September 29, 2016

Daughter of Dracula

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La Fille de Dracula
Jesus Franco - 1972
Redemption Films BD Region A

Not only is the title of Jesus Franco's film similar to the 1936 Dracula's Daughter, but the two films have shared the same title, or translation of the title, depending on what version of Franco's film has been seen. Additionally, Franco was able to depict what was only suggested in Lambert Hillyer's sequel to the 1931 Dracula, with the saphically inclined title character sneaking a few glances to suggest her feelings towards her female victim. In thirty-six years, the stern and forbidding Gloria Holden would be replaced by the centerfold ready Britt Nichols, her desires not faintly implied, but plainly stated and demonstrated, with Anne Libert as the very willing lover and victim.

For those viewers unfamiliar with the various cinematic wanderings of Jesus Franco, I would suggest checking out the earlier, more conventional narratives of The Blood Judge or The Diabolical Dr. Z. For those familiar with Franco's career, where feature films were created quickly with little money and the few resources at hand, the inconsistencies of Daughter of Dracula are less jarring. Sure, the vampires here aren't affected by sunlight, and there is no problem with a crucifix or two on the wall of Castle Karlstein. As for the castle itself, that exterior shot of the castle, filmed in Spain, has no visual relationship to the main set and castle, filmed in Portugal. And even though the version here is in French, like many European films of that era, the language was dubbed, providing voices for actors from several countries.

As he had last year with The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein, Tim Lucas proves a helpful guide through Francoland, and the idiosyncrasies of a filmmaker both loves and loathed, sometimes for the same reasons. Filmed the same year, several of the same cast member of Erotic Rites appear in this film. There is no Dracula. The family name is Karlstein, and Britt Nichols comes home to learn from her dying mother that she is the descendant of vampires. Nichols is handed a key to the crypt where her infamous relative is locked away. As Dracula, er, Count Karlstein, Howard Vernon pops up from inside his coffin, bares his fangs, and apparently goes back to sleep. Not only does Count Karlstein never leave his coffin, but Nichols helpfully drags a female victim, shoving her into the coffin, on top of the ravenous Count. While Franco plays loosely with vampire legends, his greater interest is in the time spent filming Nichols and Libert as kissing cousins. And has anybody discussed the connection between Franco's frequent use of close-ups of the female genital area and Gustave Courbet's painting, The Origin of the World?

Lucas does make sense of some of the narrative inconsistencies by suggesting that what is presented as a horror film was originally scripted as a thriller. As a response to commercial necessity, Franco made use of existing material with a few script changes and insert shots. Reading a review of Stephen Thrower's new study on Franco and his films, I am reminded that Franco studied music and especially loved jazz. Perhaps the key to appreciating some of the films by Jesus Franco is to allow that he may well have taken some that most important element of the jazz musician, the ability to improvise, and incorporated that his method as a filmmaker.

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September 27, 2016

The Wailing

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Gokseong
Na Hong-jin - 2016
Well Go USA Entertainment BD Region A

What I wasn't prepared for when I saw The Wailing was just how funny things get during the first half hour. Yes, the film begins with a small town police Sergeant checking the scene of a very grisly murder. But whether showing up late, losing his footing while on the crime scene, or being caught by his own young daughter having sex in a car with another woman, Jong-goo appears to be a chubby, bumbling cop.

What Na has effectively done is to lull the viewer into thinking that the horror and mystery will be balanced out with some humor. It's after that first half hour that the film becomes a serious meditation on faith and evil. There is still one moment of humor to come, reminiscent of the kind of scene that might appear in an early film by Sam Raimi. People are dying of an unknown malady that manifests as rashes on the body, and intense spasms, often killing those around them. The deaths are attributed to an older Japanese man who lives alone, in a decrepit house in the woods. Jong-goo attempts to question the stranger at his home. In those same woods, a younger woman appears, telling Jong-goo that the Japanese man is a blood sucking demon.

Where Na's filmmaking skill is demonstrated is in a scene of dueling shaman. Jong-goo's daughter, Hyo-jin, appears to be possessed. At the same time that the shaman hired by Jong-goo is performing his dance, the Japanese man is conducting his own ceremony. Na cuts between the two shaman and Hyo-jin, who is thrashing in pain on her bed. A percussion based soundtrack is used, with multiple drums for Jong-goo's shaman, and a single drum for the Japanese shaman. Na took about half a year to film The Wailing, followed by a year to edit, and it shows in this scene with the combination of visual and aural complexity.

