Category Archives: 1970s

Lucifer Rising (1972)

*. Sometimes obscurity can be a good thing. Ambiguity can be fertile, allowing for multiple interpretations of a movie’s meaning, which then draws us back to the same film again and again, finding something new or previously hidden every time.
*. A lot of experimental film is like this, where things are left deliberately vague and open-ended. This is particularly the case in short films that are image-driven. A movie without dialogue is, perforce, going to show and not tell.
*. This should be a credible defence of Lucifer Rising, a short film with no dialogue. We should feel at liberty to interpret it however we wish. But I don’t think that was Kenneth Anger’s plan.
*. Instead, I think the obscurity here is part and parcel of the film’s meaning. That is to say, it’s supposed to mean something. It’s just that what it’s supposed to mean remains obscure.
*. This isn’t all Anger’s fault. What the film consists of is a pastiche of scraps taken from various occult rituals. In order to make any sense out of it you’d have to know about Aleister Crowley (that’s his picture hanging on the wall) and his philosophy or religion of Thelema. Today, Thelema is even more obscure than it was at the time, and I’m not sure it’s worth boning up on for the help it’s going to be here.

*. The sense of the film being a kind of scrapbook is made even more pronounced by the way it was made. It was shot over a period of around four years, using talent that came and went, and then came again. Bobby Beausoleil, for example, was originally going to star, then fell out with Anger and got involved in the Manson cult. His footage still appears in the film though, and he also did the soundtrack when he re-connected with Anger after his (Beausoleil’s) conviction for the murder of Gary Hinman (he wrote the score in jail). Meanwhile, Jimmy Page, who was supposed to do the soundtrack, only appears in a brief cameo.
*. Are any of the cast meant to be “characters”? There aren’t a lot of credits. The way the roles are usually described don’t make much sense to me. How is Marianne Faithfull Lilith? Is the guy in the Lucifer jacket Lucifer? There’s actually a character named Chaos?
*. As with the cast, so with the locations. We start off in Egypt and the pyramids, then travel to the Externsteine in Germany. Then back to Egypt for the finale at the Temple of Karnak. All to illustrate . . . what? The coming of the Age of Aquarius? The Aeon of Horus? Is Horus going to come to Earth in a spaceship?
*. Well, this is obscure to be sure, but personally I don’t find it evocative of much of anything. In short, I don’t understand what’s going on. The opening scene has male and female priest figures (or perhaps they are Isis and Osiris) lifting their staffs of power in gestures that made me think of masturbation.
*. This leaves us with the most basic elements of colour, editing, and sound floating in a vacuum. The music isn’t my thing at all, but I did sort of like the overture to the volcano. There’s a garish use of colour but I didn’t find it that significant aside from the scene with the woman in grey rising from her riverside crypt, which is really very pretty. As for including so much nature footage, I again have to throw up my hands at what the point of it was. The elephant stepping on a cobra was cool, but was it meant to relate to God cursing the serpent (“And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”)? Maybe. But . . . an elephant?
*. Anger is a highly individual taste. Lucifer Rising is generally considered one of his more accessible works, but it doesn’t do much for me. I don’t have that feeling of a work that’s opening up in front of me, revealing strange new seas of thought and feeling. Instead, it feels like a closed book in a made-up language. It’s very personal and even enjoyable at times, and I give it credit for this. But then so is a wank.

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The Andromeda Strain (1971)

