Monday, 24 February 2014

A brief survey

It's been a while since I last posted, having been busy with other things. On this occasion, however, there's a bit of crossover.

I'm doing a pilot study for a bit of research on horror film audiences. There are basically four questions:

1. Do you like US and UK horror films? The answers here are yes, no and it depends on the film.

2. What do you especially like and/or dislike about US and UK horror films?

3. Do you like continental European horror films. Again, the answers here are yes, no and it depends upon the film.

4. What do you especially like and/or dislike about US and UK horror films?

Either leave your answers as a comment or email me at hennesseybrown@gmail.com

Thanks in advance 

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Hard to Swallow

Just started reading Hard to Swallow: Hard-Core Pornography on Screen, edited by Gail Dines and Darren Kerr.

The introductory chapter includes this howler, on Paul Schrader's Hardcore:

"In this film, starring Rod Steiger, a morally upright evangelical preacher pursues his daughter when she runs away to the decadent west coast of the US, only to turn up in a porn movie. The plot takes us on a journey through the LA porn industry, in which all those he encounters are either damaged, or despicable, and wholly deserving of the beatings Steiger’s character dishes out."

But it's not Steiger, rather George C. Scott.

How can academics get away with such basic factual errors?

Then, in discussing the biases of a documentary, Porn Shutdown, about the impact of a HIV outbreak on the LA porn industry:

"That Porn Shutdown, in contrast, simply sidesteps James suggests once more that there is no complexity to men’s involvement in porn, nothing enigmatic – or, for that matter, visually interesting – about the male porn-performer."

Female performer Jessica Dee, one of those who contracted HIV, was not a major figure in this documentary,  So was there nothing interesting about the European porn-performer either?

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Eurohorror


Olney begins by this academic study by demonstrating that European horror cinema of the 60s through 80s has a surprisingly high profile amongst contemporary horror audiences. As evidence of this he cites the successful re-releases of Eurohorror by Grindhouse Releasing along with lavish DVD releases of both acknowledged genre classics such as Lucio Fulci's The Beyond and decidedly lesser entries such as Bruno Mattei's Hell of the Living Dead.

Following this Olney indicates that fan interest in Eurohorror has thus far not been paralleled with equivalent attention amongst academics, with the exception of some hybrid fan-academics. Olney posits that this paucity is partly explicated by the generally marginal position of European popular and genre cinema as a whole. It is also a reflection of the inherently problematic nature of many Eurohorror texts as far as progressive-minded critics are concerned, given not only their apparent sexism, racism, misogyny, and homophobia, but also their tendency to present transgressive combinations of sex and violence.

Olney then introduces his theoretical route out of this impasse, namely the concept of peformative spectatorship. Drawing upon the work of Judith Butler in particular, he posits that the distinctive challenge and opportunity posed by Eurohorror films is their uneasy dynamics. Whereas the Anglophone horror film invites our identification with the hero-protagonist, the Eurohorror film allows us to identify now with the hero-protagonist and now with the monster-antagonist. Paralleling this they allow us to take the roles of both sadist and of masochist.

It is a strong thesis and one which Olney then goes on to demonstrate via detailed textual analyses of a range of Eurohorror films, including films by Dario Argento (Suspiria, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), Mario Bava (The Whip and the Body), Jesus Franco (Eugenie de Sade, Eugenie.. the Story of her Journey into Perversion, Fulci (The House by the Cemetery, The New York Ripper), Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust), and AntonioMargheriti (Cannibal Apocalypse) amongst others.

There were two aspects of Olney’s analysis which I found slightly disappointing. First, there is little French or German Eurohorror cinema mentioned, with a strong bias towards Italian product. Second, why he looked at women and prison and nunsploitation films in the context of their sadistic-masochistic dynamic while omitting a third strand of women in total institution exhibiting similar dynamics, namely the Nazi sadism film. I would speculate that this is because it is relatively harder to get the typical viewer to temporarily align themselves with the Nazi. This is doubly so when it comes to the continental Europeans of the 1970s who would have been the original audiences for these films.