The Korean title refers to an actual location in South Korea. Na emphasizes the natural beauty of the lush, green forests and the mountain. There are some similar thematic concerns with Na's previous film, The Yellow Sea, about an ethnic Korean from China caught between rival South Korean and Chinese gangsters in Korea. That the townspeople of Gokseong are ready to blame the Japanese man for the string of deaths would appear to xenophobic. It is worth noting that a temporary English language title for this film was The Strangers. Both the cause and cure of the madness consuming the community would appear to be forms of indigenous shamanism. A lay deacon proves ineffective, and Buddhism is essential reduced to mere props on an altar.

Na refuses to provide any clear answers. There may be more than one devil at work here. Even when using elements that may recall other classic horror films, Na Hong-jin has enough twists and turns so that nothing remains too familiar.

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September 25, 2016

Coffee Break

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Angela Bassett and Gerard Butler in Olympus has Fallen (Antoine Fuqua - 2013)

September 22, 2016

Dances and Sin

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Erotic Dances of Bettie Page
Irving Klaw
Cult Epics BD

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Sin
Nico B - 1990 - 2015
Cult Epics BD

A year before founding the company that eventually became Cult Epics in 1991, Nico B made a student film titled Slime. The 8mm film can be described as a montage of transgressive images. What is striking is that the imagery anticipates the kind of films Nico B would make available on home video, notable for his careful curation of titles by such filmmakers as Tinto Brass, Fernando Arrabal and Radley Metzger. The two new blu ray discs mark the 25th Anniversary of Nico B's Cult Epics label.

The Exotic Dances of Bettie Page is a collection of twelve short films, originally seen by collectors back in the 1950s as 8mm films sold primarily through Irving Klaw's mail order business. And ordinarily, one might not make a fuss about a group of films with no greater ambition than to document a woman shaking her booty in front of the camera, wearing a bra, panties, nylons and high heels. But Bettie Page's greatest asset was her smile, the look that told viewers that she not only was having fun, and sharing that sense of fun with her audience.

These films were never intended to be seen sixty years from when they were made, and some of the footage has deteriorated over the years. I think the reason why Bettie Page is still the subject of interest is because she radiates so much cheerfulness, bringing the word burlesque back to its original meaning of creating a work meant to invoke laughter.

The blu ray includes a brief collection of stills, dance performances for Kamera Club Films - one which is topless, and a documentary of Page's nephew, Rom Brem, discussing his aunt and their family at a Bettie Page exhibit in Catalina, shot last June.

Sin is a collection of short films by Nico B, inspired by 19th Century erotic stories. There are three short films, about ten minutes each, plus Slime and several very short 8mm films. Of the featured short Le Modele struck me with the most interest, cutting between a nude model and a nun, both played by Caroline Pierce. Still, it is Slime that would key viewing regarding Nico B's interests both as an occasional filmmaker, but more significantly as a home video entrepreneur. With a scene of a little girl with a scull, it's no surprise that a few years later, Nico B would be instrumental in making available the necrophiliac comedies of Jorg Buttgereit.

September 20, 2016

Destiny

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Der Mude Tod
Fritz Lang - 1921
Kino Classics BD Region A

Luis Bunuel is quoted on the cover of the new blu-ray as saying that Destiny inspired him to make films because of Fritz Lang's "poetic expressiveness". The film is also said to have influenced Alfred Hitchcock early in his career. The influence on Hitchcock is most obvious in the use of scale. The most striking in Destiny is of the characters in front of a wall. We don't see the entire wall, which has no gate or entrance, but is a totally enclosed space. What is seen are people who are dwarfed by an impossibly high wall that has no top visible to the audience. I know that Lang liked huge props. I was able to have an idea of what it was like to be on a Fritz Lang set when I entered the Berlin Filmmuseum and immediately was overwhelmed by the size of the photos and props there.

But back to Hitchock, I had to wonder if there would have been the scene in the British Museum in Blackmail filmed eight years later, a process shot, with a very small man "observed" by a very large head sculpture, had Hitchcock not seen Lang's films. That shot was done using a method devised by Eugen Schufftan on Lang's Metropolis. In a similar vein, there is the better known sequence of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint climbing around the faces of the presidents on the side of Mount Rushmore.

