1978 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL AND THE FURY

We open 1978 with a double feature of also-rans from the nunsploitation genre. It appears the not-so-good sisters unwittingly blessed the exploitation/horror/science fiction genres, because the year is chock-full of titles that cleaned up at the box office.

The Sins of Sister Lucia (directed by Koyu Ohara) isn’t boring with its ramped-up sleaze and nudity quota, but it’s derivative of every nunspolitation feature made, without a single surprise. It was a hit in Japan where the genre was gold.

 Behind Convent Walls (directed by Walerian Borowczyk) manages to be a dull affair, even with bestiality thrown in.

 Zombies go to the mall in Dawn of the Dead, George Romero’s belated sequel to Night of the Living Dead (1968). It was a huge critical and commercial success, with the late Roger Ebert proclaiming it one of the greatest horror films ever made. Unnerving and well-crafted, it still can’t match the original, and Romero topped it this year with his masterpiece (part 2). Zack Snyder remade DOTD in 2004. Not surprisingly, it’s a piece of crap.

John Carpenter’s Halloween became the most successful independent film up to its time, setting the mold for American slasher films, and consequently having much to answer for. It’s supremely well-crafted and still holds up far better than the bulk of its offshoots and pseudo-sequels. Doc Loomis ( Donald Pleasance) warns of the evil known as Michael Myers, who escapes the asylum and steals a William Shatner mask, guaranteeing a visceral Halloween night for Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis, who became the modern scream queen, as her mother, Janet Leigh had been for Psycho). Carpenter’s handling of the violence is near perfect, but the supernatural ending is a curious misstep.

The Toolbox Murders (directed by Dennis Donnelly) has a cult reputation as being one of the sleaziest and grittiest low-budget films ever made. It stars Cameron Mitchell and earns its rep.

Don Siegel’s orginal Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an undisputed genre classic and one of the best films of the Fifties, which makes Philip Kauffman’s kinetic 1978 version all the more surprising, because it’s equally superb and excitingly expands on and reinvents the original. Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright,  Jeff Goldblum, and Leonard Nimoy do exceptional work. Don Siegel, Kevin McCarthy, and Robert Duvall have memorably chilling cameos in a film that puts contemporary horror to shame. This was the second of four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novella. The Body Snatchers (1993, directed by Abel Ferrara) is a successful further variation, but The Invasion (2007) was one visit too many.

Take a big director, a big author (Ira Levin), and a couple of big stars, put them in a big budget Hollywood production of a popular exploitation genre (Nazisploitation) and show those indie filmmakers how to do it. The result is the laughably ludicrous The Boys from Brazil. Director Franklin J. Schaffner is wrong for the material, but he’s not as wrongheaded as Gregory Peck playing mad Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele. At the time, the whereabouts of the Auschwitz Angel of Death was unknown, which opened a path for much paranoid speculation that went both ways. As was discovered in the mid 1980s, Mengele was actually hiding on a farm in Brazil, an unrepentant but pathetic figure, jumping at his shadow daily until his 1979 drowning.

Here, Mengele spearheads an underground Forth Reich that is cloning an army of Hitlers. It could just as easily have been titled They Saved Hitler’s DNA. Peck’s performance veers from typical woodenness to bizarre cartoonishness, shorn of authentic menace, which at least suits a movie that feels like bad sci-fi Nazi pulp put out by DC Comics. There’s no frightening banality to it, which is what Fascism is all about (in his last starring role in 2003, Charlton Heston almost unwittingly nailed that quality as Mengele in the little seen, but still not very good My Father, Rua Alguem 5555). The Boys from Brazil is further burdened by comical German accents, including that of Laurence Olivier, who co-stars as a Nazi hunter and seems to be the only one who relishes the script’s pulp. The over-the-top finale literally goes to the dogs. James Mason, Michael Gough, Denholm Elliott, and Steve Guttenberg make up the rest of the big cast. Hollywood congratulated itself and gave the movie a couple of Academy Award nominations.

Continue reading

1976 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: THE OMEN & CARRIE

1976 is such an astoundingly productive year in exploitation and horror that we’re forced to divide it into two parts. Religious-themed horror takes front and center in this first part, beginning with Alfred Sole’s Communion [better known today as Alice Sweet Alice], one of the most substantial cult films ever produced. Beginning with a young Brooke Shields torched in a pew, dysfunctional Catholicism is taken to grounds previously unseen. Mantling the most pronounced trends of the 1970s, Sole plays elastic with multiple genres (slasher, psychological, religious, independent movies, horror) with such idiosyncratic force that the movie’s cult status was inevitable. It should have made Sole a genre specialist, but his career as a director never took off, and he only made a few more films. Surprisingly, critics have been slow in coming around to Communion. It’s essential viewing and we hope to cover it in greater detail here at a later date.

Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To remains one of the most relentlessly original films of the 70s, already covered at 366 Weird Movies and a solid List contender.

Richard Donner made a bona fide pop star out of a pre-pubescent antichrist with The Omen. It was a marketing bonanza, spawning endless sequels and a pointless 2006 remake. Sensationalistic, red-blooded, and commercially slick, in a National Enquirer kind of way, it’s predictably most successful in coming up with ways to slaughter characters—the most infamous of which is a decapitation by glass. In that, The Omen is a product of its time. The creativity in many of the later Hammer Dracula films was often solely reserved for ways to dispatch (and resurrect) its titular vampire. The Abominable Dr. Phibes took tongue-in-cheek delight utilizing the plagues of Egypt to annihilate everyone in sight. It was also the decade of Old Nick and deadly tykes. Throw in apocalyptic biblical paranoia, and The Omen is practically a smorgasbord of 70s trends.

The Omen is helped tremendously by Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which is reminiscent of Carl Orff and still remembered (and imitated). Three character performances stand out: Billie Whitelaw, who literally lights up as a nanny from the pit, David Warner as a photographer obsessively trying to avoid his predestined end, and Patrick Troughton as a priest who “knows too much” (and gets his own Dracula-like finish). Unfortunately, the film is considerably hindered by its two leads. Gregory Peck, nice fella that he was off screen, is his usual wooden self and poorly cast as Damien’s adoptive ambassador father. The role was first offered to Charlton Heston, whose old school conservative machismo and hammy charisma would undoubtedly have been a better fit. Alas, even though he rightly predicted it would be a major success, Heston objected to a film in which evil triumphed over good, and chose instead to star in the awful Midway, which was also a box office hit that year. Almost equally uninspiring is Lee Remick as Peck’s wife. Like Peck, she’s too wishy-washy, coming to life most when she’s about to die. Together, Peck and Remick throw the film off-balance. In contrast, director Donner rightly doesn’t take this nonsense seriously. Harvey Stephens is effectively stoic as Satan Jr., which renders him even an even creepier beast, but surprisingly, his is more of a supporting character.

Continue reading

1973 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: ANDY WARHOL’S FRANKENSTEIN, SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, AND SISTERS

Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein was the fourth film directed by Paul Morrisey under Andy Warhol‘s banner; although it seems that apart from co-producing, the American pop art icon had no creative input, which may be why, in Europe, it was released under the title Flesh For Frankenstein. Morrisey made this film back-to-back with Andy Warhol’s Dracula, which we will cover when 1974 rolls around. Both films star Udo Kier and  Joe Dallesandro (who also starred in the Morrissey/Warhol “hustler” trilogy FleshTrash, and Heat). Frankenstein is the more outrageous of the two horror films. It stars Kier as a fascistic, narcissistic, necrophiliac Baron Frankenstein who, in his most infamous scene, cuts open the ribcage of a woman (Dalila Di Lazzaro) and has sex with her gall bladder.  Naturally, this scene made Kier a cult celebrity, a position he would cement with Dracula.

Still from Andy Warhol's Frankenstein/Flesh for Frankenstein (1973)

 

Shot in 3-D, Frankenstein aims directly to satirize the sexploitation/horror demographic with a high quota of gore and sex—the latter supplied by Monique Van Vooren as the unloved nymphomaniac Baroness, wife and sister to the Baron, and Dallesandro as the stable boy who services her. Aptly, the film opens with the Baron and Baroness as children dissecting and  beheading a doll, but “Addams Family” this isn’t: the good doctor’s supply of cadavers comes from bordellos rather than the traditional cemetery. Kier and Van Vooren are ideally cast, with her armpit sucking competing with his gallbladder screwing. Although undeniably dated, it’s every bit as outrageous as it sounds.

When writer William Peter Blatty  and director William Friedkin unleashed The Exorcist on the world, few had any idea the impact it would make. Shining across our small 1973 TV sets, the original trailer was subdued. Although the book upon which it was based had been a best seller, only its readers knew what it was about. I don’t remember a lot of publicity beforehand, but all that changed on the weekend it was released. Newspapers were issuing warnings of something unimaginably terrifying, theaters were equipped with barf bags, and in our neck of the woods, churches were condemning it as propaganda coming from Satan himself. Indeed, the fallen angel had been rising quite high since 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, but, at least as far as box office, even that seminal (and superior) film did not have the impact of The Exorcist. Initially, its critical standing was mixed, although now it seems to top all those “best of” horror lists. Word of mouth made a trend of fear, and it was years before anyone from our tribe saw it.

The tidal wave of Satanic themed films to follow was unprecedented, and, needless to say, preachers and Sunday school teachers found job security for another decade. The original was followed by John Boorman’s visually dazzling camp disaster, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), and Blatty’s belated Exorcist III (1990), which some feel is actually superior to the original.

