Friday, March 29, 2013

My 13 Favorite Zombie Movies

Today millions of Christians around the world are celebrating Good Friday, which marks the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. After which he will rise from the dead and become some kind of zombie god that yells at people when they masturbate or have sex for reasons other than procreation (unless you are a priest having sex with non-consenting children, then it’s OK). Though I have a vitriolic hatred for all things Christian, a religion inspired by cannibalism with a zombie savior is pretty hilarious, so I’ve decided to commemorate the day by celebrating other, better kinds of zombies.

George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979), and Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy are so obvious I have left them off this list, though you could argue that there are some other obvious, classic choices on here. I have also left of all post-1995 zombie films, because I think almost all current zombie movies (and TV shows) are utterly boring and redundant. 

For the 12 apostles and zombie Jesus, here is a list of my favorite 13 zombie films of all time.

1. City of the Living Dead aka Gates of Hell (Lucio Fulci, 1980)
When I was 14, I walked into a Suncoast Video and bought this on VHS because I liked the title and the cover art. Little did I know it would introduce me to a whole new world: Lucio Fulci, non-American zombie films, Italian horror, etc. I'm sure if it hadn't been City of the Living Dead (or Gates of Hell, as I knew it then) it would have been another film, but I can't stress the importance of this movie on my young life. It remains my favorite zombie film of all time. A priest kills himself and opens the gate to hell. A young psychic has a vision of this event and temporarily dies, only to realize she has been buried alive. A reporter rescues her and they travel to the priest's town to tries to the close the gate before it is too late. This has some of the most iconic gore in any Italian horror film, particularly scenes of the poor Daniela Doria (who died brutal deaths in many of Fulci's films) bleeding from the eyeballs and vomiting up her own intestines. If you haven't seen Fulci's The Beyond, it also involves the living dead and comes highly recommended.



2. Return of the Living Dead (Dan O'Bannon, 1985)
It seems impossible that a comic "sequel" to a landmark series could be good, but Return of the Living Dead is easily one of the most fun zombie films. Everything from the script (thanks to director Dan O'Bannon who co-write Alien), the performances, the beautiful effects, and the amazing soundtrack make this film near perfect. It's one of many great '80s horror films with comic elements, plus my uncle is in it. Loving horror movies is obviously in my blood. Also check out Return of the Living Dead 2 for a lot more slapstick humor and Return of the Living Dead 3 for a very serious film about a doomed romance. Here's my uncle (the paramedic without the beard):



3. Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978)
A predictable choice, I know, but this is the most perfect zombie film ever made and the best film ever made at a mall. The number of times I have seen this movie are beyond count. Words cannot express the perfection that is Dawn of the Dead. And that score... I also love the conclusion to Romero's trilogy, Day of the Dead, though it is a completely different type of zombie film. One of the happiest moments of my life was seeing the film screened outside at a horror convention many years ago with a reunion of the Day of the Dead cast. Then afterwards I got to drink with some of them, namely Joe Pilato, who gave me my first glass of scotch. At the time I thought it was gross, but now I barely drink anything else. 



4. Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror (Andrea Bianchi, 1981)
The most obscure film on this list so far, the first time I saw Burial Ground my mind was completely blown. It has achieved underground cult status for a very good reason, as it has some incredible gore and scare sequences. A group of people are trapped in an old mansion when the dead begin to rise and feast on them. Included in the group are a young boy (actually played by an adult dwarf, Peter Bark, who is basically the pint size twin of Dario Argento) and his babe of a mother, with whom he has a semi-incestuous relationship. In the English dubbed version, his mother's voice is dubbed by the same woman who dubs Daria Nicolodi in Deep Red and has done dozens of other Italian horror films. I am desperate to find out who she is, and if anyone knows, I will send you a prize of some sort. Seriously. 

 

5. White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932)
Before I discovered European horror and more obscure horror films, I watched a lot of old Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff movies (thanks, Turner Classic Movies). One of the first zombie movies I fell in love with was White Zombie, an effectively creepy film set in Haiti. Lugosi plays Murder Legendre, a practitioner of voodoo who helps a local plantation owner enslave a young woman, Madeleine, who is travelling with her fiancé. The plantation owner is obsessed with her and wishes to marry her, but to his horror, Legendre's plan is not quite what he expected. A beautiful film with a horrifying premise, White Zombie may not be a traditional zombie film - the plot is actually very similar to Universal's Dracula and Frankenstein - but it is the granddaddy of them all.



6. I Walked With a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)
Other early horror legends Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton created some of the loveliest and most subtle horror films of the '40s, such as Cat People and Leopard Man. Their voodoo/zombie film for RKO, I Walked With a Zombie is one of the most haunting zombie films ever made. A young nurse comes to a plantation to care for the manager's paralyzed wife and gets wrapped up in a web of voodoo and un-death. 



7. The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (Jorge Grau, 1974)
Spain is one of my favorite places for both food and horror movies, so there was no way I could leave this film off the list. Also known as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and Don't Open the Window, this Spanish-Italian co-production is bizarrely set in London and concerns two people being framed for a series of murders actually committed by zombies. Though somewhat slow paced (as are many Spanish horror films), there is some lovely gore. "Satan's all the rage these days."



