Friday 26 November 2010

The Hammer Vampire

Written by Bruce Hallenbeck and released as part of Hemlock’s ongoing Hemlock Film series, this 2010 publication analyses the Hammer vampire in its various manifestations from 1958’s Dracula through to 1974’s The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires.

The films are discussed chronologically and thematically across six main chapters, with a prologue and epilogue bookending things by outlining the pre-Hammer situation and post-Hammer developments respectively.

The first chapter, entitled The Terrifying Lover, looks at Dracula and The Brides of Dracula. The second, The Nature of the Beast, encompasses Kiss of the Vampire and Dracula: Prince of Darkness. The third, The Vampire as Antichrist, examines Taste the Blood of Dracula, Dracula has Risen from the Grave and The Scars of Dracula. The fourth, Sin, Sex and Sadism, focuses on The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil. The fifth, The Vampire in Society, discusses Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula. The final chapter, Variations on a Theme, looks at Countess Dracula, Vampire Circus, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter and Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires.

I didn’t always find these groupings convincing on account of the overlaps and interconnections between films in some of them – the reworking of Brides of Dracula’s planned climax for Kiss of the Vampire; the way in which Dracula’s resurrection in Prince of Darkness (and, indeed, that subtitle) already position the character as antichrist; or the vague Karnstein references that were in Captain Kronos’s script at one point.

I was however convinced by Hallenbeck’s overall thesis. This is that over the course of 15 or so years Hammer’s films went from radical to reactionary in their treatments of the vampire myth. This is conveyed not only through a consideration of the pre- and post-Hammer vampire films but also those films whose releases run parallel to them.

Simply put something like 1970’s The Loves of Count Iorga Vampire would not have been possible without Hammer, whilst at the same time they themselves were struggling to come to terms with the new more sexually (and, on occasion, politically) explicit films they had given rise to.

He is also particularly good at challenging some of Christopher Lee’s more exaggerated and self-defensive claims as cases he protesteth too much: It appears not so much to have been that Lee refused to say anything in Dracula: Prince of Darkness as that Jimmy Sangster had not written any lines for Dracula. Similarly, Lee’s constant protests to Hammer about his remuneration seems as much a negotiating strategy or ritual as anything else.

In the end, I think the value of Hallenbeck’s book will depend on where you fit as a Hammer fan: If you are a completist, like me, then you obviously need it. If you are a selective completist or on a limited budget, then you might find that too much of the material overlaps with what you already have by the likes of Wayne Kinsey. If you are neither of these then it is weighing up the volume’s more detailed discussion of its subject against the absence of other subjects. Of course, the Hammer = Horror association also likely means that you are not aware of many of these selfsame subjects.

This itself actually leads to a question: Can we ever expect to see an in-depth study of Hammer’s non-horror films, either as a whole or by genre in the same way? Will Hemlock do 'British Cult Cinema: The Hammer Comedy' at some point in the future?

Whatever the answer, Hallenbeck’s book is well-written, informative and does what it sets out to.

The Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide

The time: The early 1980s

The place: Britain

The greatest threat to the British way of life, it emerged, was not Thatcher and the divisive ideological project associated with her name but a new technology, home video.

As videos were not required to go before the BBFC (British Board of Film Censors) and as the major studios regarded the new medium as a threat and hesitate to put out their own films, all manner of material suddenly became available from Europe and that has never appeared on British screens.

Somewhere along the line concerns emerged over a particular category of videos, the nasty. The concern was not the traditional one with sex. Films have been prosecuted as pornographic before. Rather it was more about violence and other content for which films had never been prosecuted before.

Some of this concern may have been legitimate. Some was manufactured – sometimes, ironically enough, by distributors lurid packaging and advertising.

The popular press became involved, along with elements of the quality press and others who should have known better. There was the sense that something had to be done. And so an act regulating the video industry was proposed and, with few willing to stand up for the nasties, duly passed into law – or was taken to have been passed into law, as would only become apparent a quarter-century later.

Sadly, the new 2010 VRA (Video Recordings Act) was passed without little debate, although fortunately now it is more or less an irrelevance in the Internet era.

As this summary indicates, the history of the video nasties affair is well-enough known.

The obvious questions are thus whether there is space for and/or a need for The Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide.

To answer this we can begin by itemising what the package contains. The first disc presents a new documentary on the nasties. The second presents trailers and commentary on the 39 films eventually to be successfully prosecuted by the DPP (Department of Public Prosecutions) list. The third does the same for another 33 films which were prosecuted but acquitted. These can be watched either on their own or intercut with commentaries that provide valuable contextualisation and critique.

