|VHS Cover Image|
This sequel starts off the way that most great films do—with erectile dysfunction. After a husband can't get sufficiently aroused in the hotel, on the beach, or out at sea, he and his wife don diving gear and attempt to make the Beast With Two Backs on the ocean floor. Unfortunately, their sexual shenanigans land them too close to an old shipwreck, where some decidedly dangerous fish have taken up residence. Before you can say crimson tide, the water is awash with blood and bits.
The next day, would-be-marine-biologist Annie Kimbrough is leading a diving class at the exclusive and all-inclusive Club Elysium, where she works. She forbids her students from venturing into the shipwreck, but there's one rebel in every group, and this one wanders away from the others and enters the forbidden zone. Annie chases after him, only to find his half-eaten corpse.
This attack brings on an investigation by Annie's estranged husband Steve, a local police officer. Knowing her marine life, she is sure that no local animal could have made those bite marks, so she launches an investigation of her own. Tagging along for the ride is one of her students, Tyler Sherman, who knows more than he is letting on.
Turns out that he is actually a biochemist who was involved in the creation of the killer fish—an ungodly genetic crossbreeding of piranha (for their ferocity), grunion (for their ability to survive on land), and flying fish (for their ability...to be fish that fly). The army had previously lost four canisters of fertilized fish eggs in that exact spot, and only three were recovered. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out the rest.
The spawning of the title actually refers to the grunion's natural instinct to beach themselves on shore to procreate. This makes them easy prey for lazy fishermen, and the Club Elysium hosts an annual cookout to celebrate. Being part grunion, these piranha have the same instincts, and as the tourists storm the beach, chanting "We want fish! We want fish!"
, we're chanting back at them "The fish want you! The fish want you!"
This leads, of course, to the largest attack in the film, comparable in scope to the resort attack in the original movie.
The next morning, Tyler and Annie head off on a dangerous mission to eradicate the fish by blowing up the shipwreck where they live. It turns out to be a suicide machine for Tyler—the inevitable price he must pay for his involvement in their creation—but at least he goes out a hero.
There's a minor subplot involving Annie and Steve's teenage son Chris, who gets a job as a deckhand on the boat of the incompetent "Captain" DuMont. He falls for the Cap's comely teenage daughter Allison, and they strike up a romance that leads them to sneak off to an island at night—the perfect setting for a piranha attack that unfortunately never actually happens. The whole scenario is just a contrived way of getting the two youngsters into harm's way at the explosive climax in an attempt to up the emotional ante.
Speaking of emotions, mine were muddled and confused early in the film when we were first introduced to Chris. He practically crawled into bed with a seemingly-nude older woman and woke her up by wagging his fish in her face (that's not a euphemism). They giggle and wrestle around a bit, but just as we're about to give him some machismo kudos for bagging an attractive, experienced woman, it's revealed that this is not a romantic relationship that we are peeping on. This is a creepy and uncomfortable interaction between mother and son.
There are a small handful of other piranha attacks not covered here, but for the most part, they were against sacrificial lambs that were introduced solely to up the body count, and their importance was minimal at best. Nor were they very memorable, at least not for good reasons. But the same can be said for most of the movie.
|Deadly Fish Hickeys|
There are some pretty solid gore effects, which makes it all the more disappointing how ridiculous the piranha look. While the original was never going to win any awards for special effects, the fact that the fish were confined to the water helped to obscure them from sight when the panic kicked in and the blood started flowing. The sequel doesn't have that advantage, and although the piranha are occasionally shown fluttering about like bats, when they go in for the kill, they fly into frame like little missiles and latch onto their victims, appearing stiff and lifeless during the struggle as the actors hold them to their throats, rather than attempt to pull them off.
There is also a drastically different tone at play here. Its predecessor planted its tongue firmly in cheek and kept it there for most of the running time, however THE SPAWNING takes itself too seriously, as if it believes that Jiminy Cricket has conspired to turn it into a real live horror film. This more straight forward approach to the material may have worked had it not been conceived as a follow-up to the much-beloved 1978 film, but as it stands, it only serves to distance itself needlessly from the original.
Another way in which it distanced itself was by completely ignoring the fact that the original readily opened
itself up for a sequel—it implied that some of the piranha did indeed make it out of the river and into the ocean. And yet it is not these piranha that we have here, but a whole different batch of them whipped up in another laboratory. I understand the need to make the monster bigger and badder than before, but surely the filmmakers could have found a way to do so while still tying the sequel into its predecessor—a natural (or unnatural) mutation of the surviving fish, for instance; or they could have bred with the other species in order to repopulate their ranks. It might not have been scientifically sound, but I'm fairly certain that we already checked our disbelief at the door.
This movie has a bit of a troubled backstory, some of which may account for the weaknesses in the film. Although Roger Corman is the producer most identified with the original film, he was not the only producer—there was also Jon Davison, Chako van Leeuween, and Jeff Schectman. It was, apparently, Leeuween and Schectman who held the most control of the title, as Corman (and presumably Davison) had signed on for only a one-picture deal, meaning that when the sequel came around for Warner Brothers, they were free to pull behind-the-scenes talent from elsewhere.
Back in 1974, filmmaker Ovidio G. Assonitis had directed the possession film BEYOND THE DOOR, which was too close to THE EXORCIST for Warner Brothers, who filed an infringement suit. According to Assonitis, as part of the settlement, he agreed to not make a sequel to that film, and to work in a producer's role for three films at WB studios. One of those three films was to be PIRANHA II. He had agreed to produce it so long as he was able to assume creative control, which the studio granted, with one stipulation: The piranha had to fly.
Assonitis brought on Miller Drake to direct it, and he and screenwriter Charles Eglee set about crafting a script. In their original vision, Kevin McCarthy's scientist character from part one was supposed to return, despite apparently dying the first time around. Badly scarred and mutilated, he was to be using these flying piranha as tools of revenge (which, admittedly, would negate the character's development over the course of his short running time in the original film). Barbara Steele's character was likely to return, as well.
Drake had also brought in James Cameron to assist with the art direction, and had set in motion the recruitment of Rob Bottin, who had done some work on the original, to provide special effects for the sequel. But before Bottin had begun work, and before the original script had gone much of anywhere, Assonitis fired Drake after an argument about how slow the preproduction side of things was moving.
Cameron was then promoted from art direction into the director's chair. He, Eglee and Assonitis all hammered out a new script together—credited onscreen under the shared pseudonym of H.A. Milton. It was Cameron's first feature film as a director, and he faced a number of unforeseeable challenges—the morgue where one key scene took place, for instance, was actually housing corpses piled three-deep, much to the cast and crew's chagrin. The constant interference of Assonitis was even more challenging, though, as he questioned all of Cameron's decisions and often overrode them with his own.
Two weeks into the shoot, Assonitis fired his replacement director, James Cameron. Cameron, who has not had a good thing to say about the experience since, claims that it was because Assonitis had wanted to direct the film himself all along. Reports from the other producers declare that it was actually because of budgetary concerns—Cameron wanted to craft the best picture that he could, and was spending far too much time and money getting the perfect shot.
Whatever the true motivation behind it, Assonitis did
step in to complete the film, though Cameron's name was left in the credits for contractual and legal reasons. The finished film was eventually distributed by Saturn International Pictures, which, from what I can gather, was a minor arm of the Warner Brothers studio system.
There are rumors that once shooting had ended, Cameron would break into the editing bay at night to work on his own edit of the film—rumors that Cameron has alternately denied and promulgated. This Cameron Cut of the film, which may or may not exist, is said to convey Cameron's original vision of the movie as best he could, with the footage that was available. It is highly sought after on the collector's market, but I am yet to be convinced that it is real. There are
alternate versions that exist—including an international and a television version—but these were the work of the studio and the producers, not
On more than one occasion, Assonitis had plans to produce a PIRANHA III, going so far as to print up advertisements in order to drum up interest. One take on the new sequel was to be called THE CRAWLING MENACE, in which the piranha apparently lost their wings and grew legs instead, and another was THE INVISIBLE MENACE, where they had developed the ability to turn invisible. If the image on the advertisement is to be believed, they also move into a snowy climate, conceivably terrorizing ice fishermen or teenyboppers at a ski resort. Neither of these films were ever made, and likely never progressed beyond the conceptual stage. And yet some territories appear, at first glance, to have been privy to not one but two
additional sequels that the rest of us did not see. In some countries, Corman's own 1995 made-for-cable remake of the original was released theatrically and billed, not as a remake, but as PIRANHA 3, while the wholly unrelated Italian film PLANKTON was released in 1994 in its native country, but released later elsewhere as PIRANHA 4.
I would much prefer a bunch of transparent snowfish over sitting through either of those two films again.
Director James Cameron shouldn't require any introduction, as he is responsible for blockbusters like THE TERMINATOR (1984) and TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991); ALIENS (1986); TITANIC (1997); and AVATAR (2009). He prefers to keep PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING off of his résumé, but nobody's falling for that anymore.
Screenwriter Charles H. Eglee went on to script the killer rat flick DEADLY EYES (1982), and then concentrated mostly on television. He contributed as screenwriter and producer to MOONLIGHTING, MURDER ONE, THE SHIELD, DEXTER, THE WALKING DEAD, and James Cameron's DARK ANGEL.
Annie was played by the attractive Tricia O'Neil, who also appeared in the infamous blaxploitation western THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLIE (1972); the madcap comedy THE GUMBALL RALLY (1976); the made-for-TV child abuse drama MARY JANE HARPER CRIED LAST NIGHT (1977), with Kevin McCarthy from the original PIRANHA; and the stalker semi-horror film ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE? (1978). She would team up with James Cameron again in TITANIC (1997), though her role of "Woman" was doubtlessly much smaller than her role here.
Annie's husband Steve was played by Lance Henricksen, who, with nearly 200 roles under his belt, should be no stranger to genre fans. He has appeared in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977); DAMIEN: OMEN II (1978); the horror anthology NIGHTMARES (1983); cult-favorite vampire film NEAR DARK (1987); the unforgettable PUMPKINHEAD (1988); and the X-Files spin-off MILLENNIUM (1996-1999); he worked for Assonitis again in THE VISITOR (1979), and was cast in James Cameron's THE TERMINATOR (1984), and ALIENS (1986). When you work as steadily as Henricksen, you're bound to appear in your fair share of bad pictures, but even then his performance is usually the highlight.
The careers of the rest of the cast are much less expansive and much less impressive, so the truly curious will have to dig deeper for themselves. Might I suggest some back issues of Penthouse magazine? A few of the fish fodder can be found there on full display.
After the sudden death of her brother, Carol (Vanessa Hidalgo) and her boyfriend Robert (Mauro Rivera)
|Original Theatrical Poster|
travel to a village outside London to settle his estate and visit with his widow, the eccentric but enigmatic Fiona (Helga Liné). When they arrive at the estate, it is in the midst of a great storm that has taken the power out. Never fear, Fiona has an ample supply of the titular black candles that she uses to illuminate the household in circumstances such as these.
Robert, a former man of the cloth turned scholar, is immediately taken with the interesting lithographs hanging on Fiona's walls. They represent various aspects of demonology, and these, coupled with the black candles are enough to give Carol pause about their hostess. Carol and Robert retire to their bedroom to gossip, strip naked, and have some hot, sweaty sex. And why not? We all grieve in different ways.
In a scene that seems directly torn from Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO, Fiona removes a painting from the wall to reveal a hole through which she watches the entire thing...while pleasuring herself.
No, Fiona isn't just your run-of-the-mill deviant. She also happens to be a Satanist (along with just about everyone else around, it seems) and Carol's presence is putting a real crimp in the cult's style. Killing her would be too suspicious so close to her brother's death, and just waiting her out or asking her to leave isn't nearly evil enough. Instead, Fiona and her cohorts opt to mess with her mind using all manner of magic derived from the dark lord.
Carol falls deeper and deeper into madness, never able to tell with any certainty what is real and what is not (and thus the audience is in the same unfortunate boat), while Robert finds himself entwined with the cult, which offers a seemingly endless buffet of perverse delights.
|Satan Loves Sex|
These people are fans of Satan, and Satan is evidently a fan of sex, so there is an awful lot of it that unfolds onscreen. It's all softcore stuff, but is just about as hardcore as softcore can be. Standard sex isn't good enough for a film of this caliber, either. No, a movie such as this depends largely on what is known as the Sleaze Quotient, and so perversity is marched across the screen in such a fashion as to make Krafft-Ebbing roll over in his grave.
Aside from the voyeuristic incident that has already been mentioned, and the expected variety of male-female/female-female vanilla flavorings, there is: a dream sequence in which Carol fantasizes about having incestual intercourse with her own (dead) brother; after joining the ranks of Satan, Robert forces sodomy upon his girlfriend—though she isn't too upset about it once the dirty deed is over; when a farmhand is unable to satisfy his insatiable harlot of a wife, a younger glistening stud is called in to finish the job—while the husband lies in bed next to them, cheering him on; and a woman masturbates a goat...which is bad enough on its own, but it is merely the lead-in for some full-on beastiality. It's all rather cringe-worthy, but I do believe that was the point.
You would think that there would be more violence in this movie, but it is decidedly sparse in that area. When you're following a vast satanic conspiracy within the framework of a small town, that doesn't leave a lot of innocents available to step into the role of victim. It should be noted, though, that the most extreme of the few acts of violence here also features a distinct and distasteful sexual element, as a nude man is forcefully impaled through the rectum with a sword. Too bad that the man in question was not Robert, as it surely would have given him cause to reflect on his earlier sexual assault in the moments before he bled out.
As this is a movie in which the main character is sliding into insanity, this gave the filmmakers free reign to toy with the surreal, without worry if the final product was coherent. And it's a good thing, too, because it's all just a collection of weird stuff floating around in space, with little or no connective tissue and a nonsensical ending that is the beginning that is the ending. All in all, it doesn't make a lot of sense—at least, not in the conventional manner. Reflecting back after viewing, though, it does seem to follow the unknowable logic of an erotic fever dream, only glimpses of which you can recall the next morning—and no matter how badly you want to shake those memories, they just keep rattling around in your brain.
