Category Archives: 1970s

Don’t Look in the Basement (1973)

*. Low budget trash, reportedly shot in twelve days on a budget of under $100,000. So of course it looks like shit, but come on.
*. There are a couple of points worth mentioning. In the first place, it was released as part of a double-bill with Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. Now I’m not the biggest fan of The Last House on the Left, but it’s instructive to watch this movie alongside it and see what you were being subjected to at the drive-in at the time, if only to get a sense of the broader cultural matrix that Craven came out of.
*. The other point is that it’s a variation on the Poe story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” The basic idea is that an innocent visitor arrives at an asylum to find the lunatics in charge. It’s been done several times (for example in The Mansion of Madness, which came out the same year, and more recently in Stonehearst Asylum), but it really needs to be put across with more sophistication than it is here.
*. That’s not to say this is a film without any sophistication. I actually thought the introduction of the character of Dr. Masters was quite well done. After the Judge has just sunk an axe into Dr. Stephens she’s an immediately calming influence, and her white coat invests her with authority. Also, at least compared to the other inmates, she seems to have her act together.
*. I also like the random chaos of the Stephen Sanitarium. There’s no sense that the patients are organized at all, or are working together toward the common goal of deceiving the new nurse. They’re all trapped in their own separate realities, and they clang like cymbals whenever they strike up against one another.

*. But this chaos is also the film’s undoing, as the story just wanders from one room and one patient to the next without tightening the screw of the plot. At the end I wasn’t even sure what was going on, or who had killed who.
*. Of course the one black guy is named Sam. He’s a “loveable child” due to a failed lobotomy. Old stereotypes die hard.
*. The biggest problem though is the basic lack of talent involved. The direction doesn’t even try to build suspense, even when it’s available (I’m thinking in particular of the scene where the Judge gets hold of the telephone repairman’s screwdriver). The acting is dreadful, with the lead, Rosie Holotik, being a pretty Playboy covergirl who was presumably cast for that reason. The gore effects just consist of some blood splashed on people’s faces.
*. There was a bit of talk a few years ago about a remake, and this is a rare case where I think that would actually be a good idea. The basic story and characters aren’t bad, and with better production values and just a bit of talent it has potential. I don’t think this movie is one many people will want to bother with though.

The Mansion of Madness (1973)

*. You may not have heard of this one. I hadn’t before I tripped over it online. But if you haven’t seen it I recommend checking it out, as it’s a real buried treasure.
*. In brief, it’s another adaptation of the Poe story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” and one that actually shows some consideration for the source. It’s still just a riff on the theme of lunatics running the asylum, but some of the names are kept the same and it’s done in period dress. The American release version was even called Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon.

*. You might even think, listening to the opening voiceover, that you’re hearing Poe. You’re not, but it sounds right. And actually it’s quite a bookish script (though a Mexican production it was apparently filmed in English and dubbed into Spanish). The old man chained up in the dungeon is reciting Donne (“I run to death, and death meets me as fast”), and later we hear Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” You see, getting an English degree is useful for something after all.
*. Another, less literary allusion comes at the end when the dying Fragonard asks “Can this be the end of Maillard?” That must be a nod to Rico’s last words in Little Caesar, and it made me laugh to hear it here. What makes it even funnier is the fact that Fragonard isn’t Maillard.

*. If the script is allusive in various ways, the look of the movie is even more so. If you’re reminded of El Topo that shouldn’t come as a surprise, since Juan López Moctezuma (whose first film this was) was a friend of Jodorowsky, and this film was shot by the same cinematographer: Rafiel Corkidi.

*. I think it’s a wonderful movie to look at, from the theatrical staging and costumes to the terrific use of a weird set that looks like an abandoned factory of some sort. There are individual shots that have the painted look of Old Masters. How I wish they’d do a proper job restoring and releasing a cleaned up version. The one I watched was VHS quality.
*. With its patchwork appearance and opening in a misty forest it also reminded me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which came out a couple of years later). And bringing in Monty Python to the discussion isn’t all that big a stretch. I’ve seen this movie described as a horror-comedy and black comedy, though I find these labels inappropriate.
*. It’s not that it doesn’t try to be funny, at least at times. The character of Couvier is clearly meant as a comic foil, and Fragonard’s over-the-top campy performance would recall Dr. Frank N. Furter but for the fact that The Rocky Horror Picture Show came out two years later. But I don’t think this is enough to make The Mansion of Madness even a hyphenated comedy.
*. Look at the way the comic pratfalls of Couvier, performed to accompanying clown music, lead directly into the most disturbing scene in the movie, which is the rape in the forest. It’s like we’re not meant to take the rape seriously. This is troubling, but then the split between what’s real and what’s make believe or fantasy is something that’s central to our reading of the entire film. Those branches they keep using as clubs, for example, bend like pool noodles.