The challenge now is perhaps one of operationalising the concept of performative spectatorship and seeing how useful it is with actual audiences  - i.e. bridging the theory/practice divide.

As it is, Olney’s ideas would appear applicable to many other European horror films that he does not discuss. Two that they made me think of were Terence Fisher’s Dracula and Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre and their respective treatments of the Jonathan Harker character. In Fisher’s film Harker is a vampire hunter intent on destroying Count Dracula, but falls prey to Dracula’s bride and thus himself turns into one of the undead. At this point his fellow vampire hunter Van Helsing becomes the narrative focus and destroys Harker. In Herzog’s film the destruction of Dracula leads to Harker, here just a lawyer, becoming the reincarnation of Dracula. Put another way, Fisher’s Anglo horror film retains the boundaries that Herzog’s Eurohorror film transgresses.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Do as I say, not as I do?

I have been reading The American West in Film: Critical Approaches to the Western, written by Jon Tuska and published in 1985. Tuska is concerned with seeing how the images of the West presented in Western writing and in Hollywood films (specifically) are true to history.

Unsurprisingly Tuska finds that the films are rarely accurate, with this reflecting a lack of research and/or the deliberate obfuscation of truths about ‘how the West was won,’ namely through violence, treachery,  and genocide.

Then, in his conclusion, Tuska mentions the snuff film, which he views as actually existing, but apparently without bothering to undertake any research or fact checking.

An ironic instance of ‘printing the legend’...

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Abuso di potere / Shadows Unseen

Watching Abuso di potere – i.e. literally Abuse of Power, but released under the more enigmatic Shadows Unseen – in the same week as Berlusconi was jailed gives the 1972 film a certain continuing relevance.

The more things change the more they stay the same...

On a more personal level, it was also interesting to compare with my viewing of a few days ago, Colpo rovente, it being another police film exploring the same theme, high-reaching corruption, but a contrasting narrative structure.

For whereas Colpo rovente begins with a death at the hands of persons unknown, here we begin with a death where the identities of at least some of those involved, if not their exact roles, are presented.

Investigative journalist Gagliari goes to a club; talks briefly with Simona (Marilu Tolo); visits money lender Rosenthal (Corrado Gaipa), from whom he recovers a distinctive ring; indicates that he is leaving on business for a few days; departs with hooker Rosaria, and is then set upon, beaten and shot dead by a group of men.

After some discussion amongst the police and political leaders, the decision is made to bring Inspector Luca Micheli (Frederick Stafford) in to conduct the investigation. Micheli has been persona non grata since he used the same illegal methods as many of his colleagues, but happened to do so on the wrong suspect/perpetrator – i.e. someone with connections. He’s also, predictably, the type whose dedication to the job has cost him his family.

Aided more or less only by his loyal sidekick, Micheli begins his investigations. An anonymous tip-off leads them to Delogo, a known mafioso with an impressive record on beating the charges against him. After a beating Delogo confesses to the crime, but Micheli’s intuition tells him what we would already know, even if we had walked in to the film five minutes late; after all, we’re only one-third of the way into the running time.

Getting the forename of the woman seen with Gagliari, Micheli pulls in a low-level drug dealer (Pasolini regular Ninetto Davoli) and extracts here whereabouts, this time more with the threat of violence. Visiting Rosaria’s apartment, the investigators find her dead, the victim of adulterated heroin. And so it goes until it becomes increasingly evident what we already more or less knew.

The only matters that remain in doubt are whether Micheli will agree to forget what he discovers and become one of the conspirators, or whether he will continue to fight against them and, if so, with what type of outcome.

Extreme cynicism was rife in the police film internationally in the early 1970s, as a basic schism between the ideals of law and order became increasingly apparent. To give a few examples:

Callahan in Dirty Harry knew that Scorpio was the killer stalking San Francisco, but could not prove this and found his methods led to Scorpio’s being released by too-liberal judges.