The film was written and directed by José Ramón Larraz, who was no stranger to the blending of sex and horror. Among his other credits that dealt with the same themes: WHIRLPOOL (1970); DEVIATION (1971); EMMA, PUERTAS OSCURAS (1974); THE HOUSE THAT VANISHED (1974); VAMPYRES (1974); and THE COMING OF SIN (1978). It is his subversive mixture of these elements, coupled with the relative obscurity of his works, that have secured his place as a cult director.
Larraz thoroughly disliked the film, and all but disowned it. In the book Immoral Tales
by Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs, he was quoted as saying, "No one in that film could act. So what do you do with them? You put them in bed and have them jump on each other."
If he used the sex here as a distraction, he certainly was offering up a lot of distractions.
This is a Spanish film and its original title is LOS RITOS SEXUALES DE DIABLO, which translates to "The Sexual Rites of the Devil". It is a more descriptive name, but the black candles of the English title weren't merely some obscure prop. Black candles actually are an important part of many an occult ritual. The major retail store in the small town that I grew up in had a serious problem with black crayons going missing from all of the boxes in the stationary aisle. A few of the kids that I went to high school with would steal them and melt them down to make black candles, reportedly for satanic rites out at the old graveyard known as Devil's Playground, where the Black Church was said to appear under specific circumstances. Spooky stuff.
A bunch of hogwash, granted, but spooky nonetheless.
Catherine Yorke and her parents are traveling to the countryside to visit her uncle, a physician who has, up until now, been strangely absent from her life. Literally the moment that they pull into the property, though, they are involved in a freak car accident that claims the lives of both her parents.
Catherine suddenly finds herself in the hands of three total strangers: her uncle Alexander, her cousin
Stephen, and Alexander's secretary/Stephen's jilted lover Frances. Under their care and guidance, Catherine works through her grief remarkably fast. In fact, at times she hardly seems fazed by the whole thing. The only roadblocks on her road to recovery are all of the gory psychic visions that she has to endure. Alexander insists that they are just hallucinations brought on by the trauma, but there's actually a far more sinister reason behind them.
A few hundred years back, a powerful witch named Camilla was tortured and executed by puritans on the very same land now owned by Alexander. Alexander, a devoted Satanist, has made it his life mission to return her from the dead, which can only be accomplished by offering Camilla a new body which she can occupy. He has tried—and failed—at least once before, resulting in the death of his wife, but has since learned of a few crucial requisites: the fleshy vessel must be a direct descendent of Camilla (which, surprise surprise, Catherine is); and she must be age 20, the same age that Camilla was when she was killed. With Catherine's twentieth birthday just around the corner, this dastardly trio just have to keep her close for a few more days.
When the big day comes, Frances has an unexpected (and not fully explained) change of heart. She warns Catherine of what is to come, and is brutally disposed of by Stephen because of it. Catherine makes a break for it, running through the woods, and bumps right into her supposedly-deceased father.
Although initially skeptical, Catherine eventually comes to believe his explanation that she, in fact, was the only one injured in the car accident, suffering a head injury and going in and out of consciousness ever since. Everything that has taken place since has, of course, been a construct of her own imagination.
Although it appears at this point that the film is going to give itself over to a nonsensical and ambiguous ending (very much in the same vein as BLACK CANDLES, already covered here), it turns out that this is a fake
fake-out ending...though one that still seems to confuse some people. As Catherine is ushered back into the safety of the house, her father steps away for a moment, only to return in satanic ceremonial garb. The hunt is once again on, though this time, there is no escape.
While some insist that the reappearance of Catherine's father was merely an illusion drummed up by Alexander's devilish hoodoo, it seems painfully obvious to me that he is the genuine article. He caused the accident and faked his own death—remember, Catherine didn't see her father in the car when it burst into flames, it is only assumed that he was still inside—and has been in hiding ever since, secretly in collusion with his brother. Exactly what faking his death was intended to accomplish, however, is unclear, and I believe this is where the confusion stems from.
I don't know what it is about satanic cinema that demands so much nudity, but there's plenty of it on (full frontal) display here, too. There's also an unhealthy abundance of sex, sadism, and sleaze. One of Catherine's hallucinations/psychic visions shows the treatment that Camilla received at the hands of her enemies—including being stripped naked, tied to a tree, lashed with a whip, and branded like cattle. The first time we lay eyes on Stephen, he is plying a young woman with alcohol in preparation for date rape, the threat of sexual mutilation, and eventually murder. If that didn't make him deviant enough, he also seduces—or allows himself to be seduced by—Catherine, who not only sleeps with him, but immediately afterwards professes her love for him and begins planning their lives together. We probably shouldn't expect anything better from Stephen, but it is a bit surprising that Catherine would so gleefully jump into bed with him. Not only have both of her parents died only days before (as far as she knows), and not only does she have an apparently-serious boyfriend waiting for her in the city, but Stephen is her first cousin! If she were to get knocked up, we would have a whole new horror movie on our hands. Satan loves incest, it would seem, so it's a theme that pops up with some regularity in these movies.
|The Devil's Butler|
Another thing that Satan must love? Garish silky red robes with purple capes. A lot of his devotees seem to dress like bad Batman villains from the 1960s TV show. Which is almost fitting here, as Alexander is portrayed by Michael Gough, who played Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred Pennyworth four times, beginning with Tim Burton's BATMAN in 1989.
There are a couple of scenes that may seem somewhat familiar to fans of the horror genre, even the first time they see them. One of them is something of a twist on possibly the most sacrilegious scene depicted in THE EXORCIST, which was released three years prior, as a nude woman is sexually violated by another with a wooden cross as part of a satanic rite. The other is when Stephen kills Frances for her disloyalty, and Catherine finds the woman's corpse pinned to a door by a butcher knife stabbed through her gaping mouth. It is a reveal straight out of just about any slasher franchise that you can imagine, though it preceded just about all of them.
The knife-through-the-mouth gag wasn't the only impressive piece of special effects here. Catherine's boyfriend, under a satanic influence directed from afar, leaps to his death from a tall building, resulting in a gruesome splatter; and when sicko Stephen finally meets his fate, it comes in the form of a nail file in the eye, wielded by none other than his incestuous lover.
SATAN'S SLAVE was written by David McGillivray, so you can blame him if you're offended by anything in the film. He's also the scribe behind such genre films as HOUSE OF WHIPCHORD (1974), FRIGHTMARE (1974), HOUSE OF MORTAL SIN (1976), SCHIZO (1976), and TERROR (1978). He has also done some work in the adult film industry, on television, and in recent years has scripted a number of short films, as well. Director Norman J. Warren also helmed the aforementioned TERROR; the sex sci-fi flick SPACED OUT (1979; written, in part, by Bob Saget!); ALIEN PREY (1981); INSEMINOID (1981); and BLOODY NEW YEAR (1987).
Candace Glendenning, who played Catherine, mostly played on television, but she did appear in the genre
films TOWER OF EVIL and THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW (both 1972). Frances was played by Barbara Kellerman, who can also be seen in QUARTERMASS and THE QUARTERMASS CONCLUSION (both 1979); the HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR episode entitled "Growing Pains" (1980); THE MONSTER CLUB (1981); and the rabies horror mini-series THE MAD DEATH (1983). Martin Potter, who portrayed Stephen, also appeared in the twin-based thriller GOODBYE GEMINI (1970); the horror comedy CRAZE (1974); and the Chris Boger adaptation of MARQUIS DE SADE'S JUSTINE (1977).
Besides his appearances in the BATMAN films, Michael Gough can also be found in HORROR OF DRACULA (1958); HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (1959); KONGA (1961); THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962); DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965); THE SKULL (1965); THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE (1967), as The Master of the Moon; the Joan Crawford circus thriller BERSERK (1967); the witchy CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR (1968); the infamous TROG (1970); THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973); the Oscar nominated THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL (1978); killer snake flick VENOM (1981); THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988); SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999); CORPSE BRIDE (2005); and ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010).
SATAN'S SLAVE is also known as Evil Heritage
, which is a much better title. Not only is it never really explained who
the slave of Satan is supposed to be, but it would also prevent the film from being confused with the Indonesian horror movie SATAN'S SLAVE (1982).
Andy (José María Guillén) and his pregnant wife Annie (Mariana Karr) are spending a lazy weekend afternoon home alone. Boredom eventually begins to wear on them, and, unable to reach any of their friends, decide to pack up their beloved pooch Blackie and strike out on a drive through the city. While on the road, they are approached by another vehicle containing couple Bruno (Angel Aranda) and Mary (Sandra Alberti). Bruno insists that he and Andy attended school together, though Andy doesn't remember him at all.
Bruno knows enough about Andy to make him think that maybe he's right, but enough of the facts are wrong to make him think that maybe he's mistaken. Boredom must override the Stranger Danger fear that is instilled in us at school, as Andy and Annie accept an invitation back to their home for wine, cheese, and conversation.
Annie and Andy almost turn around and go home after following the other couple for nearly an hour into the remote countryside. This is the first of many, many almost-escapes—so many, in fact, that it eventually becomes quite tiresome.
Once they all arrive at Bruno and Mary's house, any hope for plot coherency goes right out the window. It begins when Bruno reveals a school photograph that shows he and Andy in the same class, though Andy has no recollection of ever wearing the uniform he is clearly seen wearing in the picture. Then Mary announces that she is something of a psychic, and that she can read Anna's thoughts because she is quite transparent. This leads into a conversation about the occult, and the foursome decide to attempt to contact the spirit world via the Ouija board.
|Coffee Table of the Damned|
This is no ordinary, mass produced, out-of-the-box Ouija board, though. This is a beautifully crafted coffee table that doubles
as a Ouija board—obviously not something that a casual occultist has just lying about. Odder still, they're not attempting to drum up the ghost of their dead uncle or something harmless like that. They're trying to make a direct call to the devil himself. Satan informs them that Bruno will commit suicide, and that Annie is harboring a secret love for Andy's brother Louis.
Then things really get weird: Annie has a meltdown, lapses into a semi-catatonic state, comes to, declares that she wants to leave, and opts instead to stay the night and have bathtub sex with her husband when a storm blows in. Later that night, a mysterious intruder tries to rape her, a naked Bruno and Mary are found praying to Satan in the center of a pentagram, and the couples have an orgy. Annie dreams about a porcelain doll with bleeding eyes that turns into Mary, who then forces herself on Annie and is stabbed because of it.
Annie and Andy oversleep, and the next afternoon, Blackie is found dead and hanging from the ceiling, and Bruno kills himself. A suspicious doctor (José Pagán) shows up to recite a rather unholy sounding prayer over the body, and then vanishes with a lightning strike. Mary tries to kill herself as well, but when she fails, Andy finishes the job for her. She comes back from the dead wielding a handgun, Bruno pops back up in a zombie-like state, and Andy and Annie finally get away.
Back home, they discover that their apartment is completely empty. They are invited inside by their elderly next door neighbors, and find themselves surrounded—Bruno, Mary, the doctor, Annie's would-be rapist and even Blackie are all there. Annie and Andy are stabbed to death by the once-dead lunatics, but in the final scene, they are approaching another couple in traffic, with Andy claiming that he went to school with one of them.
Some critics are quick to declare that this film has striking similarities to ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), but those similarities aren't very striking at all. Yes, both films dealt with the devil, and both films featured elderly neighbors who were actually secret Satanists, but that's where the similarities end. Unfortunately, in the wake of such successful satanic fare as ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE EXORCIST (1973), seemingly every film of remotely the same strain is compared to those two, if not accused of outright plagiarism. It's the same phenomenon that I found time and time again while covering aquaphobia
, wherein every aquatic killer was said to be a JAWS rip-off. Such comparisons are rarely constructive and oftentimes unjustified, and even when the comparison is apt, it should not detract one from viewing the film objectively and basing opinions on its own merits. Failing to do so hints at ignorance to the fact that everything
is derivative of something else which came before. That is simply how art, in all of its forms, evolves. Charles Schulz's comic strip Peanuts
could be traced, step-by-step, back to the Yellow Kid
in 1895 if anyone were so inclined.
Now that I've defended this movie, I should also declare that I didn't care for it all that much.
As you can see from the synopsis above, logical progression of the storyline was not high on the filmmaker's list of priorities. After a certain point, the movie is comprised almost solely of disjointed scenes of weird sex and weird violence. Satanic film and surrealism often go hand-in-hand, but this didn't seem like surrealism to me. It felt like a Mad Lib. And yet, if you edit a lot of the piffle from your memory of the film, it does seem to string itself along a bit more cognitively than it initially appeared. That's not to say that it is anything resembling a linear narrative, but you can still get from A to Z...so long as you pay little mind to most of the letters in between.
There are some genuine highlights scattered throughout the nonsense: the aforementioned Ouija table and a
number of other set pieces would be welcome in any genre fan's dream home; the porcelain doll, which makes a couple of appearances, might not make a lot of sense, but remains genuinely creepy; there is a good deal of atmosphere here, and a fair amount of tension. Unfortunately, that tension is typically eradicated too soon by yet another softcore sex scene that shows up at the most inopportune moment.
There's also some degree of education that comes with watching this film—at least if you're a devil's disciple. Everyone knows the basic names that the dark one goes by, but the characters here offer up a whole new laundry list of things to call him, including: King of the Lower World, Prince of Rape and Fornication, Father of Incest, Prince of Necrophilia, Serpent of Genesis, and "You Who Are of Death, Who Kiss Death on the Mouth."
Multiple names seem to be a theme here: This import from Spanish filmmaker Carlos Puerto goes by a few aliases, in order to confuse the viewing audience even more than the film itself did—Escalofrio
and the odd choice of Don't Panic
. To muddy the waters even more, some of the characters have alternate names as well: in the Spanish-language version (available with English subtitles), Annie is known as Ana, Andy is known as Andres, and Mary is known as Berta. Only Bruno retains his fabulous moniker throughout both versions. I viewed the dubbed version, and have referred to their characters by the names given there.
When researching the movie, the various titles and the various identities of the lead characters made the whole thing even more of a disorienting experience. If this was by design, then Carlos Puerto might be a much better surrealist than I was giving him credit for.
When talent agent Dave Connor returns from a trip overseas, he comes bearing a gift for director Max Rubini: a highlight reel, of sorts, featuring three scenes from a little-known film starring European actor Karl Jorla. The scenes depict some sort of satanic ritual, and Jorla's portrayal of the cult member is so captivating that Rubini knows he has found the star for his next horror movie.