*. This is a strange movie, and maybe the strangest thing about it is that you wouldn’t expect it to be strange at all.
*. First, the premise was nothing new. After an opening that recalls Village of the Damned it follows a basic outline akin to other genre films like The Quatermass Xperiment (1955). The idea of a deadly microbe or disease from space endangering the Earth is just The War of the Worlds in reverse. In other words, pretty standard SF fare.
*. Second, Michael Crichton, whatever else you might think of him, was hardly an eccentric talent. The Andromeda Strain was his breakthrough novel and gave a good indication of what was to come. He would, throughout his career, remain very much a popular writer of a traditional sort, an old-school storyteller of fantastic tales without much interest in character or literary effects. In hindsight, you would expect any film with his name attached to it to be a hit, but you wouldn’t expect it to be experimental or groundbreaking in any way.
*. Third, I don’t think Robert Wise ranks very high on anyone’s list of maverick directors. By this point he’d shown an ability to work in virtually any genre without any distinctive or trademark style carrying over from one project to the next.
*. Given all of the above, you’d be justified in thinking that The Andromeda Strain would be a conventional SF adventure. But it isn’t. It’s actually quite unusual.
*. In the first place there is the use of the split-screen effect. This is most dramatic in the scene where the doctors investigate the dead town, going from door to window to door on one side of the screen with what they’re looking at appearing in a “window” frame on the other side of the screen. But the use of a split-focus diopter is almost as striking an effect, and it’s used here a lot. Now I’m not sure either of these techniques works all that well, but they do give the proceedings an eerie feeling.

*. Then there is the emphasis on tech, and the slow pace, especially in the middle part of the film. It’s a detective story where the detection is the result of employing the painstaking, trial-and-error scientific method. Fancy machines and computers are more important than brains in solving the mystery of the alien strain.
*. The characters then recede in importance, except in so far as they are betrayed by human frailties and weaknesses. Indeed, at the end I couldn’t remember the name of a single one of the doctors.
*. Roger Ebert: “The human characters almost seem an embarrassment to the Wildfire Project, a hermetically sealed laboratory on five levels below ground. . . . What’s fascinating is the way the humans pick up the computer state of mind. They occasionally lapse into humanity (particularly in the case of Kate Reid, as a crusty lady biologist of a certain age). But when the going gets tough, they become abstract and machine-like even toward each other.” When Dr. Stone leads Dr. Hall up the central core, telling him when to duck to avoid the lasers, it’s like he’s playing a video game.
*. Wise was afraid that making one of the doctors a woman (none are in the novel) would be like adding Raquel Welch to Fantastic Voyage. No chance of that here! They went the other way, with Kate Reid appearing as the anti-Welch in her baggy coveralls and unsexy specs. That’s progress, of a kind.
*. The look of the film, from the curving, colour-coded hallways to the special effects were, I’m sure, a lot more interesting in 1971 than they are now. Aside from the stuff that seems downright funny today, like the disco helmet worn during the xenon-flash decontamination, this is really the future that wasn’t, a future that is now a relic of our (fictional) past.
*. Pauline Kael: “The suspense is strong, but not pleasurable.” Hm. I can’t make out what this means. Suspense is always a nervous thrill that we enjoy or find pleasurable in the same way we enjoy being scared. If it’s strong that usually means it’s working. If it’s not pleasurable then it’s not working. So what is Kael’s point?
*. Personally, I don’t find it very suspenseful. As I’ve been saying, I think it’s a strange movie, and I appreciate how different it is from the usual formula. However I’m not sure how well any of it works in the end. On the one hand, it probably deserves to be better known. On the other, I can understand why it has been largely forgotten.

Willard (1971)