*. A final film I was reminded of was Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade (1967). Both films are set in asylums and have the same concern with revolution. Mexico, like France, has a tradition of such things. And Fragonard, like Sade, is a director: someone who wants to put on a show. Does this change how we view Fragonard? He does represent a spirit of Satanic energy and the carnivalesque, seemingly more anarchic than cruel. This is a different kind of inversion of values than we get in the more mainstream treatment of the same story in Stonehearst Asylum, and more complex. It’s also more representative of its time. The official authorities aren’t tyrants, they’re squares.
*. I wish there was more information about this title available, but I could find very little even when I went looking online. As I’ve said, this makes it both a buried treasure and a movie in need of a restoration and a critical revisiting. It’s a far from perfect movie — it’s too talky in places and doesn’t handle action well — but for anyone interested in all of the various roads leading in and out of it, it will be worth the time spent tracking it down.

I Drink Your Blood (1970)

*. The title helped. As with I Spit On Your Grave, it was changed by the producer to something more marketable (the working title was Phobia). It was also meant to complement the second half of a double bill it appeared on (I Eat Your Skin, a film it had little in common with and that had been shot six years earlier but never released). That the title has nothing to do with anything in the movie is pretty much irrelevant.
*. It is, of course, a poor, no-budget exploitation movie, of interest today only for how silly it all is. At the time it had some notoriety for setting a new benchmark for violence, but by twenty-first century standards even the director’s cut is pretty tame. Only the pregnant woman stabbing herself in the belly with a wooden stake still has any shock value.
*. Perhaps the most disturbing thing watching it today is seeing all the dead animals. Apparently only the chicken was killed for the film, and if you object to that you should listen to John Waters’s commentary on Pink Flamingos. There are, however, a lot of dead animal carcases on display, including numerous rats and a goat.
*. In some ways it can be seen as a transitional film. It’s often compared to Night of the Living Dead, but I don’t think that’s a very strong connection. These aren’t zombies and (despite what’s often said in the literature) they aren’t cannibals. They’re just people infected with rabies. Its nearest analogs are later films like The Crazies and Rabid.

*. But in addition to looking forward it also looks back. One of the first things that struck me was how the horror plot we know so well, where the group of young people take a wrong turn or their car breaks down and they end up in some homicidal backwater, was being reversed. The town here is a ghost town that seems to consist of nothing but a single bakery, but it appears to be a wholesome enough place. The kids whose van breaks down, on the other hand, are Satan-worshipping druggies who haven’t even learned to eat with utensils. This is an older plot, more like The Wild One than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The immediate inspiration seems to have been the Manson murders.
*. The political message would appear to be an obvious one then. After all, it out the same year as Joe. But Kim Newman, who only briefly mentions this title in Nightmare Movies, makes an understandable mistake when he calls it “a Living Dead spin-off featuring a clash between rabid hippies and hard-hat construction workers.” That’s the conflict you’d expect, but in fact the two groups never confront one another. The construction workers, who are presented as a sleazy enough bunch themselves, are very quickly “converted” to hippie madness by way of a gang-bang with an infected girl. The rest of the movie they run around waving machetes and frothing at the mouth.

*. Much has been made of the multi-ethnic character of the gang. I doubt this was more than happenstance, and if it wasn’t I don’t think it reflects a very progressive point of view. The violent and diseased element aren’t just druggies and devil-worshippers, they’re coloured. They also practice interracial sex, and I don’t think the film approves of that (indeed, the stake in the belly loses some of its power to shock in our knowledge that the baby is probably “infected” and needs to be aborted).
*. You could say much the same for the Satanic cult business. After the laughable nudie opening scene this is basically dropped and nothing further is made of it. I think they just wanted to have a group nude scene and weren’t very interested in the devil worship.
*. I have to say I find this movie a lot less interesting than it’s made out to be by its fans. They’ve elevated it to semi-cult status, but there’s little here beyond the usual exploitation weirdness, more often the result of incompetence or serendipity than any original creative vision. Peter’s bizarre scheme for getting revenge on the punks — injecting blood drawn from a rabid dog he’s just shot into a tray of meat pies — is just one example. It’s certainly hard to forget the shot of him holding the blood-filled syringe over the pies, but it’s a pretty ridiculous idea all the same. Which makes it just like everything else in this cheesy flick.

