Friday 28 September 2012

Emanuelle in the Country / L'infermiera di campagna

Despite its alternate title this 1978 film has no real connection to the Emanuelle series other than the welcome presence of Laura Gemser and the inevitable nude and softcore scenes featuring her, along with the equally inevitable co-starring role given her real-life husband, Gabriele Tinti.

Gemser's character is Dottoressa Selenia Anselmi, who has recently been appointed as doctor in a small coastal town, Bolsena. Her arrival proves predictably disruptive as nearly every male in the place immediately falls for her, including Marco Rossi, the son of Communist candidate for mayor (Rossi being a common Italian surname, and also meaning red for an obvious political reference), who already in love with the daughter of the incumbent Christian Democrat mayor. Cue Romeo and Juliet(s) as a sex comedy all'italiana...

Gemser's role is much like that played by Edwige Fenech in the Schoolteacher and Nurse films made around the same time. However, whereas Fenech in these films displayed a talent for comedy, Gemser here is her usual blank, if beautiful, self. The notable difference between the two stars approaches is perhaps that whereas the Fenech comedy situation would see her undress for a shower scene, notice those watching her and then react, the comedy in its Gemser equivalent likely focuses on her observers, as she will likely neither notice them nor react.

Does the position of the window and the shot from within the bathroom correspond to the voyeur's POV? I suppose the target audience of the time would neither notice nor care.

The more damaging aspects of the film, however, are the general poverty of the production -- flat direction, clumsy editing and use of library music -- and several scenes of unattractive men and women groping and fumbling. Do you really want to see Aldo Sambrell getting it on, for instance?

A commentary on Italian politics of the time? -- the Communists and the Christian Democrats in a stand off

Perhaps the most telling presence here, however, is Mark Shannon/Manlio Certosino, later to appear alongside Gemser in Joe D'Amato's Erotic Nights of the Living Dead and Porno Holocaust. For director Alan W. Cool, a pseudonym for Mario Bianchi, would go on to establish himself as one of D'Amato's main rivals in the Italian hardcore porn cinema/video of the 1980s and 1990s.

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Nice poster homage

One of my local cinemas is playing Berberian Sound Studio, which has this poster:

It looks like a nice nod to the Italian Four Flies on Grey Velvet poster, doesn't it?

Monday 24 September 2012

Sweeney 2

The commercial success of Sweeney! the film ensured a sequel would soon follow. Though entitled Sweeney 2, the story here does not follow on from its predecessor and generally plays like an extended episode of the TV series, with a straightforward cops and robbers plot rather than a high-level conspiracy

The film starts in media res with George Carter (Dennis Waterman) in charge of an operation against a gang of blaggers, whilst his superior Jack Regan (John Thaw) has been called upon as a defence witness for his old boss, Jupp (Denholm Elliot), who is facing corruption charges.

As with Sweeney! Regan and Carter's usual boss, Haskins, is absent. His absence is less noticeable. For one thing his substitute Dilke (Nigel Hawthorne) occupies a similar role. For another the back-story between Regan and Jupp is both shown in flashbacks and proves relevant to the current case -- one that sees a rare failure for the Sweeney, along with the deaths of bystanders, hostages and blaggers alike, one of the latter being killed by his compatriots in a manner reminiscent of The Wild Bunch. (To reinforce the Peckinpah connection one of the robbers is played by Ken Hutchison of Straw Dogs.)

Notably we don't see all this, only the aftermath and Regan's encounter with the father of the hostage and learning that his regular driver, Big John, has had to have a foot amputated. This both gives Regan an additional personal stake in the case and results in the young, likely university educated, vegetarian Robert being assigned him, leading to some amusing culture clash interplay.

Regan and Carter's pursuit of the blaggers is complicated by the fact that they live in Malta, outside the Sweeney's jurisdiction. The gang are of comfortable, educated backgrounds and decided to leave the UK with their families because of their belief the country was finished.

Some nice rack focus and point of view

While these aspects of the writing work well and give the film a socio-political edge, the gang's modus operandi of always taking the same amount of money -- and thus leaving anything in excess of it -- and use of a sawn-off, gold-plated Purdey shotgun, seem gimmicky. (Just how do they take the gun in and out of the UK?)