*. Willard is a movie that I suspect most people (among those who care about such things) will have heard of but not seen. This is mainly because it has never (as of this writing) been released on DVD. It is, however, easy enough to find online
*. Its relative obscurity may also be because it’s not very good. If you’re expecting fireworks you’ll probably give up after a while, as it’s a slow build and nothing really happens, horror-wise, until the final ten minutes.
*. It’s often referred to as an early example of the “revolt of nature” genre, though that’s a label that I find misleading. Yes, the birds in The Birds are in revolt. Same with the various swamp critters who take over in Frogs. But the rats here don’t really suggest “nature” to me. And what with Willard’s telepathic link to Ben what I think we’re getting is more a sort of Jekyll-Hyde story, with the repressed and dutiful young man wreaking a terrible vengeance by way of a furry alter ego. A distaff version had already appeared as Cat People, and it’s the same story Romero would revisit in Monkey Shines.
*. The real evil in these films is not something in nature but is instead a human evil, an evil within. Ben and his extended family are just tools, acting out Willard’s psychopathic urges.
*. As I’ve said, I don’t think it’s a very good movie. It has, however, grown a cult following, in large part for being¬† weird. Willard isn’t just a misfit, but a true eccentric. How could he not be with Elsa Lanchester as his mom, and the two of them living together in that decaying palace?
*. Roger Ebert thought the box office success was based on the number of people who wanted to see Ernest Borgnine eaten by rats. If so, they must have left disappointed. And is Borgnine (playing Martin, Willard’s boss) really that bad a guy? Willard deserves to be fired. He’s totally useless at his job and probably should have been canned years ago. Willard blames Martin for making him hate himself, but I’d wager his mother had more to do with that. And when Martin kills the rat Socrates in the store room, do we think he’s a heavy, or just taking charge and doing what has to be done?
*. No, the weirdo here is Willard, the mama’s boy who is “basically an extrovert, except it’s all inside.” I mentioned Cat People earlier, and Simone Simon’s likeness to a cat has often been referred to as part of the uncanny quality of that movie. Can we say that Bruce Davison, long-haired and chinless, has a bit of the rat about him? And if our animal familiars in some way represent those abnormal elements of our own personalities, what does that say about Willard? That he’s a sneaky little bastard?
*. Perhaps people paid to see Borgnine being eaten, but by the end I think we’re looking forward to Willard getting his. Which he does in what I think is the only truly unnerving scene in the film, just for the sound effects of the rats nibbling away at his corpse. A pity it comes so late. Up till then, the rats really aren’t that scary. Borgnine has to work hard to sell their attack on him, and finally just has to jump out the window to save himself further embarrassment.
*. I wonder how much of this film’s continuing cachet is in fact the result of its being largely unseen. For those who have made the effort, I think it must be a let down. The only thing to commend it is the interesting cast, with everybody playing some kind of a caricature. Even the doe-eyed Sondra Locke is hardly more than a plot device. Still, I’m relieved she got out of the house alive. I think Willard genuinely did want to get rid of Ben and live with her. But she would only have been his new mother.

Alien (1979)

*. Well, this is another one of those movies that is so well known, has had so much written about it, and has become such a cultural touchstone that there’s really not a lot of point in my trying to add anything to it. I don’t think I can say anything new or offer much in the way of fresh thinking.
*. Now, with that out of the way . . .
*. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it, and I can’t remember when the first time was, but my most viewing came after just having watched AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004). (This was an accident. AVP happened to be on at the gym so I got on a machine and plugged myself in for the duration. I don’t always recommend this as the best way to watch a movie, but AVP is good workout fare.)
*. Seeing the two films so close together really brought home the matter of how much faster everything moves in the twenty-first century. The action in AVP never stops, and we keep skipping around different arenas to watch the franchise-monster deathmatch playing out. Alien was made at a very different time, though it’s worth noting that even in 1979 the studio suits were concerned that the film got off to much too slow a start.
*. In any event, I think the effect of hindsight, looking back on Alien from our own accelerated culture (and subsequent entries in the franchise), makes the sedate pace stand out even more. Here is Erik Lundegaard, writing in 2003: “The most startling thing watching Alien again is its pacing. For the first 45 minutes, little happens. It’s all slow, exquisite build-up, which makes the second half seem all the more horrific.” And here is Roger Ebert, who was cool toward Alien when it first came out (“basically just an intergalactic haunted house thriller set inside a spaceship”), but considerably more appreciative a couple of decades later, when he included it among his list of Great Movies: “One of the great strengths of Alien is its pacing. It takes its time.”

