Monday 29 October 2012

The Four Dimensions of Greta -- in 3D

The story begins in the West Germany, where Hans Weimer (Tristan Roger, later to appear in producer-director Pete Walker's The Flesh and Blood Show and another softcore sex film, the Spinal Tap-esque titled Sex Farm) is recruited to travel to London to investigate what has happened to au pair Greta (Leena Skoog).

Hans first makes contact with Mrs Marks, with whom Greta was originally living. He learns that Greta was unhappy with the poor treatment she had received at the hands of the Marks family, who regard au pairs as “a type of servant” and whom Greta left after only a week. Hans in turn considers Mrs Marks as a “sow”, a term that gains additional resonance given Hans's nationality and the implication of the Marks/Marx name and Golder's Green residence, in that she is coded as Jewish.

Hans then meets up with Sue, with whom he visits clubs and discotheques, and makes contact with another of Greta's acquiantances, Serena; Walker, making a Hitchcockian cameo as a waiter, gets a pie in the face.

Serena tells Hans that Greta was a nasty piece of work, who exploited her and her friend Kristina, before then leaving them to work at a Soho strip club with Cynthia. (The man enticing men into the club has a patter that likely intentionally references Paul Raymond's approach, of having nude models who move rather than stay static, this prompting a raid from the clearly corrupt police.)

Hans then learns about footballer Roger Maitland (Robin Askwith), who takes a more active role in determining what has happened to Greta...

This confusingly titled entry might be considered the Citizen Kane of the British sexploitation film. That's not referring to its quality, which is no better or worse than most comparable films within the genre and time period, as much as its structure. For it is one that sees the investigator protagonist visit a series of characters who reveal what they know about the missing Greta, A mentioning B, then B mentioning C etc. These flashbacks scenes are presented in black and white, green and red, and in 3D rather than in colour and 2D, with this coding being identified in the opening credits rather than being left for the spectator to figure out. The flashbacks also feature a lot of crude “comin' at ya” shots of things being thrust forward from the screen.

One important area where The Four Dimensions of Greta -- in 3D departs from Welles's film is in placing the diegetic investigator and the viewer on an equal footing. In Welles's film the investigator never learns what Kane's dying utterance, “Rosebud”, refers to. Here, by contrast, we and the investigator simultaneously learn what has happened to Greta.

Another area where the film's classical aspect is evident is how these flashbacks are discreet and largely non-contradictory. This contrasts with another key film exploring the flashback and its relation to truth, Rashomon. Akira Kurosawa's film presents the same incident from a variety of self-interested and subjective perspectives, none of which -- including the observer who was not a participant -- can be trusted to convey the truth.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Hot Girls / For Men Only

Freddie (David Kernan) is a fashion photographer for Vogue. His fiancée Rosalie (Andrea Allen) is worried that the models will prove a temptation to him, and is pleased when Freddie is hired, sight-unseen, by Fanthorpe (Derek Aylward), the owner of some 30 or so publications with a big and small C conservative orientation.

Note the credit for "The Birds"

What nobody else knows is that Fanthorpe is also the proprietor of a cheesecake publication, For Men Only, and has hired Freddie because he thinks Freddie will prove to have a knack for glamour photography and be able to recruit some “birds” through his Vogue contacts.

Sexy secretary: "Sugar?" 
Freddie: "Two large ones please"

A further complication is provided by a rival publisher, who hopes to steal away the best of Fanthorpe’s talent and use them as the basis for his own magazine.

Running under an hour – and listed on the IMDB as being a mere 43 minutes long, rather than the 58 or so of this washed-out, scratchy Something Weird release – this early Pete Walker piece, on which he served as producer, director and writer, plays out much like a classic farce with added tits & arse.