A few phone calls are made, and Jorla arrives at the studio after a long flight. The press is there, but Jorla is camera shy, adamant in his refusal of publicity. He doesn't want anyone to know where he is, he says, as a matter of personal safety.
It is later revealed that the film that Dave Connor had come home with was financed by a genuine satanic cult for in-house use only, and it depicted an actual black mass. What's more, Jorla was once an arch priest of this cult, and he was excommunicated when the blame for the film's accidental release into the world landed on him. If his former allies were to locate him, he would be killed without hesitation.
After one failed attempt on Jorla's life, pre-production on the film continues. But when it becomes time to start shooting the first scene, Jorla is nowhere to be found. No one has seen or heard from him in three days, it seems, and the filmmakers are getting worried. They decide to give him a little more time to show his face, and in the meanwhile, begin shooting around his character.
Just as his co-star Kitty Frazier, in her role as Princess Margarita, recites an incantation while standing before the titular Sign of Satan, a pair of doors eases open, and there stands Jorla, surrounded by fog, exactly as the script calls for. The shot is perfect, the director calls 'cut', and everyone goes to greet Jorla...but the man is gone, as if he had never been there.
A cryptic message that Jorla had muttered echoes through everyone's mind, and they deduce that it was a
street address. There, covered by a ceremonial blanket and surrounded by candles, they find the murdered corpse of Karl Jorla...dead for at least three days.
Fan reception on this episode is decidedly mixed, some declaring it one of the most memorable outings of the series while others say that it was a case of wasted potential. I fall somewhere in the middle, enamored with some of the more effective sequences while disappointed with a bit of the filler.
It starts off with the footage of the black mass, as Karl Jorla seemingly rises from the grave. We the viewers immediately feel as if we are in for a real horror installment of the series, but the rug is pulled out from under us when we learn that the scenes we are watching unfold are actually just scenes from a movie that the characters are watching. It's not until a short time later, when we discover that the satanic rites were real, that we understand Hitch is serving this cocktail up with a meta twist, and this really is
a horror episode after all (uneven as it may be).
Some viewers may find the satanic rituals at the onset of the episode to run a trifle longer than they need to, but for me, they were one of the highlights. They were deftly orchestrated (witness the cult members walking expertly in reverse through the catacombs), and, in some sense, quite believable. Not believable in that they seemed true to life, but believable in that the footage would have seemed right at home in one of the better satanic panic horror films of the era. It would have been more effective if it had been allowed to unfold of its own accord, though, without Dave Connor interrupting to explain to his associates everything that was happening onscreen.
The character of Jorla is filled by Christopher Lee, portraying a somewhat different kind of character than we're used to. As he is being pursued by the Satanists, and is obviously terrified of their wrath, we feel a sympathy for him that is rather unusual. Although there would be nothing strange in feeling sympathetic for most people in the same situation, the fact that Jorla was, until a short time ago, a cult member himself makes him an odd man to feel bad for. He didn't leave the group because he had a change of heart or due to some moral conflict. He was excommunicated. Had things gone a different route, he may well have been one of the killers, and we would be rooting against him. Spending even the short amount of time with him that we did humanized him, which is something of an accomplishment in and of itself.
Jorla is played as a strange and intense fellow, but perhaps a bit too prone to melodramatic hand gestures. The rest of the characters are pretty thin characterizations, and too much time is spent listening to them discuss show business trivialities, and arguing with Jorla about where he's going to be staying during the film shoot. There was a scene where a detective followed Jorla as he left the studio for the day, and we see the carefully plotted route that he took to get home—including walking, driving a rental car, and taking a taxi—and yet, nothing at all came of the entire scene, making it feel superfluous in the grand scheme.
The same can be said of far too many scenes in this episode, and although there should have been plenty of material to mine and exploit, the end result feels padded and as if it would have been better suited to the original half-hour format—though to be fair, a 30 minute edit would probably have left me feeling as if it should have been expanded more. I'm convinced that the premise has a fantastic story within it, but the scriptwriter and director didn't manage to fully unearth it, which is a shame.
This episode was based on a short story by Robert Bloch, and maybe if Bloch had scripted it himself, things would have turned out better. Instead, those duties went to Barré Lyndon, who had previously adapted Bloch's story "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" for THRILLER in 1961. He also wrote the script for the 1944 Jack the Ripper movie THE LODGER, based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, which had been filmed twice before—the first in 1926, coincidentally directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
The episode was directed by Robert Douglas, whose résumé consists mostly of western and police television dramas—MAVERICK, 77 SUNSET STRIP, ADAM-12, CANNON, and BARETTA among them. He was also an actor, appearing in a number of the same series that he would direct episodes of, as well as the thriller SECRET CEREMONY (1968) and the TV movie THE QUESTOR TAPES (1974).
Our starring satanist, Christopher Lee should require no introduction but for the uninitiated, he appeared in countless Hammer studio films (portraying Frankenstein's monster, Dracula and the mummy); THE WICKER MAN (1973) and THE WICKER TREE (2011); the LORD OF THE RINGS series; the STAR WARS prequels; and well over two hundred other credits that we don't have the time to cover here.
Lee's costars, though, might require a bit more explanation. Myron Healy (Dave Connor) was frequently seen playing the heavy in 1950s westerns, and appeared in a few titles geared toward the genre fan: mad doctor flick THE UNEARTHLY (1957); prehistoric monster movie VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE (1962); killer grizzly thriller CLAWS (1977); classic sci-fi schlocker THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN (1977); horror comedy GHOST FEVER (1986); and the electric horror film PULSE (1988).
Gia Scala (Kitty Frazier) had a career that lasted 14 years but only 31 credits. She got her big break when appearing on a game show, which lead to a studio contract. After appearing in films like THE GARMENT JUNGLE (1957) and THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961), her brush with fame became too much to bear. After one failed suicide attempt, she succeeded with an overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills in 1972.
Gilbert Green (Max Rubini) was a Jewish actor who ironically played a Nazi several different times—in episodes of HOGAN'S HEROES (1966), MCHALE'S NAVY (1966), and, believe it or not, STAR TREK (1968). His first film role came in William Castle's 1961 movie HOMICIDAL, and he later appeared in EXPERIMENT IN TERROR (1962), DARK INTRUDER (1965, also written by Barré Lyndon), and NORMA RAE (1979).
|Weird Tales July 1938|
The short story that this episode was based on follows the same basic plotline, though it is a better read than this episode was a watch. First published in the July 1938 issue of Weird Tales
(under Bloch’s real name, don’t believe the myriad sources that claim it was credited to his pseudonym ‘Tarleton Fiske’), it's a much more gruesome account of the same incidents, as in Bloch's version, Jorla is a half-rotting corpse when he emerges from the grave. During the black mass, it is implied that Jorla murders a child with a ceremonial knife—which serves to make him even more unlikable in the story, as it is a distinct possibility that these events were real. As he moves throughout the film, he continues to rot and decay, a shambling but bright-minded zombie in service of Satan.
Bloch's story also makes several direct references to horror genre icons, like Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, placing it more distinctly in our world. It is a first person account, told from the perspective of the studio's publicity man, so the more oblique and mysterious elements of the tale are more fitting. We only see and know what our narrator sees and knows, whereas with the television version, the camera goes where it pleases, yet still leaves us somewhat in the dark.
|Weird Tales July 1938 T.O.C.|
Personally, I think that this concept is ripe for a remake. More than enough time has passed, and it's been a while since a solid satanic horror film has hit the theaters. This probably wouldn’t be the popular choice, but after seeing his LORDS OF SALEM (2012, to be covered later), I think that Rob Zombie could bring the rich visual style that this story deserves. Base it on the short story and not the Hitchcock episode, expand the plotline a bit, keep it a period piece (but bring it into the 1970s, which would not only fall into Zombie’s aesthetic wheelhouse, but was also a decade which had its own occult renaissance) and I think it could be a hit.
Young Justine (Susana Kamini) arrives at the orphanage shortly after the deaths of her parents, and is given
lodgings with Alucarda (Tina Romero), another girl of the same age. The two hit it off and become fast friends, frolicking through the countryside together in search of innocent adolescent adventure. On one of these quests, they happen upon an old crypt that they decide to enter. They accidentally unleash an ancient evil force, and in short order, the girls find themselves under a dark and demonic influence.
The nuns who run the orphanage first believe the girls to be ill, but as their behavior becomes more and more outrageous—they interrupt worship services to publicly denounce God, for instance—they are forced to deal with the fact that these innocents have been invaded by Satan.
An exorcism is obviously the next step, but these girls are not going down without a fight.
There are a few monks on hand to assist with the heavy lifting, but they are mostly silent background figures and nothing more. The true forces of good here are the nuns—though they're not quite like the nuns that we are used to. They do not sport the traditional black-and-white habits, but are attired in unusual garb that makes them look almost like mummies, and they flagellate themselves with whips in religious ceremony. Perhaps their bandage-like attire is due to the wounds from their self-flagellation. And as for how "good" they actually are, that is all dependent upon your viewpoint, as their cure for the girls' spiritual ailment was dependent upon their deaths.
The sisters are assisted by the local doctor, Dr. Oszek (Claudio Brook) who is initially skeptical of and outraged at the exorcism treatment, but has to quickly reevaluate his belief system when a deceased Justine returns to life. It is remarked that "The devil moved her limbs! She was dead but the forces of evil have not abandoned her!"
She has become merely hell's marionette.
|Alucarda: The Devil's Daughter?|
While Justine appears to have been a victim of circumstance in these proceedings, Alucarda was destined for this from the very beginning. The opening scene shows her being birthed, and immediately ushered away from her mother before "He" can get to her. "He" is certainly Satan, and after the baby is removed from the premises, some unseen force attacks the mother, resulting in her death. Alucarda is unaware, but it is her own mother's tomb that she disturbs, unleashing the evil that was residing within. No mention is ever made of the girl's father, and it is conceivable that her daddy is the devil himself.
Having such a tainted bloodline would account for Alucarda's strange behavior from the start. When we first see her as a teenager, she emerges from the shadows behind Justine, almost as if by magic. She is at home there in the darkness, hiding from the light, and yet she is instantly drawn toward Justine, an innocent. Evil loves to corrupt.
When the girls arrive at the tomb—a strange building strung with red vestments—Justine wants to leave. Alucarda, though, finds it beautiful and insists that they go inside. Being surrounded by death and earthly remains puts most people in a somber mood, but it has the opposite effect on Alucarda. As she was goth long before The Cure came along and made it cool, Alucarda chooses this place to declare her love for Justine, and they make a solemn pact: "If we ever depart from this life, we shall do it together."
Further evidence that Alucarda was harboring at least a tinge of evil from the start actually comes at her end. When the possessed Justine was finally defeated, she melted away into grue and bones. However when Alucarda was defeated, she disappeared into nothingness, leaving behind no more than a few motes of dust.
The relationship between the girls only hints at lesbianism at first, but it is shown more blatantly later on. In order to seal their bond, Justine and Alucarda consume the blood from each other's breasts (sliced open with a ceremonial knife bestowed upon them by a malevolent gypsy fellow), and then follow this up with a kiss. If there were any hope for Justine, it is lost following this encounter as Alucarda's tainted blood has now intermingled with her own.
Poor Justine. With her soul promised to God, her heart promised to Alucarda, and her body taken over by Satan, there's not much left for herself.
For a movie whose primary characters are nuns and underage girls, there is an awful lot of nudity. This is
probably why some refer to it as a nunsploitation film...though I don't really feel that it falls into those parameters. Taboo as it may appear on the surface, it's worth noting that the two actresses playing our leads were both in their twenties during filming—though that does little to alter the feeling of exploitation that comes with that element of the story.
ALUCARDA, imported from Mexico, was reportedly based on the novella Carmilla
by Sheridan Le Fanu, though the more overt acts of vampirism have been replaced with a different breed of evil. The screenplay was written by Alexis Arroyo and the film's director Juan López Moctezuma. It was Arroyo's one and only screenwriting credit.
Moctezuma was a friend and contemporary of filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, and even produced two of the man's masterworks: FANDO AND LIS (1968), and EL TOPO (1970). The rest of Moctezuma's filmography is sadly brief, consisting of the Edgar Allan Poe adaptation THE MANSION OF MADNESS (1973); vampire artist film MARY, MARY, BLOODY MARY (1975); the thriller TO KILL A STRANGER (1987), with the impressive cast of Dean Stockwell, Donald Pleasance and Aldo Ray; and EL ALIMENTO DEL MIEDO (1994), which was left unfinished at the time of his death in 1995.
Fans of this film should definitely seek out the rest of the man’s work. It’s just a shame that there is so little of it to go around.
Teenager Nancy Johnson (Melanie Verlin) has been thwarting the unwanted advances of her drunken
stepfather Bert for far too long. His groping and demands for "smooches" are disturbing enough (made even more so by the fact that she takes it playfully in stride, and continues to call him "daddy"), but when he eventually tries to rape her, she decides that enough is enough. She conks him over the head with her 1980s boom box, packs a bag full of 1980s clothes, and runs away like a 1980s teenager.
Life on the road is difficult, as Nancy learns in about five minutes. It seems that everybody who is willing to drive an underage runaway girl across state lines is actually looking for something more than the warm glow you get in the cockles of your heart after doing a good deed. Who would’ve guessed? The old bumper sticker adage definitely rings true: Cash, Grass or Ass...Nobody Rides For Free.
She does eventually wind up in the van of a couple of decent young men, Tom and Hank (John Hall and Charles Jackson), who are en route to Fort Lauderdale for Spring Break. Although Nancy was actually trying to hitch it to California to stay with her sister, Tom convinces her that after break is over, she'll be able to catch a ride anywhere she wants as the freewheeling college students return to their schools across the country. You can't argue with logic, so it's Florida, ho!
Unfortunately, you can't argue with genre, either. This would-be Girls Gone Wild
sexcapade takes a dark detour when the trio stop in a backwoods town to stock up on supplies. It turns out that Tom and Hank are the pettiest of thieves, and they steal groceries to survive. Nancy gets in on the scam, and before long, they're on the lam. While setting up camp in the backwoods to hide from the law, they also earn the attention of the worst kind of wildlife there is: a dimwitted, overweight killer hillbilly (a killbilly?) named Cyrus (David Marchick).