8. Tombs of the Blind Dead (Amando de Ossorio, 1971)
Speaking of Satan and Spain, the next film on my list is one of the most iconic, non-traditional zombie films ever made. A group of Satan-worshipping Knights Templar arise as blind zombies and terrorize the Spanish countryside. Incredibly slow and creepy, this might not please viewers with limited attention spans, but the imagery is fantastic and the very simple score is terrifying. And where else are you going to see Knights Templar as zombies? It was actually turned into a series, but the first film is the undeniably the best. 




9. Shock Waves (Ken Wiederhorn, 1977)
If you thought satanic Knights Templar zombies were insane, Shockwaves introduced the world to aquatic Nazi zombies. Repeat that with me. Aquatic Nazi zombies. Though it is absolutely ridiculous, this is one of my favorite non-Italian zombie films, thanks in part to Peter Cushing, who generously rescued this film with some assistance from John Carradine. A group of people yachting are shipwrecked on an island, which turns out to be really the wrong island, as Nazi zombies rise from their oceanic slumber and begin hunting down the survivors. The plot is absurd, but this film is a ton of fun if you go into it with the right expectations.


10. Le morte vivante aka Living Dead Girl (Jean Rollin, 1982)
Though French horror-erotica director Jean Rollin is mostly known for his surreal, sexy vampire films, he added a few zombie films into the mix over the years. Somewhere in between his best zombie film, The Grapes of Death, and his absolute worst, Zombie Lake, falls Living Dead Girl. Though it has not aged particularly well, it was the first Rollin film I had the pleasure to see and remains one of my favorite. Catherine, a young girl who died many years ago, is revived by a toxic waste spill and returns as a very svelte looking zombie. Her childhood best friend discovers Catherine and attempts to care for her, quickly learning that Catherine has some very specific dietary requirements: human flesh. Though this is an acquired taste (yes, I went there), particularly as zombie films go, Living Dead Girl is melancholic, bloody, and romantic, with an ending that packs an emotional punch.



11. Cemetery Man aka Dellamorte Dellamore (Michele Soavi, 1994)
Similar in tone to Living Dead Girl, Cemetery Man is probably the most romantic, dream-like zombie film ever made. Based on the comic book Dylan Dog, Cemetery Man concerns the exploits of Francesco Dellamorte, the socially ostracized caretaker of a small town cemetery. Bodies in the cemetery begin to rise as zombies and Dellamorte deals with the situation calmly until he meets a young widow and falls in love. This sensitive, surreal film is from my favorite late period Italian horror director, the imaginative Michele Soavi, and is unlike any other zombie film. 



12. Deathdream (Bob Clark, 1972)
The wonderful Bob Clark, responsible for two of the greatest Christmas films of all time - Black Christmas and A Christmas Story - made this unusual, effective take on the classic W.W. Jacob's horror tale "The Monkey's Paw." Andy dies during the Vietnam War and his family is heartbroken, but determined he will come back. And so he does. This odd zombie film is full of anti-war commentary and is also partly about the break down of a family. It is also one of the most touching, upsetting zombie films ever made, though I'm sure there are people out there who would argue with me about whether or not this is a true zombie film. Also worth checking out is Clark's first film, the imaginative, funny, and very low budget Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, about a theater troupe that holds a joke seance on a cursed island and finds out that they will not get the last laugh.


13. Dead and Buried (Gary Sherman, 1981)
One of the most imaginative and satisfying films about the undead ever made, Dead and Buried is not a traditional zombie film, but it had to make the list. Written by Dan O'Bannon (already mentioned for writing and directing Return of the Living Dead), Dead and Buried concerns the very creepy town of Potter's Bluff. The local townspeople gather together to brutally kill visitors and the sheriff and coroner attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery. I generally hate twists in movies, but everything that happens in Dead and Buried is fantastic and this film represents what is probably the most refreshing use of zombies on this list. 

Runners up include British horror studio Hammer's surprisingly affective zombie film, Plague of the Zombies (John Gilling, 1966), in line with their series of more obscure horror films about small towns affected by various "plagues" (The Reptile, The Gorgon, etc). The surreal, somewhat baffling and very dark Messiah of Evil (Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, 1972) is about a girl who goes to a small California town to look for her artist father and finds his journals full of writing about how darkness is consuming the town. Between the surreal, dreamlike plot and disturbing visuals, Messiah of Evil is an obscure, but necessary '70s zombie effort.

City of the Walking Dead aka Nightmare City (Umberto Lenzi, 1980) has some wonderfully delirious moments and benefits from a chin-stroking performance by Mexican B-movie star Hugo Stiglitz. Ever wanted to see zombies attack a jazzercise morning news show and eat the dancers? Here's your chance. Peter Jackson's Dead Alive (1992) is another gross-out zombie classic with some of the most insane special effects on this list, complete with such wonders as a priest that "kicks ass for the lord."
Japanese film Wild Zero (Tetsuro Takeuchi, 1999) must be seen to be believed. Flying saucers crash into Japan, bringing with them a zombie plague. Punk band Guitar Wolf team up with their biggest fan, Ace, and use their special powers to defeat the undead threat, as well as a corrupt music producer. Probably the only pro-transexual zombie film ever made.