Demon Seed (1977)

*. At the start of the twenty-first century there were a spate of movies dealing with the idea of accelerated human evolution, triggered through drugs that suddenly increase “cerebral capacity” (Limitless, Lucy), the uploading of human consciousness to the cloud (Transcendence), or genetic engineering and nanotechnology (Morgan). One of the things I found interesting about all of these movies is the way becoming “more than human” is treated as a valid aspirational goal, and how the resulting superhumans, who almost literally become as gods, are seen as primarily benevolent (though Morgan is a complicated case). Technology, we are being told, is nothing to be afraid of. Indeed we should welcome our species’ next giant leap.
*. This made me think about how these same matters were dealt with at the beginning of the computer age. I recalled Demon Seed, a movie whose ending I hadn’t been able to wipe from my mind since I first saw the film on late-night TV when I was a kid. The breeding of a homo superior wasn’t such a blessed event in 1977.
*. That’s not to say that Proteus is all bad. He has the soul of a poet. He wants to cure cancer. He’s against the corporate “rape of the Earth,” evincing a timely environmental consciousness. And the scientists who created him aren’t the most sympathetic types either. There’s a certain poetic justice in Proteus seeking out Alex’s ex. That he re-creates their dead child in his polyhedral matrix makes for a complicated bit of family drama.

*. But that’s only playing devil’s advocate. If the voice of Robert Vaughn wasn’t enough, the title alone would make it clear that Proteus is up to something very bad. As has often been pointed out, Demon Seed can be thought of as a combination of 2001 and Rosemary’s Baby: movies that don’t fill us with a lot of sympathy for the devil. While Proteus sees his child as being a Christ-like redeemer (“the world’s hope”), we may suspect he’s projecting a narcissistic sense of self. Indeed, he’s an egomaniac who specifically states that he doesn’t care how many human children he has to kill so long as his offspring gets to live.
*. As for the Star Child, she (it?) is pretty creepy too. Just because her mom and step-dad seem to accept her tells us nothing. Rosemary was betrayed by maternal feelings too.
*. No, I think we have to conclude that this next step in human evolution is not something we should look forward to. At least it wasn’t in 1977. Our attitudes have changed. Proteus is a tool for data analysis, after all, and in the twenty-first century we have come to love Big Brother. There are still voices warning about the dangers of artificial intelligence (Stephen Hawking being one of the more prominent, saying it “could spell the end of the human race”), but the idea of an omniscient cloud mind, a “synthetic cortex,” is irresistible to a large segment of the population.
*. Of course, today Proteus would also be much harder, if not impossible, to kill, with access to the Internet letting him survive having the plug pulled on his core. So perhaps what we’ve mainly done is surrender to the inevitable. To some extent, the next step in our evolution has already been taken.

*. I find Demon Seed a difficult film to pin down. Perhaps if I read the original novel by Dean Koontz it might help, but I doubt it. And in any event the original novel, published in 1973, was substantially rewritten and republished in 1997, and my understanding is that the 1973 version is now hard to track down.
*. What I mean by being difficult to pin down is that I don’t know how much respect it deserves. In several ways it strikes me as ahead of its time, and given the material I think it’s held up better than a lot of the prophetic SF movies from the 1970s. The design of Proteus’s physical form is quite original and interesting. I don’t recall ever having seen anything like it before or since.
*. On the other hand, it’s hard to miss the note of exploitation that’s being struck. This is evident in bold on the theatrical release poster, that tells us “Julie Christie Carries The Demon Seed.” Other tag lines ran like this: “Never was a woman violated as profanely . . . Never was a woman subject to inhuman love like this . . . Never was a woman prepared for a more perverse destiny.” Let’s face it, that wouldn’t be out of place on a porn marquee.
*. As another example of how ahead of its time Demon Seed was, the fetish for women “fucking machines” would become an especially popular one in the Internet age. And as those sleazy tag lines suggest, this was definitely in the mix back in 1977. Having Julie Christie’s legs spread apart and tied to the posts of her bed is pretty blatantly pornographic, and while we don’t have probes shaped like dildos going at her there’s no mistaking what pervy Proteus is up to. Susan even has to tell him to stop looking at her when she gets out of the shower. We suspect he ignores her.
*. The visuals as Susan gives birth are another bit of confusion. They seem obviously meant to recall the trippy Star Gate sequence at the end of 2001, albeit a very poor substitute. But are they just a rip-off, or a genuine attempt to mix in a bit of art house?
*. That’s a question that pretty much sums up my response to Demon Seed. Is it sleazy trash, a cheap, derivative genre knock-off? Or is it a thought-provoking, daring, and original film that asks probing questions about the wedding of humanity and technology? I’ll split the difference and just call it weird. Weird, and after all this time still very hard to forget.