A sense of padding out the running time is evident in a stand-alone sequence that sees Regan and Carter being called to a hotel where a bomb has been found. While perhaps reflecting the reality of being interrupted by unpredictable events, and topical, it felt too long to be throwaway but insufficiently developed to constitute a sub-plot to me. One thing this sequence does do, however, is present Patrick Malahide as one of the police involved with the case. Malahide was, after all, soon to become a regular alongside Waterman in Euston's next major series, Minder.

In sum, of interest if you like the TV series or 1970s gritty crime films.

A nice extended discussion of the film is here:

Sunday 23 September 2012


This was the first of two film spin offs from the popular Thames Television series and marked Euston Films first actual venture into the big screen. All the regular cast are present with the exception of DI Jack Regan (John Thaw) and DS George Carter’s (Dennis Waterman’s) superior officer, Frank Haskins (Garfield Morgan). This is because the plot sees Regan being isolated from and then suspended from the titular Sweeney -- Cockney rhyming slang for Flying Squad -- including for a time Carter. As such, Regan’s boss has to be someone the audience has no prior knowledge of or empathy with. While Regan and Haskins were often at odds over methods, both men knew that they could rely on one another when it mattered.

Another difference from the TV series is that the usual Sweeney versus Blaggers (i.e. armed robbers) narrative is dealt with in the second sequence of the film, the first having shown the murder of a prostitute, Janice Wyatt, as a means to compromise and pressurise the alcoholic Government Oil Minister Baker (Ian Bannen), with whom she had been in a relationship.

The mastermind behind the scheme (which has affinities with the way Michael Corleone deals with Senator Geary in The Godfather Part II) is McQueen (Barry Foster, at the time the star of another Thames/Euston series, Van Der Valk), a US lobbyist. Regan then gets brought in because the now legit gangster who had given him a tip off about the blaggers, Ronnie Brent, had also been in a relationship with Janice, and doubts she committed suicide.

Initially Regan is sceptical, but when Ronnie and his men are machine-gunned by two of McQueen’s men posing as police officers, he realises that Ronnie was right. After a few drinks Regan is then stopped by these same ‘policemen’ for driving under the influence. He tries to get them to let him off by playing on his force connection, but is instead arrested, force-fed a bottle of whiskey and then sent off in his car. He crashes and, having been caught driving whilst inebriated, is suspended from duty and finds himself under investigation and target as he continues to dig into the Profumo Affair-like conspiracy.

What makes the conspiracy especially interesting is that McQueen had previously been employed by the British and has now found a backer, likely an US rather than a Soviet one, willing to pay more, thus indicating that duplicity and dirty tricks are to be found amongst allies with an alleged Special Relationship and, indeed, between different agencies within the individual state, as when Regan is encouraged to drop the case by a civil servant type.

It’s a cynical attitude that is as one with the hard-bitten sensibilities of the TV show and, arguably, mid-late 1970s Britain as a whole. In this light the film’s treatment of party politics is also significant. For Baker is also being encouraged by his unseen, unnamed PM to manipulate the oil price -- a topical issue in the light of OPEC and North Sea Oil at the time -- to effect a short-term boom, allowing his aging Prime Minister's Government to win a snap election and thereby remain in power for another few years, rather than face life in the shadows of opposition, regardless of what it means for the longer-term benefit of the nation and its population.

There’s a bit more swearing and violence than was permissible or acceptable in the TV series. Sometimes these more ‘adult’ elements are a touch obvious, whether positively -- the Peckinpah-esque gunning down of Ronnie and his men, with its bullet ballets of death and close-up of a submachine gun firing at the spectator in the manner of the closing image of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia -- or negatively -- the commutation of a number of “bastards” to “fucks” or George saying he has to “go take a piss”.

In the end, however this Sweeney (!) film at least has an organic connection to its TV source which the new Sweeney likely lacks.