Viva Zombies!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

I'M A CYBORG, BUT THAT'S OK



Park Chan-wook, 2006
Starring: Rain, Im Soo-jung

After making a number of gory, ultraviolent revenge films (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) and a horror film (the Cut segment in Three... Extremes), Park Chan-wook turned his attention to an entirely different genre: the romantic comedy. Sort of a South Korean take on Amélie set in a mental asylum, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK relates the tale of Young-goon, a young lady who believes she is a cyborg. One day, while working in a radio factory, she cuts her wrist and attempts to put a power cord in her veins to recharge herself. This is interpreted as a suicide attempt and she is institutionalized. Her obsession with being a cyborg also manifests itself in her refusal to eat human food, thinking it will kill her, conversations with machines instead of people, etc. 

Soon she meets Il-soon, a mild schizophrenic/kleptomaniac who believes he can steal other people’s souls. When her condition begins to deteriorate, Il-soon tries to save her and comes up with a way to convince her to eat. He also tries to help her get to the bottom of reoccurring dreams about her grandmother, who was also mentally ill. When Young-goon becomes determined to “detonate” herself, Il-soon accompanies her, secretly intent on protecting her. 

I really liked I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK and it got mostly positive reviews, but there are some definite flaws with this weird, somewhat experimental, kind of endearing film. Using Amélie and (500) Days of Summer as examples, rom-coms typically succeed or fail based on the strength of three things: the male and female leads, their chemistry/developing relationship, and the side characters. Despite the lack of a developed male lead for most of the film, Amélie works based on the strength of Audrey Tautou and the well-written, funny side characters, as well as the concluding romantic chemistry between the two leads. (500) Days of Summer fails because the only character that is remotely interesting or developed is Joseph Gordon Levitt, who spends the bulk of the film either whining or pining in neither humorous nor compelling ways. 

I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK succeeds because the two lead actors, pop star and actor Rain and Im Soo-jung (A Tale of Two Sisters), are dedicated to their roles and give believable performances. As with Amélie, the film concludes on a hopeful, positive note, and focuses on their budding romance. But unlikely the quirky and often odd side characters in Amélie, the other patients in the mental hospital are often weird for the sake of being weird and lack any other purpose or character development. There are scenes of wonderful surrealism, such as Young-goon’s fantasy sequences, but also plenty of moments likely to confuse less attentive viewers. Park’s constant need to make things weird takes away some of the heart that could have made this film truly successful. 

Still, it’s nice to see a change of pace from Park’s previous films and to know that he is interested in challenging himself. For some reason the film never found its way to the U.S. outside of festival dates and a DVD release from Pathfinder. It is also currently streaming on Netflix. Cyborg is worth watching if you’re a big Park fan or if you enjoy quirky romantic comedies, despite the scattered, somewhat forced plot and lack of cohesion in the narrative. Park’s usually colorful sets, imaginative visuals and decent CGI work are delightful, as always, and he gets a solid handle on the central romance in the film. At the least, it is worth a rental and anyone who loved Wristcutters: A Love Story (which I hated), is going to be over the moon about Cyborg. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

THREE... EXTREMES



Fruit Chan, Park Chan-wook, Takashi Miike, 2004
Starring: Bai Ling, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Lee Byung-hun, Im Won-hee, Kyoko Hasegawa, Atusro Watabe

Harkening back to the horror anthology films of the ‘60s like Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and many more, Three... Extremes is a trilogy of roughly 40 minute horror films by Hong Kong director Fruit Chan, South Korea’s Park Chan-wook, and Japan’s Takashi Miike. Three... Extremes is a loose sequel to Three (2002), an earlier trilogy with films by South Korea’s Kim Ji-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters, I Saw the Devil, and many more), Thailand’s Nonzee Nimibutr (Nang Nak), and Hong Kong’s Peter Chan (Comrades, Almost a Love Story). Three did not do well in the box office, so more of a focus was put on finding higher profile horror director for its sequel, Three... Extremes. The latter was successful enough that Three was eventually re-released as Three Extremes II in a ridiculous marketing ploy.

The first film is Fruit Chan’s Dumplings. An aging, though beautiful actress is desperate to restore her looks and her husband’s affections. She tracks down a local woman offering special dumplings with a secret ingredient guaranteed to revivify her. But at what cost? Possibly the most affective film in the trilogy, Chan relies on some thoroughly gross sound effects and slow scenes of dumpling eating for a compellingly disgusting little film about the pitfalls of vanity. Hong Kong actress and pop star Miriam Young is great in the starring role and there is a nice appearance from Hong Kong veteran Tony Leung Ka-fai (Prison on Fire, A Better Tomorrow 3, The Raid; not to be confused with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) as her husband. Director Chan is known for such second wave Hong Kong films as Heart of Dragon, Made in Hong Kong, and Durian Durian. An extended version of Dumplings is available on the special edition DVD and as a stand-alone release from Tartan Films. 

