I (still) got my fifty dollars worth.
There’s currently a Camp and Cult Blogathon going on over at She Blogged by Night. I have a piece that should be ready within the next day or so for it, but while I polish that, I figured I’d dig this one up out of the archives and throw it out as a stopgap. It’s thematically appropriate and… well, I always kind of liked it and had fun putting it together, so any chance to dredge it up and get more eyes on it is a chance I’ll take. Behold:
Having previously seen and thoroughly loathed Dale Berry’s 1967 incoherent sex flick Hot Thrills and Warm Chills, I was not at all looking forward to tackling his other 1967 feature Hip, Hot and 21. Recently, I sucked it up and did just that, and now I’m thinking I might need to take another look at the previous film. Hip, Hot and 21 is a weirdly fascinating regional-cinema document, a sleazy oddity made by a guy with a buck-fifty in his pocket and several screws loose in his head. The tale of a young farm girl who goes to the big city and gets involved in a dope-pushing ring doles out its share of skanky thrills (nudity abounds, and there’s a savage whipping scene that wouldn’t look out of place in an Olga film), but it’s set apart by a bleary, discombobulated tone that suggests Berry knows what it’s like to actually be on junk. Of Hot Thrills, I wrote “The fatal weakness, then, is that the sex in this film is unforgivably dull,” yet given this film as a reference point, that might very well be an artistic choice — Berry’s characters here are defined solely by the pleasure they get in hurting others, not in pleasing themselves.
This theme gets strengthened by the occasional doses of genuine artistry at work here. Whether accidental or otherwise, it’s there all the same. An early sequence, whose construction as a frustration for the girl-watchers in the crowd makes sense in retrospect:
The virginal Diane has been married off by her hayseed family to strapping, square-jawed straight arrow Rick. He takes her to the city and rents a hotel room. They begin to get it on but are interrupted by Marla, a junkie madam who becomes important later in the story. (Even farther along, she disappears without warning or comment, but that’s another story.) Once shooed away, things begin, as they say, to happen.
The lovers re-begin to consummate their marriage, at which point…
…Berry pans down their bodies, down the room until he finds a painting he finds interesting at the other side of the bed. The frame gets refocused downward so as to avoid the dipping boom mic.
The camera then pans down further until it’s focused on the feet of the now-rutting lovers. This shot gets held for an uncomfortably long time, as though Berry is too ashamed of what is really going on here that he can’t bear to watch it.
A cut snaps us back to the head of the bed.
Berry can only take so much of this, though, and the camera drifts off to the side. An ornate lamp nudges its way into frame.
As the sex act reaches its height, this lamp becomes more dominant. By the climax, Berry has his camera trained solely on the shade and the shadows playing upon it — a deflowering refracted.
A spasm of flesh, a sudden lurch of the image, and the fuck is done. Diane bolts from the bed in an obviously unsatisfied huff.
“Ding dong, all done!” Bitterness, hard-won, as a prelude to far more bitterness to come. This shit is gold.
Play you like a violin.
(Part of today’s White Elephant Blogathon hosted by Paul Clark.)
Famed German actor/full-tilt psycho Klaus Kinski only directed one film in his lifetime. Ostensibly a biopic about violinist Niccolo Paganini, Kinski Paganini is really more a frenzied act of grotesque creation, a wild and senseless cascade of fevered, sexual images that bludgeon the viewer into thinking A) something profound here is being said and B) all these images relate to each other and add up to something. The validity of both claims is questionable.
So of course I dug it.
The main influence here is clearly Ken Russell in the ’70s. Imagine one of Ken Russell’s freewheeling composer biographies (say, The Music Lovers) as a rowing team. Now imagine that the boat capsized and the right half of the team was thrown overboard, unrecoverable… yet the left half carries on, rowing that boat. Kinski Paganini is akin to watching that rowing team try to soldier on: a lot of energy is being expended to go around and around in circles for some indiscernable purpose, and while the act itself seems strange and pointless, it’s also weirdly mesmerizing.
