Category Archives: 1970s

Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970)

*. Mario Bava considered Five Dolls for an August Moon to be his least favourite (or worst) movie, which, given his prodigious output, is quite a badge of bad merit.
*. I don’t think it’s anywhere near his worst work, and indeed I find most of it quite watchable. To be sure it was done on the cheap and in a mad rush, but so were most of Bava’s films. And as I’ve said before, I think these constraints actually inspired him.
*. I’m pretty sure no one understands the plot of this movie on a first viewing. The twist ending is both (a) ludicrous; and (b) thrown at the audience so quickly that it’s hard to follow. I certainly couldn’t figure it out until someone explained it to me. Sodium pentothal bullets? What?
*. Perhaps it makes more sense in Italian. I watched the English language version, where at least I got to enjoy lines like: “I can’t figure out whether you’re dangerous or just stupid.” “You forget: I like men but I like them to be alive.” “A cheque in my brassiere? I hope you find it.” “It looks like we’ll all end up in this damn freezer. Am I right?” and “When my father shoots animals with sodium pentothal they never talk, they just lie there and sleep.”

*. I’ve heard some suggestion that Bava deliberately sabotaged a project he was a late replacement on and didn’t feel any personal investment in. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is true that he pulls back on the violence, preferring to present the victims more as objets d’art. This starts right at the beginning with the reveal of Edwige Fenech as an erotic statue. The bouncing glass balls lead us to a tableau of a woman dead in a jacuzzi. Another body is revealed on the beach, with painting paraphernalia scattered about as though it was about to become the subject of a still life.
*. Most remarkable of all in this regard is the shot of Jack lying among assorted fruit and vegetables (including a very strategically placed carrot). The arrangement here is quite obviously meant to recall nature morte, to use the more suggestive French way of referring to these things.

*. There’s quite an interesting genealogy to follow. The main source is Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, with its story of a group of people being killed off one by one on an island they’ve been invited to. Bava seems to have been not much interested in all that, and in his next film, A Bay of Blood, he took things in a different direction: away from the well-constructed plot and toward shocks and thrills. The next step would be Friday the 13th and the slasher film with bodies piling up around the remote cabin in the woods. So . . . Friday the 13th is Agatha Christie’s great-grandchild.

*. The sixties flavour is a lot of fun. I don’t usually think of Bava’s crazy zooms as being part of that whole psychedelic-a-go-go style, and I don’t think that’s what it originally came out of, but it fits in perfectly here.
*. The impression I get is that the whole thing was treated more or less as a joke. Those bodies hanging in the freezer can’t be taken seriously, and you just have to throw your hands up and laugh at the ending. Still, it’s nicely shot and Bava arranges all the pieces nicely. There’s even a touch of Morel-like surrealism in the visit of the sailors to the mysteriously empty beach house. The killers are directors too, and not without a sense of humour. Maybe Bava thought none of it was any good, but I can’t believe he wasn’t having fun.

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The Honeymoon Killers (1970)

*. The true story of a pair of serial killers, a classic folie à deux. But is it terrifying, funny, or sad?
*. That’s always the sense of unease that attends black comedy. Are we just making fun of these people (and their victims)? Are we horrified at their behaviour? Or do we find them sympathetic?
*. I think it’s to The Honeymoon Killers‘ credit that it balances all three responses. It has moments of shock and horror, some very funny scenes, and finally permits us some feelings of sadness, especially for Martha, the lonely heart till the end.
*. Well, everyone loves a lover. And whatever else you may think of them, Ray and Martha have the real thing. Their love, in Leonard Kastle’s words, was “their one redeeming feature,” and it counts for something.
*. They are also that familiar comic duo of the mismatched odd couple: the thin and sexy Latin playboy Ray (Tony Lo Bianco) wedded to the solid and threatening Venus of Willendorf (Shirley Stoler). They’re made for each other.