With his newfound popularity, Old Nick signed up for Satan’s School for Girls to mess with that “forgotten” Charlie’s angel, Kate Jackson, and Farrah’s replacement, Cheryl Ladd. He has a pretty good time of it too, and his fun is contagious.

Among the infamous DVD double features hosted by the buxom camp horror diva, Elvira (Cassandra Peterson), is Werewolf of Washington and Satanic Rites Of Dracula. The former, directed by Milton Moses Ginsberg and starring Dean Stockwell is as dreadful as it sounds. Worse, it’s humorless.

Alan Gibson’s Satanic Rites of Dracula is a direct sequel to his previous Dracula A.D. 1972, with the vampire in 1970s London. Gibson later directed “Silent Scream” (with Peter Cushing) and “Two Faces Of Evil,” which are two superior (and stylishly surreal) episodes from the cult TV series “Hammer’s House Of Horrors.”

Although superior to its 1972 AD predecessor for sheer abnormality alone, Rites is still one hell of a mess. In his brief screen time, the Price of Darkness ( Christopher Lee) has become an eccentric recluse in a mansion, plotting to destroy the world by unleashing a bacterial virus! Oh, and he is connected to a Satanic cult, which of course brings in Scotland Yard and Van Helsing (Cushing again), who easily dispatches the vampire with a thorn bush (vapidly symbolic of Jesus’ crown of thorns). The preposterousness of this Dr. Who and the Avengers vs. a vampire Howard Hughes (or is that Fu Manchu?) scenario is exacerbated by an evil Asian agent, assassins on bikes, biological warfare, female vampires, and nudity, making for an idiosyncratic hodgepodge. Lee was rightly fed up with writers who had no clue what do with the character, and chose to remain permanently staked after this. After making his belated appearance, Dracula suffers what has to be the most absurd of his screen deaths. Amazingly, his fellow bloodsuckers have an even more embarrassing exit, snuffed out by a sprinkler.Both Lee and Cushing muster little enthusiasm. Gibson steers through a maze of nonsense with a degree of competence, although the script clearly needed something exceptional. Sill, with all its flaws, this is an unexpected exit for the series, and is bizarre enough to be held with affection by some fans of Hammer studios.

Continue reading

BRIAN DE PALMA’S PASSION (2012)

Passion (2012) Brian De Palma movie poster

Alain Corneau’s French thriller Love Crime (2011) turned out to be that director’s last film (he died in 2010). Despite a promising premise, it was an altogether unsatisfactory coda to a career. Enter Brian De Palma, coming out of semi-retirement (his previous film was 2007’s Redacted) to improve on the original with the ultra-voguish, maniacally erotic remake, Passion.

Passion (2012) Brian De Palma

De Palma, perhaps the most shrewdly experimental mainstream filmmaker of the last half century, is also one of the most polarizing. The conventional critical breakdown of his oeuvre goes: 1968-1972, early, blatantly avant-garde films (Greetings, The Wedding Party, Hi, Mom, Get To Know Your Rabbit) followed by 1973-1974’s narrative experimentations (Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise). 1976-1984: his sell-out to tinsel town (coupled with his Hitchcockian obsessions—Obsession, Dressed To Kill, Blowout, Body Double). 1983-1998: gangster dramas (Scarface, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way), overlapping with self-parody (1992’s Raising Cain, 1998’s Snake Eyes), and, finally, post-2000 fatigue (Mission To Mars, Black Dahlia).

Continue reading

PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)

Phantom of the Paradise 1974 poster

Brain De Palma, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, and John Waters were among the directors whose films we passionately watched and discussed in that now extinct haven once known as art school. It was De Palma who topped our list, enough that we ranked him as high as, if not higher than, Alfred Hitchcock. There is justification in the criticism that Hitchcock’s films are often cold, mechanical exercises. De Palma was more experimental, and emotionally incinerating in ways that Hitchcock could not be. De Palma is decidedly unbiased when it comes to provocation: Scarface (1983) unintentionally inspired the current trash thug culture, and Casualties of War (1989) still manages to boil the blood of extremist patriots. He has been accused of being a misogynist and a feminist, an innovative bohemian and a plagiarist, a shrewdly manipulative avant-gardist and the quintessential sell-out. Any director this divisive deserves attention.

Phantom Of The Paradise LOBBY CARD

Unfortunately, one must briefly address the De Palma/Hitchcock comparison primarily because lazy, hack critics have long held De Palma to Hitchcock’s standards. De Palma was too much his own man to simply imitate Hitchcock. Rather, Hitchcock was one of several influences filtered through De Palma’s preexisting sensibilities. Jean-Luc Godard was another, and it is no accident that De Palma has been referred to as an example of American Nouvelle Vague. Continue reading