Sunday, 12 January 2014
First impressions on viewing The Murders in the Rue Morgue, will no doubt, concern set design and the delightful artistry of the feature. With sets consisting of a foggy, studio based, rendition of nineteenth century gas-lit Paris streets the film is certainly an atmospheric one. Furthermore, it also provides one the key clues to where the film is coming from both stylistically and thematically. With an eye for a particular askew geometry and a particular emphasis on shadow it is very clear that this is a film that seeks to move into the territory of German expressionist cinema. This is a point that gets further underscored when skylines reveal the crooked roofs, spires, windows and chimney stacks of the world of Caligari. This success, it must be said, can be laid at the door of Herman Rosse. Rosse, student of The Royal College of Art and an architect by trade, was responsible for what is clearly the product of an immersion in European silent cinema. For, through its sets, Murders in the Rue Morgue lives and breathes expressionism. This is despite the fact that Rosse was not credited with any film work until his arrival with his wife, a landscape architect named Sophia Helena Luyt, in the United States. Nevertheless, he would hit the ground running and would win an Oscar for the art direction in his cinematic début The King of Jazz, 1930. However, the similarities with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari do not begin and end with the art department. For, despite being nominally based upon an Edgar Allen Poe classic, Robert Florey's adaptation strays into the realms of the Robert Wiene's familiar material. Here, however, while the sideshow theme is common to both features a trained gorilla under the control of a manipulative scientist replaces the familiar somnambulism theme. Murder in the Rue Morgue was initially crafted as a further attempt to continue with the success of both Dracula and Frankenstein, two earlier Universal horror films upon which Herman Rosse would work. The film would, just like the aforementioned Frankenstein, play upon popular fears of the direction of travel of science. In a period where Darwinism would be increasingly associated with later discredited notions such as eugenics, here the scientific method of experimentation comes down to attempts by Bela Lugosi's humorously named Dr. Mirakle to inject the blood of a great ape into the bodies of women. In this, as with Frankenstein, the whole mad-scientist ran amok is central to the whole feature. It is all, in inception as well as realisation, pretty sinister stuff. It also has slight Jack the Ripper undertones. There is no doubt that the film was an influential one and while it is indeed possible that later imagining of The Murder of the Rue Morgue return to Poe's source material the film, that features an ape carrying a woman up the side of a building, certainly finds its echo in giant creature feature King Kong. Beyond this Jess Franco would direct a similar crucifixion in his Succubus while Paul Naschy's Hunchback of the Morgue would feature a similar grubby villain's laboratory. Dario Argento, another director with a body of work that, like Murders in the Rue Morgue, places a strong emphasis on hyper-stylisation, would also feature an intelligent ape doing the bidding of his scientist master in his Phenomena. The film, which in effect is a sort of a detective story, eschews the whodunnit approach by signposting, early on, the nature of the deaths of a number of women. While the film could have potentially have been a mystery to rival the most convoluted of giallo, the rejecting of this approach can only be considered a missed opportunity. Even the delightful locked room theme that has been used successfully on countless occasions including, most memorably, in the eerie Sherlock Holmes thriller The Spider Woman, is here wasted as the whole brilliant killer monkey angle is revealed far too early. This is not only criticism that can be laid at the door of Murders in the Rue Morgue. Because, as much as direction, set design and cinematography are the stars pretty much every actor, and actress, seems intent on being hammy. Painfully so. The whole idea of using a chimpanzee in close-ups interspersed with longer shots of what appears to be a man in a chubby gorilla suit also, spectacularly, fails to convince. Deficiencies aside, and despite being very much a product of its time, Murders in the Rue Morgue represents an incredibly atmospheric way to spend an hour or so and the film, not least because of its brevity, certainly does not outstay its welcome. It is worth a look.