Park Chan-wook’s Cut follows this, though it is unfortunately the most inferior of the three films. Cut can be described as Park’s first true horror film, though his Vengeance trilogy Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance are known for their extreme violence and often horrific subject matter. In Cut, a young, successful director making a gory vampire film is kidnapped by one of his extras. He ties up the director on the film set and also elaborately ties up the director’s wife. She is a concert pianist and the extra has promised to cut off one of her fingers every few minutes unless the director does what he wants. This involves such sadistic things as damaging confessions, strangling a child, etc. Though beautifully shot, the clunky script is very Saw-like and there is some dated CGI work. To a certain extent, and thanks to Park’s use of black comedy, this feels somewhat like a spoof of the Saw/torture porn wave, but it is not far enough removed to be really successful. Park is one of my favorite directors working today, so I was disappointed to find that I did not like this film. It is worth watching for a wonderful performance by Im Won-hee, who plays the psychotic kidnapper, and famous South Korean actor Lee Byung-hun gives a good turn as the director. 

The third and final film is Takashi Miike’s Box. For those of you familiar with Miike’s work, he’s known for his irreverently violent, shocking work, such as Visitor Q, Ichii the Killer, and Audition. Box is undoubtedly one of Miike’s most subtle and effective films and makes Three... Extremes well worth seeking out. A quiet young writer has disturbing dreams about being buried alive in the snow and begins looking for her missing sister only to discover/remember the horrifying truth. This slow, dreamlike short film is non-linear and flits back and forth between Kyoko’s present search for her sister and her childhood, with all manner of things in between. The story’s elegance lies in its simplicity and though it is somewhat similar in tone to Audition, complete with youthful ballet dancers and child abuse, Box is an excellent place to start for Miike virgins and a must-see for his fans. This comes highly recommended for the incredible visuals alone.  

Pick up the 2-disc version, released by Lion’s Gate, which includes the extended version of Dumplings and a nice commentary track from Miike on Box. As I stated earlier, Box makes the whole trilogy worth watching, though the other two films are also worthy of your time, particularly if you’re a fan of recent Asian horror. It is also a great place to start for genre newcomers, as all three films are thoughtful, well made, and put the travesty known as Masters of Horror to shame. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

LADY VENGEANCE

Park Chan-wook, 2005
Starring: Yeong-ae Lee, Min-sik Choi, Shi-hoo Kim, Yea-young Kwon

Chinjeolhan Geumjassi aka Sympathy for Lady Vengeance or Lady Vengeance literally translates as “The Kind Ms. Geum-ja” and concerns a woman framed for murder who seeks revenge when she is released from over a decade in prison. Lee Geum-ja confessed to the kidnapping and murder of a young boy because she was blackmailed by the real killer, a schoolteacher named Mr. Baek. The film jumps from her life in prison to her present quest for vengeance. In prison she was given the nickname “the kind Ms. Geum-ja,” because of the sweet, selflessness acts she performed on behalf of other prisoners. After she is released, she discards her kind persona, dons red eye make-up and manipulates many of the released prisoners into helping her with her plan for revenge. 

Baek kidnapped Geum-ja’s baby daughter as blackmail and part of her plan is to track down her now teenaged daughter and make amends. Baek, meanwhile, figures out her plan and ambushes his girlfriend (another ex-con put in place by Geum-ja) and attempts to have Geum-ja and her daughter kidnapped. This does not go particularly well for Baek, who is almost killed, until Geum-ja discovers something terrible. Baek has souvenirs from multiple child victims. She discovers tapes he made of the other murdered children and contacts their parents and the detective in charge of the boy’s case, who always believed she was innocent. 

The group converges in an old, abandoned school where Baek used to work as a teacher. Geum-ja shows the parents the videos of their children and proposes that they vote to turn him in or kill him themselves. After some difficult discussion, they choose the latter option, with each parent taking part in the murder and burial. They have an uncomfortable celebration with a cake Geum-ja has made and sing “Happy Birthday” to their dead children. Geum-ja brings her daughter a white cake, symbolic of purity and absence of sin. Her daughter offers it to Geum-ja instead, who sobs and buries her face in the cake. 

The concluding to chapter to Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy after Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and the more famous Oldboy, Lady Vengeance is a different film from its predecessors for three primary reasons. First, Baek is indisputably a villain with no sympathetic backstory or motivations. Second, though the film is driven by a heroine, it is essentially a tale of group retribution. Finally, though Geum-ja has a detailed plan for revenge, she is primarily concerned with atonement. The film is seeped with religious imagery, dipping into both Christian and Buddhist symbolism for themes of forgiveness and confession. Ritual activity is more important than in either of the previous films and, as in Oldboy, food caries a major symbolic significance that repeats throughout the film. 

At its heart, Lady Vengeance is a stylized melodrama, which is perhaps a nod to Lee Young Ae’s status as one of the most popular actresses in Korea. Geum-ja’s  transformation from sweet saint of the prison to black-clad demon of vengeance is also, in part, a transformation of Lee’s persona. Though the film has the same visual flair and attention to detail as the rest of the trilogy, it is less subtle or minimalistic than Sympathy but not as flashy or noir-influenced as Oldboy. Park moves from rich colors and textures towards an emphasis on black, white and red. There are actually two versions of Lady Vengeance - the theatrical release and a “Fade to Black and White” version, where the colors are gradually leached from the film. The score by Choi Seung-hyun is baroque-influenced and includes a version of the theme from Vivaldi’s "Cessate, omai cessate," where a woman sings about getting revenge on the man who betrayed her. 