*. Usually the matter of pacing is related to the idea of a slowly developing sense of dread, and it’s interesting to compare Alien to Psycho in this regard, where we also sit through half a movie before something happens. And in both cases the bomb that goes off is a seminal moment of film horror, not to mention the most explicitly violent scene in the movie. (As with a lot of notoriously extreme horror films, we don’t actually see much gore or violence in Alien. As Ridley Scott says, “The most important thing in a film of this type is not what you see, but the effect of what you think you saw.”). After seeing Janet Leigh getting carved up in the shower, and John Hurt giving birth, we are on edge for the rest of the film because we know a certain line has already been crossed and now we’re on the other side.
*. There’s another point I want to make here with regard to this median climax. In most of Alien the violence is edited out. We never do see what happens to Dallas, for example (unless you watch the deleted scene of him being cocooned). But the creature bursting out of Hurt’s gut is different. As Jason Zinoman in Shock Value puts it, “When the alien bursts out, something strange happens; the camera stops. The bright lighting does not darken. The audience gets a straight-on look at the monster. It is grotesque: bloody, slippery, and obscene. Once it appears, the monster looms in the center of the frame, while the crew freezes, gaping at this bizarre, freakish creature, unable to turn away. They don’t run or hide. They are fascinated. Like us, they are an audience, helpless, frightened, and too curious to realize they are in danger. For the first time in history, revealing the creature is not an anticlimax.”

*. But I think the pacing serves another purpose too. This is to ground us in the reality of the environment. Much has been made of the dirty realism of the Nostromo: its cramped cabins and quarters and especially all those dark corridors with their exposed tubes, ducts and wiring, with water dripping from the walls and jets of steam going off for no reason at all. This isn’t the gleaming future of 2001 or Star Trek, with shiny hallways and doors that whisper open automatically. Instead it’s a blue-collar grease trap that doesn’t look remotely aerodynamic, held together with elastic bands and chewing gum.
*. That part of the realism is just design, but there’s a realism too in the dialogue, which is often just technical “gobbledegook” (Scott), but which sounds good. Grimiest of all are the untermenschen Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton, who are only worried about getting paid.
*. The pacing contributes to this sense of realism because space is a place where nothing happens. The crew might as well be in their cryo pods asleep on such a long voyage because what is there to do? They don’t even seem to be having sex. Some romance was originally hinted at between Dallas and Ripley, but that scene was cut, along with a number of other action scenes. Scott seems to have wanted less going on. Why? Because real life is dull. I mean, the life of a long-haul trucker is boring enough, but long-haul intergalactic miners? It’s just days of tedium followed by a few minutes of blind panic.
*. People complain that the crew doesn’t respond to the creature in a very professional or sensible way, but in their defence they’re really out of their league, don’t know what they’re up against, and have probably never had company of any kind on board before. All things considered, I think a group of anti-social loners come together reasonably well.
*. Does that seem like I’m being harsh on the crew? Not as harsh as Kim Newman, who calls them “bitching incompetents who’ve obviously signed up for the trip because no one on Earth can stand them.”

*. The theatrical poster has always bugged me. The alien eggs don’t split apart at the bottom, light doesn’t spill out, and what is that grid-like structure? It doesn’t correspond to anything on the alien ship does it? And while it’s true that in space nobody can hear you scream, when is that ever put to the test here? As Scott points out during his commentary, even the ship makes a roar going through space, which he realized wasn’t accurate but was just something he wanted on the soundtrack.
*. The room that houses the ship’s computer, “Mother,” is pretty funny. What do you think all those lights actually do?
*. Why does Ripley include Ash in her roll call of the dead crew at the end? I don’t think robots die, at least in the sense in which she’s using the word.
*. It’s a movie that has been likened to a slasher flick in space, and in at least one respect there is a connection there. That connection is the ’80s linkage of horror and sex.
*. The first alien critter, dubbed the “facehugger” by fans, looks a bit like a crab with a snakey tail. I choose the word “crab” deliberately, as it could also be an overgrown pubic louse. It face-fucks John Hurt in the film’s most disturbing scenes, with its tail providing a bit of erotic asphyxiation.