Clearly Kinski feels a kinship with Paganini. In telling the violinist’s story, he’s also telling his own (fitting, then, that this was his last film). And apparently, Klaus’s story involves him getting ass. Lots and lots of ass. Women tend to find his Paganini irresitible; in this universe, the omnipresent sound of his violin causes every woman, from scullery maid to proper lady, to wet themselves is unquenchable sexual desire. And if by some bizarre chance a lady isn’t charmed into sex frenzy by Paganini’s music or his animal charisma (which wafts off him like fog rolling off San Francisco Bay)… well, it doesn’t really matter because Paganini’s probably going to rape her anyway. He’s a misunderstood genuis artist with a God complex and a permanent hard-on.
With that last sentence, am I talking about Paganini or Kinski? And in the context of the film, does it matter?
Paganini lurches and stumbles through one setpiece after another, with little attention paid to coherence - here’s Paganini playing, here’s Paganini fucking, here’s Paganini with his son (played, of course, by Kinski’s young son), here’s Paganini defying the artistic establishment, here’s more fucking, here’s some horses fucking. But much as Paganini seems to inspire mesmeric attention from all he encounters, and much as Kinski’s career was defined by his ferociously magnetic personality, Paganini rivets the attention through sheer brass-balls lunatic energy. You simply can’t not look away, and whether this is coherent or true to the life of Paganini or just an ego-trip for Kinksi or whatever become besides the point. All those years of working alongside Werner Herzog seem to have taught Kinski something - that often times the notion of “ecstatic truth” is more important than anything else. Would that more biopics looked like this crazed concoction.
I could go on, but there’s only so much that rational analysis can do in a case like this. At some point, you’re going to have to meet the crazy head on. So I give you my hand-written unexpurgated notes on Paganini, written on the fly while watching the film. Hopefully, these can give an idea of what the act of watching Kinski Paganini is like.
Horror Challenge entry #11: The Body Shop AKA Doctor Gore (1973, J.G. Patterson Jr.)
How bad does a film have to be to make Herschell Gordon Lewis’s films look like sensitive, thoughtful masterpieces in comparison? This damn bad.
Starts off promisingly dumb, with a mad scientist using tin foil on a body “to seal in all the radium” and a midget hunchback who needs help putting on his lab coat, but the fun doesn’t last. Patterson ladles on the grue in this offbeat “Frankenstein” gloss, yet his film is too inept and uninspired to work even in the intended titillative function. Maybe it’s because, despite the exploitative material, Patterson never seems to commit to the idea of a gut-pulling gore flick, and once his creation (a lovely, nubile young woman with the brain of a child) is complete, the film turns into some awkward combination of love story and brain-cracked sitcom about the difference between men and women. (Seriously, there’s even a musical montage with the doctor and his creation frolicking in nature and making googly eyes at one another.) All the tempura paint and white linen can’t keep this from being dispiritingly terrible, even by the standards of Florida-lensed exploitation films. Even the score, an obnoxiously insistent organ-based thing, is awful. In fact, fuck Lewis… Patterson makes William Grefe look talented by comparison. The befuddling non-ending is just icing on the cake.
Horror Challenge entry #10: The Haunted Strangler (1958, Robert Day)
I gotta admit - this film sucker-punched me. I knew nothing about it going in other than Boris Karloff was in it and it was part of the same cycle that birthed Corridors of Blood, a Karloff/Day collaboration I liked very much. The Haunted Strangler shares a lot in common with that film, as Karloff here as there plays a crusading man trying to advance his field (surgery there, investigation here) who gets terribly swept up in something he couldn’t have foreseen. Yet I was a fool. I didn’t recognize the structure for what it was. So here’s Karloff, wandering through a stodgy procedural while trying to clear a hanged man’s name, digging up facts and defying authority and generally behaving like he’s the lead in some 19th-century edition of “Cold Case.” But then we hit the midway point and… uh oh. The film erupts and streaks off in a different, far more lurid direction - the bonds of procedural constructed only to be madly ripped asunder. Early on, Karloff exclaims, “A man must do the work in which he believes!” Later developments provide a dichotomy between the work we feel we must do and the work we do because we must (in that we’re compelled against our will), and it’s all pretty cracking good stuff. Really only half a great film, but that’s preferable to no great film at all.