The most interesting aspect of the film, if the viewer has seen Walker’s later horror films, particularly those written or co-written with David McGillivray, is how it prefigures aspects of them. The glamour/softcore porn industry also appeared in House of Whipcord, the attack on religious hypocrisy House of Mortal Sin.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

No Blade of Grass

The film opens with a voice-off indicating that by the early 1970s conditions were ripe for an environmental catastrophe, accompanied by a montage of stock images of pollution, over-population, rampant consumerism and starvation, culminating in the explosion of an atomic bomb.

Similar images will appear throughout, sometimes interpolated in with no direct relation to the narrative. There are also frequent flash-forwards, tinted in red, and flashbacks, with the narrative sometimes chopping back and forward between past and present without clearly indicating so.

The catastrophe, as indicated by the title, stems from a plant disease that attacks grasses – i.e. the key crops for men and livestock alike. First appearing in East Asia, the disease is reported to have spread to Africa and South America, with the current death toll estimated at hundreds of millions in these areas. Social order in India has broken down and starving refugees from China have flooded into Hong Kong.

Not that any of this, as reported on the television playing in an up-market restaurant or club, appears to have had much effect on most of its patrons, a cross section of gluttonous bourgeois grotesques who seem to have wandered in from an Eisenstein or Buñuel film.

Three of those present have a different understanding. One, Roger Burnham (John Hamill), is government scientist party to information that the media dare not reveal. The second, his friend John Custance (Nigel Davenport), is an architect and ex-military man. The third, John’s brother David (Patrick Holt), owns a farm in the Lake District.

David advises John that he and his family should leave London as soon as possible and head for his farm. David says Roger can come along as well, in case they need someone for the pot – a joke whose reality is then indicated by news reports of cannibalism in some parts of the world.

With cities of over 300,000 people about to be sealed off and martial law imposed, along with rumours that there is only a week’s supply of food remaining, John and Roger decide to get out of London.

There’s a nice sequence of match edits around this point, as filmmaker Cornel Wilde cuts from John and Roger’s shocked “Jesus!” and “Christ!” to the image of John’s son Davey at his public school, a choir singing “Was born for thee...” on the soundtrack. Davey then coughs, his cough being taken up by a man on TV who is interviewing government ecologist Sir Charles Brenner (Burnham’s boss) about recent developments.

It seems the Chinese government has nerve gassed 300 million of its own people. Brenner accepts this action as rational in the circumstances, being “necessary for survival”. He then predictably evades the question of whether similar measures would be countenanced for the UK.

The group barely manage to get out of London after getting caught up in a confrontation between a hungry mob and the police – a scene whose images of the former using petrol bombs and the latter teargas and rifles perhaps had a special resonance for British audiences of the time in relation to the Northern Ireland “Troubles”.

The refugees go to pick up Davey and agree to take his friend ‘Spooks’ with them. Their next task is to get some guns and ammunition from a gunshop owner Custance knows, Mr Sturdevant. Sturdevant trusts the authorities and refuses to hand over the weapons, even when Custance explains how things are only going to get worse. Custance and Burnham move to take the guns, only to find themselves covered by Sturdevant’s assistant, Pirrie. Pirrie proves more amenable to Custen’s arguments, shoots his erstwhile employer and throws in his lot with the refugees.

Their next encounter is a roadblock manned by soldiers, whom they find themselves forced to kill:

Ann Custance: “There was no other way, was there darling?”
John: “No”

Clara Pirrie: “Why did you do all the shooting?”
Pirrie: “I had to”

The violence and disorder continue to escalate as the group continue on their way towards David’s farm, with encounters including a marauding biker gang, who rape the Custance’ 16 year old daughter Mary (Lynne Frederick); a rural posse who take their food, vehicles and weapons; a Farmer Palmer type who refuses them food, with predictable consequences; another group of refugees with a pig-headed self-appointed leader, and soldiers who mutiny against their commanding officer. Then, by the time the farm has been reached brother is pitted against brother...