Then Magnum Force saw Callahan going up against a self-appointed execution squad of fellow cops who were going too far – a plot point that seems more about box-office than consistent characterisation, at least from a cursory recollection. Certainly I remember preferring Steno’s La polizia ringrazzia, with its decidedly more downbeat treatment of a similar theme.

Or in the UK there is the first film outing of The Sweeney, in which Regan reluctantly investigates the death of a call-girl at the behest of a small-time villain, then realises he has uncovered a big-time conspiracy when said villain also dies and he is suspended from the force on trumped up charges. While the X-certificate given the film allowed for more sex, violence and bad language than the TV series from which it came, its televisual origins were also apparent. There was an obvious need for Regan to ultimately triumph. His regular boss, whose presence would have complicated the conspiracy narrative, was also a conspicuous – or is that structural? – absence.

In each case a further tension is the divide between providing genre entertainment and socio-political critique – and further, what form that critique should take. Here the entertainment aspect is foregrounded in a brief interlude between Micheli and Simona, albeit one tempered by a clear sense that this is a matter of business and not love, and a Remy Julienne-staged car chase. There’s also a shoot-out, and a couple of punch-ups where the blows have that exaggerated, conventional car-door-slamming sound.

The critique is, as might be expected, more muddled.

But then that could be said to be a reflection of a perceived situation where no-one had the answers?

But that could then be said to be a reflection of a perceived situation where no-one had the answers?

The final shot of the film, noted by an IMDB reviewer, is curious in this regard. On one layer, it appears to be a freeze-frame. Clearly, however, it is in fact an optical printing, since on the other layer, there is the motion of a swinging telephone receiver. The two images, previously united, have become fragmented.

On the subject of fragments, parts of Riz Ortolani’s score are reminiscent of cues for Cannibal Holocaust – the discordant strings, but minus the synthesiser bleeps – and Don’t Torture a Duckling – the powerful percussion, but minus Ornella Vanonni’s vocals, that accompany Maciara's death scene.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Colpo Rovente / Red Hot Shot

When businessman Mac Brown is assassinated on a busy New York street, there is only one man to head the investigation: Frank Berin. For the previous year Berin had conducted extensive inquiries into Berin’s business dealings, but had been unable to find incontrovertible evidence of any criminal activity or conspiracy. Unfortunately for Berin, Brown’s daughter Monica has put up a $250,000 reward for information on her father’s killer(s). Worse still, the killers always seem to be one step ahead of him...

Colpo Rovente is stylishly directed by co-writer Piero Zuffi, with some particularly good use of mirror shots and of (then) high-technology to heighten the sense of modernist paranoia.

The film also benefits from smart deployment of New York and other US locations, along with clever opportunism in some found moments of spectacle, with Berin’s visiting Acapulco to follow up a lead inevitably occurring during the Day of the Dead celebrations.

The production design, in what Tim Lucas has characterised as the Continental Op style, nicely captures the contrasting milieus of their inhabitants – the psychedelic hippie happenings; the criminal boardroom; the laboratory replete with vials of brightly coloured liquids; the Greenwich Village gay bar. Pierro Piccioni’s bold, brash crime-jazz score propels the action along, as does the sharp editing by the incomparable Franco Arcalli.

In sum, even though the source of the fan-subbed AVI is cropped, with some familiar names in the credits being somewhat chopped-off, the film still looks good enough to convince that a digital restoration of the original materials would be justified. The main downside is that the narrative can be difficult to follow at times, perhaps most notably when Berin goes undercover and infiltrates a Hells Angels-type biker gang; aficionados of filone cinema will recognise Ugo Fangareggi among their number. There is a justification for this confusion, however, with the denouement also encouraging the viewer to retrospectively re-evaluate a couple of scenes and some key exchanges within them. It is the first of these, incidentally, that seems to provide further explanation for the Red Hot Shot title.