Lady Vengeance did very well in Korean theatres, but received mixed reviews worldwide, probably due to the very different nature of the film. Though it is somewhat flawed in terms of plot development, it deals with more mature issues than either of the previous films. Park questions the nature of trauma and catharsis, as well as what happens when revenge is complete, how it transforms identity and whether or not we can ever change back into the person we once were. 

The strong bond between Lady Vengeance and the other two films of the trilogy lies in thematic content. They all contains the same elements of irony and the absurd, as well as similar plot points like kidnapping, imprisonment, communication barriers and domestic tragedy. Park also uses a lot of the same actors, including Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik. Looking out for all the overlapping cameos is like the “Where’s Waldo” of Korean revenge cinema, particularly because Park and fellow horror director Kim Ji-woon frequently share cast members. Many of the same actors can be found in Kim’s A Bittersweet Life, A Tale of Two Sisters, and I Saw the Devil, where Choi Min-sik plays the villain. 

As in Jacobean revenge tragedy, each film in Park’s trilogy is set up around a murder mystery, characters struggle with madness, the violence is sensational if almost comic and there are even occasional visits from ghosts. Fantasy is particularly important in all three films and Park takes particular care to stress that revenge and revenge cinema represent a fantasy and the purging of wrongdoing through sadomasochistic spectacle only results in tragedy and disaster. I suspect that some of his plot points are not completely believable for the simple fact that verisimilitude is not a high priority and is sacrificed in favor of emotion. All three films state irrevocably that life is pain and the only possible salvation comes from love, even though it is often another source of pain. 

As with the rest of the trilogy, Lady Vengeance comes highly recommended. It is available on DVD from Tartan Video, which includes a making of, interviews, and several commentaries. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

OLDBOY

Park Chan-wook, 2003
Starring: Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang

Following the first film in his Vengeance trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), the more popular middle entry, Oldboy, is based on a manga of the same name by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya. On the night of his young daughter’s birthday, Oh Dae-su is released from the police station for being drunk and disorderly, then promptly goes missing. He wakes up in a single room where he will spend the next fifteen years. He is only given fried dumplings to eat and is otherwise cared for while unconscious. His only contact with the outside world is television where he learns he has been framed for his wife’s murder and his daughter has been given up for adoption. This drives him to regularly hallucinate and attempt to kill himself. Determined to one day get revenge, he keeps a detailed journal of all his wrongdoings and physically trains for the day he will escape.

Suddenly he is released and receives a cell phone and wallet from a stranger. He wanders into a restaurant and a sushi chef, Mi-do, feeds and then cares for him, taking him home after he collapses. His mysterious kidnapper calls him and messages Mi-do on her computer. Suspicious of her, Dae-su flees and manages to track down the building where he was held captive based on his discovery of the restaurant the dumplings were ordered from. He tortures the building manager, but gets no information and has to fight his way out of the building in an impressive (and now famous) long-take single shot. A man, Woo-jin, places the wounded Dae-su into a taxi and sends him to Mi-do’s apartment. Woo-jin soon identifies himself as the kidnapper and says that Mi-do will die if Dae-su can’t figure out why he was kidnapped and imprisoned, but if he succeeds, Woo-jin will commit suicide.

SPOILERS: Skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t seen the film yet. This is where the whole thing begins to come off the rails, sadly. Mi-do and Dae-su develop a romantic relationship as Dae-su discovers that he and Woo-jin went to school together. Woo-jin had a secret, incestuous relationship with his sister that Dae-su discovered and accidentally spread a rumor about. The rumor grew out of control and led to Woo-jin’s sister killing herself. When he confronts Woo-jin with this information, Woo-jin presents Dae-su with a photo album showing that Mi-do is actually his long lost daughter, now grown up. Woo-jin orchestrated their relationship, partly through the use of hypnosis. After going mad with grief, Dae-su cuts out his own tongue, begging Woo-jin not to tell Mi-do. Woo-jin agrees and then kills himself. Dae-su uses the same hypnotist to forget the horrible secret and he and Mi-do go off into the wintry countryside. It is unclear whether the hypnosis was successful. 

Oldboy received some mixed reviews, but for the most part was critically acclaimed and did well in the box office, especially in Korea. Though it was nominated for a Palme d’Or at Cannes, it won the Grand Prix, or Best Director’s award. This exceedingly stylized film is the flashiest of the trilogy, playing out like a mash-up of David Fincher, Ichi the Killer, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, the latter of which is referenced in the film. Like its sibling films, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance, Oldboy leaves the viewer feeling as though they have seen much more devastating violence than actually occurs on screen, though Oldboy does exhibit more sex and gruesome violence than either of the other Vengeance films. 