Though released after George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead this survivalist horror can also be seen as a follow-up to director-producer-co-screenwriter Wilde’s own The Naked Prey. In that film a group of white hunters in Africa anger the native population – this, of course, a staple theme of the cannibal film – and are killed with the exception of one of their number, who is then allowed to fight for his life in a Most Dangerous Game type man-hunt.

For the main theme of the film, that of the narrow boundary between modern/civilised and primitive/savage man is one that recurs here and which can also be seen in a number of films of the time, including Straw Dogs, Deliverance, Deep River Savages, Last Cannibal World, and The Hills Have Eyes.

A significant difference between No Blade of Grass is the way it approaches the issue of the other. For in No Blade of Grass there is not an identifiable 'other' against which 'we', via our on-screen representatives, are positioned. Rather, there is the rapid emergence of a state of war of all against all, as per Hobbes or Bataille, where the enemy is (or was) us:

Ann: What kind of people are you?
Leader of posse who rob them: Same kind of people you are, ma’am.

As such, the main reason we identify with the protagonists is more that it is their story we are following rather than their being particularly morally superior to their antagonists, the exceptions being the rapist bikers and the establishment elites.

This scene is also notable for seeing Ann, who had previously questioned the necessity for violence, taking Pirrie’s rifle and cold-bloodedly shooting a wounded biker as he pleads for mercy.

One perceptive IMDB commentator has suggested that there are some intriguing parallels between No Blade of Grass’s main quest narrative, of the search for the promised land, and the Old Testament story of Exodus, with John and Pirrie the Moses and Joshua figures respectively.

While sometimes clunky in its execution, No Blade of Grass remains worth a look for its chilling and plausible portrayal of apocalypse. For ordinary people like us, driven to extremes, are ultimately more terrifying than flesh-eating animated corpses or humans effectively zombified by an implausible rage virus...

Monday 15 October 2012

The Snow Devils / La morte viene dal pianeta Aytin

Earth, some time in the future. A weather monitoring station notes an impossible spike in temperature and is then attacked by an unseen force. All the staff are killed bar one, whose fate is unknown. The authorities at the UDSCO (United Democracies Space Command) send an expedition into the Himalayas, where they believe the source of the trouble is located – a suspicion enhanced by the sabotaging of the mission’s aircraft. This forces the team to proceed on foot, accompanied by a native guide and bearers. The bearers soon flee, but the team continue on. They discover a secret base, filled with advanced technology. The base is inhabited by a number of large green hairy creatures, which they initially take to be Yeti. The creatures’ leader then reveals, however, that they are actually from another planet, Aytin. As Aytin was about to become uninhabitable, they decided to take over the Earth. It is similar to their homeworld, but for its higher temperature. Accordingly the aliens have decided to melt the Polar ice caps, flooding large areas of the Earth, then freeze the oceans. The alien leader also stupidly – if predictably – reveals that their main power source is located elsewhere...

Directed by Antonio Margheriti, who has a producer credit as Anthony Marghertiti and a directorial credit as Anthony Dawson, this is one of those entertaining 1960s science-fiction films whose contemporary watch-ability arguably derives as much from the vision of the future it presents as anything else: Silver jumpsuits; pistols that seem more like blow torches when fired; domed, finned concept cars; computers whose main method of output is a printout onto continuous paper, and so on.

An obvious point of comparison, besides the director's other science-fiction entries of the period, is Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires. Bava and Margheriti were, after all, both filmmakers working in the popular filone cinema, under comparatively low budgets and with a knack for achieving effects and results that belied these impecunious circumstances.

It is, however, possible to identify authorial differences between the films. Planet of the Vampires is more reliant upon non-naturalistic lighting to create its alien landscape out of a studio space. The Snow Devils makes more use of location shooting – presumably with the Alps or Dolomites standing in for the Himalayas – and of actual sets. Bava makes more use of mattes, Margheriti of miniatures, which generally work, and stock footage, which is generally less satisfactory.