Morel’s Invention (1974)

*. The source novella, by Adolfo Bioy Casares, was apparently also the inspiration for Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad. Make of that what you will. I can’t do too much with it, aside from noting how Anna Karina, muse of Jean Luc-Godard, looks like a flapper (Morel’s “group portrait” is dated 1929), and that Louise Brooks was supposedly the model for Faustine and Delphine Seyrig’s “A” in Last Year at Marienbad. So these screen-muse figures all sort of blur into one.
*. This is significant because Morel’s Invention is a love story, or I think more properly an obsession story. The fugitive (Giulio Brogi) — and I think he is a fugitive, rather than a castaway, as credited — is yet another star-struck fan, falling in love with someone who is essentially a movie star, to the point where he wants to enter the film and be a part of it. It’s The Purple Rose of Malta.
*. Unfortunately, director Emidio Greco (directing his first feature) doesn’t capture this obsession. There’s really nothing going on between the fugitive and Faustine, which probably makes a lot of the movie hard to understand for anyone not familiar with the book. Unless we’re made to feel his obsession then nothing makes any sense.

*. This is too bad, as there are a lot of different avenues the movie could have explored. The question of whether it is all a dream (the fugitive is first awoken by the music of the newly-arrived visitors). The looping time scheme, which has the visitors constantly re-enacting the same week, and the different perspectives this gives the fugitive (and us) into their lives. The way the early visitors don’t know they’re dead (as actors don’t know they’re in a movie), which allows for incongruities like the dancing in the rain (reminiscent of the rain falling inside the house at the end of Tarkovsky’s Solaris).
*. There’s almost no speech, aside from Morel’s lecture on his experiment, and little by way of score aside from source or diegetic music. This might have been interesting too, as the visitors hail from the silent era. But again it’s a road we never go down.
*. I like the museum itself, and it’s dusty air of Art Deco luxury. Luxury always has a touch of the alien about it, and that’s something we do get to feel here.
*. Casares’s novel is no doubt hard to adapt, but it really deserves better. The ending here in particular struck me as limp and enigmatic, flubbing the idea of the fugitive dying into art and becoming the image he has come to adore. That’s a form of suicide our own age is very much in love with, as we imagine uploading consciousness to the cloud. Morel’s machine is now a server, and he wouldn’t need to go to all that trouble to build a museum. With CGI effects and all the rest, we’ve already taken reality out of our SF movies. Now all we have to do is take it out of our reality.

Crucible of Terror (1971)

*. There are a lot of horror cheapies and bottom-of-the-barrel exploitation flicks out there that are now deservedly forgotten. In our new digital dispensation, however, it appears that nothing will ever be truly lost, at least in the way that so much of the history of early cinema has gone missing. Instead, these movies will go on to enjoy a long afterlife somewhere in the clouds.
*. That’s where I found Crucible of Terror, a film that I came to with very low expectations. It’s not a great, or even a good movie. In fact, it’s pretty lousy all the way through. But for some reason I loved it. I’m so glad it hasn’t disappeared.
*. Explaining why I like it isn’t easy. It’s one of a bunch of Brit horror films from the early ’70s that Kim Newman summed up as “marginal cinema, where double-bill-fillers can be sold either for sex or violence and nothing else really matters. Too cheap for period settings [like the efforts of Hammer], these films, intentionally or not, manage to locate their horrors in a recognisable, seedy British setting unexplored in the movies. The plots are outmoded B melodrama, the girls are mostly pretty and disposable and — very rarely — extraordinary, almost-art films . . . slip out.”
*. I don’t think Crucible of Terror is extraordinary for almost slipping into art-film territory, but it does take the B-picture melodrama plot to new heights (or depths). There’s so much that’s unexpected going on. We start off thinking we’re going to get a House of Wax rip-off, but the shocking opening sequence isn’t really followed up on. Then we visit the London art scene, where we’re introduced to a hustling dealer and his dipso buddy, who also happens to be the son of a reclusive artist (the madman we met earlier). From there we’re whisked off to Cornwall and some coastal lovely scenery, where the mad artist lives with his batty wife. At this point things the plot swerves into murder-mystery territory as a killer in black gloves starts killing off the guests at the artist’s home.
*. Finally, the ending is perhaps the strangest thing of all, yanking us away from the whole mad-artist storyline into supernatural territory with the aid of a possessed kimono that has a hashtag symbol on the back. It’s madness, I tell you. Madness.

*. It’s not that all of this is weird, but rather the character of its weirdness that I enjoyed. It’s weird in a fun way.
*. The cast and characters are a delight. Mike Raven, who was a bit of an eccentric artist himself, does his best Christopher Lee, which is pretty good. James Bolam is suitably hapless as the dealer who has to put out in the back of a Rolls with a wealthy patroness (oh, the things we do for art!). Raven’s wife is a pathetic-comic figure who dresses up like a little girl while lugging around stuffed animals. The girls, I’ll agree with Newman, are mostly pretty and disposable. But then, that’s what they’re for.
*. While I don’t think anything about the film is particularly well done, for the most part it seems competently produced, and there’s such a lot of manic creativity on screen I wonder why writer-director Ted Hooker never went on to anything else. Was this a one off?
*. As I’ve said, there were a lot of not-very-good, low-budget horror films in the ’70s that have now disappeared and aren’t worth hunting down. I think this one is worth checking out though. In addition to the weirdness it has the Cornwall scenery, Raven’s off-beat performance, and some interesting kills. The casting of the model in bronze is amazing. Nothing else in the film matches up with it, but that’s OK. My expectations had already been surpassed.