It is 1939 and Europe stares into the abyss. Hitler is at the helm of a rapidly expanding and arming Germany. Meanwhile, in Spain, Italian dictator Mussolini is providing support to the demagogue-in-waiting Francisco Franco and Barcelona is about to fall. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain issues an ultimatum as for Britain, it seems, war is inevitable. To get an appreciation for the world, on this eve of what appears to be a new Dark Age, it is so tempting look to popular media to gauge the prevailing mood. Film, after all, does not exist in a vacuum. It has context and this context can help in giving meaning to stories. To understand this context helps us to understand just what it is the film-maker is trying to say. Could events in Europe of this year hold a significance for Robert Nelson Lee, the screenwriter and brother of director Roland? It is, certainly, a strong possibility. Even if this is the subconscious product of osmosis. By reaching back into British history, in this instance the late Middle ages, for a cinematic influence, there is ample scope for the retelling of stories that could be expressed as parallels with more contemporary events. This could mean, in effect, that Tower of London is film as allegory. The story does lend itself to such a suggestion. After all, it is a tale of brutality, betrayal, naked ambition and demagoguery. In this tale could the twisted hunchback Richard, Duke of Gloucester, played by Sherlock Holmes regular Basil Rathbone, be the perfect embodiment of fascism expressed in the guise of historic biopic? It may well be! Tower of London is a story of power. In this particular telling of British history the ambitious Richard is prepared to kill everyone, including children, who stand in the way of the crown which he covets. He is Machiavellian in his methods and Sadean in his cruelty. His an embodiment of sociopathic evil construed years ahead of the events that inspired the brutally brilliant Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. In this he is aided by the club footed torturer, and executioner, Mord. Played wonderfully by horror maestro Boris Karloff he is the embodiment of conformity to the authoritarian personality. A seemingly unfeeling ghoul it is he who enables his leader to achieve power through uses of the rack, the Iron Maiden and even through the use of bare hands. If it is Richard who has the ideas then it is Mord who realises them. In this story power comes from the exercise of force and, with his scruffy legion of peasant followers it is Mord who is the real muscle behind the throne. As he would say of his inspiration: "You're more than a king, more than a man. You're a god to me!". While the story is very much in the historical drama camp, by casting Karloff and a neophyte Vincent Price it is clear that Universal, here, have produced something akin to a horror film. Sure, it lacks the marquee monster of a Dracula or a Frankenstein but even in his gait, there is no doubt that Mord is played for the expression monstrous intent. For, even if it is the situation itself that is the greatest source of horror, the studio ensures, by getting Karloff to almost reprise Frankenstein's monster, that even those less attuned to the subtleties of the message "get it" too. Price, incidentally, who has not at this point quite perfected the intonation that would make his the most famous voice of horror, would return to the Tower of London theme in the sixties with a Roger Corman take on the story. While in no sense of the word could this be considered a large movie, despite the presence of several hundred extras, it is one that, through imaginative direction and cinematography, is able to punch way above its weight. By staging battle scenes in inclement conditions, for example, they are made to appear far bigger than what they are. Albeit with poor visibility. Here the first war is waged at night in the rain while the second in the fog. This not only makes up for the absence of a cast of thousands but also adds an atmospheric depth to the location-free, studio lot production. Matte painting and some decent castle sets provide a decent substitute London even if this is somewhat negated by some inappropriate accents, especially among child cast members, that remind viewers that the camera crew have no, in fact, set foot outside of a Californian studio back-lot. To be honest, Tower of London is just the sort of film that would too easily be passed over by the less than diligent, bleary-eyed, nocturnal channel surfer. But, for those who take out the time to pause and stay a while this is a film that may prove to more than adequately entertain those who are in the mood for less challenging fare. Sure, this may be all a little less than accurate in the history stakes. It does, after all, take liberties with the facts. But this is perfectly understandable if the film is, in fact, trying to tell a different story altogether.
Saturday, 4 January 2014