Including other materials, like a gallery of pre-cert video logos and identifiers (some, like Red Tape, more porn than anything else in their address, others, like Rothmans, not obviously directly relevant to the nasties) there is over 12 hours of material to go through.

It’s not just about the quantity, however. The material is overall of a high quality, the kind of stuff that ranks as an 8 or 9 out of ten.

As such, it’s probably easier for me to begin with the little negatives that remove that final mark or two.

The first of these is the range of fan critics discussing the nasties. Those that are featured – Stephen Thrower, Alan Jones, Kim Newman, Marc Morris, Alan Bryce – are certainly knowledgeable and broadly representative. But there are other figures from the British cult cinema scene who have discussed the nasties before and who conspicuously absent, notably David Kerekes (author of See No Evil) and John Martin (author of Seduction of the Gullible). One hopes that their exclusion was nothing to do with professional rivalries or similar.

The same may be said of the more academic figures like Xavier Mendik and Patricia MacCormack, given that Kate Egan, author of Trash or Treasure, is absent.

Correspondingly the inclusion of Emily Booth amongst the presenters is a bit awkward, particularly when she seems to be reading pre-prepared commentary rather than spontaneously drawing upon her own in-depth knowledge of the subject.

The second are a few errors in the individual commentaries: Discussing Jess Franco’s Devil Hunter, Thrower appears to confuse Sabrina Siani with Ursula Buchfellner. Discussing Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox Alan Bryce indicates that it is Lorraine De Selle’s character who has hooks put through her breasts, when in fact it is Zora Kerowa’s.

It might seem pedantic to point these out, but as the documentary itself demonstrates exactitude is required when we are talking about this subject.

The third is the relative lack of discussion of the wider culture that grew up around the nasties. One reason for this is perhaps that it could entail more self-reflection and, indeed, self-criticism on the part of some of the commentators.

One of the more distinctive aspects of British horror fandom testified to by the entire package here is, after all, not only the continuing centrality of the video nasties but arguably their importance in terms of some of these commentators own careers.

Without wishing to become too ad hominem, I do feel, for instance, that Bryce’s The Dark Side was sometimes overly fixated on the nasties and that this inhibited discussion of other aspects of horror cinema.

Likewise, it would have been interesting to see more analysis of a company like VIPCO and how they worked in relation to the pre-VRA and post-VRA climates, or to hear about what the VRA meant in terms of the creation of this documentary itself, given that there must be images in some of the available trailer materials that still could not be passed for certification.

But, again, these are minor quibbles for a package that does what it sets out to admirably.

Monday 15 November 2010

Japanese Bad Girl Cinema

So, I am thinking of programming a season of Japanese bad girl films - pinky violence type stuff.

What would you screen? My current list, of six films, is:

Zero Woman Red Handcuffs
Sex and Fury
Blind Woman's Curse
Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter
Terrifying Girls High School
Red Peony Gambler

I have avoided the Female Convict Scorpion series because it's readily available on Region 2 DVD. Admittedly Sex and Fury is as well, but it's just so cool...

One of the Rica trilogy? A Girl Boss Guerilla film?

A similar exercise with regard to Spanish horror under Franco will follow soon...

Friday 12 November 2010

Commuter Husbands

This British sex film entry from Derek Ford is not so much a comedy as a drama-documentary. Hosted by Gabrielle Drake’s sexology researcher, Carol, it presents six short vignettes purporting to explore the sexual mores of suburban Londoners in the early 1970s.

I went to drama school for this?

The first sees a husband phone his wife to tell her that he will be away on business for the weekend. In reality, however, he is planning a weekend away with his mistress. As the camera tracks back from the wife we get the first reversal in that she is in bed with her lover and happily takes this news as a chance for them to likewise have a weekend away.

Both couples then unwittingly book into the same hotel, one that is special to both the husband and wife. Things work out very civilly, however, as they go off to talk and come to the conclusion that they are best off together. Reaching a similar conclusion, their opposite numbers have paired off in the meantime...

The next segment plays on the tradesman fantasies so often found in British sex films as a plumber is summoned to a penthouse suite to do some work by a French actress (Claire Gordon) and finds a swingers party in full flow. The route from one set of plumbing to the other is, however, not a smooth and easy one...

Oh yes, not

The most interesting of the segments is also the most fantastical as a slightly long-haired but otherwise eminently respectable looking suited and bowler hatted type imagines himself as a Hells Angel type having his brutal way with any woman that tickles his fancy (innuendo deliberate).