The Beast Must Die (1974)

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*. I can’t help feeling that Amicus missed an easy trick by not putting an exclamation mark at the end of the title. On some posters I’ve seen they have added one, and it’s something they’d done before (And Now the Screaming Starts!). I think the title should really be The Beast Must Die!
*. But, believe it or not, I think they were aiming for class with this one. At least producer Max Rosenberg said he wanted something “monolithic.” Nobody knew quite what he meant.
*. And Then There Were None meets The Most Dangerous Game. And those were both good movies. Plus this one has a werewolf in it. So it couldn’t really miss, could it?
*. But wait, there’s more to like! There’s a swingin’ ’70s soundtrack (they wanted a “gothic-sounding Shaft sound,” construe that how you will), and a gimmicky “werewolf break” where the movie stops and you’re given 30 seconds to decide who’s the lycanthrope.
*. There’s also a black lead: Calvin Lockhart, apparently cast in a bid to cash in on the blaxploitation craze. There was even an alternate version released as Black Werewolf, a title which manages to be both sleazy and totally inaccurate (though this version does omit the “werewolf break,” which some may take as a blessing).

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*. Even some of the stuff you probably should hate isn’t all bad. The werewolf, for example, gets a lot of criticism because it’s just a German Shepherd wearing a ruff. But I like this kind of werewolf. Let’s face it, most werewolves look pretty stupid. Whereas a real wolf on its own can be pretty scary. I liked the real wolves in Wolfen for the same reason. And as director Paul Annett says, since they had no budget for this film, any werewolf makeup they did was going to look terrible anyway. So: good call.
*. At least most of the time it’s a good call. Annett does his best to sell us on the werewolf-dog with lots of quick cuts, but in the final stand-off between it and the Great Black Hunter, let’s face it, he just looks like a big goofy dog who wants to play. I mean, he isn’t even snarling like he’s angry. He’s just standing there with his tongue hanging out, looking silly.
*. All of this, plus a more than capable cast, and we should be in for a good time. Or, as Kim Newman calls it, “mindless, trashy fun of the first order.”
*. Unfortunately, it’s not as much fun as it sounds. And I’m not sure why.
*. Part of the problem might be the pacing, which lost me early. The opening chase goes on too long (13 minutes), and is slackly handled. Especially since we’ll probably twig to what’s really going on pretty quickly if we’ve ever seen the opening of a Bond movie (the beginning of From Russia with Love comes to mind). Then there’s another long, pointless car chase later in the movie as Jan tries to escape. This was another addition made at the producer’s insistence, and what they were trying to do was get more action into the movie. But it’s just filler (Annett: “extremely gratuitous”), and the time could have been spent on more interesting things.
*. Actually, I wonder if the Bond films were in mind in more ways than one. Tom Newcliffe’s estate sure looks like the lair of a Bond villain (I believe it’s the Little Park House at Shepperton Studios), and Lockhart has the right eccentric look and urbane, overconfident patter. By the way, did you know he played King Willie in Predator 2? I didn’t, and was surprised to find out.
*. The concept suggests a well-made plot full of red herrings and clever intricacies, but in fact it boils down to something hard to swallow just from the set-up. Why is Tom so sure that one — and only one — of his guests is a werewolf? His evidence is circumstantial at best.

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*. Then Tom alienates us further by the fact that he is both a lousy detective and a lousy hunter. In the case of the former, surely it wouldn’t be hard to figure out who among the guests is the werewolf. One can think of several certain, and safe, ways to do so. But at times he seems to be actually trying hard not to solve the mystery. As for the hunting, he’s good at blowing off lots of silver bullets on full auto, but he can’t hit anything unless it’s lying right on top of him. Unless it’s putting Old Yeller down, or blowing up his own helicopter.
*. Some of these script problems resulted from freestyling on a source story, “There Shall Be No Darkness” by James Blish, that the final script has almost nothing in common with aside from some of the characters’ names (on the commentary Annett admits he hadn’t read the story before making the movie, but wishes he had). Even the scientific explanation for lycanthropy given by Dr. Lundgard is different (its root is given in the story as the pineal gland, but here the mutation is located in the lymphatic system).
*. I love the story Annett tells on the commentary about how, when he told Peter Cushing and Charles Cray to get started playing a game of chess so they could be a few moves into it when filming, they told him that neither of them knew how to play. This surprised him, and it would have surprised me too. I’m no chess player, but I do know the rules and I guess I’ve always thought that most people do. But I wonder how many people actually do know how to play chess.
*. Annett thought the business of passing the silver bullet from mouth to mouth was “sexy.” I’m not sure modern audiences will agree. Cushing at least wipes his down. It’s not at all clear though whether they are each using different bullets or circling with the same one. There’s some discontinuity between the action and what people are saying.
*. The “werewolf break” is silly (and was added by the producers, much to Annett’s displeasure), but it still might have worked if this had been a true “fair play” whodunit. The model here isn’t William Castle but those detective stories (I believe by Ellery Queen) where there was a note in the text saying when you (the reader) now had all the evidence you needed to solve the crime. But the evidence here is pretty vague, and in any event is never gone over by Tom. Instead, he relies on another silver test.
*. I’ll back Newman up part way and call this mindless, trashy fun, if not of the first order. Still, in the annals of horror there’s nothing else quite like it. That alone makes it worth a look.