Moreover, while both films see their protagonists or identification figures facing off against hostile aliens, Margheriti’s is the more straightforward due to giving these aliens a visible and inhuman form, such that the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is obvious. His film’s resolution is also predictable and lacks the delicious ironies of Bava’s.

The Snow Devils benefits from a good Eurotrash cast, headed by Jack Stuart/Giacomo Rossi-Stuart and also including the likes of John Bartha and Franco Ressel in minor roles, plus a jaunty Angelo Francesco Lavagnino score.

No, it’s not 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it does feature a thought-provoking take on the climactic Star Wars type battle. For those monitoring the UDSCO strike force sent against the aliens’ base near one of Jupiter’s moons are receiving information from the strike force at a five minute delay. They can do nothing to advise or assist their colleagues nor affect the outcome of something that has already happened. Equally, however, the filmmakers do not subvert things further, as by only showing what happens (or more precisely has happened) from the Earth team’s perspective on their monitors, instead cross-cutting between the two crucially different points in time-space.

Monday 8 October 2012

The Fiend / Beware My Brethen poster

Going to be showing this at the Edinburgh Film Guild on Friday...

It is an intriguing film - a slasher where the identity of the killer is known, and where his murders are motivated by his religious upbringing.

Italian Hitchcock obsession

Another Italian locandina sort of referencing Hitchcock:

Death Shock

After their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere – this seeming to entail a confusion between the urban Norwich and rural Norfolk – six horny young men and women, two heterosexual couples and one lesbian, flag down an old-fashioned car driven by a man wearing a dog collar.

The youngsters ask for a lift to the nearest petrol station, but the man tells them it is 12 miles away – too far out of his way. Fortunately there is a manor house, the Grange, about a mile away and the man/vicar agrees to drive them to it.

The owner of the Grange seems surprisingly welcoming and prepared (perhaps in the manner of Dracula’s servant Klove in Dracula Prince of Darkness, if we can accept promotional descriptions of the film as spoofing Hammer) and the group are encouraged to have a meal and stay the night. Said meal later turns out to have been laced with substantial quantities of aphrodisiac.

This affects the two heterosexual couples most strongly, insofar as one of the two lesbians professes to be ‘not in the mood’ when her partner goes to use a dildo on her – albeit with said partner then going to join one of the heterosexual couples for a threesome (“come and join us”).

Eventually it is revealed that the apparent vicar and the denizens of the Grange are Satanists and that the younger lesbian, the one not in the mood, is “a virgin of 16 summers” and thus the perfect material for an unholy rite; never mind that she looks, and indeed undoubtedly was, for legal reasons, older.

Death Shock is an example of the lowest common denominator of the British sex film in the late 1970s and early 1980s, others being Mary Millington’s Striptease Extravaganza and Queen of the Blues.

Anyone want to do an auteurist analysis of these guys? In time it will probably happen...

Running barely three quarters of an hour the majority of Death Shock’s running time is filled with unconvincing sex scenes, the kind where the filmmakers had to be careful about avoiding anything that could fall foul of the censors -- penetration, ejaculation, erect penises, spread vaginas etc.

Even at this length the film is padded out.

First there is an opening scene in which a young woman hears chanting, gets off her bike to investigate, discovers some cultists, and is then pursued (conveniently catching her skirt on a raised nail), caught and sacrificed.

Then, as the main characters drive on, there is a minute or two of long shots of their car while the inane dialogue is done in voice-off.

The writing is such that the name of the younger lesbian is not mentioned until the final scene – “where’s [Susan|Sarah]?” “He I am!” – hence my inability to remember the character’s name.

Of those involved three have names of note, at least within their specific generic area, namely Lindsay Honey/Steve Perry, Linzi Drew, and Bill Wright. Honey, better known as Ben Dover, and Wright, better known as Frank Thring, independently appeared in and directed hundreds of porn films during the 1990s and early 2000s. Drew’s fame was more immediate in terms of being a regular in certain “men’s magazines” (read softcore porn) of the time. She was/is Honey’s partner.