Psychomania Rising

As one IMDB reviewer perceptively remarks, it’s a bit like a heterosexual (and thereby inherently less transgressive) reinterpretation of Kenneth Anger’s gay underground classic Scorpio Rising.


The next segment is about a middle-aged businessman who regularly visits a brothel in order that he can watch others having sex. Besides the obvious voyeurism theme – us watching him, watching them, but without consequence – the relationship between the madame and the businessman is interesting for its reversals. It reminded me a bit of the sequence in Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty in which going to the toilet is a public activity while eating is something shameful to be done in private.

Ford looks to have used a working trip abroad as the basis for an Amsterdam set segment in which another hapless, hopeless male, on another business trip, tries to attract the attentions of his tour guide and blunders into a sex shop in the process...

The final segment features Drake herself and is introduced, with a nod to De Sade, as “the misfortunes of virtue”. It sees her husband being given the responsibility for entertaining an Italian businessman, with entertaining meaning call girls. Knowing that she has a friend who’s up for most things sexually, he wonders if Drake and said friend might pose as the call girls. They can pair off, as can the Italian and the friend. Needless to say it doesn’t quite go according to plan...

None of the sex scenes featured in the film are of the hardcore type, at least in the version I saw. Nevertheless, they appear pretty close to the limits of acceptability for a British film of this time and have the definite look of material that could be tailored to the demands of a particular market and/or the censors. There is a distinction evident here between the legitimate actors and the porn extras, with the former not called upon to do much except bare some flesh sex-wise, and the latter not being called upon to do dialogue, act and react and so on.

Piccadilly Circus

The opening scenes of the film, presenting a drive round Soho – something also seen in Diversions – have the usual inadvertent documentary interest.

It goes without saying that the film’s own value is similarly sociological rather than aesthetic – or, for that matter, erotic.

Saturday 6 November 2010

Fenech fun

Justin at Filmbar70 sent me this trailer that he's put together for the Italian book 'Edwige Fenech - Il Corpo dei Settanta', or 'Edwige Fenech - The Body of the Seventies' and relates her career and the sexy comedy filone to the decade's socio-political situation.

Filmbar70 is also showing Lenzi's Almost Human on 18th November, at the Roxy Bar and Screen, London Bridge.

Mystery pictures

Gyu in Korea sent me some screengrabs and asked if I knew which film or films they are from. I do not know, but you might...

E. P. Thompson and Eurotrash

This may be a somewhat obscure post but...

In his preface to The Making of the English Working Class, E. P.Thompson famously stated:

"I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the "obsolete" hand-loom weaver, the "utopian" artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity."

If you were rewriting this with reference to European cinema who and what would you commutate into the stockinger, Luddite and so forth as filmmakers and cycles to be 'rescued'?

Friday 5 November 2010

Under the Doctor

Starring Adventures of a Taxi Driver's Barry Evans in a somewhat different role, that of a sex obsessed doctor rather than a sex obsessed cabbie, this is a middling example of the 1970s British sex comedy that manages to be of some theoretical interest.

The film is structured around three of Evans's patients, played by Penny Spencer, Hilary Pritchard and Liz Frazer and their respective case histories.

First, Spencer relates how she went for a job interview and had fantasies about her potential employer.

Next, Pritchard first tells how she obtained valuable stock market information from an upper-class broker type only to have difficulties with his lecherous butler, then of her fantasies of being an 18th century noblewoman whom two suitors are duelling over.

Finally, Frazer relates of how she has attempted to reignite the passion of her imagined husband.

The key point of significance in Spencer and Pritchard's cases, along with Fraser's fantasy, is that Evans is present, as the would-be employer, one of the suitors and the imaginary husband respectively. As such, amidst the bums, boobs and bad humour, there is the question of whose fantasies are actually being represented, and of who is projecting or transferring what onto whom.

Put another way, someone with an interest in psychoanalytic film theory really ought to look at this film and what it is 'saying' in a more or less unselfconscious / unconscious way...

For the rest of us there is also the Barry Lyndon parody of the 18th century sequence. (The film's writer, Ron Bareham, was a production accountant on the Kubrick film.)

Wednesday 3 November 2010

Giallo & Thrilling All’Italiana

This new book from Glittering Images by Antonio Bruschini and Stefano Piselli is somewhat reminiscent of Adrian Luther-Smith’s Blood and Black Lace in that it could be considered something of a viewer’s guide to the form. But while there are necessarily overlaps between the two books, they complement one another, such that the genre fan could do with having both on his or her bookshelf.