*. Of course they’re caricatures. We have to laugh at Ray shaking his ass in our face, or Martha lying in bed eating chocolate bon-bons. She will, in fact, always be stuffing her face: with pretzels, slices of toast dripping with jam, cookies. They seem to have been found waiting together for a casting call to a John Waters movie.
*. But while caricatures, are we meant to see these two, and Martha in particular, as evil or disgusting? As noted, she’s always eating. The camera doesn’t shy away from revealing her fleshiness. She’s not shot in a flattering way, usually presented in harsh lighting with little make-up. And yet look at what she has to endure. Being taken advantage of by Ray. Having to play the sexless third wheel to his string of worthless new lovers. Aren’t we rooting for her, at least a bit? As Stoler said of her character, she was “a hungry, lonely woman, who only wanted a very ordinary life with a man she loved.” Ray’s financial conquests were, to her, only obstacles to be overcome.
*. It’s a movie that’s sometimes compared to John McNaughton’s Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer. I don’t see much of a connection beyond the obvious. Henry is a film unrelieved by any sense of humour and doesn’t make us feel anything for its pair of unredeemable killers.
*. I’ve also heard it described as being shot in a documentary style, but I think that’s misleading as well. Aside from the use of caricature and satire, it’s actually filmed in a very stylish way. I love the delayed pan around the room to reveal Ray and Martha listening to the Lincoln story being told, the repeated use of a three-shot, and the incredible close-up on the eyes of the final victim as Ray and Martha discuss her murder (was this something Tobe Hooper was taking notes on?).

*. So instead of “documentary” we might say “realism” (a contemporary review even called it “super-realist”) but even here I think the label is a stretch. Yes, there is a kitchen sink and it’s clear these people don’t live elegant lives, but the story itself is a dramatic heightening of the everyday.
*. Here’s another label: American. Francois Truffaut famously declared it his favourite American film, and I wonder how much emphasis he wanted to put on the adjective. Ray and Martha are romantic entrepreneurs, struggling upwards (or outwards, to a cozy suburb). Theirs is an American dream, a pursuit of happiness that either makes them (and everyone around them) miserable, or kills them.
*. But America also comes in for a good deal of satiric needling: from the lady in the bath singing “America” while Ray and Martha rob her, to the Lincoln bedtime story. The ideal America is being undercut, but in 1970 there was a lot of that.
*. “You’re the hottest bitch I’ve ever seen.” That was still an insult in 1970. Probably not for much longer though.

*. I think Gary Giddins makes an interesting point about the latent misogyny on display: “Filmmakers almost always treat these predators with humor, as though rich elderly women who search for love deserve a sorry fate.” He points to Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt and Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux as early examples of the same type. What makes The Honeymoon Killers different is that Martha is both predator and prey. She was Ray’s victim before she took on the role of co-predator, and at the end she is back living in a True Romance dream world. So I don’t think it’s really misogyny so much as it’s an attack on romance itself as something phony. Phony and dangerous.

*. I don’t think it’s a sleeper, in the sense of an accidentally good film. And I say that despite the fact that Kastle was a newbie (a composer by trade) who never went on to make another movie (at least that I’m aware of), or that Tony Lo Bianco or Shirley Stoler, who were both stage actors, ever did anything else as good (though Lo Bianco did land some other memorable roles). The thing is, despite it’s low budget this is a very well made movie. Lo Bianco thought most of the credit went to cinematographer Oliver Wood and editor Stan Warnow, and there’s no question they did a great job. But as with any successful movie, everyone seems to have pitched in.
*. Though initially marketed as an exploitation flick, it’s far better than that. I wouldn’t call it my favourite American movie, but I do believe it’s a great one, and a landmark in its own right.

The Night of the Devils (1972)

*. The Night of the Devils comes to us courtesy of the same Tolstoy story (“The Family of the Vourdalak”) that served as the source for the second tale in Bava’s Black Sabbath, where the family patriarch was played by Boris Karloff. I think that may be the most interesting thing to note about it though.
*. I don’t mean that it’s a bad movie, only that it’s very much what you’d expect from a low-budget (were there any other kind?) Italian horror film of this period.
*. The director, Giorgio Ferroni, had been active in the 1930s and ’40s and this was one of the last movies he made. I don’t think he was averse to this kind of material, but you still have to wonder how it would make someone feel to end their career on such a note.
*. As with most of its kind, you feel an odd disjunction in nearly every aspect of the production. It’s a classic story, but presented in a lurid, exploitive manner (including full nudity and gouts of red paint). The score, by Giorgio Gaslini, is beautiful but soars above the material (in a way that reminded me of Riz Ortolani’s work on Cannibal Holocaust). The effects, by Carlo Rambaldi (who went on to work on Alien, E.T., and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) are crude but occasionally effective. The melting face actually looks pretty good. There are moments of real visual art, revealing an almost painterly eye, even when relating the most gruesome events.

*. Of course the most obvious disjunction is in the sound. That’s to be expected with a lot of European movies of this type. I’m not even talking about the poor dubbing here, but bizarre effects like the boiing! sound when the father picks up the statue in the witch’s lair, or the way one person climbing a flight of stairs is accompanied by what sound like at least two sets of footsteps, or the way a car pulling to a stop in a leafy forest clearing makes the sound of tires squealing on pavement. Our senses seem to inhabit different dimensions.