For I recently watched 2012 Sweeney director Nick Love’s remake of Alan Clarke’s football casual production The Firm, finding it to be a severe case of style over substance, in both the late 1980s period fashions and Love’s directorial approach, and in the absence of the subtext and insight Clarke brought to the material.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

A Complex of Carnage: Dario Argento Beneath the Surface

This is one of a number of recently released books from Glitter Books in their Cult Movie Files series, edited and introduced by Jack Hunter. It contains essays previously published by Creation Press, particularly in Andy Black's Necronomicon series of the mid-late 1990s, collected by their subject, psychoanalytic interpretations of Dario Argento's films.

There are four essays: Xavier Mendik's 'Detection and Transgression', and 'Monstrous Mother', Ray Guins' 'Tortured Looks', and Julian Hoxter's 'Anna with a Devil Inside'.

The first of Mendik's essays uses Freud, Lacan and Zizek to argue for the deviant characteristics of detection in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Tenebrae, in line with the former film's female aggressor and the latter's murderous protagonist.

Guins' essay examines Deep Red and Opera by way of Mulvey's seminal essays, but with an interesting twist by focusing on visual displeasure rather than pleasure.

Mendik's second essay examines figures of abjection and/or the monstrous feminine in Italian cinema via Kristeva's essay on the former and Creed's application of it to horror cinema in terms of the latter.

Finally, Hoxter's essay uses Klein's object relations theory to examine figures of the good and bad mother in The Stendhal Syndrome.

The key strength of the volume lies in the consistency of approach, insofar as all three authors draw from the same broad theoretical corpus. Indirectly it also provides a useful guide for further reading around such work.

Contrariwise, the obvious weakness of psychoanalytic film theory as a whole is its unverifiable (or, to use Popper's term, “falsifiable”) nature: you either believe in it or, as with cognitivists such as Bordwell and Carroll do not.

When applied to Argento's films, meanwhile, the notion of a gendered gaze is problematised by the frequent inability to identify the source of the gaze. The famous Louma crane shot in Tenebrae is, after all, not identified with a human. Likewise the New York apartment block in Inferno is identified as female and male simultaneously, being both the repository of the “filthy secrets” of Mater Tenebrarum and the “body” of its architect, Varelli.

In sum, worth picking up if you don't already have the original Necronomicon volumes in which the essays appeared.

Giallo Score Project

Giallo score project -- not giallo soundtracks but a way of quantifying how far the films match up to an ideal-typical giallo:

On the Game

This 1974 entry from producer-director Stanley Long examines the theme of prostitution through the ages via a series of vignettes that take us from prehistoric times through to the present day or even the future, giving several interesting facts (or possibly factiods) along the way.

We begin with a low-budget pastiche of the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey as a male ape barters the sexual services of a female in exchange for some eggs that he has gathered. It may be a black monolith moment in the history that Long is recounting, but there is no triumphant music nor a match cut bridging countless millenia.

Following this the narrative turns to ancient times, identifying Biblical taboos on prostitution along with the different approaches found in Babylonia, Greece and Rome.

In Babylonia, we are told, women were required to serve as religious prostitutes until they had lost their virginity, the sting in the tale being provided by a man approaching a woman only to then find out that she is a severe butterface --- i.e. everything else is fine, but her face isn’t.

In Greece brothels served as places of sanctuary, the problem being that having entered it was frequently impossible to leave.

In Rome prostitutes were licensed by the state, but having assumed the role were then forbidden to marry. Apparently they also had to wear blue or yellow wigs.

One exception to the first point was the Empress Messalina, whose exploits servicing the needs of several legionnaires are depicted via two ever increasing piles of breastplates and coins.

Following this there is the a jump in time to the Victorian era, where a masked husband and wife are predictably shocked when they unmask one another.

So far, very much a fun romp through the ages, Charles Grey’s voice-over getting the right mondo-style balance between serious and supercilious, while also helping paper over the usual weaknesses in the acting department when many performers are cast for their looks and willingness to disrobe and engage in softcore shenanigans. (Grey would, of course, undertake a similar narrator role the following year for The Rocky Horror Picture Show.)

It isn’t all fun and games, however, with a sequence in which a woman accused of being a prostitute is treated to the ducking stool treatment by an angry mob that results in her demise – images that perhaps intentionally recall Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General, Long having served as cameraman on Michael Reeves’ previous film, The Sorcerors.