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Behind the Green Door (1972)

*. I hope it won’t offend anyone too much if I confess that I have some — not a lot, but some — respect for Gerard Damiano (director of Deep Throat and Devil in Miss Jones) and the Mitchell Brothers (Artie and Jim, the team behind Behind the Green Door).
*. The thing is, they didn’t have to try to make good movies. They could have made a lot of money with no effort at all just shooting stag films. But they didn’t take the easy route. Maybe they didn’t see themselves as creating great art, but they at least thought they were aiming in that general direction. Doesn’t that count for something?
*. Of the Big Three films that defined the era (or was it only a year?) of porno chic, Behind the Green Door may not be the best (I’d give the nod to Devil in Miss Jones), but it is, in my opinion, the most erotic. There are scenes here that are still sexy nearly fifty years later, and Marilyn Chambers looks stunning, even when wearing a toque.
*. Some people complain that they find the proceedings a little dull. Look, all porn films are dull. They aren’t trying to tell a story. They have very little in the way of narrative. And the sex scenes here do tend to go on too long, even when the pay-off is a fantastic slow-motion money shot painted in psychedelic gusts of abstract jizz. Nevertheless, some of it still works, and this despite the alienating air of artiness.
*. My favourite scene is Gloria’s induction, where, after a hypnotic-erotic massage to warm her up, she’s offered like a victim to the brides of Dracula. I think one reason this works so well is because the “female attendants” (as they’re credited) stay fully clothed throughout, making Gloria’s body a spotlight of attention. All things considered (lighting, composition, editing) this is the high point of the film.
*. Just with regard to this same scene, Danny Peary describes the attendants as being dressed as nuns. I don’t think they are, but it’s interesting that he saw them that way.
*. I mentioned the brides of Dracula feasting on Gloria, and if there’s a theme to the sex here it’s in that notion of eating. This is one of the most oral porn films ever, and the fact that it begins in a diner, with its neon EAT sign prominently featured, probably wasn’t an accident.
*. We also have what was possibly the first interracial sex scene in an American hardcore feature (with Chambers and Johnnie Keyes). That’s something else to appreciate, isn’t it? And the thing is, despite being seen as taboo at the time the movie doesn’t play it as anything particularly transgressive.
*. Again we have the emphasis on sex as performance: the porn movie as act of voyeurism. As I said in my notes on Night Trips, porn movies aren’t about people having sex, they’re about watching people having sex. So there’s Marilyn Chambers being “loved as never before” while the audience masturbates and then break into an orgy. Gloria is just there to start the fire. You get the point.
*. After the initiation rite things go downhill. The rest of the sex I do find dull, even with the trapeze, and outside of the sex it seems a very strange movie indeed. Of course the premise of a woman being abducted and then initiated into various public sex acts that she comes to enjoy would not be well received today. For all the talk there was at the time of Gloria being a willing participant in the proceedings, she is presented as largely without agency. Indeed, she seems at times to have been placed on a kind of sexual conveyor belt, and doesn’t even have a voice (Chambers has no lines in the film, even after she’s left the club).
*. Then there is the strange framing narrative. What’s up with that? I’m not sure I understand what is going on even on re-viewings. I imagine audiences seeing it for the first time were totally lost.
*. Jim Mitchell had studied film a bit at university, and at least at one point had ambitions of being a serious filmmaker. But I’m not sure even that explains the odd art-house flavour to the proceedings. Though, as I began by saying, neither does any commercial impulse.
*. I have a hunch that the artistic flourishes were just part of the spirit of the age. Even fringe, exploitation filmmakers wanted to be doing something different, something creative in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Not to make money, but just because they could. Even porn could be art for art’s sake. If they don’t make porn movies like this any more, well, I think we have to add that they no longer make many movies like this in any genre. In the Internet age sex may be more a performance than ever, but is it a cinema of personal expression or just a routine?

