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September 24, 2019

The White Reindeer


Valkoinen peura
Erik Blomberg - 1952
Eureka! BD Region B/Region 2 DVD two-disc set

I don't recall exactly how I first became aware of The White Reindeer. What I do remember is that someone had mentioned that Christa Fuller, filmmaker Samuel Fuller's wife, thought it one of the most frightening films she had ever seen. Blomberg's film, the first from Finland to play at Cannes, also had a limited U.S. release as well as winning a Golden Globe for Best Foreign film. For those weaned on more graphic horror, The White Reindeer may come across as quaint. In terms of genre, contemporary viewers may find it of interest as a predecessor to those films inspired by folk beliefs such as The Wicker Man and Midsommar. The White Reindeer exists in a pre-modern world, where pagan beliefs are not easily dismissed as superstition.

Blomberg began his filmmaking career as a documentarian, and the film begins almost as a documentary or travelogue about reindeer herders in Lapland. But first is a song from a female vocalist about a girl who unknowingly is a witch at birth. The mother is seen running from a pack of wolves, into a shed. The first scenes take place in the snow covered country, where a few scattered trees encased in ice and snow appear as ghostly sentries. Most of the film takes place outside, to the point where the valley becomes a character, determining the lives of the characters. Blomberg makes a point of using several shots at various points at several distances, minimizing the size of the people in their environment. The first shots of the herding community are silent with a mix of styles that suggest older films made decades earlier. That the herders all are wearing Lapp specific clothing, and seen living in a way that seems to have not changed for at least a century makes it difficult to identify when the film takes place. Between aspects of the filmmaking style and the presentation of the characters, The White Reindeer appears out of time. It is only with the later appearance of a characters identified as being from "the South", with his contemporary clothing and his rifle, that we see a brief intrusion of the modern world.

That non-specific time period is established when the Lapp villagers are seen in a celebration, with a race of sleds pulled by reindeers. A young woman, Pirita, wins the race as well as the heart of herder Aslak. The two get married, but domestic life is disappointing between Aslak's long absences in the reindeer roundups and an apparent lack of interest in intimacy. Pirita is given a gift of a baby white reindeer that is the recipient of her affections while Aslak is away. After praying to the stone god, a large rock pillar adorned with antlers, Pirita visits a shaman who creates a love potion. If Pirita had only intended for this potion to strengthen her relationship with Aslak, it's unclear as the shaman states that Pirita will attract all of the herders. For the potion to take effect, Pirita is to sacrifice the first living thing she sees.

The White Reindeer will probably remind many of Jacques Tourneur's Cat People (1942). Both films present unrepressed female sexuality linked with turning into an animal, as well as the presence of a family curse. In both films, the female protagonist is unable to free herself from her situation, although Pirita appears to have greater control over her impulses. There are no special effects as might have been used by filmmakers at the time. While this may be frustrating to the more literal minded viewers, Blomberg creates his effects through editing. While not as ambiguous as the horror films produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s, Blomberg creates the horror in part by what the viewers think they are seeing.

Erk Blomberg served as cinematographer and editor in addition to directing. The script was co-written with his wife, Mirjami Kuosmanen, who also appears as Pirita. The blu-ray was created from a recent 4K restoration by the National Audiovisual Institute of Finland.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:18 AM

September 17, 2019

Who Saw Her Die?

who saw her die?.jpg

Chi l'ha vista morire?
Aldo Lado - 1972
Arrow Video BD Region A

While the casting of the two actors as an estranged married couple was not originally what was intended, George Lazenby and Anita Strindberg visually compliment each other. They play the parents of the titular "her". Both are quite thin, gaunt, their faces almost skeletal. This kind of visual unity is also part of two moments when these parents try to process their grief at the loss of their daughter. Lado has a tight close up of Strindberg's face, a tear falling from her left eye and a small wet streak below her right eye. The camera moves left to Lazenby's face, facing away from Strindberg, with the camera moving to the right of the screen, again on Strindberg. In a moment of reconciliation through their mourning, Strindberg and Lazenby wear knit shirts that are the same shade of gray, although of different textures.

