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.

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1977 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: SHOCK WAVES & SATAN’S CHEERLEADERS

Star Wars, Annie Halland Elvis becoming a corpse were the entertainment events of 1977; but exploitation/horror cinema hardly noticed, driving ahead full-throttle with Third Reich obsessions in this banner year for Nazisploitation. Naturally, queen Dyanne Thorne was still cracking the whip. Unfortunately, Ilsa the Wicked Warden was directed by Jess Franco, and he is no Don Edmonds. Franco’s direction is, as usual, languid. Still, Thorne, now a redhead, has undeniable charisma. Originally, this was not an official Ilsa title—the wicked warden was originally Wanda—but was christened with her name somewhere along the way.

Thorne was extraordinarily promiscuous in 1977, appearing in a second Ilsa: Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia (directed by Jean Lafleur). More flesh and blood along with multifarious locales makes this a far better entry than Franco’s effort, while still not at the level of Edmonds’. This was the last of the Ilsa films, which undeniably make up the most notorious of exploitation franchises.

Blatant Ilsa ripoff Elsa: Frauline Devil (directed by Patrice Rhomm) features German hookers being sent to the camps to service the poor overworked Nazis. It has a lot of wretched accents and amateur costume design, with Nazi uniforms looking like they just came off the racks. Worst of all, though, it’s a big tease in both the sex and whip-cracking departments. Needless to say, Thorne does it better.

The same can’t be said for Last Orgy of the Third Reich (directed by Cesare Canevari), which features cannibalism and death by German Shepherds and rats, but this one’s different. It has a brunette warden (Maristella Greco).

A pubic-hair eating rapist dwarf actually outdoes the lesbian concentration camp warden in SS Hell Camp (AKA The Beast in Heat, directed by Luigi Batzella). Macha Magali is the Aryan camp dominatrix filling in for Dyane Thorne. It tries to outdo the competition, and succeeds (with multiple brutal rapes, pulling out fingernails, castrations, rats, etc), but even with all that going on, it still manages to be a dull affair. It’s still banned in the U.K.

Italy continued its love affair with Nazis (at least on screen). Nazi Love Camp 27 (directed by Mario Caiano) has a decent budget, wretched dubbing, notorious hardcore sex, and a good, central performance by the tragically short-lived Sirpa Lane (from The Beast) as a Jewess out for revenge.

The Red Nights of the Gestapo is another Italian entry in the genre. Directed by Fabio De Agostini, it is clearly influenced by Tinto Brass’ Salon Kitty (1976) and features a Third Reich orgy and farting torture. Brass was more adept at this kind of thing, for what that’s worth.

SS Girls (directed by Bruno Mattei) also influenced by Brass’ Nazi opus, has its tongue firmly-in-cheek and feels like its been lifted out of the pages of a comic book. As strange as it may sound, it’s one of the most entertaining Nazisploitation films of the decade. It’s chock-full of Mattei’s trademark montages, close ups, stock footage, and a jazzy score. It also has bestiality, orgies, and endless parades of flesh.

Mattei’s second Nazisploitation feature (of the year) is Women’s Camp 119, which is more of the same, with the additional bonus of poisoned bullets for nude prisoners. The result is two hours of writhing in pain and bleeding out of every orifice. This one is also like a comic book, but more of a Chick tract. It makes you feel dirty for having seen it. It even has a lot of Chick targets, like a Catholic priest who gets popsiclized and a two-for-one with gay Jews. Of course, the Nazis-for-Christ attempt to cure the gays in this tailor-made-for-Mike-Pence flick.

Shock Waves (directed by Ken Wiederhorn) takes a different route with Nazi zombies, literally bred to survive underwater. Brooke Adams is among a small group of passengers taking a tour on a cruiser with cantankerous captain John Carradine. It’s a watery variation on Old Dark House thrillers, with the group crashing into a wrecked ghost vessel. The captain is killed and the survivors are forced to take refuge on an island (filling in for the Old Dark House) where they discover what they believe to be an abandoned hotel. Its sole occupant is former Nazi commandant  Peter Cushing (with a convincing accent). Unknowingly, the group has awakened the commandant’s genetically altered “Toten Korps”—AKA death corps—AKA Nazi zombies. They’re a creepy, disease-ridden albino lot, adorned in aviator goggles and SS uniforms, emerging from the water in slow-mo to kill anyone within their path. Since this was marketed as exploitation, Adams is required to strip down to a yellow bikini and take a swim—until she bumps into something dead.

Cushing’s role is a relatively small one, which leaves the acting to Adams. She’s up to it, but unfortunately, she’s the only one, with her fellow passengers clearly being amateurs. Apart from awakening Third Reich undead and fleeing them, there’s really not much of a plot. The violence is subdued and it’s definitely not paced for the post- Romero zombie audience. Despite its flaws, this is an impressive meager budgeted indie with good acting from Cushing, Carradine, and Adams, along with effective underwater photography (by Reuben Trane) as the death corps wait on the ocean floor to entrap unsuspecting victims. The zombie makeup is equally compelling, and Wiederhorn (who also scripted) adroitly mounts tension. None of his fellow-up films have matched this. It’s easily the best movie ever made about Nazi zombies.

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