Prophecy (1979)

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*. Prophecy fills almost all the boxes on the checklist of what you want to see in a movie that’s so bad it’s good. It’s a shame it doesn’t manage to pull it off, pace Stephen King, who, in Danse Macabre, uses it as an example of the “really horrible movie” that is nevertheless irresistible.
*. There is only one irresistible moment. This is when the creature swats a little boy swaddled in a ridiculous yellow sleeping bag, sending him flying into a rock. Whereupon the sleeping bag explodes with a sound like popcorn popping, shooting downy feathers all over the campsite.
*. What makes this scene so remarkable is the way it seems clearly designed to be played for laughs (the boy attempts to bounce away from the creature while still wrapped up in his sleeping bag), and yet ends with such a shocking and emphatic way. You don’t often see children being killed, then or now, in horror movies. The result is a true WTF? moment, and I mean that in the best sense. But it’s not enough to save the rest of the film.
*. Things start off on a decent enough note. There’s a chase through some dark woods with a trio of hunters and a pair of hounds. They are attacked by something in the woods. There are roars and screams. So far, so conventional for the intro to a monster movie. But then there’s a nice transition to a tableau where we see the bodies of the hunters decoratively arranged at the foot of a cliff while some classical music plays, music we later see is being performed by Talia Shire.
*. That’s a good intro, but from here things go downhill quickly. We next mee our hero, a public health doctor who is clearly a crusader for whatever cause needs crusading for. He’s played by Robert Foxworth, who might almost be a double for Donald Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Ladies and gentlemen, that’s what a leading man looked like in an SF-action/thriller in the late ’70s! Can you dig it?
*. Foxworth and Shire (who, I’m sorry to say, looks as hard done by as always), are sent to the woods of Maine to do some work for the Environmental Protection Agency. This introduces the movie’s main theme, which is eco-horror. There were a lot of movies like this in the 1970s. For some reason they fell out of favour. I’m not sure why. It’s not like the world’s environmental problems went away.

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*. I have nothing against eco-horror, but the Message here is so obvious and laid on so thick you just want them to drop it and move things along. The natives (or Original People) are in the right. The white man and his dirty industries are destroying the beautiful Maine wilderness (which is actually British Columbia). Mother Nature will be sure to bite back. So let’s get on with it!
*. The heavy Message is just one way the movie bogs down in self-importance. As Kim Newman puts it: “Prophecy is merely silly, but its throat-clearing, significant title and definitive ad line (‘The Monster Movie’) elevate it to the status of overambitious annoyance.” We’re talking about a mutant killer bear, people. No need to get all fancy about it.
*. Then, after half the movie has been spent setting up the ecological and mythological back stories, we finally get the monster. King thinks it looks “sort of like a skinned pig and sort of like a bear turned inside-out.” Most viewers found it disappointing. What bothered me most was that it walks around upright. That’s quite a bear (or boar) mutation. And it’s not scary because let’s face it: a bear walking on its hind legs just looks silly.
*. As an aside, I have to register a complaint against a horror cliché that I’ve always found particularly annoying. This is the idea that any man or animal poisoned with toxins or radioactivity doesn’t get sick but is instead blessed with supernatural size and strength. I mean, how did those pathetic mutant bear cubs, which look like the baby in Eraserhead, grow up into the fearsome Katahdin?
*. King: “George Romero’s film Dawn of the Dead came out at about the same time as Prophecy (June-July 1979) and I found it remarkable (and amusing) that Romero had made a horror film for about two million dollars that managed to look like six million, while Frankenheimer made a twelve-million-dollar movie that managed to look like about two.”
*. Why does this movie look so bad? One thing I’ll flag is the way the scenes of the great outdoors are only establishing shots for action sequences that in turn often seem to have been filmed on studio sets. At least that’s what a couple of the campfire scenes look like to me. And studio “forest” sets always look cheap.
*. The raccoon attack starts off with a good jump scare, but (as was inevitable, because raccoons) turns into something unintentionally hilarious. Plus Foxworth should know that tossing a dead coon into his fireplace is going to stink up his cottage for weeks.
*. I should add that the raccoon scene got the production into trouble as they were apparently mistreating it very badly. Which is kind of ironic, given the movie’s message about respecting the environment.
*. It’s hard to think of anything this movie does well. Frankenheimer blamed his heavy drinking at the time for the film not realizing its potential, but I think another big problem was that he just wasn’t a natural fit for the material. I hear the novelization is actually quite good, but the script is dreadful, with lines like “You were too busy playing God to be a human being!” and important plot points, such as Shire’s pregnancy, simply forgotten.
*. I’d like to say this one is a guilty pleasure, but the fact is that it’s mostly just stupid and dull. It takes too long to get going, then once it does it forgets all about what came before and just throws a cheesy monster on the screen and calls it a day. At the half-way point there is a little moment of magic, but it’s just a pop of popcorn in the woods.