Who Saw Her Die? takes place in Venice just before winter. Sunlight only appears in the early scenes of Franco (Lazenby) with his young daughter, Roberta. In the last scene with Roberta, she is in the middle of a circle surrounded by equally young children, in a variation of "Ring Around the Rosie". The children are in a shady part of a small square. The exterior shots from that point on become increasingly darker, with overcast skies and extreme fog during the day, as well as several scenes taking place in the darkness of night. Several of the pathways available to the characters offer restricted availability of movement. There is a constant sense of claustrophobia.

There are the usual giallo tropes - a murder mystery with psycho-sexual links to the killer's past, red herrings and deliberate misdirection. There are also the murder set pieces required of the genre. Ennio Morricone provided the score which primarily consists of a children's choir singing a variation of the title.

It is somewhat difficult to judge George Lazenby's performance as he was dubbed not only in Italian, but also in the English language version as well, by American actor Mark Forest. But what appears to be genuine is his relationship with Nicoletta Elmi as Roberta. The two seem to take pleasure in each other, such as when they are skipping together on the street, or playing "telephone" with a couple of small shells. It could also be that without the immense outside pressures, Lazenby was able to be more relaxed than was in his debut as the one-time James Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Aldo Lado's familiarity with Venice gave him the ability to film most of the film in the less familiar parts of the city, where working class families lived, as well as the more industrial areas. Not seen in the usual tourist's eye view are shots of the merchants setting up their stands for the outdoor market near the Grand Canal. Just about a year prior to making Her Saw Her Die?, Lado wrote the story and served as Assistant Director on a film showing a more glamorous Venice, The Designated Victim.

As is usual with Arrow, the blu-ray comes with generous extras. Film historian Troy Howarth discusses the film at hand as well as Aldo Lado's career, but also spends time placing Who Saw Her Die? within the context of both genre filmmaking in Italy, but also the Italian film industry of the early 1970s. Interviews with Aldo Lado and screenwriter Franceso Barilli, both shot last June, provide sometimes contradictory, but always interesting information on the production of the film, as well as thoughts on their own careers. A now mature Nicoletta Elmi shares her memories of acting in several films, where unlike the good natured Roberta, she played more malevolent youngsters, notably in Dario Argento's Deep Red. Giallo specialist Michael Mackenzie also provides more details, including a side by side shot comparison with Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now which was release more than a year later, but shares some uncanny similarities. I also advise checking out the extras for the discussion of the final line in the film following the revealing of the killer's identity, which inadvertently creates the film's biggest plot hole. The transfer is from from a 2K restoration which is just about perfect.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:32 AM

September 10, 2019

I Mobster

i mobster 1.jpg

Roger Corman - 1958
Sony Wonder Region 1 DVD

Even if this film is one of Roger Corman's lesser loved efforts, it deserves a bit better than a crude pan and scan transfer of the CinemaScope original. Aside from being Corman's first wide screen film, this was the first Corman directed film to be distributed by a major studio, 20th Century-Fox. It's not classic Corman by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a very watchable mix of older talent with a couple of stars whose own career peaks were firmly in the Fifties.

The main narrative is a flashback. Joe Sante, called before a Senate committee investigating racketeering, thinks back on his life of crime. Starting as a school age collector for a local bookie, Joe climbs his way up the ladder, not quite the top, but very close. The story uses some of the familiar template of the criminal son of immigrants, with the distant relationship with the father, and the always emotionally supportive mother. There is also the neighborhood good girl, Teresa, who keeps her distance, at least until her love for Joe makes her a willing accomplice in his organization.

i mobster 2.jpg

And there is a good reason why the story elements would seem so familiar. The screenplay is by Steve Fisher, one of his last for a theatrical film. Fisher's credits include a couple of movies starring Humphrey Bogart, as well as the twice filmed novel, I Wake Up Screaming. At any rate, I'm not going to begrudge dialogue such as Steve Cochran murmuring to Lita Milan, "You dumb broad. You beautiful dumb broad." There is also a James Cagney connection with producer Edward Alperson taking it on the financial chin for the flop, The Great Guy, while one of Steve Cochran's early roles was with Cagney in White Heat. If I Mobster has nothing on the classic Warner Brothers gangster movies, keep in mind that Warner Brothers had pretty much let the genre die out after the explosive conclusion of White Heat.