On the face of it, Sex is my Business would appear to be just another seventies, British, Super 8, silent, sex film short. Indeed this is just the sort of film that, like countless others, could be acquired from specialist mail order distributors who's ads, alongside those for Non Doctor or Ben Wa Balls, would fill the back pages of magazines such as the likes of Parade, Knave, Paul Raymond's Club International and other such titles of the era. But, given the nature of the production and some of the names involved, it may be said that it is quite an important title of the period. You see Sex is my Business , or Sex Shop to use its alternative title, was long considered to be a lost film. However, the film resurfaced in 2008. It was directed by George Harrison Marks. Harrison Marks was a glamour photographer, but he would also work in pornographic shorts and would direct a number of feature films. Notably he would helm the early Tony Tenser produced naturist documentary Naked as Nature Intended and the seventies sex comedy Come Play With Me. In the latter title, which he also incidentally wrote, he showed himself to be quite the comic actor. His toothy Clapworthy character, that he played alongside Alfie Bass, being one of the more praiseworthy elements of the film. In the case of Sex is my Business the keen awareness of comic timing that made Come Play With Me the long running success that it was is largely absent. This, after all, is very much in sex loop quickie territory. So plotting, as far as it exists at all, may have comic roots but is minimal and functional at best. As would be the case with the straight to VHS fare from the likes of Vivid and so on, the story is merely the set-up to take the viewer to the money shot. Except, of course, with Sex is my Business, the film does not have a money shot. It is, after all, a softcore film. This means, in practice, no money shot, no scenes of sexual penetration or indeed, any contact with the genitals whatsoever. There is some gentle belly rubbing, some Vic and Bob style leg stroking and a black model with the most incredibly infeasible hair seems to take the neck massager euphemism far too literally. She pouts as she strokes her chest and relieves the tensions in those hard to reach neck muscles! However, as interesting as this is, collectors will probably be more interested in this recently rediscovered slice of British exploitation film history because of the appearance in the title of one Mary Maxted. Born Mary Ruth Quilter, Maxted was a regular pin-up model who would go on to become one of the most iconic stars of the British sex industry in the seventies. Indeed, Mary, who would go on to adopt the name Millington at the suggestion of her then boyfriend, the Welsh pornographer, newspaper tycoon and West Ham co-chairman David Sullivan, would also appear in the likes of Come Play With Me and the Sex Pistols biopic The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. In the famous punk classic she would get it on with Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, the star of the feature, after trilling the line “Gee, I'd really fancy a Sex Pistol!”. Her scenes were shot at the famous Windmill Theatre, Soho, where Tudorpole would, in his modest contribution to proceedings, prance around the foyer singing “Who Killed Bambi”. As with her performance in Swindle, what Millington brought to Sex is my Business is enthusiasm. She absolutely launches herself into proceedings. This, it may be worth adding, is no mean feat. After all, the film is totally ridiculous. Even while it is the case that none of these sex quickies would ever trouble the BAFTAs, the softcore-at-any-cost approach of this film is so blatant as to border of farcical. Mary pouts and flicks her tongue provocatively as around her men enthusiastically, and hyperactively, air-hump. Indeed, it is the desire to show as much full frontal nudity as often as possible, rather than the use of discreet “tasteful” camera work, that shows up the greatest failing of the film. That is, by trying to show it all Marks is showing how little is really going on. Indeed, in terms of sex, nothing is going on at all here! Millington's fans, though,should have little to complain about. Mary, who could already be credited with appearing in the top selling, award winning, Miss Bohrloch in 1970 among other titles, was ever the professional. After all Mary was here, as ever, a gorgeous and experienced performer. She is joined in the fun by the beautiful Maureen O'Malley who, in one of the greatest in-jokes of British sexploitation, would go on to adopt the name of the stuffy conservative anti sex campaigner Mary Whitehouse for her magazine work. The film sees the cast supposedly under the influence of a strong aphrodisiac and calls for some frottage and unconvincing Beast in Heat style air-sex. But, at least all concerned manage to stifle laughter during their screen time. It all looks great fun but at the same time ever so unconvinging. In a slice of on-location guerilla film-making Sex is my Business opens by providing a brief nostalgic glimpse of this world as we are introduced the neon-lit West End night before the action is moved to a sex-shop on Coventry Street that would provide the location for the most of the running time. While it may not be art, this feature short is an authentic window on an edgy world of film that is sadly no longer with us. Like America's 42nd Street, Soho has suffered at the hands of both gentrifiers and the sort of conservative moralists who drove Mary to her tragic and premature demise. After all, even with the success of the likes of 50 Shades of Grey, Anne Summers sex supermarkets , the mainstreaming and hyper-capitalist commercialisation of sex there was something to be said for the mavericks who operated on the fringes of film in the seventies. Because while it may, now, be easy to buy crotchless tights and Rampant Rabbits on the high street, without having to go behind the beady curtains to the back rooms of the back-street neon-lit specialist bookshops, with it goes the whole milieu in which operated the cinemas that would, alongside the sex films, screen cult and exploitation film titles. Eurocult genre film and erotica for example. The multiplexes that operate within this new, sanitised film industry will happily show exploding CGI planets but not the works of Franco, Rollin, Metzger and so on. Something, as exploitation film fans will no doubt understand, has most definitely been lost.