Another, more jarring tonal shift occurs between vignettes of a German army field brothel in the First World War and of Second World War era British conscripts being shown a film about VD that includes several stills of diseased male and female genitalia that clearly came straight out of an actual sex hygiene film or a medical textbook.

Trivia fans may also care to note that the De Wolfe library cue that plays over the opening cartoon credits later appeared as that supposedly being played by the musicians in Mary Millington’s World Striptease Extravaganza.

Thursday 13 September 2012

Stanley Long RIP

British exploitation filmmaker Stanley Long has sadly died. His memoirs, published a few years ago, are well worth a read.

Monday 10 September 2012

European Nightmares

Following a short general introduction European Nightmares divides into seven sections, each prefaced by a separate introduction/overview from the volume's editors.

The first section deals with the Reception and Perception of European horror cinema, the other six with national or regional horror cinemas, the British, French, Spanish, Italian, Germany/Northern Europe, and Turkey/Eastern Europe.

The first section begins with Peter Hutching’s chapter, in which he emphasises the difficulty of defining Eurohorror as a distinct genre. Hutchings first compares Resident Evil and Suspiria, noting that while both films have US and European elements the former is rarely considered Eurohorror whereas the latter is perhaps the quintessential Eurohorror film.

Hutchings then takes a more historical focus, noting how the 1960s and 1970s typically saw English-language critics refer to continental horror films as Italian horror, Spanish horror, or other nationally specific instances of horror. Eurohorror, as an overarching descriptive label, dated from the 1980s and 1990s.

In the UK this was indirectly encouraged by the Video Nasties moral panic, in that Italian and Spanish films were disproportionately represented in the lists of banned titles, and then by the efforts of fan-critics such as Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs to identify common traits. (One productive line of inquiry here may be to see if a random sample of European horror films have what David Bordwell terms a “group style” or if a Eurohorror group style, as implied by Tohill and Tombs' invocation of the fantastique, might be discerned.)

Brigid Cherry’s chapter follows neatly on from Hutchings by again emphasising the importance of Suspiria whilst shifting the focus of attention somewhat from critic to fan discourses (though as indicated in the earlier chapter, these boundaries are permeable). Using material drawn from internet discussion forums, she suggests that a distinction may also be drawn between Eurohorror and Eurogore, with audience preferences for one, other, or both tending to correlate with gender and level of subcultural capital, female viewers preferring horror over gore and older or longer term viewers possessing greater subcultural capital. Unfortunately subsequent chapters will not address this distinction.

Ernst Mathjis and Russ Hunter’s chapter looks at the particular place of horror within Belgian cinema culture, or rather its peculiar absence. For while internationally successful as horror films, The Devil’s Nightmare, Daughters of Darkness, Man Bites Dog and The Ordeal were invariably discussed by Belgian critics in other terms and treated negatively.

The final chapter in this section, by David Huxley, looks at the reception of domestic and continental horror productions in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s from both the censors and critics. He indicates that a range of views were evident from the outset and that generally they became better regarded in the more liberal context of the 1960s.

Huxley’s chapter leads smoothly onto the section on British horror cinema, which has two chapters looking at Village of the Damned and at a number of genre films, including Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later produced during the period of New Labour government (1997-2010).

Both chapters, authored by John Sears and Linnie Blake respectively, make broadly socio-political readings of the films as symptomatic of wider issues such as class and gender.

While the editors’ introduction to the section on French horror cinema mentions Jean Rollin and the lack of recognition and discussion accorded his work in his native land, he is also ironically absent from this collection, with the chapters by Emily Brick and Matthias Hurst instead concentrating upon more recent films, namely Baise-moi and Switchblade Romance.

Brick situates the former film in the context of the rape-revenge subgenre, Hurst the latter in relation to questions of gender, identity and subjectivity. (It is difficult to write about Switchblade Romance without spoiling its twist ending, though a comparison with The Grip of the Strangler, Tenebrae and/or The Stendhal Syndrome might prove constructive.)