[NB: Spoilers follow after the pictures]


A blade in the dark... 


Black gloves and a gun... 


There's a very good reason for the framing of this shot.


The press reports...


The media reacts... 


The photofit #1 


The photofit #2 


Barbara Bouchet in her fancy penthouse

More a crime drama than a giallo perhaps, the film might be viewed as an alternate configuration of Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. There we know that the titular investigator, the right-wing police chief, is also the his mistress’s killer. By being so obvious about it his culpability, however, he effectively conceals it. Here we don’t know that Berin set events in motion by assassinating Brown. When we learn this we might reconsider the identity parade and photo-fit session, where Berin uses himself as one of the reference points for the portrait of the murderer. Likewise, his brutality against a Bud Spencer lookalike festooned with bad tattoos, comes to make more sense.

Against this, though, we can also see that Berin has been responsible for the deaths of some innocents – if, that is, the world depicted is one where any innocents still exist, as certainly suggested the film’s conflation of business and crime, along with the closing scene of hippies over which are projected images from the film itself and culled from the news. This would also tie in with the importance of drugs to the narrative, even if the effects of LSD and heroin sometimes seem conflated.

All-told, gripping, stylish and provocative. And the always-welcome Barbara Bouchet. And, for those with less mainstream tastes, an appearance by experimental film-maker and all-round renaissance man Carmelo Bene as her reviled husband.

Friday, 26 July 2013

The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein

No sooner has Frankenstein (Dennis Price) re-animated his monster than he and his assistant Morpho (director Jesus Franco) are killed. The man behind the murders, Cagliostro (Howard Vernon), wants the monster so that he can mate it with a human female and create a master race. Cagliostro has already conducted his own experiments in creating life which have resulted in a bizarre half-woman, half-bird, blind, vampiric creature, Melisa (Anne Libert). Cagliostro is not going to have things go entirely his way, however, since Dr Seward (Alberto Dalbés) and Inspector Tanner (Daniel White) are investigating the case, as is Frankenstein’s daughter Vera (Beatriz Savón).

When discussing El Topo Alejandro Jodorowsky was fond of remarking that what audiences would get out out of the film was dependent upon what they would put into it. If the spectator was limited then the film was limited.

This is a useful notion to bear in mind when watching a Jesus Franco film. This is because they are replete with inter-textual associations, whether it is the re-use of character names, the casting of what amounts to a stock company of performers, allusions to other films or to art in general. As such a Franco film is often an exercise in hermeneutics, a search for the code that will break the hermetic seal to permit entry into the Francoverse.

Name-wise, we have Morpho, Tanner and Orloff. Cast-wise, beside those already mentioned above, there are Britt Nichols, Luis Barboo and Daniel White – the last often Franco’s composers of choice, and who also provides the music here.

Allusion-wise the film comes across as one of Franco’s tributes to 1930s and 1940s horrors, notably The Mask of Fu Manchu, via the sadistic torture devices in Cagliostro’s dungeon; The Bride of Frankenstein, via Cagliostro himself, as a Dr Pretorius type; and any of the X meets Y permutations and combinations along House of Frankenstein lines.

At the same time, however, the film also has a more contemporary sensibility through the Bava-style red and blue lighting of Cagliostro’s dungeon; a Lady Frankenstein character (and here not forgetting that Rosalba Neri had earlier worked with Franco on Lucky the Inscrutable and 99 Women) and the prescient ideas of mating the monster, as would be mooted in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, and of using it to create a master race, as would be foregrounded in Flesh For Frankenstein.

The idea of mating the monster arguably gives an added element to one of Franco’s obsessions, namely the female pudenda shot. For some of those here seem reminiscent of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde. (One can also conceive of Melisa having stepped out of a Max Ernst painting.)

The version of the film watched was an AVI sourced from the UK Go Video release; it was also released along with companion piece Dracula Prisoner of Frankenstein by Tartan on DVD. The longer cut includes an early appearance by Lina Romay.