The impressive first half is heavily influenced by The Count of Monte Cristo and a handful of noir films. Initially, the cause of Dae-su’s vengeance is that he has been imprisoned and framed for his wife’s murder. He is convinced that someone is taking revenge on him for the horrible life he has led, but his motivation soon shifts. His wife’s murder is not mentioned beyond the first quarter of the film and his primary cause for retribution seems to be the loss of fifteen years of his life. Oldboy is almost completely driven by a strong performance from Choi Min-sik, who brings rage, pathos, and a great amount of complexity to the role. The second act is harrowing, but also unravels and gets hung up on clumsy plot devices and the final twist. Park does attempt to bring us into the world of classic Greek-style tragedy, where bad becomes worse and the only possibly salvation is a dreadful act of mutilation and subsequent banishment. 

Critics of Oldboy attest that it is a visually flashy exploitation film with a lot of dazzle but little substance. The hypnotism subplot and twist ending strain credulity at best, but Park is still forcing us to question the merit of violence and vengeance, as well as the aftermath of these calculated acts. The film comes recommended, particularly for fans of violent revenge cinema. There is a DVD from Tartan Asia Extreme and a special edition 2-disc Blu-ray from Tartan that includes a ton of special features. 

David Goodis and THE BURGLARS Screening

Check out an upcoming film screening I’m programming for the Cinedelphia Film Festival:

Though he spent a stint living and working in New York and L.A., noir novelist David Goodis (1917 - 1967) was born and raised in Philadelphia. The city left an indelible stamp on his work and his fixation with Philadelphia’s poor urban areas and criminal life, as well as his tendency to sympathize with the city’s outsiders and outlaws often show up in his fiction. His novels such as The Burglar, Of Tender Sin, The Wounded and the Slain and Down There focus on criminals, fugitives, hard luck cases and lives gone wrong. These compelling stories attracted filmmakers, many of them French, where Goodis’ work is more popular than the U.S., and a number of his novels were adapted into well-known films, such as Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960). 

French director Henri Verneuil made a second adaptation of Goodis’ novel The Burglars (1971) aka Le Casse, which was also partly a remake of a ’57 version of the film scripted by Goodis, shot in Philadelphia, directed by Philadelphian Paul Wendkos and starring Jayne Mansfield. Verneuil’s version stars Omar Sharif and Jean-Paul Belmondo. A dirty police inspector purses a gang of burglars who are seeking out a cache of emeralds. This Euro-crime film is relatively obscure within the U.S., but became known for a famous car chase sequence through the streets of Athens, some impressive cinematography from the prolific Claude Renoir, and a great score from composer Ennio Morricone. This stunt heavy, noir tinged heist film is an entertaining look at Goodis’ Philadelphia by way of Europe. Before the screening, a panel of local experts, such as film critic Steven Rea, writer and Poe Guy Edward Pettit, Noir Con founder Lou Boxer, and crime novelist Duane Swierczynski will come together for a panel moderated by film writer Samm Deighan to discuss The Burglar and how Philadelphia shaped Goodis’ life and work. 

This screening, on April 12th at the International House at 7:30 p.m., is part of the upcoming Cinedelphia Film Festival. Find out more about the event on the Facebook page or over at the International House site where you can buy advanced tickets. 

SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE



Park Chan-wook, 2002
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Ha-kyun Shin, Doona Bae, Ji-Eun Lim

Korea’s Park Chan-wook has had a cinematic career primarily steeped in horror. His Vengeance trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance come directly from a shock-horror-exploitation tradition, as well as Cut, his segment for the Three...Extremes Asian horror anthology, Thirst, his vampire film from 2009, and Stoker, his upcoming film said to be influenced by Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Hitchcock’s domestic serial killer drama Shadow of a Doubt

Park's three revenge films are widely different in visual style, but share similar thematic concerns and philosophical issues. All of these films deal with intense, painful relationships between parents and children, as well as siblings. This marks them as domestic revenge films, one of the most popular themes in the larger revenge genre. Park's trilogy questions the purpose of violence and vengeance and speculates what comes after. Confession, atonement and forgiveness are also themes of increasing importance, culminating in Lady Vengeance.

And though Park’s trilogy wanders somewhere between Korean/East Asian horror and Western revenge cinema, it also borrows liberally from English Renaissance drama, namely the Jacobean revenge tragedy made most famous by works like Hamlet, The Spanish Tragedy, The Revenger’s Tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Common characteristics include murder mysteries, intricate plotting, descents into madness, exaggerated, almost comic violence, ghosts, and the wholesale destruction of most of the characters. These types of plays also exhibit a certain rationalism and emotional detachment in the heroes, who are determined to follow through with cold, calculated revenge until the bitter end, even if it means sacrificing their own lives. Revenge tragedies also explore the consequences of political power, absolutism and corruption, which is particularly relevant in South Korea cinema due to the aftermath of a despotic government in the ‘80s and difficulties maintaining peace with North Korea. 

Boksuneun Naui Geot aka Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance directly translates to Vengeance is Mine, a more fitting title considering that sympathy falls short in this bleak, isolating film. A deaf-mute, Ryu, cares for his terminally ill sister, who is on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. Unfortunately he gets laid off, panics, and uses the severance pay and one of his own kidneys to make a black market trade for an organ compatible with his sister’s blood type. After his surgery, the organ dealers disappear and soon the hospital tells him they have found a match if he still has the money. His girlfriend, Yeong-mi, comes up with a plan to kidnap his ex-boss’s young daughter for ransom money. Everything goes well until Ryu’s sister discovers what he has done and kills herself. When the grief-stricken Ryu takes the little girl along to bury his sister, she accidentally drowns. 