Friday, 3 January 2014
If ever there was a title that promised hell of a lot, it is for the 1938 documentary The Expose of the Nudist Racket. Devoid of credits, and with no named director, this is a product of pre-war Hollywood distribution and production company called, appropriately, Hollywood Producers and Distributors. The film promises, in just shy of ten minutes, to get down and dirty with those with those with a predilection for ping-pong in the buff. The first, and most obvious, question is: what could possibly be the racket referred to in the title? This is, after all, a documentary from the arse end of what was the golden age of the gangster film. So, could there possibly be an angle there? There would, after all, be money to be made by those who could muscle in on the naturist clubs! Maybe, while there would be no clothes to wash, there would be an opportunity to launder money? The title, if nothing else, suggests that the film is going to provide a window on the salacious underbelly of the mob. Unfortunately, the title is a fucking lie! During the nine minute running time there is no racket and nothing, really, that really suggests that there is anything untoward going on. There is, however, a brief acknowledgement that money changes hands in the form of naturist club subscriptions. But, as the narration also explains, this fee is used for administration purposes and for the vetting of applicants. After all, priapism is a particular occupational hazard in such circles and this is one ailment, it seems, that is frowned upon by the assembled dangle of nudists at their hang-out. The film opens with an extended text crawl that sets the tone for the subsequent feature. It begins with a number of pairings of words that are topical, given the dark turn events across the Atlantic, but are, equally, bizarre in their juxtaposition. While the pairing of "fanaticism" and "fascism" makes sense, up to a point, and so does the misspelt "Natziism" and "egoism", the final couplet of "paganism" and "journalism" is just bonkers. Indeed the final two, if anything, sails perilously close to some of the more creepy and mystical conspiracy theories that informed the rise of National Socialism. However, this needn't be overstated. Maybe such approximation of words are little more than poetic flourishes that, Continental Film Review style, simply attempt to place a literary and intellectual spin on what is, in practice, an excuse to show unrestrained, bouncing norks. The foreword goes on to pose a number of seemingly challenging but, upon reflection, ultimately vacuous questions of the viewer. We are asked, for example, whether it could be the case that naturism is motivated by pauperism. While this may be suggested merely because of the way in which the words fit within the poetic form, to even frame the point in such terms is risible. Surely there would not be a single viewer who would, after considering the question, conclude that people join this exclusive members club because they could not afford clothes!? Anyhow, the text continues by suggesting that the film-maker feels guilty of neither solecism or plagiarism. While the veracity of both points may, in truth, be questionable, the conclusion will no doubt leave the sensation-seeker salivating. We are told, after all, that the sole aim of all this is to “lay the bare facts before” the viewer. Oh, and while doing this, also banging on about epicurism and the Sun's actinism, before getting down to the nittty-gritty. The meat and two veg of the feature, so to speak. What transpires, however, is a documentary that offers absolutely none of the things promised by the dramatic opening. Questions remain unanswered, loose-ends remain loosely hung and the only thing exposed throughout are the prejudices of the film-maker and the genitals of the participants. After all, the film is simply bigotry voiced over a nine minute film of pleasant woodland walks, volleyball, horse riding, ping-pong, swimming and, unsurprisingly, wrestling. Except, rather unusually for such activities, these outdoor pursuits are conducted in the altogether. In presenting naturism in this way, however, it is presenting nudity as an adjunct to an idealised life of leisure. As such, it is a pursuit that is as divorced as possible from the day-to-day of normal working life. Conspicuous, by absence, are those who work at the camp. So, the practicalities of working without clothing that would be needed to maintain a degree of workplace safety are overlooked. Indeed, the life of the naturist seems not unlike that of the wealthy surface dwellers in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Albeit with knobs and tits swinging about the place. No matter how idealised the world of this documentary might be, there is a pretty sinister undercurrent to the film. Some of the tone adopted in this documentary is not a million miles from fascism. Indeed, the film has a feel akin to Nazi propaganda pieces. Through narration there is a linking of man and the spirit of nature, the idealising of the perfection of form and the overemphasis of sport, wellbeing and hygiene that accompanies footage of an almost universally idealised assembly that are free from disability or visible physical defect. It could well be titled Triumph of the Willy!! In the spirit of Sesame Street, one of the group is a little different from the rest. She is a bit chubby. This sets her up to provide the attempts at comic relief as the narrator reveals a mean spirit at the heart of the feature. As this outsider, the one woman who dares to appear different, is singled out for such comments as a suggestion that she should be allowed in the pool because whales can swim and that she should give the horse a ride to avoid breaking its back! In a couple of throwaway remarks the film reveals its reactionary intent. Despite presenting naturism as a new modernism, the documentary ultimately lapses into the ideas informing the mood that had captured large parts of 1930s Europe. For all its political subtext and pseudo-intellectual musing, the film is about showing women's bits on screen in a post-Motion Picture Production Code America. Like the later Naked As Nature Intended, The Schoolgirl Reports, some of the lesser Mondo films and dozens of other “documentaries” these are films that would provide titillation and exploitation under the cover of providing information. It was one such title that would lead Sid James and Bernard Bresslaw to Paradise in Carry On Camping. As for the promise of the title, only the naturist bit is delivered. To this day the racket element remains a mystery.