The influence Lang had on Bunuel is most strongly felt in the playfulness of the "Chinese" sequence, especially when the female magician turns her alleged master into a small tree. It was also this sequence that caught the eye of Douglas Fairbanks, who bought the U.S. distribution rights, and shelved Destiny for about three years while he and his crew figured out how to make convincing special effects with characters on a flying magic carpet. Lang's silent German films may have tackled the big themes of love and death, but the guy was also the Steven Spielberg of his time, with big budgets and state of the art special effects.

The German title translates as "The Weary Death", focusing on the tall, foreboding character played by Bernhard Goetzke. Not formally named, it is suggested that Mr. Death would like to retire after several centuries of accompanying people as they shuffle off this mortal coil. The English title is more fitting for the framing story and the three short stories within. A woman, unnamed, tries to bargain with death when her fiancé has died unexpectedly. She is told three stories of doomed love that take place at different times and different countries. Finally, she is given the opportunity to revive her fiancé if she is able to find someone equally young to take his place. The title Destiny suggests that there is no way one can change one's fate.

The commentary track by Tim Lucas offers some brief biographical information on most of the cast and key crew members, as well as connecting Destiny to several other films about death in the form of a human visitor. I also strongly recommend viewing the restoration demonstration, with an explanation regarding the choices made for tinting the film, as well as side by side footage showing scenes the same scene tinted and in black and white.

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September 18, 2016

Coffee Break

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Dennis Quaid in At Any Price (Ramin Bahrani - 2012)

September 13, 2016

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler

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Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler
Fritz Lang - 1922
Kino Classics BD Region A

Cocaine addiction. Gambling on credit. Stock market manipulation. The lust of men for showgirls, especially those who show off some skin. "A Story of our Time" shows that not too much has changed in the ninety-four years since Fritz Lang adapted Norbert Jacques' novel. The big difference is that cinema's original super-villain appears modest compared to those who would appear later, more often as comic characters like Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers series, or Gru of Despicable Me, or more dramatically, in the future incarnations of Mabuse by Lang and others. What seems consistent is that as brilliant and capable as these villains are when doing things for themselves, they frequently hire inept henchmen.

Even though Dr. Mabuse is called a gambler in the title, the German word spieler could be translated in several ways, with player possibly being the most accurate. Even though there are many scenes of gambling, and Mabuse is described as gambling with peoples' lives, Mabuse is actually in control through most of the film. Mabuse is first introduced as staging the theft of an international trade agreement that sends stocks tumbling down, low enough so that when the price is right, he stands up above the other stock traders, and like a vulture with his prey, swoops down to buy enough of the near worthless stock, and watch its value double its original worth. A little later, Mabuse visits his counterfeiting shop, operated by a crew of old, blind men, making dollars, rather than any European currency.

In one of the blu-ray supplements, Fritz Lang describes how the film was a reflection of life in Germany at the time. The biographer of Norbert Jacques also discusses how close the Berlin of Lang's film was to the real Berlin of 1922. This is the most complete version of Lang's film, with a running time of four and a half hours. There are none of the kind of overwhelming visual set pieces such as what can be found in Lang's next two films, Die Niebulungen and Metropolis, but a couple of moments stand out. In one scene, Lang cuts between the round, room sized roulette wheel of a gambling club, and the round table where several characters are holding a seance. Later, Mabuse, disguised as a famed psychoanalyst, conducts mass hypnosis on a theater audience, while a caravan of mid-East nomads emerge from an on-screen desert to the steps of the auditorium.

One of the other scenes that struck me took place at the home of one Mabuse's victims, Count Told. What we see of the house looks like a gallery, a combination of the most modernistic, abstract art, with mildly erotic, "primitive" pieces. As portrayed by Alfred Abel, Count Told is appears too sensitive for his own good, even before meeting Mabuse. Collecting art is described by his wife as Told's hobby. What is seen looks like an illustration of the kind of art work declared decadent by the Nazis. I'm not sure how much was coincidence here, but it may be worth noting that Norbert Jacques' novel was published in 1921, and took place in Munich, concurrent with the emergence of the Nazi party in that part of Germany.

In discussing the character of Mabuse as intended by Lang, it's pointed out in one of the supplements, that Rudolf Klein-Rogge is meant to be recognizable, even in disguise. In any event, seeing Klein-Rogge appear as different characters is part of the fun. There are bits of humor here as when the men in the gambling club enthusiastically applaud the appearance of a topless female performer, while a woman comments on the performer's lack of talent. Looking beyond the silk top hats worn by the men, and the floor length dresses of the women, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler remains a still relevant film exploring the concept of power at a time when society is teetering towards anarchy.

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