The book has four sections: An introductory overview, a filmography, a recent interview with Dario Argento, and a bibliography.

The interview and introduction don’t say anything particularly new, though in the latter case this is because there is only so much that can be said with the same basic facts. To wit: The literary giallo dates back to 1929 and the first publications by Mondadori. The giallo film, in the form we normally understand it, emerged 30 years later, with Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace. The form then reached its height of popularity in the early 1970s with Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and its successors.

The filmography section is the largest. Whereas Luther-Smith’s book is organised by title – a structure that sometimes causes difficulties with AKA titles – Giallo & Thrilling All’Italiana is arranged chronologically.

Films from the 1930s through to the 1950s are only given credits, likely reflecting difficulties in actually accessing them. Films from the 1960s onwards are also given a review/overview, ranging in length from a sentence to a paragraph, and two ratings, the first pertaining to the overall quality of the film as a giallo and the second to its sexy / kinky value.

The reader will likely disagree with some of the authors’ ratings, although they seem mostly fair and consistent. Blood and Black Lace, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red and The House with the Windows that Laughed are among the five-star films, What Have You Done to Solange, Don't Torture a Duckling and Who Saw Her Die the four-star films.

On balance, Luther-Smith’s book is probably the better one for those new to the giallo on account of featuring somewhat longer and more detailed discussions of the core group of films (those by Bava, Argento, Martino, Lenzi, Fulci etc.) with both synopsis and review and being originally written in English rather than translated, sometimes awkwardly, from the Italian.

Giallo & Thrilling All’Italiana, however, is probably the better for those venturing further afield, particularly into earlier, minor and crossover releases.

To give but one example, there is nothing about the 1960 film Chiamate 22-22 tenente Sheridan (the big-screen version of a then popular Italian TV detective series set in San Francisco) in Luther-Smith’s book.

The book is also superior when it comes to its bibliography, in that this includes giallo novels adapted for the screen along with fumetti and cineromanzi derived from films. (I had never realised before that Fernando Di Leo’s The Boys Who Killed and Duccio Tessari’s Death Occurred Last Night are adaptations of Giorgio Scerbanenco novels and feature the same detective character.)

Disappointingly the interior illustrations are only in monochrome. They are also somewhat awkwardly placed, usually with a gap of a few pages between the text and the images related to it. For instance, Bloody Pit of Horror is discussed on page 26 but the stills from it do not appear until page 32.

Wild West Gals

I must confess to being somewhat tardy in acquiring this volume from Glittering Images, only remembering about it when I became aware of their new book in the same series on the giallo (more on which soon).

The subject of the book is the figure of the female in the western, encompassing genre classics, B-grade exploitation films and the WAI or western all'italiana, better known to most of us as the spaghetti western, and in comics, both North American and European.

Or, to be more precise, it is about the woman in the western when she was assigned a more active role than was traditionally the case in the 1920s and 1930s western – and, indeed, would continue to be the case in the majority of genre entries.

The coverage of films is chronological, beginning with the likes of Destry Rides Again (1939) and My Little Chickadee (1940) and concluding with Bandidas (2006), although the bulk of the films featured are from the 1950s through 1970s.

While some of the texts featured are familiar, the vast majority are obscurities likely only known by the specialist. Yet even here, the author's completist approach, in including – for example – Joe D'Amato productions from the 1990s whose raison d'etre is frankly of the pornographic kind (I speak from experience, having been thoroughly bored by his Calamity Jane) means that any and all readers are likely to discover something new.

This is especially apparent – at least for the film-oriented reader – when it comes to the appendix on comic books / fumetti.

The book is typically well illustrated. The stills featured might be criticised as exploitative, but another way of looking at it, one made more clear by posters and other advertising materials, is that this is the entire point.

Unfortunately all the interior images are black and white. Given that this is also the case in the giallo book, this looks to be representative of a change in Glittering Images' wider policy.

One the one hand it perhaps keeps the price down. On the other hand these are, as the imprint itself used to remind us, highly specialist books, or in other words things that are not particularly price elastic. At some level, you / we / I am going to buy it while the casual browser is not, regardless of price.

French readers should also note that, unlike many of Glittering Images' earlier releases, the text is now only in Italian and English. For Italian and English readers, meanwhile, the more parallel approach within the filmography – a one paragraph précis in Italian, followed by a one paragraph précis in English – makes for a nice parallel text for learning the other language. (Note that ironic use of the French there ;-))