Horror Challenge entry #8: Marebito (2004, Takashi Shimizu)
Is Shimizu a protege of Shinya Tsukamoto? If so, that would explain a lot about his filmmaking. Tsukamoto stars in this film that Shimizu knocked out between Grudge franchise entries, and his particular brand of vaguely meaningful incoherence is all over this tale of a freelance photographer who descends into an underground world and comes back with… something. I’d lay the blame on Shinya except that the Grudge films also traffic in vaguely meaningful incoherence, as if everything will make subconscious sense if you just throw out enough spooky signifiers and tenuous connections, so I’d say it’s more of a meeting of similar minds. But while The Grudge is pared down until there’s nothing left but ghostly imagery, Marebito has so many shards of ideas in its head that it can’t keep it all straight and ends up doing a disservice to everything it tries to do: It’s a meditation on cinema versus reality! It’s a meta-horror film about what it means to be frightened! It’s a descent-into-madness narrative! It’s a wriggling mass of references to other works, from Lovecraft to The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser to Peeping Tom to (no joke) The Little Shop of Horrors! It’s all of that AT THE SAME TIME!!!! All that, and it still adds up to zilch. I think I’m done with Shimizu, frankly.
Horror Challenge entry #6: The Pack (1977, Robert Clouse)
(Written for the Killer Animal Blogathon.)
When I announced this particular blogathon, I knew already which film I was going to view and write about. I’d love to say that I had a highfalutin’ reason for my conviction, but it was merely because I did a Robert Clouse flick for the last blogathon I participated in, and I liked the idea of keeping a bit of consistency. Too bad that didn’t really work out for me: Where Gymkata was mesmerizing in its utter wrongheaded idiocy, The Pack is merely dull. Yet there’s something there anyway that makes me glad I saw it, and I’ll get to that in a minute.
The pack in question is a sizable group of feral, possibly rabid dogs who start to wreak havoc on a remote island vacation spot. Joe Don Baker is the no-nonsense marine biologist who takes it upon himself to stop their reign of terror. That’s the film at its most basic, and that’s also the film at its most complex - it’s Joe Don Baker vs. killer canines, and it plays out precisely how you’d expect. There’s few surprises and little panache - Clouse’s idea of tension is filming most of the attack scenes in slow motion, and he’s clearly no director of actors, as most of the cast not named Joe Don Baker comes off as flat and declarative. (Richard B. Shull has a few good moments as well, but he’s mostly coasting on the snarky-but-trustworthy persona he also wore to better effect in Cockfighter and Hail.) There’s an early attack sequence on a woman in a Volkswagen that contains a dark, terrifying energy that points towards what the rest of this flaccid thing should be, but that energy quickly dissipates, not to be seen again until the effectively desperate final mano-a-mano in an attic between Baker and the snarling alpha dog.
The idea I got while watching this was that of a film where almost everyone involved put out the exact minimum of effort needed to drag this over the cinematic Mendoza Line and not a whit more. But, practically in spite of itself, there is something interesting about The Pack, and I don’t mean Baker’s always-satisfying strong-jawed asskicking. (Though that’s never to be discounted.) Most killer-animal films center around beasts that humans are instinctively afraid of; whether animals dangerous because of size and ferocity (i.e. lions in The Ghost and the Darkness, a bear in Grizzly) or because of skeeviness amplified by numbers and/or mutations (i.e. large rats in Deadly Eyes, flesh-eating cockroaches in The Nest), the assumption is that the threat is something we’d feel okay about killing. The Pack, then, travels somewhat thornier ground in that the threat is domestic dogs… and as anyone who has even a passing familiarity with cinematic cliches, it’s damn near verboten to kill a dog in a movie. To the extent that the film works at all, it works in the space between what the plot requires and what we fear we’ll actually see - we don’t normally expect dogs to be killed in movies, yet here’s a film that requires it as part of the plot fabric, so how to react? There’s several dog attacks in the film, but more unsettling than dog-on-human violence is the (well-simulated) dog-on-dog violence and human-on-dog violence. That doesn’t make the film any better, as the intellectual dissonance is endemic to the plot and not something the film really does anything with, but at least it provides something to chew on.