Two deputies find the Snack Bandits before ol' Cyrus can get his hands on them, but it doesn't really matter.
These are Luke and Abraham (Greg Besnak and John Amplas), Cyrus's younger brothers, who have merely killed a pair of deputies and stolen their uniforms. They aren't interested in law and order, they are only interested in the sweet, innocent blood that is pumping through Nancy's veins. No, they aren't vampires. They are Satanists of the lowest order, belonging to a sect lead by their beautiful sister Cynthia (Robin Walsh), and they intend to pour Nancy's blood down their dead and decomposing mother's gullet, so that the dark one can restore her to life.
This is down and dirty, low budget horror (it would, actually, make a hell of a double-feature with SATAN’S CHILDREN), with enough of a sleaze factor that fans of that sort of thing should be willing to seek it out. The opening sequence, which is only tangentially related to the rest of the film, has Mama Satanist leading her pack of Child Satanists, to murder a girl who is caught in a bear trap. Later on, Nancy is shoved into a small kennel and referred to as a dog—bringing the 'Women in Cages' genre to a whole new level. And the finale has one of the fake deputies being bludgeoned with a hammer, shot, and finally set aflame before he eventually succumbs to death.
|Women in Cages|
In its best moments, it is exactly what you think of when you hear the term "drive-in horror", and is simultaneously reminiscent
of the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (backwood murderers target kids in a van) and prescient
of the remake (villains assume the role of local lawmen).
In its worst moments, though, it is an aimless and wandering mess, unbelievably padded with long shots of our heroes driving down country roads or shopping for groceries. The dialogue is often inane and pointless, sometimes amounting to nothing more than the characters narrating what they're doing onscreen. And the absurd moments are so
absurd, it's difficult to believe that this wasn't entirely by design.
One of my favorite examples is the police chase, which occurs after the kids shoplift their groceries. Not only is it taking place at what I can only assume is safely below the posted speed limit, but the upbeat pop song on the soundtrack, coupled with the endless monotony of the siren, makes it a completely unnatural sensory experience.
By far the most absurd element, though, is that when it becomes evident that the small and ineffectual local police force isn't going to be much help in rescuing Nancy from the Satanists’ clutches, it is the drunk and rapey Bert that comes to the rescue. It really is a pretty startling transformation—a semi-incestuous drunken villain turns into the hero (though still a quite drunk one). One would assume that there would be a story behind his complete turnaround, and maybe there is one...but if there is, it happens entirely off-camera. If, after watching the movie, you want to fill in the gaps of Bert's story yourself, that's up to you. Personally, I prefer the completely anarchic changeover, as it fits with the rest of the rather bonkers storyline. It's as if a grizzled private eye has temporarily stepped into Bert's body for the final act of the film—David Lynch as filtered through Ed Wood. Which seems even more fitting as the unwieldy Lawrence Tierney, who plays Bert, is typically seen stomping through the scenery like the second coming of Tor Johnson.
Tierney isn't the only ‘name’ attached to this feature that would, in theory, lend it a bit of credibility. Special effects were supplied by Tom Savini, the guru of grue, who was enjoying his heyday when this movie was made. Unfortunately, there's really not a lot of blood and gore effects here to allow Savini to shine, and those that do exist are typically cut away from too quickly. It really makes one wonder how Savini got suckered into it in the first place.
Furthermore, MIDNIGHT was written and directed by John Russo, who made a name for himself by co-writing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) with George Romero. Unfortunately, Russo was never able to recapture the lightning in a bottle of that film, and earned the ire of many fans by producing a steady stream of less-than-stellar products and returning to the NOTLD well a few times too many. This is understandable in light of the fact that a copyright error caused the movie to land squarely in the public domain, and it makes sense that he would want to recoup some of his losses—but the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 30TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION (1999), which replaced portions of old footage with new footage, was viewed as a slap in the face by many. If nothing else, he at least had a hand in the story for the cult favorite RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985)—though even then his original script was thoroughly rewritten by Dan O'Bannnon.
Russo also works as an author, having written non-fiction books on movie making, as well as fictional books, some of which were adapted into movies themselves. While his entire catalogue would certainly be worthy of evaluation, it is only the source material for this particular film that we are concerned with here.
The novel, first published in 1980 by Pocket Books, hits many of the same key (and not so key) scenes as the film: The bear trap murder; the attempted rape; Nancy being picked up by Hank and Tom; Hank and Tom's murder and the subsequent imprisonment of Nancy. But what the film is missing which the book has is the connective tissue that makes a story whole
. The major differences are few: there is a secondary character in the novel that is not present in the film—an anthropologist that acts, believe it or not, as a potential love interest to Cynthia, high priestess of the satanic sect; and there are a great deal more cult members in the book, as Satanists from around the country congregate for the proceedings; but the biggest difference is that here, Bert plays no part whatsoever in the "happy ending". In fact there is
no happy ending. Evil triumphs fully, and there isn't the slightest hint of redemption or retribution.
There is a good deal of backstory on all the characters that help to flesh them out, but much of the dialogue is the same onscreen as it is on the page. It's almost as if Russo had just cut-and-pasted his favorite scenes into the script, and forgot to write in what came between them.
|Midnight by John Russo|
Not being overly familiar with the whole of Russo's oeuvre (and being unsure on the amount of contribution he truly
made to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD), I'll base my evaluation solely on his two Midnights
, and will go on record to say that he is a much better author than he is a filmmaker. Though his book was no great shakes, and there was little to no suspense, it was trashily entertaining enough to keep me reading and served to demonstrate what the movie could have (and rightly should have) been.
Although there were certainly no throngs of people clamoring for a sequel, Russo did return to the studio to film MIDNIGHT 2 in 1992, which, by all accounts, is even worse than the first and only minutely connected to the original.
Feeling as if a third pass was needed, Russo launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2013 to fund a remake of MIDNIGHT, which is currently listed as "in development". Although there doesn't seem to have been a lot of movement since, I would be willing to give him one final shot to tell his story.
If for no other reason than to see what the ending will be this time.
Young nouveau-lesbian Samantha (Najarra Townsend) is going through some relationship problems with her girlfriend Nikki (Katie Stegeman), so she attends a party and allows her gal pal Alice (Alice Macdonald) to wash her woes away with booze. Once fully intoxicated, she lets her guard down long enough to be given a drink by a stranger calling himself B.J. (Simon Barrett), and the next thing she knows, they're having sex in his car. She asks him to stop, but he doesn't.
The next morning, she wakes up badly hungover, most everything from the night before a blur. Almost right away, it is evident that something is wrong with Sam. It begins innocuously enough—she's got a case of the chills—and she could just as likely be coming down with a cold or the flu. But soon enough, other symptoms begin manifesting.
Her period starts, and the blood flow is abnormally heavy. She's also beginning to develop a rash on her genital area, and she's suffering from occasional but severe ringing in her ears. Her heart rate slows down, her eyes start losing focus (by the end of the film, one is blood red and the other is milky white), and her teeth, fingernails and hair start falling out.
"You look like death"
is a phrase that you hear often to describe someone who is sick, but in Sam's case, it is actually quite accurate. To be even more
accurate, she looks like the dead. She's rotting like a corpse while still alive, the result of a new and unidentifiable STD. Her life is falling apart much as her body is, and she eventually succumbs to a homicidal rage that previously was never even hinted at.
In the finale, Sam passes out behind the wheel and winds up in a car accident. When she emerges from the vehicle, she is no longer acting like herself. In fact, she's barely acting human. Instead, she stumbles around slowly and drunkenly, reacts violently to those who attempt to assist her, and then lunges at her mother (Caroline Williams). The screen fades to black as we realize what has happened: Sam has died in the car accident, and was reanimated as a zombie, not due to happenstance, but because of the virus that she contracted from B.J.
In order to make some sense out of the ending, we have to venture back to the beginning of the film. In the pre-credit sequence, it is implied that a man—presumably B.J.—has sex with a corpse in the morgue. Granted, it's not all that clearlyimplied, and I can't imagine the position that the disgusting act was being committed in (she was lying on her back, and the only thing visible on camera were her legs, however his legs were nowhere to be seen). B.J. apparently didn't notice the biohazard symbol on the corpse's toe tag, or surely he would have double-bagged it. Whatever biohazardous pollutant was contained in that shell of a person, it was passed onto B.J. (though he never displays any visible outward signs). And then, when he raped Sam, he passed it on to her.
Yes, raped her. In a rather insensitive move, marketing material called the sex act between Sam and B.J. a "one night stand"
, when in reality he slipped her a roofie and refused to stop when she asked him to. Even many reviews of the film make it sound like a regrettable, but consensual, act—though to be fair, this is likely not out of any sort of indecency or moral acceptance of rape. It's just that so much of this movie was a muddled mess that the real facts may be easy to miss.
This movie is filled with what can only be called broken relationships. Sam and Nikki's relationship was damaged long before the film started. Sam and her mother's relationship has been strained for quite some time, probably stemming from Sam's former drug addiction, but no doubt worsened by her mother's inability to deal with Sam's "alternative" lifestyle. Sam's best friend Alice is actually in love with her, and she is just biding her time until Sam and Nikki break up. And the desperate Riley (Matt Mercer), who has been longing for Sam to return to heterosexuality, exhibits behavior that borders on stalking. These are all unlikable characters—even our protagonist, Sam, who is weak, shallow, and emotionally manipulative—and that's one of the weaknesses of the film. If we don't like a character, we are not emotionally invested in their well-being, and much of the possibility of true horror is lost.
Not only are these unlikable characters, they are completely irrational. It's one thing for me to accept the fact that Sam would not check herself into the ER when the symptoms began to get worse—this likely isn't the first time she's been in self-denial, and it's feasible that the zombie virus is altering her thought process. However, I find it neigh impossible to believe that nobody else in her life would make her seek immediate medical attention. In fact, they act as if they barely even notice her rapidly deteriorating appearance, and a few of them are more than happy to make-out with her (or more). When she seeks comfort in the arms of Riley, she does her best to disguise her appearance, but he still must be blinded by his obsession. They immediately set about engaging in unprotected sex, and he seems pretty proud of himself when he states, "Oh my god, you're really wet,"
not realizing that the lubrication is actually caused by blood and vaginal rot. He doesn't notice that anything is wrong until he pulls out, and a pile of maggots fall from her crotch.
When Sam does eventually visit the doctor, she chooses perhaps the most ineffectual gynecologist of
|Unsexiest Lesbian Scene Ever|
all time, whose initial checkup involves her mouth, ears, heart, and panties. He completely avoids examining the one area that he specializes in, and the one area that really should be examined in order to diagnose an STD. His only advice to her is to avoid all contact with others—a self-imposed quarantine—until they can determine what they're dealing with. I've read in interviews with writer-director Eric England that he didn't want the audience to grow tired of people showing concern for Sam, and so he tried to balance it out rather than have it show up consistently in the dialogue. I can understand this rationale, but all it would've taken was one scene where Sam was hospitalized to make this whole scenario more believable, and if she quickly escaped, well, more power to her!
Another weakness that I perceived in the film is some of the more glaringly oblique moments. England has stated elsewhere that he enjoys leaving certain aspects of his films a little ambiguous, which can be a strength in certain instances, but it can also work against a film if there are too many questions left unanswered. A few of the most prominent examples:
|The Porcelain God|
In the opening sequence, after B.J. has had his way with the corpse, he can be seen standing at a sink, rinsing out the contents of a test tube. As it is implied that the zombie virus was transferred to him via his contact with the corpse, and not through some sort of chemical agent, what exactly was in the test tube is up for debate. While it may not seem to be an important point, the fact that the camera lingers on it does imply otherwise.
In that same scene, viewers can catch sight of a tattoo on B.J.'s finger, which appears to read 'Abaddon'
, the name of a Biblical entity that is associated with impurity and plague. It's feasible that this was just something of an Easter egg for the astute audience member, but it's also possible that it holds a deeper significance.
Later in the film, Sam is drinking at the bar when she sees B.J.—or so it would appear, as she notices the Abaddon tattoo. However, it has already been established that B.J. is in police custody at this point. Are we to believe that B.J. has been released/escaped? Or that Sam is hallucinating this encounter? Or is it a completely different man who has the exact same tattoo? If this last possibility is the case, then it certainly implies a much deeper conspiracy than we previously had reason to believe—perhaps an Abaddon doomsday cult, willfully bringing the apocalypse through the spread of the plague.
I contacted Eric England, in part seeking clarification on ambiguous points like these—though his response was slightly less than enlightening.
"Thanks for the insightful questions about the film. To be completely honest, your questions are exactly the questions I wanted the viewer to ask and because of that, it's hard for me to give definitive answers. I feel like if I did the discussion would end. The theories are what make the questions so intriguing, in my opinion."
Watching a film that depicts the onset of a zombie outbreak via a sexually transmitted disease, one can't help but see some aspect of social commentary in the subtext. If England was intending to deliver a message, however, it is mostly lost in the shuffle, and overridden by conflicting viewpoints. The most obvious message would be a simple one, and one that could be delivered without coming across as moralistic or preachy: practice safe sex
. That's a message that most anyone can get behind. However, by having Sam being drugged and taken advantage of, it negates that message. Rape victims can not be held accountable for whether or not their attackers use protection. It would have made for a stronger film if Sam had willingly slept with B.J., and then immediately regretted it afterwards.
Despite the weaknesses and missteps outlined above, I didn't wholly dislike this movie. As far as body horror films go, this one has some definite strong points. The special effects are pretty phenomenal considering the low budget, and when Sam is alone, attempting to come to terms with the effects that the virus is having on her body, the movie is at its best. It manages to capture a unique blend of dread and isolation that you don't normally find. It's only the scenes with other characters—portrayed by capable actors as they may be—that the weaknesses start to show.
So CONTRACTED, then, is something of a prequel to a living dead franchise that was never made, with Sam effectively being Patient Zero. This revelation at the end is appreciated by some, but derided by others. I thought that it was a rather clever conceit, but perhaps not as original as England had intended.