Dong-jin, the girl’s father, is consumed by grief and plans revenge. He finds Yeong-mi and tortures her to death, despite her warning that she is part of an anarchistic terrorist group who will seek retribution. Ryu, meanwhile, has found and murdered the family of organ dealers. When he learns of Yeong-mi’s death, he swears revenge on Dong-jin, who has been waiting for Ryu at his apartment. He overpowers Ryu and takes him to the river where his daughter died, violently drowning him. While burying the body, Dong-jin is stabbed to death by a group of mysterious revolutionaries. 

Successful in the Korean box office, Sympathy garnered some worldwide attention from Oldboy's later fame, but should be regarded as a near-masterpiece in its own right. Much of the film’s strength lies with its impressive visual style and Park’s strict attention to detail. There is some coldly perfect cinematography by Kim Byeong-il, despite the fact that the film is bright and beautiful with resonating green tones. The sound design is also impressive, with a careful mixture of silence, dialogue, sign language, written notes and intertitles, as well as a sparsely used jazz score. The closing credits are particularly chilling, as we fade out on Dong-jin gurgling and choking on his own blood. 

Sympathy is not a very accessible film because it is glacially paced and centers around deeply isolated characters, a theme that runs through the trilogy as a whole. In the first half of the film many of the dramatic moments and emotional reactions are not shown on screen. Park uses some great, incongruous cuts to achieve this, which work to disorient the viewer and disrupt the pacing and tension, but with purpose and control. The inability of the characters to interact or communicate with one another is established visually by Park’s insistence on bisecting shots and oddly framed scenes. On the surface level, the story is fraught with difficulties and plot holes and is almost absurdly complex, but this seems to be intentional. Park's film is about the pointless nature of revenge, about the impotence of rage and the frustration of alienation. 

It is a staunchly pessimistic film, but is also full of a charming sort of irony. While it can’t accurately be described as a black comedy, it is packed full of quick moments of irony and absurdism that give it additional depth. Sympathy's only real weakness is its sprawling, convoluted plot, made more confusing by the frequent jump cuts. Many of the events don’t make a whole lot of sense, but all of these acts lead to a spiraling path of violence and murder. Most of the violence is implied, but there is a level of brutality that leaves most viewers certain they’ve seen more than has actually been shown. 

Sympathy is a cold, aloof, emotionally void exercise in the purpose and execution of vengeance. Park refuses to provide a moral compass and strips away the catharsis usually implicit in genre films. Both Ryu and Dong-jin are sympathetic, but we are ultimately unable to empathize with either. Despite his later explorations in confession and absolution, the only possible outcome in Sympathy is the finalizing silence of death. With his next film, Oldboy, he graduates to the question of what comes after revenge and whether or not identity and emotion can be rehabilitated. 

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance comes highly recommended for fans of revenge films and/or Korean horror. It is available on DVD in a basic edition from Tartan Video. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

DJANGO UNCHAINED


Quentin Tarantino, 2012
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson

Quentin Tarantino is one of those tricky subjects for cinephiles. There are plenty of die-hard film nerds who dislike him, and though I enjoy several of his movies, I can understand why. He essentially makes big budget B-movies/exploitation films. Though many of them are very entertaining, they aren’t particularly original. It annoys a lot of movie fans that he steals unmercilessly from other films they love, but I respect him to a certain extent because, without him, I doubt you would be able to go into a mainstream theater and see expensive, well-made exploitation flicks. 

With that said, I don’t understand the hype around Django Unchained. Tarantino has claimed it's his best film and it’s received a lot of critical acclaim. Split in two, somewhat like Kill Bill, Django Unchained is first a neo-Western set in the antebellum South, where a slave named Django is freed by a German bounty hunter/ex-dentist, Dr. King Schultz. Django is desperate to find his wife, Broomhilda, who was sold to an unknown plantation after she and Django tried to run away together. Schultz trains Django to be a body hunter and they hunt down and kill two notorious slavers known as the Brittle Brothers. They form an unlikely partnership and collect more bounties and bodies. 

The second segment of the film is historical melodrama/revenge film that involves King and Django tracking down Broomhilda, who is a slave at the infamous Mississippi Candyland plantation, owned by the very wealthy Calvin Candie. Though charming, Candie has a brutal side and is particularly fond of organizing fights where his strongest slaves battle to the death. King and Django pretend to be interested in the fighting ring in order to rescue Broomhilda and purchase her freedom. Can they hoodwink the clever and cruel Candie and free Broomhilda before the jig is up? 

Django Unchained is inspired by a number of films, including its namesake, Django (1966), one of my favorite cult westerns. The titular Django drags a coffin around behind him for most of the film and tries to get revenge for his wife’s murder. Another major influence is the film Mandingo (1975), about slave fighting. There are references to numerous other westerns and exploitation films, including one of the greatest of the genre, Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence (1968). 