*. So the bottom line is that if you like this kind of thing, this is exactly the kind of thing you’re going to get. You get zooms. Lots of zooms. You get eyes peering through cracks. In the opening dream montage you even get a skull covered in maggots, a note of pure Fulci that comes out of nowhere.
*. Since I do like this kind of thing, I enjoyed it. The pair of kids are a real treat, going from adorable cherubs sitting in a window to giggling demons. The twist at the end is pretty good. The story itself is a tight little package, and works itself out in the familiar but effective manner of a folk tale. As I say, it doesn’t stand out from a lot of similar Italian genre work of the time, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

The House That Dripped Blood (1971)

*. Anthology horror from Amicus. You should know what to expect. Short stories with gruesome punchlines. A mostly throwaway framing narrative that also ends on a dark note. A bunch of familiar faces in the cast (here we have Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Denholm Elliott and Jon Pertwee). Script by Robert Bloch, who had done Torture Garden and would go on to write Asylum.
*. The basic conceit here is that all four of the stories are set in the same house. I’ll have more to say about that later, but first a quick glance at what’s on tap.
*. “Method for Murder”: an old tale, or really a hybrid of two old tales (possessed author, conniving spouse), with a nonsensical twist ending. I guess they needed something to make it seem fresh.
*. “Waxworks”: a strained variation on the House of Wax story. So strained that I wasn’t quite sure what the relations were between the three main characters.
*. “Sweets for the Sweet”: the title is a famous line from Hamlet where the Queen is strewing flowers on Ophelia’s grave. What the hell does it mean here? Another fairly traditional story, with a creepy kid tormenting her father (Lee).
*. “The Cloak”: slightly funny, self-regarding tale about a horror star (Pertwee) who is possessed by a vampire cape.

*. The last two stories are the best. The frame involves a police inspector looking in to Pertwee’s disappearance. Apparently he doesn’t know anything about all the other stuff that has gone down in the house, so a real estate agent named Stoker fills him in.
*. The inspector “knows what he’s doing” but, on being told that there’s no electricity in the house, goes out to inspect it, at night, without a flashlight, so he has to lug a giant candelabra around. Forget about his scepticism of Stoker’s stories, he really doesn’t know what he’s doing.
*. There are two connecting threads: one thematic, the other relating to the setting.
*. The thematic thread has to do with wicked women. The wife in the first story is an adulterous, murderous bitch. The Salome woman in the second is dead at the beginning, but is continuing to wreak a malign influence beyond the grave. In the third story Christopher Lee was apparently married to a witch (at least this is hinted at) and now his daughter is a witch too, intent on tormenting and killing him. In the final story Carla is revealed to be one of a coven of bloodsuckers, though this really doesn’t make much sense.
*. I think this theme of wicked women was the reason director Peter Duffell wanted to call the movie Death and the Maiden. This is the popular name for a string quartet by Schubert (which we hear being played in the second story) but it was considered to be too high-falutin’ for producer Subotsky, who went for the more commercially down-market The House That Dripped Blood.
*. Subotsky’s instincts were probably right, but as has often been noted there isn’t a drop of blood to be seen anywhere in this film. All of the deaths occur off-screen. But there’s an even bigger misdirection than this involved.
*. Despite the new title, no attempt is made to make the house itself into a character in any of the stories, or even to give it a bit of personality. It simply provides the setting for our quartet of tales of terror, playing no role and having no agency in them, despite what Stoker claims.
*. An aside: there are several little in-jokes in the script, but one I haven’t heard mentioned (though it’s probably been noticed by lots of people, I’m not claiming originality here) comes when the actor Henderson says he wants to rent the house because “it’s less than an hour’s drive from the studio.” In fact, the building used was the gatehouse at Shepperton Studios, which the label on the fake cloak identifies as where Henderson’s vampire movie is being shot.
*. To return to what Stoker says about the house. What he claims, in a really strained attempt to draw the stories together in some way, is that the house “reflects the personality of whoever lives in it, and treats him accordingly.” This is nonsense. The concept of just desserts can, by my reckoning, only be applied to a couple of the stories, and only then with a lot of work. In each case it seems clear that the tenants bring their problems with them, with the house only being witness to the final acts (and, in the case of the second story, not even that).
*. So the house doesn’t drip any blood. And really there’s nothing that stands out as particularly memorable about this one, aside from the title. That’s irony for you.

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.