The Internet is full of people shouting that CONTRACTED is a ripoff of the 2012 Canadian film THANATOMORPHOSE, with which it shares certain similarities—namely, the lead character coping with the fact that her body is decomposing before her eyes. I have yet to see THANATOMORPHOSE myself, and so can't speak on the legitimacy of this claim, however it should be noted that RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD III (1993) and the decent but little-known indie effort SHADOWS OF THE DEAD (2004) dealt with the same slow descent into zombism even years prior to that, though in those instances we knew what was occurring from the onset. The gimmick here lies in the delivery, like a good joke whose punchline you never see coming.
CONTRACTED is worthy of a watch, and in fact deserving of at least two—one before
you know the outcome, and another viewing after
you know the outcome, to catch any of the subtleties that you may have missed. A sequel is in the works, but England is in no way attached.
Perhaps a part two will help to clear up some of the mystery...even if that was not the original intention.
Sarah Jane Butler (Cleo O'Hara) is something of a religious nut. When she's not preaching on street corners and condemning strangers to hell, she's allowing herself to be seduced by random men. Following coitus, she then murders them, occasionally leaving some cryptic, Christian-esque message behind at the crime scene.
Don't worry about the murders. You see, Sarah had herself a vision
in which God spoke to her and placed her in charge of killing anyone (especially men) who has sex for the sake of pleasure. She's doing the Lord's work
, which is why she sings hymns all the while.
This makes for some truly bizarre character interactions that I can't imagine are to be found anywhere else. "What kind of a freak are you!?"
, one paramour asks."Why are you singing hymns while I'm trying to give you head?"
When she continues, he switches tactics. "Why don't you give me some head? That way your mouth will be full and I won't have to listen to your yapping."
A smooth operator, this one, which is why we don't feel too sorry for him when he gets butchered by the crazed Sister Sarah.
Sarah leaves her home behind and heads to California, probably based on the assumption that there will be plenty of free-loving flower children there that she can put down. While there, she meets and befriends the closeted lesbian Penny (Sandra Henderson), who becomes a firm believer in Sarah's message. Penny vows to give up her lesbian ways and to follow and obey Sister Sarah. Sarah ties Penny to her bed, undresses her, and caresses her nude body with the cold steel of her killing knife. After this goes on for a while, Penny is officially a member of Sister Sarah's Secret Order of Complete Subjugation.
Together they harass sinners until Sarah decides that it is time for her new recruit to get her hands dirty. Penny brings home a man for sex, and is distraught when Sarah slaughters him. Not distraught enough to see the errors of her ways, though. Shortly afterwards, Penny's ex-girlfriend Junie (Jane Tsentas) stops by to reconcile—and reconcile they do, almost immediately stripping naked and having sex on the couch...until Sarah slinks out of the shadows and strangles Junie.
Sarah and Penny then wrap up the two corpses and drive them into the woods to dispose of them.
They drag them out a ways, lazily cover them in a handful of leaves, and then spy on a man and woman who are having a secret rendezvous amongst the trees. When the encounter is over, the woman leaves and the man approaches the two peeping women—he knew that they were watching the entire time. More than that, he knows who they are, having previously seen them on the street preaching their gospel and singing their songs. After a few carefully chosen pickup lines, the man walks into the sunset with Sarah on one arm and Penny on the other (while a hippie minstrel follows behind them, strumming an acoustic guitar). Cue credits.
What a non-ending! Then again, what a non-beginning and non-middle! There's not really an ounce of plot anywhere to be found in this trashy nonsense, just a whole lot of mostly-dull softcore sex (with a definite oral fixation), and the only reason that it even deserves a watch is because of the bizarro factor.
A lot of exploitation films start off with a message stating that it is based on a true story (even when it's obviously made up). EVIL COME, EVIL GO trumps that by opening with a Bible quote
, of all things, specifically Matthew 7:15—"Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves."
Viewing this quote as an attempt to legitimize the proceedings as a serious message film definitely seems absurd—because it is. And yet it has an interesting connection to the original breed of exploitation films—the traveling roadshow films of folks like Dwain Esper, who would tack such a crawl onto their opening reels in order to convince the censors that theirs were "educational" programs.
The soundtrack is comprised almost solely of our starlets warbling out uneven renditions of some of the most well-known hymns in the public domain. Being raised in the Baptist church, instinct kicked in and I began to sing along on more than one occasion...until I realized how inherently wrong
it felt. Somehow I doubt that the authors of those hymns intended for them to be sung while watching a man be sucked, screwed, stabbed and gutted. Suffice it to say, if you are a believer, then this movie might not be your cup of tea.
|Sarah, Victim, Cat|
The major attraction on the soundtrack, though, is Sister Sarah's very own theme song (by Jim Wingert) which crops up from time to time and really breaks down the plot: "Evil come, evil go/Sister Sarah, do you know/is the world in the mess that you say?/Will you strike with your blade/until they all finally cave?/There's another victim every single day/Sarah Jane, Sarah Jane, Sister Sarah, you're insane/But you always pull it off and walk away."
I mean, really, if you throw in the mention of an ashamed lesbian and a plentitude of sex, that could very well work as the official plot synopsis on the back of the box.
So take all the sex and gospel music, and throw in a random house cat that wanders in and out of important scenes (which certainly opens itself up to a crude joke that I won't lower myself to say), lots of cheap blood and gore effects, and a cameo appearance by porn legend John Holmes, and you've certainly got yourself a movie to remember (even if it is one that you would rather forget).
Why exactly does John Holmes crop up in such a minor role? I can only assume that he was doing the filmmakers a favor, as they were professionally bound even before this production got off the ground. In fact, nearly everyone involved here had ties to the hardcore porn industry, which had really only begun a few short years earlier. Information on these early, seedy days of pornography is a bit sketchy, thanks to the heavy use of pseudonyms, and the lack of any genuine journalism interested in the industry. From what we can tell, writer-director Walt Davis had already helmed at least a few hardcore films prior to this—including the ambiguously titled WIDOW BLUE (1970), which is better known today under the more apt title of SEX PSYCHO. SEX PSYCHO and EVIL COME, EVIL GO have their share of similarities, including the uncomfortable blending of sex and violence. SEX PSYCHO is an oddity for many reasons, only the least of which is the fact that the heterosexual hardcore is interspersed with homosexual hardcore—featuring Davis himself! There's also an extremely violent beheading, incest, necrophilia, sex on a coffin, an act of fellatio that would make Lorena Bobbit flinch, and, of course, an orgy with John Holmes. Hard as it may be to believe, SEX PSYCHO is even more deliriously twisted than EVIL COME, EVIL GO. EVIL COME was produced by Bob Chinn, who is said to have forever altered the industry with his series of "Johnny Wadd" films (and subsequent novels!)—starring John Holmes.
Oh, and just in case you're not sick of seeing John Holmes' name here in print, he was also the assistant director of EVIL COME, EVIL GO, and even provided the special effects makeup!
It cannot be said that this project of mine does not take me to some pretty weird places...
Lila (sexploitation starlet Susan Stewart), a stripper at one of the many burlesque houses in town, has a tendency to pick one member of the male viewing audience and take them out for a night that they won't ever forget. She takes them to an abandoned warehouse (assuring them that "This is where it's at!"), puts on a private show, and then get down to business.
The first man that we see her do this with is a vintage sleazeball-hipster hybrid with an absurd
dangling ear ring. Unfortunately for him, he introduces some LSD into Lila's time-tested tradition, and she starts to freak out. The business at hand may begin with a little casual sex, but it ultimately ends with his murder.
Lila must enjoy these newly added elements in her routine, because she does them time and time again. Once the murders are complete, she chops the bodies up with a meat cleaver, and stuffs them in a cardboard box that she casually discards for the police to find. (On a side note, there are multiple synopses of this film written online that state Lila's modus operandi
is that she murders men with garden tools. These synopses all appear to have been written by people who have not actually seen the film. Only one of her victims is killed with a garden tool—a hoe—while the rest are offed with a screwdriver and a meat cleaver).
Oddly, it's never exactly revealed why
Lila suddenly becomes a homicidal maniac. It's unlikely that it all stems from a bad trip—if that were the case, you suspect she would stop dropping acid—and there is some indistinct trauma in her past that is only hinted at. "They made me do things I didn't want to do,"
she tells one of her victims, and then proceeds to ramble on about her hatred for cucumbers, watermelons and bananas. Especially
with the bananas.
The murder investigation lands on the desks of homicide cops Sergeant Collins (Steve Vincent) and Lieutenant Ryan (James Brand), who go through the motions of solving the case without much luck. There's a reason these guys aren't the stars of DRAGNET. Sure, they deduce that the killer is operating out of one of the local hippie joints and that the boxes are coming from one of the local warehouses, but ultimately it's coincidence that cracks the case.
A real estate agent is showing off the warehouse to a prospective buyer and stumbles across some fresh blood stains. When Collins and Ryan catch wind of this tip, they merely go to the warehouse and wait in hiding for the killer to strike again...which invariably doesn't take long.
Lila's latest conquest, though, carries a gun—but only for protection, as he sometimes has to make night deposits for his job. Overall, he seems like quite a law-abiding citizen, which only serves to make what follows even more baffling. When the police reveal themselves, his reaction is to go for the gun, accuse Lila of setting him up, and fire off a few shots, getting himself killed in the ensuing shootout.
Lila, however, is taken into custody without further bloodshed.
To say that this movie is heavily padded would be putting it lightly, but it would also be missing the point. The intention behind the film wasn't to tell a great story, but rather to pander to two distinctive audiences: the nudie set, and the horror set (and if the two of them intersect, then that's all the better). The real point of the movie is to show off a little gore (that cheap, down-and-dirty drive-in style stuff) and a whole lot of gyrating and jiggling flesh. That's why we spend such an inordinate amount of time with people who have no bearing whatsoever on the story, like the other dancers in the club who exist for no other reason than to climb on stage and exhibit their mammaries for five minutes at a time. There's even a completely random scene smack dab in the middle of the movie where a wannabe stripper gets the casting couch treatment from the owner of the club. If you're thinking that either of these characters are going to become important members of the cast, then you obviously haven't been paying attention.
Unfortunately for us, the striptease scenes drag on well past the point of titillation and quickly become rather tiresome. Even the actual sex scenes are rather dull, unless you enjoy looking at a man's bare back for extended periods of time. LILA was made a few years before hardcore pornography would be available theatrically, so I guess this is what audiences had to make do with. Poor schlubs.
The acid trip scenes are done in the way that was typical of the era—a lot of colored camera filters and weird lighting effects—but there were occasionally brief glimpses of some bizarre hallucination (at one point, Lila sees a surgeon that isn't actually there). They're entertaining in a naive sort of way, but would have been better if they pushed the envelope farther than the standard. To go along with the mod acid scenes, we get a lot of groovy dialogue that is charmingly dated (if indeed people ever spoke like that).
One of the best scenes involves psychologist Frank (last name unrevealed, played by Stuart Lancaster), who hangs out in gogo clubs and strip joints under the auspices of doing research on the "psychedelic generation". As soon as Lila shows an interest in him, though, he is just as interested in her body as he is her mind—but at least he remains professional enough to refuse the LSD she offers him, and to attempt to analyze her during foreplay ("Interesting...interesting case."
). This scene would have been the perfect time to expose why Lila had gone bonkers, but it simply was not meant to be.
Just like Sister Sarah in EVIL COME, EVIL GO, Lila has her own theme song ("She'll take your
hand/she'll understand/she'll take your heart and soul/young or old/ mantis in lace"
), but unlike Sister Sarah, Lila puts it on whenever she feels the need to perform a striptease. It was written by Vic Lance, who composed music for other "classics" like THE JOYS OF JEZEBEL (1970), THE EXOTIC DREAMS OF CASANOVA (1971), and THE DIRTY MIND OF YOUNG SALLY (1973). He was something of an actor, as well, and even appeared in this film as Tiger, Lila's first victim who turned her onto LSD. The song was performed by Lynn Harper, who had once been a country western singer, as well as an actress on classic sitcom MY THREE SONS and the biopic THE CHRISTINE JORGENSON STORY. She has worn a lot of hats since, including radio personality, talk show host, and newspaper columnist, and these days frequently shows up as a commentator on CNN and MSNBC. When I asked her, Harper did confirm that she and the "Lila" singer were one and the same, and that while under a recording contract to Gene Autry, she was sometimes required to record songs for films. She even attended the film's premiere, and was greatly impressed that she not only received screen credit, but credit in all of the advertisements, as well.
The script was written by Sanford White, whose only other credits are 1967's FREE LOVE CONFIDENTIAL (writer and producer) and 1970's THE ART OF GENTLE PERSUASION (director). Director William Rotsler, on the other hand, seems to have lived a life big enough that even a book couldn't hold it all. He grew up on a ranch, participated in WWII, attended a year of college, went to art school, became a sculptor, became a nudie photographer, helped Marilyn Monroe shop for a house, appeared in films, began making industrial films (for Carnation, Mattel, Lockheed, etc), began making feature films, began writing non-fiction books (Contemporary Erotic Cinema
), began writing fiction, began writing licensed material (for Marvel Comics and Star Trek
, among others) and novelizations (The A-Team
, Grease 2
, and even Joanie Loves Chachi
!), and wrote for, drew for, and published fanzines. He published more than 50 books, titled Harlan Ellison's famous short story "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream", supplied Uhura from Star Trek
with a first name, was nominated for the Nebula and the Hugo awards, and I have barely even scratched the surface. He was the sort of person who alters pop culture from beneath the surface, so you are familiar with him without even knowing it. He also brought us movies like AGONY OF LOVE (1966), THE GIRL WITH THE HUNGRY EYES (1967), SUBURBAN PAGANS (1968), THE GODSON (1971), and STREET OF A THOUSAND PLEASURES (1972). He passed away in 1997 at the age of 71, but left behind an epic and expansive body of work.
LILA is also known as MANTIS IN LACE, and was released in at least two different theatrical versions—one capitalizing more on the sex, and one capitalizing more on the violence. The version appearing on the Something Weird DVD release appears to combine elements of both, and is said to be the most complete version available. Included as a bonus feature are outtakes and unused footage that runs longer than the film itself, so an industrious superfan could theoretically piece together an extended fan edit that would defy all comprehension.