*. Dead and turned over, it turns into one of the place settings at Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, all juicy oysters and clams when it’s opened up. That this creepy pussy-creature sits on Hurt’s face, gripping his head with its legs, is bad enough, but it then really turns the gender tables by impregnating him (Parker makes jokes about eating pussy while not knowing that pussy has been eating the man sitting next to him). Reproductive horror reaches its climax here, though the inspiration for it seems to have been Dan O’Bannon’s Crohn’s disease.
*. On reproductive horror, it’s worth quoting from David J. Skal’s The Monster Show: “The culture’s growing but guilty hostility toward birth is transformed into a monstrous fetal parasite hostile to the culture itself. Alien was a validation of something already suspected: that reproduction was a kind of death, a devastating insult to the body and personal autonomy; that sex and technology had come together in a weird and ugly way. Relief came only when the beast was aborted from the mother-ship’s body, sucked away by the vacuum of space.”
*. The mature alien creature, or xenomorph, is more masculine. It’s a bloody penis, though there is some confusion here as well. Ebert sees it as “unmistakably phallic in shape” but then cites the critic Tim Dirks’s description of its “open, dripping vaginal mouth.” Personally, I don’t think it has a vaginal mouth (dentata or otherwise). I think its head shooting out from its other head is an erection analogy: a toothy exposed glans dripping with pre-ejaculate. Fun fact: its jaws were made of shredded condoms.

*. This may seem a bit over-the-top, but (a) it’s actually less blatantly sexual than Giger’s artwork, and (b) I don’t think there’s any getting around all the sublimated sex in this film. Veronica Cartwright’s death presumably involves some kind of quasi-sexual impalement (the alien’s tongue reaching up between her legs). Even the scene where Ash, for whatever obscure reason, tries to kill Ripley by rolling up a magazine and stuffing it in her mouth, is pornographic. Presumably that’s a skin mag (nice to know those are still around a few hundred years from now), as there are various centerfolds stuck to the walls. Scott says of the scene that it’s “the closest thing to seeing a robot have sex.”
*. And again all of this merging of horror and sex is reminiscent of ’80s slasher horror, with Ripley, improbably dressed in skimpy underwear, appearing as the virginal last girl. She’s the one who doesn’t want to invite the stranger in. She’s the Goody Two-Shoes who has to do everything by the book.
*. A big difference, however, is that the Nostromo is not a campus sorority. The characters aren’t oversexed teenagers but middle-aged men (most of the actors were in their 40s, and looked it) and a couple of younger women (Weaver was 30). Hormones have cooled, and all that’s left is the aforementioned loneliness of the long-distance hauler. Could we imagine any of these guys having family? In the director’s cut of Aliens we learn that Ripley has a little girl back home, but that wasn’t in the theatrical release and I think it was wise to leave out, just as it was wise to leave out her romance with Dallas in this film. Meanwhile, Ash refers to the xenomorph here as “Kane’s son” (or son of Cain?), which turns it into a parricide.

*. David Thomson: “Alien is not just a monster movie, or science fiction, or horror even. It is a study of the loneliness of the human species, dismaying and moving because of unknowns it is on the point of disclosing.” I’m not sure what the last part of this means or is referring to, but I like the way Thomson highlights the theme of loneliness.
*. Is this another version of Solaris then? Do the crew dream the alien into existence? It seems fitting that it first intrudes on to Mother’s consciousness (or radar) as they sleep. The xenomorph then is the embodiment of their collective fear not just of sex but of relationships in general, of the other. The loneliness of the human species.

*. Newman thought it was a stupid story saved by its design and other disparate elements coming together. I actually think the story is decent, and has a great hook. The cast are all solid too, but I agree that the design takes it to another level. Giger’s organic technology works on so many levels, and the way the ship is a kind of gothic cathedral with the xenomorph as its resident gargoyle adds to the blending of ancient and futuristic visual cues introduced with the slowly revealed hieroglyph title. I particularly like how the corridors seem to pass seamlessly from the industrial to the biological, as though the crew are always just a doorway away from being stuck in a giant digestive track (Thomson calls the corridors “intestinal,” which I think is a good word).
*. I remember being less impressed when I was a kid. I wanted to see more of the monster. Now I’m glad we don’t. I also thought it pretty dull in places when I was younger, but not the usual places. I didn’t mind the slow start, but I thought it dragged a bit at the end. Now I see it as having a pace that I enjoy more. But then, I’m older now.