Thursday, 2 January 2014
The seventies! Something weird happened. It was as if there were a metaphorical tear in the fabric of reality on the eve of The Age of Aquarius. This opening of the dimensions inspired, within a generation of proggy, post-hippy, brown-acid casualties, the exploration of crypto-zoology, ley line divination and Chakra balancing. Indeed pseudoscience and mysticism was bread and butter for this motley bunch of hairy, bargain bin, suburban, would-be Shamans. Anyone who doubts that this period was, in fact, the work of the devil, or at least a malevolent spirit, would be advised to look at the big fuck-off collars, the ever-present flowery blue wallpaper that would invariably be contrasted with bright orange curtains and even, at times, lime green paisley sofas, or even listen to an eighteen minute gong solo on one of countless awful, noodly, double albums from the beardy bands of the period. Rest assured, none of this could have possibly been the work of anything that meant humanity well. Anyhow, tempted by the fertile soil within the frazzled brains of those who believed, contrary to the laws of common sense, that if you remembered a period then you could not have possibly experienced it, all sorts of fantastical creatures tumbled through this portal into our world. Bigfoot was one such creature. For a brief period, before punk was able to give this platform shoed world a much needed brothel creeper enclosed boot up the arse, Bigfoot actually existed. That's right! For a couple of years this groovy cat of a hairy dude was being a bummer for “the man”! It all had something to with the pyramids, or possibly Stonehenge or even the Bermuda triangle. This is all a matter of record. It is in the newspapers of the time, it is in scientifically robust books such as Chariots of the Gods and it was even the subject of a number of episodes of the Six Million Dollar Man. Of course, there are some who may remember the period differently. Except, of course, if they remember it, then they weren't there or, erm, something. So, anyhow, we can discount these unreliable witnesses. What has been established as fact, though, is that the Bermuda Triangle is a pretty big area off the coast of Florida. It extends into the Atlantic and way off to the east of Cuba. It's mostly sea, save for a few small islands that will never, in a million years, trouble the latter stages of the football World Cup. Things happen at sea and over a long period a lot of things have happened in this particular bit of the oceans. Spooky things! For a start, people go missing at sea. Or even, to fit the narrative of The Devil's Triangle, on land. For example, the mysterious disappearance of two lighthouse keepers. A plane goes missing, it's the Devil's Triangle! A mutiny on a boat, Devil's Triangle! Lighthouse keepers? Why, The Triangle of course! So on and so on.... All it took was for someone to join the dots. That someone would be Richard Winer. Winer wrote books about the Bermuda Triangle. He also co-wrote this documentary, The Devil's Triangle. Winer even, here, produced and directed the thing. His co-writer on this project was, appropriately, a writer on Star Trek and Fantasy Island. It is not that there is "nothing to see here" in the whole Bermuda Triangle thing. After all, ships and planes do disappear. But, that said, since there is no actual,established, definition of what actually constitutes the triangle, the boundaries are fuzzy at best. This, of course, does not deter Winer. So, the film continues in its fantastical course. It relishes in the little details. Every important person is named. We are told who the ship captains are. But, in the antithesis of Brecht's Questions From a Worker Who Reads, everyone else who vanishes becomes a statistic as we are informed how many are on board each vessel. Indeed, for the sake of sensationalism, this is a film that relishes body counts and ends up balls-deep in such grim detail. But, anyhow, all these matters of facts, and stuff, are neither here nor there. Because this documentary is all about the fantastic. Echo effects are used on voices, there is even a trippy light show and a theme song for King Crimson. The film is, in essence, "factual" filmmaking for post-spacecake Woodstock casualties. It lays on a lot of heavy vibes to titillate and amuse. Indeed, its lack of peer-review becomes clear when, in the later stages, an anthropologist talks into camera about his pet-theory involving magnets and space aliens. By that point it should become clear to even the most decorated cadet of the space academy that Winer is, in fact, taking the piss. Luckily however, this is all worth seeing. Because, the saving grace comes in the form of the narration. For here, the one and only Vincent Price provides the voice-over. This is a man that could recite the ingredients of a risotto and it would still sound compelling. Besides, despite the laughable subject matter, the wooden talking heads and the use of recycled film throughout, the writing has all the charm of the romantic poets. It is delightful. Most of the time, though, we get to look at old footage of planes and boats. Interestingly, there is a scrap of film of a ship captain who carries a cane, is dressed all in white, and with a black bowler hat resembles one of the droogs from A Clockwork Orange. But, on the flipside, some of the footage appears to be of a toy boat. Not that any of this detracts from Price's distinctive, melodramatic mutterings.