If you are that superfan, please send me a copy.
In 1991, aspiring filmmaker Kelly Hughes began production on his very own horror-suspense anthology series entitled HEART ATTACK THEATRE, which aired on Seattle’s public access television. The schedule was a rushed one, from script-to-broadcast in one week’s time, and the budgets were decidedly limited. What was not
limited, however, was the passion and dedication needed to crank out a new mini-movie week after week. Shot on VHS and utilizing a rotating roster of local performers, the themes ranged from drugged-up freak-outs to psychotic breaks, but each one was down and dirty exploitation. If John Waters was Rod Serling, then this would be THE TWILIGHT ZONE.
Hughes also went on to direct a couple of feature films—TWIN CHEEKS: WHO KILLED THE HOMECOMING KING (1994) and LA CAGE AUX ZOMBIES (1995), the latter of which featured Russ Meyer starlet Kitten Natividad as an obscenely large-busted victim that unwillingly supplied a pair of cross-dressing zombies with breast milk. That’s a sentence that pretty much sums up the nuttiness that runs rampant in Hughes’s work.
HEART ATTACK! THE EARLY PULSE POUNDING CINEMA OF KELLY HUGHES functions as both a documentary and a retrospective of the man’s filmography. Composed almost equally of talking-head interviews with those in the know and clips from his films, this was an utterly fascinating look into a side of moviemaking that rarely gets attention: not the Major Studios like Universal or Sony; not the Major Minors like Full Moon or Troma; but the real
minors, the true
independent that exists solely because the creative force behind it is simply too determined to quit.
Full disclosure: I had never heard of Kelly Hughes before watching this doc, and I had certainly never seen any of his movies. But now? Now I want to see every single one of them, so I would have to say that this was a success. HEART ATTACK! was fascinating, entertaining, and more than a little inspirational. This was truly one of the most special films I have seen in a long time.
If you’re a fan of cult, horror, exploitation, or micro-budget cinema—and especially if you hope to someday create your own—this is the best piece of advice that I can offer you:
Visit Kelly Hughes's webpage by clicking HERE
, and rent/purchase a digital copy of the documentary HERE
(Special thanks to Kelly Hughes for the screener)
Virginia Marcus is rich and beautiful. Unfortunately, she’s also terribly deranged and looking for something more exciting out of life than the safari that her brother Anderson has invited her on. Instead, she opts to stay home and cook up a little hunt of her own.
She lures three men to her home—professional wrestler Rocco, washed-up stage actor Charles Freeman, and street hustling drug addict Buddy—and offers them each a deal of a lifetime: $100,000 in cold hard cash, no strings attached. All they have to do is stay alive in Manhattan for 24 hours while she hunts them down like the filthy animals they are.
You see, these three men were not chosen at random. Virginia pulled their names from a magazine article about acquitted murderers, a category that they all fall under, and she’s more than willing to cough up the cash if it means getting the opportunity to play judge, jury and executioner.
With the game afoot, it’s Buddy who is our primary character. He barges into the apartment of a friend who is hosting a sex-and-drug party looking for a fix, and winds up spilling the whole story. He narrates flashbacks to everyone’s origin and demise (Never mind the fact that he wasn't there and has no way of actually knowing what happened), which are occasionally interspersed with scenes of him jonesing for heroin, some random couples caressing each other seductively, or Virginia dealing with her psychiatrist—and believe me, she needs one.
Said psychiatrist, Dr. Max Schramm, senses that his patient has gone off the deep end and calls in her brother to help—who somehow arrives back in the city from whatever exotic locale he was hunting at in a matter of hours. Can they talk her down in time to save Buddy? And is he even worth saving?
|Eileen Lord as Virginia|
CONFESSIONS OF A PSYCHO CAT is a very strange movie. It’s got a strange title, it’s strangely structured, it's got some strange (but, at the same time, compelling) acting, and some really strange death scenes. In order to further her Human Safari scenario, Virginia has equated each of her prey with something of a spirit animal: Charles Freeman is a lion; Buddy is a jackal; and Rocco is a bull. The death scenes in which they are involved are ostensibly representative of their animals—but really, it's only obvious when it comes to Rocco. Virginia dresses up like a crazed matador and bullfights him to death, which is certainly one of the most memorable scenes in the film. Hell, one of the most memorable scenes in a lot
The story itself isn't all that strange, however…or at least, it's not unheard of. This is a modernized version of The Most Dangerous Game
, with the action transplanted from a Caribbean island to the island of Manhattan, and the gender of our Great White Hunter reversed.
For as scattershot as the movie is, it's somewhat amazing how logical the payout scheme for Virginia’s hunt is: after their meeting with her, all three men return to their homes, and in the next few days, a post-dated check for $100,000 will arrive at their doors via registered mail. Once they sign for the check, their 24-hour countdown begins. Only if they survive until the next day—the date that the check is made out for—can they collect their winnings. And if they don't survive? Then they can't very well cash the check, can they?
Despite Virginia’s obvious insanity, she continues to act pretty logically throughout most of the film.
|Jake Lamotta as Rocco|
In order to lure her targets out into the open, she uses their weaknesses against them. For Charles Freeman, she arranges for him to get a last-minute part in a play, knowing that his love of the limelight wouldn't allow him to pass up the opportunity for a possible comeback. For Rocco, she merely calls him on the phone and taunts him until he loses his temper and goes out looking for her. And for Buddy, she knows that all she has to do is wait…and sooner or later, he’ll go out searching for a fix. (When he finally does get one, it's an extremely long and awkward scene in a public restroom, where he struggles to shoot up while simultaneously propping the stubborn stall door open for the benefit of the camera).
I suppose some credit should also go to the filmmakers for at least attempting to explain the reason behind Virginia’s deep rooted psychosis, where others would not have even bothered. In a flashback to her childhood, we see her brother Anderson toss her beloved puppy off the roof of a high-rise building. While this would certainly cause some emotional scarring, I'm unsure that it alone would result in triple homicide—not to mention, it actually says quite a bit more about Anderson than it does about her. Also, at the finale of the film, when Virginia’s psyche has completely fractured, she has regressed to childhood and begins shouting “Do you love me now, daddy?”
, which points to issues rooted far deeper than previously hinted at.
CONFESSIONS OF A PSYCHO CAT has always been something of a B-Movie Mystery, especially in regards to the cast and crew. There is surprisingly little background information about the film available, and the only definitive credits have always been Bill Boyd as screenwriter, Herb Stanley as producer-director (though he is credited onscreen as “Eve”), Eileen Lord as Virginia, and boxer Jake LaMotta—the inspiration for RAGING BULL—as Rocco, hence his spirit animal. The theatrical poster also lists Ed Brandt (a pseudonym for Ed Garrabrandt), Frank Grace (a pseudonym for Frank Geraci), and Dick Lord as the film’s stars, but which role each of these three actors fill has never been determined. There has always been much unknown, and as it turns out, even some of what we thought
we knew was wrong.
I have managed to get ahold of someone who worked on the film and has agreed to share some information with me under the condition that their identity remains anonymous, reason being that they are no longer in the business and have spent the past 48 years distancing themselves from this project. This Crew Member (referred to from here on out as CM) is very knowledgable about the goings-on, but some details are understandably fuzzy after nearly five decades.
Starting right at the top of the food chain, CM tells me that Herb Stanley is a pseudonym for an unknown producer whose real name is lost to memory, and that “Herb” did not direct the film at all. The real director was an English fellow by name of Robert Worms whose name was left off of the completed film, and the producer gave himself (or rather his pseudonym) undue credit. Similarly, Stanley’s co-presenter of this film, Bob Page, is another fake name, though we don’t know of whom. Unfortunately, as Stanley, at least, is buried behind not one but two
pseudonyms, their true identities will likely never be discerned.
|Virginia Lord, Frank Geraci, Dick Lord, & Jake LaMotta|
CM continues to fill in the casting gaps by informing me that Frank Geraci played Buddy the junkie, Ed Garrabrandt played Virginia’s brother Anderson, and Dick Lord played Freeman the actor.
Geraci had a minor television and film career following CONFESSIONS OF A PSYCHO CAT, and I have since been able to confirm his appearances in an episode of KOJAK and the action-comedy film THE HARD WAY. Garrabrandt has no other known TV or film appearances; nor does Dick Lord, no matter what the IMDb would like you to think. The other credits that the IMDb associates with Dick Lord actually belong to a different person of the same name—a Catskills comedian who is still active today, and who was close personal friends with singer Bobby Darin.
Our Dick Lord, by the way, was married to Eileen Lord—not their
real names, either. The names of every credited performer aside from LaMotta were changed without their permission before the release of the film. Although the couple had a lot of fun working on the movie together (and Eileen forever loved to remind him that when they went toe-to-toe on the silver screen, she
came out the victor), they were devastated when they saw how drastically different the released project was from the one that they had shot.
If the storyline has an unlikely literary connection via Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game
, the casting has an equally unlikely connection to legitimate theater. Frank Geraci (billed in theater as Franco) and Ed Garrabrandt performed together in the off-Broadway play THE FANTASTICKS; and Robert Worms and Dick Lord were in a theater group together. After Lord was cast as Freeman, he suggested his wife Eileen for the lead. The gathering of most of the primary cast seems to have been an organic one, though it is yet unknown exactly how LaMotta became involved.
If CM’s memory serves, CONFESSIONS OF A PSYCHO CAT was originally intended for television, but after the filmmakers were unable to sell it to any of the networks, the sex scenes were filmed and inserted without most of the primary cast’s permission, so that it could be sold to the grindhouse market. The only exception to this being Frank Geraci, who appears to have been called back in to shoot the footage of him at the party, recounting the events to his friends—a cinematic structure that was not used in the initial cut of the film.
It’s easy to tell which scenes are from the original production and which ones were shoehorned in, if only because the audio in the new footage is of such lesser quality. These scenes of sex and nudity are slowgoing and awkward, easily the most uninteresting part of the film, and the acting talent of the nubile young people within them are nowhere up to par with the rest of our leads. CONFESSIONS OF A PSYCHO CAT would be a much better watch if not for these elements which put the brakes on the action and bring everything to a screeching halt at rather random intervals.
CM is not positive who it was that added these scenes, but suspects that it was the shadowy producer and that Robert Worms had nothing to do with it. Having recently rewatched the film, CM also believes that some of the original scenes were cut in order to make room for the sex scenes, but cannot recall any specifics—though further madness and motivation for Virginia seems a likely possibility. Whatever footage had been excised is likely lost to the ages, which is a real shame. Had this movie been left intact and played out like a more traditional thriller (seedy city elements notwithstanding), it could have been a diamond in the rough, and not just another roughie.
So there you have it, as much new information about this film that my pop cultural archeological dig was able to turn up. A few mysteries solved, but others still remain. History is uncovered in baby steps, after all, and not by leaps and bounds.
Dreamstalker was a two-part storyline that filled up the entirety of both issues of this title, revolving around two heroines who are forced to face off against Freddy Krueger—the first is Allison Hayes, a teenage girl with innate dream powers that make her the perfect foil for Krueger; and the second is Juliann Quinn, a young psychologist who has trained to develop her dream powers, making her the perfect mentor for Allison. With Allison in custody at Springwood Medical, and later the Westin Hills Psychiatric Institute, Juliann has to navigate hospital politics in order to get her patient the best care, and buy the time needed to prepare her for a final showdown against the man who has been haunting both of their dreams.
There are the expected surrealistic nightmare sequences, some of which are a gruesome delight. As far as the actual plot goes, though, there’s nothing too far out of the ordinary here. Much of it is a rehash of themes that were introduced in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS (1987) and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER (1988)—Westin Hills, the dream-suppressant drug Hypnocil, and learning to use your dreams against
Freddy had all been dealt with before. However, there are few minor diversions here that actually expand on the Elm Street
Nearly one-third of the first issue was dedicated to an overview of Krueger’s backstory, beginning with a more detailed depiction of his unholy conception than previously seen and ending with his career as the Springwood Slasher (pre-death). Some of the particulars might not line up exactly with everything that has come before and everything that has come since, but it wouldn't take a lot of imagination to deftly insert this into official canon.
The second issue has a sequence in which Allison recounts her first encounter with Freddy after accidentally stumbling into his dream world by taking a wrong turn at a crossroads in her dream. There are hints of Lewis Carroll here, with Allison playing Alice, though the Wonderland she falls into is a much darker place than the Cheshire Cat would tend to frequent. Here, Krueger fraternizes with all manner of other freaks and monsters during his downtime. What this place is, and who these other creatures are, is never explained but is wide open for further exploration. It may come off as something of a silly peek behind the curtain, but if the creators were going to part them, they may as well have thrown them wide open.
Perhaps they would have if the series had lasted more than two issues.
Interestingly enough, the series wasn't cancelled because of poor sales--it was actually the top seller in Marvel’s magazine line. At the time these issues were published, the horror genre was under heavy fire from concerned parents and panicked public interest groups, and although Marvel was not the recipient of any undue pressure, they still shut down the title out of fear of bad publicity as something of a preemptive strike.
Both issues were written by the legendary Steve Gerber and remains consistent throughout, even if it isn't his most imaginative plotting. The artwork was done by Rich Buckler, Tony DeZuniga, and Alfredo Alcala and is typically pretty solid, though Buckler’s work in the first half of the first issue surpasses DeZuniga’s work, which is great when at its best, but simply isn't as consistent.
Overall, an entertaining read that likely would have been better as a piece of a larger whole than it is as a whole all by itself.
Kenneth is young and awkward, but he is also meticulously organized. His morning routine consists
of waking up before the alarm, working out, showering and shaving, and dressing from his carefully categorized closet. The opening scenes that depict this routine not only go a long way in explaining why he is so good at his job as a technical writer, but they also immediately call to mind images of Patrick Bateman from AMERICAN PSYCHO, and while Kenneth may not reach those same heights of pathology, he still wobbles quite a bit off his rocker.
Kenneth is a lonely man. You can tell this by how cold his lifestyle comes across, and by how he listens to his neighbors having sex through the apartment wall. Perhaps he doesn't realize just how
lonely he is until a beautiful, quirky young woman is thrust into his life. When Lisa Belmer is assigned to help him with the instruction manual for a very important job, he is hesitant at first—he works better on his own, he says (but he only thinks that because he's so used to being alone)—but still, he can't seem to get her out of his head.