The direction is perfunctory, albeit with at least one moment of vague visual imagination when a mirrored shot pulls back to reveal the actual image.

Thankfully this never happened, unlike the Fantom Killer series

The most intriguing aspect of the film, for me, was how it again highlighted a major distinction between UK softcore and US/Continental European hardcore of the time: In the UK film was the ability of the male performers to not get an unwanted erection valued in a comparable way to the ability of those elsewhere to achieve a wanted one?

Friday 5 October 2012

The Nude Princess / La principessa nuda

Ajita Wilson, who plays the title character, was an African-American transgender male to female who found work in a number of European sexploitation films in the 1970s and 1980s -- including roles with Carlos Aured and Jess Franco -- before dying as a result of a road accident in 1987. While some of her roles, such as in Eva Man alongside the intersexed Eva Robins, played upon this aspect of her biography others, including this one, do not. (Robins may be most familiar to from his role as the woman in the red shoes in Tenebrae's flashback scenes.)

The Nude Princess is Miriam Zamota, a US-born former model with a law degree, who has since married Kaboto, the ruler of the African country of Taslamia. She is sent by her husband as the head of a trade delegation to Milan, Italy, with the job of negotiating Italian industrialists' construction of various public works and infrastructural projects in Taslamia.

One of the Italian trade delegates meets Miriam

The first complication is that the Italians do not intend to play fair: Rather than submitting separate tenders, they agree to collude and divide up the commissions between them. The second is the presence of an industrial spy Gladys, played by Tina Aumont. The third is the desire of scandal sheet journalist Marco, played by Luigi Pistilli, to catch Zamota in a compromising position. The fourth is the presence of protesters against Kaboto's regime, along with dissidents and refugees from it.

Some of these complications prove more easily resolved than others -- the Italian businessmen and the industrial spy are smitten by Zamota's beauty. Others prove more complicated, notably Zamota's relations with her countryfolk. For when Zamota is taken to a 'primitive'/'native' religious ceremony/drug party/orgy she has a flashback to a traumatic incident, revealing a previously unknown (or repressed) facet to her relationship with Kaboto. Here, in the Germaine Greer influenced feminist discourse then current she remarks “I’m a female eunuch”

One of the ceremony/party/orgy participants

Writer/director Cesare Canevari has a filmography that can best be described as unusual. Over the course of 20 years he directed nine features, five of which I have now seen: A Hyena in a Strongbox; Matalo!; I, Emmanuelle; this, and The Gestapo's Last Orgy. The main characteristics of these are that they fit into identifiable genres or filone -- Hyena is a crime thriller with Gothic overtones -- but don't always quite play as you would expect -- Matalo! is a Western, but one that seems to dispense with the main antagonist too early on, then presents some Antonioni-esque “dead time” in a deserted town, not to mention a boomerang throwing protagonist.

The one with most in common with The Nude Princess is probably the following year's Nazisadism entry. Both are unsurprisingly exploitative and sleazy, with extensive nudity and softcore sex, yet also have a degree of socio-political comment and artistry to them.

The main theme is the legacies of colonialism, both for the European and the African. Kaboto professes that the only white man he respects is Adolf Hitler, while his dictatorship is presented as a positive, Westernising force in the promotional film shown.

Mocking the neo-colonialist?

The main method, as expressed by this film within the film and Pistilli's occupation, is to constantly make us aware of the mediated nature of the images presented. For elsewhere the image is rarely stable, with Canevari liking to zoom in and out, move the camera independently of the characters, and rapidly cross-cutting between seemingly unconnected scenes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it's tiresome. A nice touch is when he presents us with a line of four character's faces, racking focus to bring three of them into sharp relief, one after the other.

In sum, one of those films that's not quite art, but not quite trash either. Or, to put it another way, the kind of film I tend to like...