By this point the strengths and weaknesses of the collection are becoming evident. On the one hand there is no dogmatic attachment to any particular theory. On the other hand this makes the study a bit less cohesive. This is also apparent in the three chapters on Spanish horror cinema.

In the first Paul Willis notes that most studies of Spanish horror films of the 1960s and 1970s have tended to foreground their anti-Francoist characteristics. Such studies, however, neglect the strain of Spanish horror that is more reactionary than progressive. One example of this is the Paul Naschy vehicle Exorcismo, which Willis sees as presenting a negative portrayal of youth culture and a positive one of the Catholic religion that was a bedrock of the regime.

In the second Phil Smith looks at the Blind Dead and the zombie more generally (including those of Romero and Fulci) in relation to the Situationist notion of aimless wandering. While certainly an interesting idea, this is one of those pieces where you suspect the author came to the films via the theory rather than to a theory via the films.

In the third Barry Jordan looks at the contemporary Spanish horror films of Alejando Amenabar, particularly his early shorts. Their place within a distinctive national tradition is, however, somewhat unclear. Amenabar indicates his influences to be Hollywood filmmakers, while Jordan says that he makes his films as if Spanish horror cinema had not existed. As such, it might be questioned whether Amenabar is really a Eurohorror filmmaker in the De Ossorio or Fulci manner.

The section on Italian horror has two chapters. The first, by Mark Goodall, looks at Bruno Mattei’s Zombie Creeping Flesh/Hell of the Living Dead and highlights the often under-acknowledged influence of the earlier mondo cycle on Italian horror. The second, by Anna Powell, looks at Suspiria from a Deleuzean perspective, challenging psychoanalytic interpretations of Argento’s work.

If there’s a problem with both discussions it is in not offering much that is new. Goodall, after all, is the author of a book on the mondo film, while Powell had earlier written about Suspiria in Deleuze and Horror film.

While the introduction to the section on German and North European horror films mentions the krimi as a horror/thriller genre the three subsequent chapters focus on the Hollywood career of Robert Siodmak, Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg, and Michael Haneke's films, with varying degrees of success.

It is hard to see the relevance of Mark Jancovich's chapter on Siodmak's Hollywood career in the 1930s and 1940s, given the claimed post-War European focus of the collection. Worse, Jancovich could have discussed Siodmak's 1957 West German horror-thriller Nights When the Devil Comes, based on the real story of a serial killer at large in Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

Samuel Umland's discussion of the relationship between The Serpent's Egg and Fritz Lang's Mabuse films, especially The Testament of Dr Mabuse, is more interesting and thought-provoking, as when he draws out the meanings attached to particular character names in Bergman's film and oeuvre.

Catherine Wheatley's chapter on Michael Haneke's horrors of everyday life emphasises the arthouse at the expense of the grindhouse. It also spends some of its time discussing the French-set (and titled) Cache when, for my money at least, an analysis of Gerard Kargl's Angst would have been more nation-specific.

The concluding section on Eastern Europe contains one general overview chapter, by Christina Stojanova, and two focusing on Hungarian and Turkish horror cinemas specifically, by Patricia Allmer and Kaya Özkaracular.

The overview chapter by introduces John Carpenter's distinction between a left-wing Frankensteinian horror, in which the threat comes from within, and a right-wing Draculean horror, in which the threat comes from outwith. It's an interesting thesis and perhaps one which could have been applied more widely in relation to earlier chapters, most notably that on Spanish horror, given that films were frequently set outside Spain.

That the book concludes with Turkish horror makes sense given the country's position at the margin of Europe and dominant religious tradition being Islam rather than Christianity. Both factors are to the fore in the films discussed, notably the self-explanatory Dracula in Istanbul and The Exorcist rip-off Seytan.

All in all, another useful collection, but also one which points to the need for volumes devoted to particular national horror cinemas beyond the British and the Italian.

Thursday 6 September 2012

We're back

Well, I had my viva yesterday and passed it. While I have the inevitable corrections and amendments to make to the PhD thesis, I should have a bit more time to be able to post more regularly here once more.

So if anyone is interested in a reading of Leone and Argento's films as examples of a Deleuzean hybridity of movement-images and time-images let me know ;-)