It is about this same time that another woman enters his life...sort of. A stupid prank played by his meathead coworkers introduces Kenneth to Nikki, a very realistic (and very expensive) sex doll that can be customized to fit the owner's specifications. Kenneth, being the sad, lonely little man that he is empties his bank account and orders Nikki online, designing her to look as close to Lisa as he can manage.
When Nikki arrives on his doorstep, she is packed in an enormous wooden crate that can barely fit through his apartment door. In a humorous scene, Kenneth has to convince his curious neighbors that the crate contains a new refrigerator, and that under no circumstances are they to unpack it to more easily get it inside.
Once safely behind closed doors, the lid is lifted and Nikki is exposed inside. She is cold and lifeless, and to the viewer, the crate suddenly seems more like a coffin. Kenneth carefully unpacks her and takes her to the bedroom for awkward and clumsy animalistic sex. Even Kenneth is embarrassed with himself once he is done. This isn't Lisa at all. It is just a plastic corpse that vaguely resembles her.
He even tries to return Nikki, but thank God there is a rule against returning used sex dolls. When he stumbles across her previously unseen instruction manual—basically a holy book to Kenneth—he is inspired to further his fantasy beyond the realm of sex, and he proceeds to wine and dine Nikki with all the confidence that he is unable to muster with Lisa.
But when a romance does
begin to blossom between Kenneth and Lisa, Nikki (or rather the Nikki-side of Kenneth's fractured psyche) doesn't take too kindly to it. She threatens him and threatens her until Kenneth has no choice but to react violently. He beats Nikki to “death”, chops her up in the bathtub, and disposes of the pieces. It doesn't matter that Nikki was never alive to begin with, it's still frankly disturbing.
Kenneth's relationship with Lisa isn't all that he hoped for, though, as the reality of her couldn't live
up to the fantasy that he had created with Nikki. Turns out that he would rather have Nikki back, but he already destroyed her. He opts instead to reverse his original plan—instead of turning Nikki into Lisa, he will now turn Lisa into Nikki.
He kidnaps Lisa and takes her to his apartment, where he intends to plasticize her using instructions that he found on the Internet (of course). Lisa manages to break free just in time, and is seconds away from ending Kenneth's life when the cops bust in. Assessing the situation incorrectly, they open fire on Lisa, killing her. Her body lands in the wooden crate, sealing the transformation.
But this isn't Nikki at all. It is just a fleshy corpse that vaguely resembles her.
Flash forward to a short time in the future, and Kenneth is back at work. He has ordered a new Nikki, and things are going swimmingly. Until he meets a charming young woman, and becomes infatuated with her...
And the cycle begins anew.
Although the ending was fitting, I can't help but wonder how things would have turned out if Kenneth had succeeded in plasticizing Lisa. It would have taken the movie to a whole new level of sick—out of the realm of PIN and into NEKROMANTIK territory (both 1988). Had the filmmakers pushed the envelope a bit more, it's possible that LOVE OBJECT would have developed more of an audience. However, it's also possible that doing so would have altered the DNA of the film into something much less enjoyable.
To call this a scary film would be inaccurate, however there are plenty of other adjectives to choose from: disturbing; creepy; unsettling. You won't jump out of your seat during the film, but you probably will once the closing credits start to roll...and proceed to make your way to the shower. This is an inherently unclean movie, and you're bound to get a little on you. It's effective in a more low-key way than many genre fans may be used to, but also has a dark subversive humor running through it that should be easy to appreciate. It's similar in tone, but different in content, to Lucky McKee's cult film MAY (2002), and there should be some overlap between the two audiences.
Kenneth was played quite well by Desmond Harrington, who is more famous for playing lawman Joseph Quinn in the television series DEXTER. Lisa was played by the beautiful and quirky Melissa Sagemiller, whose filmography doesn't match up with her talent—she deserves better than SOUL SURVIVORS (2001), SORORITY BOYS (2002), and MR. WOODCOCK (2007). Rounding out the cast is Udo Kier, Rip Torn, Michael Pena, and Brad William Henke, all of which do admirable jobs.
It is disappointing to learn that this was the only film so far to be written and directed by Robert Parigi, who is better known as a producer of shows ranging from TALES FROM THE CRYPT, KING OF THE HILL, BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD, THE GOODE FAMILY, NEIGHBORS FROM HELL, and AGENTS OF SHIELD. I would love to see more work from him in a creative capacity. It seems that if low-key psychological horror films came with an instruction manual, he definitely read it from front to back.
Two friends, Mitchell (Josh DuHamel) and Carter (Dan Fogler), are on a roadtrip through the desert
when the truck breaks down. Carter has taken them so far off the beaten path that Mitchell can't even get a signal on his cellphone, and the road is so rarely traveled that they haven't seen another vehicle in hours. With nothing to do but wait, and tensions between them already running high, their friendly conversation quickly turns to a heated argument, and eventually a brutal physical confrontation.
Mitchell and Carter have been friends for a long time, but in recent years, Mitchell has grown up—he’s found a good job, gotten married, and had a child. Carter, on the other hand, has grown older but not wiser, and is very much the same person he was when the two first met. Rather than follow the traditional life path that society lays out, he has gone a different route: becoming, in his words, “a fat unemployed writer” who lives in his car. Carter resents Mitchell for selling out, and Mitchell keeps Carter at arm’s length for refusing to mature at a proper rate. They are, at the same time, both likable and unlikable, which makes them, at the very least, relatable.
As this is essentially a two-man show, it’s important that you believe in the characters. This is a very dialogue-driven film, with long stretches of nothing but verbal exchanges that vary from anecdotal to impassioned. SCENIC ROUTE is sometimes criticized because viewers don't believe that these two, with such wildly different world views, would be friends, but I bought into it without problem. Carter and Mitchell were friends ten years ago. Carter and Mitchell are not
friends now, and neither are yet willing to accept that fact. That’s the very foundation of the movie. Without that central truth, none of what followed could have happened.
The two compare key rings like Hooper and Quint compare scars in JAWS, not to show what they’ve been through but to show where they are right now. Carter has two keys, and Hooper has more than he can even keep track of. As a means of measuring roots and responsibility, it’s cinematically inspired if not necessarily real-world relevant. And for the record, I'm tied with Carter—and I have a front door.
|Bemoaning the mohawk|
Reminiscing (the only way these two can even relate to each other anymore) leads to Mitchell longing for the simpler days—the days with fewer keys. In a last ditch effort to recapture that feeling of freedom, he throws caution to the wind and allows himself to be talked into an impromptu roadside haircut with the world’s tiniest pair of scissors. He emerges from the glare of the headlights with a bleeding scalp and a Travis Bickle mohawk. When Bickle presented his new ‘do, he became an Urban Warrior. Mitchell becomes a roadside version, though he doesn't yet realize it. He won't be fighting for what he thinks is right, though. He’ll be fighting only for survival, even if he doesn’t have the know-how to do a very good job of it.
This is a sunbaked descent into desperation, with occasional forays into madness and violence. The title may as well be TWO GUYS MAKING BAD DECISIONS, because that’s exactly what it is, one after another after another. It’s easy to say to yourself, I would never drink windshield washer fluid, and you may be right. It’s certainly not something you would do in your every day life, but who knows how you would react when the sun is beating down on you at 120°, and there’s nothing but scorched earth in every direction? It’s not a choice that everyone would make, but it's likely one that somebody
would make. Those warning labels are there for a reason, people.
And it only gets worse from there.
This was a solid little thriller from start to finish, and though some take issue with the LOST-like ending, I wouldn't have it any other way. Kudos go to scriptwriter Kyle Killen, as well as directors Kevin and Michael Goetz (who are in production on the English-language remake of 2008’s MARTYRS), for having the skills to pull off what could have been a major disappointment in the hands of someone who didn't know how to handle the material.
With NYMPHOMANIAC, writer-director Lars Van Trier draws to a close his so-called Depression
Trilogy—an unofficial trilogy, as they share common themes, traits and leading ladies, but do not share characters or a storyline. Unlike the first two entries, ANTICHRIST (2009) and MELANCHOLIA (2011), this film was such an epic endeavor that for distribution, it had to be broken into two volumes. However, I viewed them back to back as a single film, and will be covering them as such. And I will warn you now, there will be spoilers.
One winter night, aging bachelor Seligman finds a woman, Joe, beaten and semi-conscious in an alleyway. She refuses medical assistance and doesn't want the police involved. When asked what she does
want, she admits that a cup of tea would be nice. Seligman helps her to his house, tucks her into bed, tends to her wounds, and then offers her the tea. Finally, he asks Joe what had happened to her to leave her in such a state. She warns him that it is a long story, and that in order for him to fully understand, she will have to start at the beginning.
"I discovered my c*nt as a two year old..."
Which is a pretty jarring beginning to any story, but at least she's not burying the lead. Over the course of the 4-hour combined running time, Joe relates her life as the titular nymphomaniac
(refusing to call herself something so tiresome as a sex addict
), from her earliest sexual stirrings as a child right up to the brutal confrontation that lead to her arrival in Seligman's home. She has thousands of partners, a relative few of which that we are privileged to. The only one who returns with any regularity is Jerome, Joe's original lover, who pops up often enough and at such opportune times that even Seligman begins to question the authenticity of her tale.
When Jerome takes Joe's virginity, he does so in a most unsavory way. He offers three vaginal thrusts in a standard missionary position, then rolls her over and gives five anal thrusts to finish. With each pump, a numerical count appears on screen like a particularly twisted Sesame Street
segment. Seligman, a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of just about everything, exclaims that 3 and 5 are both Fibonacci numbers.
All of these elements are ones that will pop up time and time again throughout the film. The sex, obviously, plays a very important part. Mathematical formulae, charts and graphs, and other assorted graphic ephemera will appear onscreen to further illustrate what is happening at any given moment. And Seligman will find a parallel between what Joe is discussing and some seemingly obscure bit of trivia that will connect her to the world at large.
It is this last part that is perhaps the most crucial factor to the story. Joe is unloading a lifetime of chaos, and Seligman is doing his best to find order within it. What initially appears to be a random sequence of numbers turns out to be an intricate structure found in everything from nature to computational mathematics. So too are a series of seemingly random sexual encounters not only pieces to a greater whole (Joe as a person), but also somehow connected to the universe (as all things are). At least, that seems to be the gospel according to Seligman.
Depending on who you ask, it is either poor
characterization or very complex
characterization that is at play here. Joe frequently tells Seligman that she is a bad person, and yet elsewhere in the film declares that she loves her lust. Meanwhile, Seligman is attempting to convince Joe that she is a good person, and yet he frequently finds satanic and unholy connotations in her actions. They are conflicting their own viewpoints, meaning perhaps they are trying to convince themselves
just as hard as they are trying to convince the other.
Joe is playing the association game, as well, though she's doing it in reverse. Every item in Seligman's sparsely furnished bachelor pad cues up a memory that puts us back into her story, almost to the point of absurdity. A mirror, a fork, a spilled bit of tea...each of these leads us right back into her story at the appropriate place. It reminds me of nothing so much as THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995), except that the audience is in on the gag the whole time.
If coincidence doesn't make you question the full validity of Joe's tale, perhaps her association game will. It is possible that she is lying, at least in some aspects of her storytelling. It is possible that she has lived enough of a life that any one thing can remind her of another—certainly we could all do the same if we were so inclined. It is also possible, though, that this was merely a rather cutesy narrative device that wore a little thin over time. Regardless of whether or not Joe is an unreliable narrator, the advice she offers Seligman is sound: "Which way do you think that you would get the most out of my story? By believing in it or by not believing in it?"
And so we go along with Joe's story, believing at least the general gist of what she tells us, for fear of walking away from the whole thing empty.
When Jerome enters into the story for the second time, it is years after he has so crudely taken Joe's virginity. No longer a mechanic, he is now a success in the printing industry and hires Joe on as his assistant. She is not qualified for the position, but he has brought her on board in hopes of bedding her once again. Joe refuses, though, for reasons that not even she fully understands. She later comes to realize that it is because she has genuine feelings for the man, an "idiotic love"
that makes her feel humiliated (as her whole life thus far has been spent rebelling against the very notion). When she is finally ready to accept her feelings and admit them to Jerome, it is too late; he has abandoned the company and run off with his secretary.
Jerome's third appearance in the story comes on the heels of her father's death, and he and Joe quickly land in bed with one another. Joe whispers to Jerome what every man in the heat of passion yearns to hear—"Fill all my holes"
—but follows it up with the one thing that every man in the heat of passion is afraid of hearing—"I can't feel anything!"
. To Jerome's credit, this isn't a condemnation of his ability as a lover—indeed, his technique has definitely improved over the years—but it is her mind that is shutting down her body because of her betrayal. Because this was not an encounter based on lust, but rather one based on emotion (the "holes"
that she refers to surely encompasses the empty spots in her soul, as well), her body reacts violently, stealing the sexual sensation that she has been chasing her whole life. Without an orgasm, who is she?
Despite this sexual handicap—in fact, quite likely, because of it—Joe and Jerome do manage to find happiness together. They live together in "secure and restful domestic comfort"
, very much like husband and wife. Joe even finds herself with child, and her son Marcel (delivered via Cesarean section, so as not to damage her precious vagina) is born. But as time wears on, and Jerome is no longer able to maintain the sexual stamina that Joe requires (she is still chasing the ghost of the orgasm, at the very least), he grants Joe permission to seek further sexual encounters outside of the makeshift marriage. This is the beginning of the dissolution of the family unit, which she completely eradicates later by leaving their young child home alone so that she can be tied up and beaten with a wet horse bridle by the misogynistic K, an S&M kingpin who has bored housewives literally lined up outside his door.
When Jerome arrives home to find Marcel unattended, he gives Joe an ultimatum. She, of course, chooses K, abandoning her family in favor of the returning orgasm. The fact that her climax is, quite literally, beaten
out of her acts as further proof that her body betrayed her because she betrayed her mind. Her orgasm returns only after exchanging a loving relationship for her "relationship" with K, which is just about as far away from love as one can imagine.