*. One thing I’ve always disliked is the strobe light effects at the end. Those are really too much. And why do they start to go off in the shuttle? That really bugs me. Everything is fine and then Ripley sees the alien and all of a sudden she’s in a disco. I get that Scott wanted to conceal the monster as much as possible, and crazy light effects are traditional in horror climaxes (the swinging lightbulb in Psycho has been endlessly repeated), but it just strikes me silly.
*. It went on to become a franchise, spawning an increasingly improbable series of sequels and prequels. Today we speak of an entire Alien mythology, as though that’s a good thing. But recently going through all of them again, I have to say that Alien remains the one that stands up the best. Success in the film biz has a long tail.

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977)

*. When watching grade-Z horror films from the 1960s and ’70s it’s pretty obvious that the directors didn’t think very much of what they were doing. This is made even clearer when you listen to the DVD commentaries by schlock auteurs like Herschell Gordon Lewis or William Grefe, which are funnier than any comic send-ups of their films. You can’t mock their work more than they mock it themselves.
*. I haven’t listened to the commentary for Death Bed so I don’t know how seriously writer-director George Barry took it. I believe it was the only movie he ever made, and he produced it himself as well, so you’d think it meant something to him. It even took him five years, working off and on. But apparently he mostly forgot about it, and indeed seems to have thought it was never released, before finding out otherwise many years later.
*. So I don’t know to what extent Barry thought this whole film was a joke. Clearly there are parts of it that aren’t meant to be taken seriously. The hungry bed drinking a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, for example, to help soothe its upset tummy (or bleeding ulcer). Right from the opening, as we hear the sound of the bed munching away, we know we’re in a silly place.
*. That may not bother you at all. I’m not sure it bothers me much. But it is something I wonder about.

*. I’ve often heard Death Bed described as surrealism, and there may be something in this. We speak of falling into our beds and then falling asleep or falling into a dream. The idea being that in sleep we descend into a subconscious state. What Barry does is he extends the metaphor and has the sleepers being devoured by the bed, by sleep, and by their dreams. Is the bed all just a bad dream? Or is the bed dreaming its victims? You decide.
*. Apparently the concept came to Barry in a dream and he wanted it to play like a fairy tale. I think he succeeded in this, with the girls bringing their picnic basket o the odd building in the woods that houses the magical bed. There is also an Artist imprisoned behind one of his own paintings, a back story involving a demon and his sleeping princess bride, and a curse that needs to be lifted. It’s very much fairy tale stuff.
*. Or you could call it art house stuff. I got a real Jean Rollin vibe off of Death Bed. I imagine if Barry had kept going he would have gone further in this direction, as interested in campy sex as in horror.
*. I consider it more erotic-comedy-horror than horror comedy. The bed is as horny as it is hungry, with the “eating” of its victims being obviously sexual: the ejaculating wine bottle beneath a couple making out, the orgy massacre, all the hubba-hubba heavy breathing. You could even see it as a movie about the dangers of sex, which was becoming a major horror theme at the time.
*. The Artist (that is, Aubrey Beardsley) is an interesting narrator, and he’s necessary because we need to know the bed’s history and the bed (obviously) isn’t talking. Usually such a character has a privileged role: the author of the film, directing the action as well as commenting on it. But here he’s more a marginal figure, not in control of the events until the very end, when the bed falls asleep.

*. Aside from the caged Artist the only other aspect of the film that’s noteworthy is the digestive system of the bed itself. This begins with a bubbling up of foamy bile followed by a descent into a yellow acidic liquid. It looks quite bizarre, but has an unfortunate similarity in appearance to the artist Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” The connection is made even stronger by the appearance of a cross on a chain suspended in the solution. I doubt this movie was any influence on Serrano, but . . .
*. You’d think a movie this campy, with such a zany premise, would be a lot more fun. But the fact is it’s really very dull. Once we get used to the way the bed operates it’s just a process repeated over and over, and there’s hardly any suspense. Meanwhile, the plot is so bizarre that even after turning to several online synopses for help I still wasn’t entirely sure what had happened. That sort of confusion is ultimately self-defeating, as it’s hard to stay interested in the story when you don’t understand what’s going on. Death Bed is a curiosity to be sure, but I don’t think it’s an enjoyable enough experience for anyone to want to see it more than once.

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.

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.