Horror Challenge entry #5: Redneck Zombies (1987, Pericles Lewnes)
I don’t know what’s more unexpected - that most of the best parts of a film titled Redneck Zombies have nothing to do with either rednecks or zombies, or that a film titled Redneck Zombies has “best parts” at all. I know that sounds like snark, but I mean that in all sincerity - Redneck Zombies isn’t really a good film, and who would really want a “good” film about ’80s-fashion-victim campers beset by undead rednecks poisoned by hooch laced with government-sourced toxic waste? Beholden as it is to the lower-than-lowbrow Troma aesthetic, it’s open and cheerful about embracing its badness; rather than try to take a dopey premise and prove himself by crafting something “serious” from it, writer/director Lewnes goes blessedly bonkers with the dopiness, loading up on redneck humor and gross-out humor and drug humor, while still finding sneaky ways to prove that he’s got more talent than the average video-camera-toting auteur. His visuals, in particular, are more ambitious than most low-level gutmunchers; whether it was the appeal of fucking around with the video image in ways that hadn’t yet become commonplace in the genre market or simply a sense that he had nothing to lose, Lewnes throws every warping effect that he can at many of his shots. Looking at the opening sequence, set in a dilapidated asylum and replete with whooshing canted Raimi-esque angles, colorful video psychedelia and cacophonous reverb-drenched soundtrack, you’d be forgiven if you thought for a minute that you wandered into some other, creepier film. Lewnes returns to the lysergic whenever it suits him, and while the encroaching zombie attacks are effective in their way, the most impressive pieces of this patchwork work are those which allow him to indulge that, i.e. the spaced-out meltdowns upon the first consumption of the chemical-waste-tainted moonshine and, especially, the increasingly absurd and weirdly hilarious autopsy performed on a zombie by a med student tripping on acid.
Furthermore, Lewnes airs out that tendency towards the creepy with the occasional appearance of the Tobacco Man (a hooded, towering beast of a man with a digitally-altered voice) and a bizarre, inexplicable sequence in the house of the neighborhood “freelance butcher.” In these sequences, we can see Lewnes straining against his self-imposed limitations to show what he can do beyond goofy gory kitsch. I’m not dissing the kitsch, mind you - I enjoy an unapologetic zombie film as much as anyone. It’s not the second word in the title that gives me pause; the film’s weakness, truth be told, is in the idiots-in-pants-and-overalls setup. While there’s some incidental silliness and likable running gags (like the constantly-changing T-shirts on one fellow I nicknamed Jerkass Camper), the bulk of the humor is broad and dumb, hick humor at its most indulgent. There’s a lot of redneck to get through before the zombies show up, and while this isn’t nearly as tiresome as, say, Sassy Sue, a little of it goes a really long way.
I will say, though, that I appreciated the double-edged payoff in the shot of the alcoholic camper downing a pint of Graves’ Grain Alcohol right before a zombie attack.
I will also say that, no matter how bad a film is otherwise, I cannot fail to give at least a half-hearted recommendation to a film with this particular zombie extra:
Ain’t he just the cutest little flesh-eater ever?