It's conceivable that Joe's interest in bondage is tied in with the memory of her father, who had to be restrained in his hospital bed towards the end of his life for his own protection. Similarly, it's conceivable that her interest in bondage leads directly into the next major phase of her life, becoming something of hired muscle for unscrupulous debt collector L. Utilizing what she learned from her time with K, along with psychological sex games that she picked up along the way, it turns out that she's quite good at convincing these debtors to pay up.
Herein lies my only serious qualm with the film as a whole. Joe's transformation into what amounts
to a criminal goon seems far too sudden, and it isn't played to great effect. Van Trier seems to be playing with genre conventions in this segment, and it would have played more effectively for me if he had really gone for it, briefly transforming the movie into a Lady in Leather exploitation throwback (think Quentin Tarantino's homage film KILL BILL). Instead, it comes across simultaneously as forced and underplayed.
In time, L convinces Joe that she should start looking for a successor. The young P is chosen for her, not at random, but because the girl possesses qualities that will make her susceptible to manipulation. Joe takes P under her wing in a nearly-motherly way, but once P reaches the "age of majority" (read: age of consent
), the two become lovers.
The May-December lesbian romance in itself isn't enough to raise many eyebrows, but that the relationship went from familial
does pose some concerns. Being one who always looks for the root cause of things—in this case, Joe's nymphomania—I was certain that this was a clue to a deeper truth that would be revealed by the finale of the film; namely that Joe's father had sexually abused her, kicking off his daughter's lifelong sexual obsession. Yet, in the end, this assumption proved incorrect. We are given no reason to believe that Joe ever suffered any such abuse, or that her father was anything but the kind and gentle man that he appears to be. There is no root cause to Joe's nymphomania. It just is, and always has been.
P does indeed enter the business, and is well on her way to becoming Joe's successor. On her very first job without Joe's assistance, the debtor in question turns out to be a familiar character. When P knocks on the door, it is yet another extraordinary coincidence that Jerome answers.
Possibly Jerome inadvertently learns of P's connection to Joe, and sees a chance to hurt his former flame. Perhaps Jerome merely sees something of Joe inside of P, stoking a fire that still burns in his heart. Or, perhaps it is merely another epic coincidence. Regardless of the reason, Joe discovers that P and Jerome have been sleeping together, and feels undeniably betrayed. In one fell swoop, she has lost two lovers, and she decides to take matters into her own hands.
With gun in hand, Joe waits in the alley for P and Jerome to pass through. When they do, Joe aims the pistol at Jerome's head and pulls the trigger...but nothing happens, as she has forgotten to rack the gun. Jerome, in turn, waits calmly for Joe to put the gun away and then proceeds to beat the holy hell out of her, while P watches with a smirk. Then, in the ultimate F.U., Jerome makes Joe watch as he lays P down and performs his famous Fibonacci Frig
on her (3+5). To seal the deal, P urinates on Joe, and she and Jerome leave together, which leads us right back to the beginning of the film.
Joe has likely tried to tell her life story to other men before, but their physical arousal caused by her tales would almost inevitably lead to sex. This is why Seligman has been her perfect and ideal confidante—he is a virgin, and considers himself wholly asexual. (If Seinfeld
science is to be believed—and I have no reason to think otherwise—his lack of sexual preoccupation is responsible for his seemingly endless knowledge.). Sure, he admits, he's somewhat sorry that he has never had sex, but this is based solely on intellectual curiosity and not on lust. Now that Joe has managed to get through her entire story for the first time without the usual physical interruption, her soul has been cleansed, and her sins have been purged. As the sun rises, she vows to make changes in her life and defeat the addiction that has ruled her life for so long. Seligman turns off the lights and Joe settles down for sleep, the happy ending that this movie has been barreling towards the entire time.
But Seligman's downfall is that he is entirely too curious. Without his trousers, flaccid penis in hand, he creeps through the darkness and crawls into bed with the sleeping Joe. He tries to enter her, but Joe awakens and protests. His argument likely seems valid—"But you've fucked thousands of men,"
—but it is precisely the wrong thing for him to say. She has fucked thousands of men, but Seligman was supposed to be different. He was supposed to be the one that she didn't have to fuck. He was, in her own words, her"new, maybe first, friend"
, and his actions here prove to be just one more betrayal in a night full of betrayals. She goes for her pistol, only this time, she remembers to rack the gun.
It's a tragic ending for both of our protagonists, and one that presents itself to much spirited debate online. Some say that Seligman attempted to rape her, while others say that it hardly constitutes as rape. Some say that Joe was justified in the shooting, while others say that it was a violent overreaction. Some paint Joe in the role of the victim, while others are quick to point out that she had attempted to murder a man in cold blood only a few hours before. Where you lie on the spectrum is a personal matter, but I have to point out that even good people can do bad things, and even bad people can be victims. This is just one of many scenes that is meant to be debated, with yourself and with others.
Another scene ripe for the 'Is It Rape?'
debate happens early in the film, where teenage Joe and her lusty friend B are holding a contest on a train to see who can seduce the most men before arriving at their destination. Joe sets her sights on a family man, who stoically rebukes her advances. She persists, unbuckles his belt, and proceeds to perform fellatio on him despite his protests. Although he doesn't physically fight her off, he does persistently tell her no and practically begs her to stop. If no means no in all cases, then this should indeed be classified as rape, but there are many who challenge this.
These two instances are purposefully controversial, and are purposefully mirror images of one another in order to get people talking. Seligman himself, in one of his final dialogues, explains the hypocrisy of gender bias—how a man who was as addicted to sex as Joe wouldn't face nearly the same social stigma, etc. It's a true statement, but so blatantly spelling it out to the audience takes away a bit of the artistry that was otherwise put into the film.
Van Trier assembled quite a varied cast for this outing, and for the most part, they all knock it out of the park. Stellan Skarsgard was great as the knowledgeable Seligman, and Charlotte Gainsbourg (star of the other two entries in the Depression Trilogy, as well) was rock solid as the older version of Joe. Newcomer Stacy Martin as young Joe was quite fetching, though the sudden transition from young to old after only a three-year gap in the story was a bit difficult to take in.
Even Shia LeBeouf as secondary leading man Jerome did a decent job, though his English accent was occasionally shaky. He gets a lot of heat these days, but he's a serviceable enough actor. His recent forays into Life-As-Performance-Art tomfoolery have put a real strain on his career, though, and it is sometimes difficult to look past.
The surprise performance came from Christian Slater, who has always been a good actor but hasn't
had a lot of luck with roles since entering adulthood. His portrayal of Joe's father was sad and sensitive, and he made a relatively small role quite memorable for it being one of the few genuinely likable characters in the film.
Other celebrities fill out the smaller roles, most of their character's known only by initials (an affectation that Joe likely picked up in her sex addicts support group): Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell, Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier, Hugo Speer and Uma Thurman all make appearances, among others.
It's always a bit unnerving when you see explicit sex in a movie with real, mainstream actors. Yes, many familiar faces might have a little softcore in their past, or a little erotic thriller in their future, but visible penetration is taking things to a whole new level. This goes beyond CALIGULA—although the sex in that film was even more explicit, the principal players never seemed to be involved in the XXX action. This lands more squarely in BROWN BUNNY territory (although that entire film hinged entirely on a single, unsimulated blowjob scene—the only scene that pretty much anybody bothered to watch). Here, the key actors do appear to be partaking in one another, though according to the credits, these scenes were performed with body doubles, prosthetics, and special effects. That may be so, but it has to be said that the shots were pretty convincing.
With the abundance of nipples, vaginas, penises both flaccid and erect, the occasional winking anus, and one impressive shot of semen being spat from a mouth, it is difficult to believe that what I watched was the edited version. This cut was made with the blessing of, but not the assistance of, Van Trier, whose official director's cut contains nearly 90 additional minutes of footage between the two films. The director's cuts were released to home video in November 2014, and have since been added to Netflix, and I will certainly be looking into them when I have the opportunity, if for no other reason than sheer curiosity of the filmmaker's original vision. I imagine that there is not only scads more sex in the extended version, but character development as well, that will help tie together some of the plot beats a little more soundly.
It has been said elsewhere that NYMPHOMANIAC is not actually about sex at all, that it is actually about alienation, isolation, and the human condition. I say that a movie called NYMPHOMANIAC that features actual insertion shots is bound to be about sex, at least a little bit. It may be set dressing for a deeper meaning, but there's far too much dressing to deny its existence and its importance to the story. That Van Trier has made a sex film out of an art film—or an art film out of a sex film—is undeniable. However, as with all things, whether or not it is any good is up for debate. Some will call it pretentious, but pretentiousness is like art itself: it is all in the eye of the beholder, and where you see one, someone else will inevitably see the other.
Regardless of which side of the fence they land on, many of the more "upper crust" critics have gone on record stating that the sex scenes are not sexy—they wouldn't want to be associated with erotica, after all—but those critics are just playing coy. The truth is, some sex scenes you are likely to find sexy, while others you are likely to find repulsive. It all depends on what type of porn you watch—unless you're one of these people who claim to not like porn, to which I say: pornography is ice cream; whether you like vanilla or rocky road, there's a flavor for everyone. Some people just partake more often than others. And you know what we call those people?
Stunning red head Emma, in her barely-there shorts and tight tee shirts, should have no problem
keeping a man, but apparently she does. According to her roommate Carolyn, it's because she only goes down on them once a month. What Carolyn doesn't know is that Emma's acts of fellatio always line up with the full moon, and the reason she can't keep a boyfriend is because they tend to die afterwards.
Emma is some vampire variation, whose choice of ingestible body fluid isn't blood. She doesn't wear a black cape or sprout fangs or any of that, but she does occasionally transform into a ridiculous rubber bat, just so that we'll know what's really going on here.
Two bumbling cops, Joe and Frank, do their best DRAGNET impressions while investigating the deaths plaguing the city—seemingly healthy men with giant erections and ecstatic rictus grins who have succumbed to severe dehydration. It's a tough case to crack, but luckily these coppers aren't afraid to get their hands—among other things—dirty in the pursuit of justice.
The only other character of merit is newspaper reporter Silverman who is ostensibly writing about the murders, but seems to be doing little more than having sex with countless women. You can always tell where Silverman has chosen to bury his lead (so to speak), because he is such a skilled lover that the women are thereafter unable to uncurl their toes.
I won't go into the plot any further, primarily because there isn't any more of it to speak of. Emma, Carolyn, Joe, Frank and Silverman stumble through the movie having sex with other people and occasionally each other, until the finale. When the full moon rises again and it's time for Emma to feed, she sets her sights on Silverman, which proves to be her doom. When the reporter drops trou, we learn just what it is that makes him such a skillful lover: his penis is made of silver...which just so happens to be deadly to vampires of all breeds.
|Joe & Frank|
This is a sex-crime-comedy-horror hybrid that ultimately falls flat on almost all accounts. The sex is very softcore and ultimately uninteresting, the humor is incessant and almost incessantly juvenile, and it barely qualifies as horror (aside from there being a vampire) or crime (aside from there being cops). It's as if someone took a movie that could have been charmingly in bad taste and excised all of the elements that one might conceivably want to see. All that's left behind are some genitals and a few mildly amusing antics—but certainly not enough to entertain throughout the admittedly brief running time.
The only reason this film even rates a mention here is because of the cast and crew. This is surely one of the movies that many of them wish would remain buried, but this is the Internet age. Almost nothing stays buried.
Sean S. Cunningham was fresh off of producing writer-director Wes Craven's sleazy 1972 thriller LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. The duo had pitched a number of projects around Hollywood, but nobody was buying. Instead, they decided to split up and try their luck apart from each other. In time, they would both create the franchises that they will forever be remembered by: Cunnigham's FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) and Craven's A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984). But between LAST HOUSE and FRIDAY, Cunningham worked on a few less-successful films—including this one.
Information is really rather scarce due to a combination of lack of interest, and Cunningham all but
|Sweet, Sweet Emma|
disowning the film. It was reportedly Brud Talbot's idea to film a sex comedy in Miami, and the two of them share both a director and producer credit. Somewhere along the way, funding fell through and Cunningham was forced to complete the project on his own. Perhaps he called in a few favors, because he brought in a number of people from LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT to round out the cast and crew.
Among them: Jim Hubbard and Gary Liebman, who worked sound on both films; film editor Steve Miner, who would go on to direct the first two sequels to FRIDAY THE 13TH; and adult film star/director Fred J. Lincoln, who went from portraying Weasel the rapist in LAST HOUSE to detective Joe here—and was quick to capitalize on his association with Cunningham, as evidenced by his work on XXX films FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NUDE BEGINNING (1987), FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2: THE NEXT GENERATION (1989), and THE LAST WHORE HOUSE ON THE LEFT (2005). Lincoln harbored a grudge against Cunningham for years, as he supposedly promised to executive produce some projects for Lincoln, but never followed through. His "parodies" of Cunningham's films were likely meant as a slap to the face.
Fred J. Lincoln wasn't the only porn actor to appear in the film. The legendary Harry Reems (most famous as Dr. Young in 1972's DEEP THROAT) plays Silverman. Lincoln may have been responsible for bringing Reems on board, as the two of them had appeared together in 1971's THE ALTAR OF LUST.
Only one other cast member went onto anything resembling a mainstream acting career, Ron Millkie, who portrayed officer Frank here, and went on to play Officer Dorf in FRIDAY THE 13TH. Most of the others never went on to perform again.
CASE OF THE SMILING STIFFS (aka CASE OF THE FULL MOON MURDERS aka SEX ON THE GROOVE TUBE) was released to little acclaim—except in Australia, where it inexplicably became something of a hit. It was rereleased in America at a later date, with additional hardcore footage—it's unclear if this was newly shot footage, or footage that was shot at the time of production and simply not included—but even that didn't help it find an audience. Furthermore, whatever hardcore footage did exist is now lost, and I'm not sure it would have improved things anyway. Cunningham put the movie behind him, slightly embarrassed by the whole ordeal, and moved onto greener pastures.
It should be noted that Cunningham's former partner Wes Craven ventured into the adult film world as well, directing the X-rated incest-laden drama THE FIREWORKS WOMAN from 1975. Craven had the good sense to work under a pseudonym (Abe Snake), but as I said before, this is the Internet age.
Almost nothing stays buried.