I have to wonder what was going on in Steve Cochran's mind going from Michelangelo Antonioni to Roger Corman. In his journal, Antonioni complained about Cochran over-analyzing his part in Il Grido rather than taking specific directions from Antonioni. From what I know of Corman, Cochran probably had a free hand in shaping his performance. And while the forty year old actor looks too old as the younger Joe Sante, he looks just right as the custom suited crime boss. Joe talks about using his brains, but it's more about brute strength and animal cunning, which Cochran conveys convincingly. Lita Milan is one of those actresses who came and went briefly, typecast as the all purpose exotic beauty. Spicing things up in single scenes are Fifties B-movies bad girl Yvette Vickers, and Lili St. Cyr performing a strip tease filmed and edited for family viewing.

I don't know if I will ever see all of Roger Corman's films from the Fifties, but that doesn't mean I'm going to stop trying. I let a friend catch the impossible to see Rock All Night playing with Carnival Rock in my place, when a Corman retrospective was held in New York City's Kips Bay Theater in March, 1971. There are a handful of films that I have yet to see in any format that also includes Sorority Girl, and Machine-Gun Kelly, the first starring role for Charles Bronson. Even if this very imperfect version of I Mobster is as good as it gets for my attempt at being a Coman completist, I enjoyed this lesser known diversion.

i mobster 3.jpg

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:30 AM

September 05, 2019

The Long Walk

long walk 2.jpg

Bor Mi Vanh Chark
Mattie Do - 2019
Lao Art Media

It is quite possible that I may have mis-read Mattie Do's third film as a westerner with limited personal exposure to Southeast Asian life and culture. But I'm going to dive in anyways. For those unfamiliar with Mattie Do, she is the first female director from the country officially known as the Loa People's Democratic Republic, and one of the handful of filmmakers in country that has had no filmmaking infrastructure. He previous film, Dearest Sister was the first film from her country to be entered for consideration for the Foreign Language Oscar. Following film festival exposure, Dearest Sister has been available through the genre streaming channel, Shudder. The Long Walk premiered at the Venice Film Festival, as part of the Giornate degli Autori. The Lao title literally translates, per Ms. Do, as "Never a day apart/separated".

The Long Walk is a Lao ghost story. It will no doubt frustrate those who insist on exposition every ten minutes or so to explain what is going on. Those looking for jump scares will have to find them elsewhere. The pacing is languid. The horror, such as it is, is muted. The film takes place in a rural area, where past and present (or is it present and future?), folk beliefs and futuristic technology, and humans and ghosts share the same space. Probably not deliberately, but Do's film is closer to Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee than to the kinds of films associated with "Asian Extreme".

I am making the connection between the younger Lao filmmaker with the better known Thai based not only on the films, but my brief time in Thailand. Both cultures share similarities with the presence of spirit houses, those small shrines that resemble small houses on a platform, a home for a protective spirit, where small food offerings are placed. There is also the influence of Buddhism, and government of a kind under the direction of the designated village headman. The animism in The Long Walk is to be found geographically, in a part of a forest that has become a special burial ground. There is a pervasive sense of time standing still, of people living the way have for decades, with anything indicating modernity more of an intrusion rather than convenience.

An unnamed man, referred to as the Old Man, gets by selling parts of an abandoned motorcycle. He is called by the local police based on his reputation to communicate with the dead, in hopes of finding the body of a missing woman. Both the old man's use of a microchip implanted in his arm as a means of telling time and conducting financial transactions, and his particular spiritual abilities are treated as nothing out of the ordinary. The main narrative concerns the shifting relationship between the old man, a young boy and a silent young woman. The old man sees his mission as delivering women from physical pain, and burying them in a hidden area, counter to the Buddhist tradition of cremation. It is uncertain if the souls of these women are truly at rest. Do and her screenwriter, husband Christopher Larsen, offer partial explanations through their characters. There is a happy ending, but also plenty of ambiguity.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:49 AM