ripped-off for cinema, Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game sits high on the list. The story tells the tale of a wealthy hunt-happy lunatic who shifts his interests into stalking humans to be his next trophies, setting his “guests” loose on his remote property to give them a sporting head start. It’s a great premise that has both an allegorical sting, a haunting anti-hunting soul and both hardcore action and blood-chilling horror.

And while there have been a handful of “legitimate” versions of the tome made (most impressively, the 1932 same-named Fay Wray riff), it’s the ripoffs that are the most fun, everything from 1982’s Turkey Shoot to 1993’s Hard Target to 1994’s Surviving the Game, movies that freely steal the premise and pervert it to their own ends. Lost amidst this slew of awesomely low-grade films is the totally bonkers 1974 sleaze-fest The Ultimate Thrill (aka The Ultimate Chase). The movie is directed by the late Robert Butler, a veteran TV hack (and we’re not saying that to be derogatory) who steered episodes of everything from the ’60s Batman show to Kung Fu to The Waltons to the small screen. But The Ultimate Thrill is one of his few feature film undertakings and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel like a TV movie, albeit one armed with a bigger budget that presumably paid for the hospital bills for the myriad hot dogging skiing stuntman who fly off mountaintops like clockwork.

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On MOTHER, MAY I SLEEP WITH DANGER?

Musings on James Franco’s bizarre lesbian vampire Lifetime movie

I have a rather nagging fixation on tawdry, leering, Lifetime movies; those television trash films that have long been pumped out of the once noble network to titillate audiences hungry for low-rent thrills. And there’s nothing wrong with this. And if there IS something wrong with this…well, I don’t give a flying fuck.

Apologies for the profanity, but I’m employing it to illustrate a point. Using the “F” word is infinitely more graphic than the stuff you see in Lifetime movies. These are most assuredly exploitation films, filled with sexual deviancy, murder and all manner of lurid transgression. And yet none of this sensationalism strays beyond the level of PG.

And that’s the appeal.

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On TATTOO

A look back on the controversial and lurid erotic psycho-thriller

While re-watching Quentin Tarantino’s magnum 65mm, locked-door mystery/giallo/western/morality tale THE HATEFUL EIGHT, I was once more struck by how damn good actor Bruce Dern is in that film. It’s a deceivingly simple performance, mainly because the then 78-year-old performer never leaves the chair in which he sits, from the first time we see him to the point in which he loses his miserable life at the barrel of Sam Jackson’s vengeful Smith & Wesson. But it’s perhaps the most layered turn in the picture; subtle and oddly dignified despite the fact that his character is a coward hiding behind racist, patriotic bravado and by the end, even somewhat sympathetic.

But that’s Dern. He’s one of Hollywood’s finest character actors and an artist who rarely gets the credit he’s due. Not a traditionally “good looking” man, Dern has his own thing going on; a pointed look, almost rat-like, and when he opts to play an unsavory character (as in H8, HBO’s BIG LOVE, THE COWBOYS et al) he is a fiend without peer. And when he’s given the task to actually carry a film himself, the results are startling.

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On THE BIG CUBE

Vintage psychedelic mind-bender is Lana Turner’s last great film.

Poor Lana Turner.

The former Hollywood sex-siren, she being one of the original Femme Fatales in Tay Garnett’s 1946 adaptation of James M. Cain’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, was considered in her prime to be one of the most dangerous and desirable women working in front of the lens. Of course, like most if not all of the living legends controlled by grooming studios during that period, much of Turner’s public persona and carefully marketed myth was fabricated. In truth, the actress was a gentle, troubled soul, an alcoholic and a bit broken after failed marriages and carreer dips and the typical Hollywood sneering at women when the bloom leaves their rose and they slip into middle-age.

It was at this point in Turner’s career that she would find herself starring in what is one of the most outrageous and bizarre films of the 1960s. Director Tito Davison’s Mexican/American co-production THE BIG CUBE was Warner Bros. attempt to out-trip Roger Corman’s THE TRIP and blend noir tropes with druggie youth culture and the still popular “horror hag” wave of films, the likes of which usually starred Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. Turner joins their ranks here, in a psychedelic assault on the senses, common and otherwise, a film so over-the-top and wrong of head that cruel critics had a field day eviscerating it and Turner’s appearance and performance in it.

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On THE BAD BATCH

Revisiting Ana Lily Amirpour’s visionary and allegorical horror western

Sophisticated director Ana Lily Amirpour‘s sophomore genre-bender (following the stark, monochrome A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) The Bad Batch screamed into festivals chased by critical acclaim, received a limited theatrical run, didn’t really find its audience and then was seemingly cast into the literal and figurative contemporary cinematic dump bin. That’s not really a surprise. Pictures like The Bad Batch are so singular in their vision, so pulsing with energy, art and ideas that they generally need a wide berth of time to be re-discovered, discussed, debated and appreciated.  And I’m convinced that history will remember The Bad Batch as a major work of pop-cult art and I say this fully admitting that, after a blistering first half, by contrast, the rest of the film is a bit of a shrug, bleeding out into a wave of exposition and hastily resolved narrative and character arcs.

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On THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA

A deeper look at Matt Cimber’s moving, horrifying and emotionally sophisticated masterpiece

The job of every good horror film is to exploit, degrade and pervert that which society deems sacred, to suck us out of our comfort zone and shake our foundations. Ultimately, I’ve found – as have many other admirers of the genre – horror to be the most successful form of cinema to not-so-subtly remind us that life is NOT all strawberries and orgasms. That life is short, often painful. That the illusions we as a society work so hard to construct to make that short, painful life slip down our throats like sugar pills, are easily undone and that perhaps our only true defense against that which is inevitable is to accept and soldier on.

I find horror films – when they are on point – to be life-affirming, even when they come draped in extreme images of gruesome death, misery and general malevolent mischief.

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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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