Horror Challenge entry #4: The Video Dead (1987, Robert Scott)
Holy ballsack, is this film ever terrible. That’s all I have to say about it. No, really. It’s fucking awful, I don’t understand the minor cult that’s sprung up around it and I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s move the fuck on. Okay, fine. You want proof? Here. See how long you make it before wanting to punch something in rage:
Horror Challenge entry #2: Blood Bath (1966, Jack Hill & Stephanie Rothman)
Nothing I come up with is going to be as on-the-money as the film’s own critique of itself: “An interesting technique, but it needs something.” Given time and space to shape it, Blood Bath could have really worked, colliding modern-art phoniness with a particularly dark strain of classicism. The “dead red nudes” painted by the chief antagonist (a painter who believes his ancestor was a vampire, is haunted by a ghostly muse and might know that said vampirism runs in the family) are pretty striking, and some early shots, notably Daisy in the courtyard, display a Gothic framing and use of shadow that anticipates the burgeoning giallo genre. Yet, as expected of any project with as tortured a Frankenstein history as this one, it never quite hangs together - no tension is allowed to build because the cross-cutting of the two main plots robs them both of momentum, and scenes go on too long or serve no purpose other than padding. Roger Corman did what he could to rescue what he considered a hapless and unreleasable film, from what I understand, but forget A Bucket of Blood - this isn’t even on the level of Color Me Blood Red.
The Rosetta shot: “The Toolbox Murders” (1978)
So, yeah. A naked, bruised woman with a nail gun held point-blank at her head by a black-gloved figure. That’s… blunt.
Look at that debased image. No, really. Look at it. Process it, roll it around in your mind. That is an actual shot from an actual movie that was actually released in general release. What does that say about the film that contains it?
For one thing, it says that the people who made this film do not want you to feel safe. Like it or not, The Toolbox Murders does not fuck around when it comes to being, you know, a horror movie. If the primary purpose of a horror film is to either A) frighten and scare, or B) disturb the senses, then the people who made this film decided to go straight for the throat and choose B. Toolbox is, above all, a truly nasty and unclean film, a movie where you can practically see the sickness oozing off the screen. The question is, is that necessarily a bad thing? If the intent is to make a film that leaves you feeling sucker-punched by the feeling that nothing is going to be okay any time soon, shouldn’t the makers commit to the idea? This film, if nothing else, is god-damned committed. The first act is nearly contextless unmitigated stalk-and-slaughter fodder, like a giallo with the plotty bits removed. The second act then slows down to fall into a half-hearted sort of investigative-plot routine, with the brother of an abducted teen working to find her and, ostensibly, the slasher of the first act. The slasher, incidentally, is deranged Puritanical apartment superintendent Cameron Mitchell at his most drunkenly, sweatily fervent. This bit hits all the expected marks, but you can tell that it’s there because it has to be. Then you get to the bleak, bleak third act, and suddenly the air of dutifulness makes a horrid, nihilistic sense.
The hell of it is, this isn’t poorly made. This is crafted by people who knew what they were doing and spent all their talent on visuals, dialogue and plot beats that serve only to repel and discomfit. During the first body-discovery scene, the filmmakers toy with expectations (and later revelations) by having Mitchell bobbing up and down, out of focus but recognizable, in the background while the cops on the scene discuss whoever could have done such a horrid thing. There’s a long sequence with Mitchell and the kidnapped girl, where Mitchell treats her with nothing but genial patriarchal concern - while sucking on a fucking lollipop, no less! - that ranks as one of the most skin-crawling things I’ve seen in a film.
Given the talent and skill on display, I suspect that the wallow in extreme violence and extreme imagery has less to do with callow shock and more with the expulsion of psychic damage (which sets it apart from pathetic “provocative” dreck like David DeFalco’s Chaos). Director Dennis Donnelly spent his entire career working in television working on things like “Simon & Simon,” “Hawaii Five-O” and “Hart to Hart.” This was his only feature film, and after viewing it you understand why. The Toolbox Murders is not a film you make if you’re trying to secure future career prospects. This is a film you make if you have something terrible and icky inside of you welling up, and you need to expel it and turn it into art. This is a film you make if you desperately need to deal with your own darkness so you can continue on with life.
Toolbox is not a great film. I can’t even really defend it as a good film - unlike, say, I Spit on Your Grave, there’s no real point here to the degradation aside from, possibly, personal catharsis. But it is undeniably effective. Its bluntness means to get under your skin, and it does.