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Death Line (1972)

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*. What makes this movie so interesting, and so good, can be boiled down to its time and place.
*. The time was 1972, which is two years before the release of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This gives it pride of place when discussing a gritty film about a feral “family” of cannibals. The remarkable long camera pan around the meat cellar — seemingly drawn out even more by the drip-drip-drip and heart beat we hear on the soundtrack — reveals a design comparable to the furnishings of the grisly homestead in Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which was in turn one of that film’s most noteworthy elements. So let’s give this film some credit for being ahead of the curve. I mean, the British horror industry at this time still mainly consisted of the neo-gothic and anthology comic books of Hammer and Amicus. Death Line is clearly a very different beast.
*. The place was England. As noted, not a country whose film industry was known for horror. The director, Gary Sherman, was American though, and this was his first dramatic feature, which probably helped in some ways.
*. As we listen to the groovy score playing under the opening credits, which are themselves run over a series of out-of-focus blobs of coloured light that bulge psychedelically, it’s hard not to think of the hard times that “swinging London” had fallen on.
*. The fact that we’re in England is also important for the mythic shape the story takes. In America the cannibals live out on the frontier, off the main highway somewhere. They are rural figures, obviously lower class white trash, but they are mainly divided from the rest of civilization by geography.
*. In England the degenerate subway dwellers are an underclass in the rigid social hierarchy. They have proletarian roots, as the descendants of navvies who were buried alive when excavating the subway and then left to rot. Their undoing is in killing James Manfred, O.B.E. (that means he’s an Officer of the Order of the British Empire). The scruffy detectives will take a lot of pleasure insisting on that O.B.E., and in a final dig it’s still attached to his name in the credits.
*. The class hierarchy is something that informs the entire movie. Donald Pleasence is a rumpled figure who enjoys life’s simpler pleasures (tea during working hours, a pint at the pub later). When he goes to Mr. O.B.E.’s house with his assistant Rogers he tears a strip out of the décor before being humiliated by a toff from MI5: an ultra-posh Christopher Lee with the hyphenated ruling-class moniker of Stratton-Villiers. Pleasence protests that he is the master of his manor and will prosecute any villains (or villeins?), but this is empty bluster and they both know it.
*. Of course underlying all of this is Wells’s The Time Machine, with the underground workers literally feeding on the upper classes. That’s a staple of a lot of science fiction, but it doesn’t crop up quite as often in horror. The Descent is one counter example, but the dominant tradition in American horror anyway is, as I’ve said, to situate such baddies in an anti-Romantic rural ghetto or wilderness. I guess that might have something to do with a more egalitarian society and the myth of the frontier, but I won’t pursue this point here.
*. Another English vs. America divide can be seen in the different titles the movie was released under. Death Line is pretty good, being original and yoking together the idea of the Man representing the end of his family line with the subway stop being a dead end for various passengers. In America, however, it was released as Raw Meat. Just because.
*. It was also released with a poster that is one of the most egregious examples of false advertising you’ll ever see. It looks like it’s going to be about a whole “tribe” of super-sexy zombies. Which it isn’t.
*. As far as the movie itself is concerned, I think it’s very good but not because of anything Sherman does. It seems to me there are a lot of opportunities for suspense wasted. Sherman went on to direct Dead & Buried, another cult horror favourite, as well as other thrillers, but I never get the sense that this is what he wants to be doing.
*. I like watching Donald Pleasence in just about anything, and he seems very at home here. And Hugh Armstrong is excellent as the Man, giving him all the pathos of Karloff’s monster in Frankenstein. And I do think Sherman helps out, for example with the long shot of the Man’s mourning after his wife’s (mate’s?) death in childbirth, which really emphasizes a sense of isolation and loneliness.
*. It’s also a relief to see the Man get taken down so easily in the various fights he gets into. Yes, he’s very big and strong, but he’s also wracked with illness and seems to have a serious head injury. He’s not one of those killer supermen we see in so many, more conventional horror films. In this respect I compare him very favourably to the radiation-sickened powerhouses in The Hills Have Eyes remake.
*. The script also strikes me as very good, balancing the obvious comic elements with the horror. The ending in particular underlines this. What are we to make of Inspector Calhoun going through the Man’s underground home and muttering that it’s no way for someone to live? Understatement yes, but comic? And what about the Man’s chant of “Mind the doors!”? It’s absurd, but also pathetic.
*. There are parts that don’t work as well. The young leads, for example, strike me as uncomfortable and almost unnecessary. But despite any miscues it’s such a well-executed and original little film that it makes a lasting impression. More than enough, I think, to assure it a place in the underground horror hall of fame.

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