The film benefits from some very strong performances, three in particular. As with Inglourious Basterds, Christoph Waltz absolutely steals the film. His performance here as Dr. King Schultz is somewhat similar to his performance in Basterds. He is a protagonist, but one who is willing to do some very unpleasant things. And, as always, he's incredibly charming. Leonardo DiCaprio is fantastic as the charismatic, but occasionally rabid Calvin Candie, and is easily one of Tarantino’s most memorable recent villains. Samuel L. Jackson also gives a great performance as Stephen, Candie’s villainous head house slave, another of the film’s best characters. It must be seen to be believed. Jamie Foxx gives a decent, if subdued performance as Django, but suffers from some of the script's limitations. Kerry Washington is lovely, but forgettable as Broomhilda. Unlike nearly every single one of Tarantino's other films, this lacks any strong, memorable female characters. 

As with most Tarantino films, there are some great cameos. James Remar, Michael Parks, Tarantino himself, Russ Tamblyn, Tom Savini, and Dennis Christopher (Fade to Black) make appearances, along with many others. One of the best bit parts in the film goes to Don Johnson. It’s better if I don’t spoil it, though it may take you a moment to recognize him. The absolute best cameo is the original Django, Franco Nero, who has a humorous discussion with Django about how his name is pronounced. He might be in his early 70s now, but he’s just as handsome as ever. 

Django has received a lot of positive critical attention, as well as five Academy Award nominations (with wins for Best Supporting Actor for Waltz and Best Original Screenplay for Tarantino) and it is Tarantino’s most successful film to date. And yet, I'm ambivalent about it. The thing I disliked the most about Django Unchained is its lack of a compelling central character. As with Kill Bill, the film is essentially about a person being freed (Django has his freedom purchased by King and Beatrix wakes up from a coma) to begin a lengthy course of revenge and retrieve a beloved person that was lost (Beatrix’s daughter and Django’s wife). But unlike Kill Bill’s Beatrix, Django is not the most interesting character in Django Unchained and thus the movie basically falls apart three-fourths of the way through when King and Calvin Candie die. The very lengthy 165-minute running time is simply too much for this film. Where Inglourious Basterds is able to keep the pace going because of the large number of well-written characters, Django falls short. 

Like Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained is a historical revenge fantasy, though it is smaller in scope and deals with one slave’s revenge against a few individuals, with the ultimate goal of rescuing his wife. For many reviewers and audience members, the question of racism in Django was a difficult subject. Though Tarantino is able to express the spirit of the times by depicting various types of racism and racially motivated violence and murder, people took issue of his use of the word “nigger.” Personally, I find this baffling. What word do you think people used in the antebellum south? Drive through Baltimore or South Philadelphia, or a variety of other places around the country. What word do you think uneducated, conservative white assholes are still using, if more discretely? Nigger. That’s what word they are using. And pretending it doesn’t exist only makes it more offensive. Tarantino actually drives this home with some excellent satire, namely during a hilarious scene where a pre-KKK group don cheap white hoods and attempt to hunt down King and Django. 

Tarantino excels at historical themes because he is able to capture the spirit of a time more than factual occurrences. The sickening treatment of slaves during this period in American history is expressing with whippings, branding, beatings, etc. The Mandingo-style slave fighting is probably the most powerful example, even if it is not entirely factual. There’s not a whole lot of evidence that slave fighting rings were popular, but it is a wonderful symbolic example of the horrible violence perpetrated against slaves during this period. It elegantly and violently shows the subjugation of bodies for profit, which is at the root of slavery. 

Tarantino further complicates the slavery/racism theme with the presence of Dr. King Schultz and the inclusion of Germanic ideology. Schultz, who is fighting against slavery, hints at what is to come in German history. The Nibelungenlied references are troubling, though Broomhilda von Shaft’s name fortunately pokes fun at this. Though Django Unchained is, at its core, about a black ex-slave getting revenge on white slavers, as other reviewers have already written, the film is ultimately a fantasy for white people about alleviating white guilt over American slavery. The most interesting characters with the most evolved, compelling rhetoric are white. Django barely speaks and barely emotes, other than moments of calculated anger. 

Ultimately this is one of Tarantino’s weaker films, primarily because it lacks the strong writing and witty dialogue that has become one of his signatures. It is still one of the most interesting films to get a wide, commercial release in 2012 and comes recommended. The level of violence has received a lot of criticism, but I don’t think it will phase most genre fans. The final shootout, where Django completes his revenge, is so over-the-top it feels cartoonish, with Candie’s sister taking a gun shot to the chest and actually flying backwards off camera. There's the usual great soundtrack, with a mix of classic rock/pop songs, Ennio Morricone music, the theme from the original Django, and classical music.

Django Unchained is available for pre-order on Blu-ray. Be forewarned about the length and somewhat slow pace during the last two-thirds of the film, but decide for yourself how gratuitous the racism and violence is. It is, at the least, worth watching for Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS

RZA, 2012
Starring: Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, RZA, Cung Le, Byron Mann, Rick Yune, Jamie Chung

Anyone expecting The Man with the Iron Fists to be a big budget, action extravaganza-Hollywood blockbuster is going to be disappointed. Anyone expecting it to be Kill Bill part three is also going to be disappointed. But anyone who wants to see a ‘70s Shaw Brothers kung fu throwback will most likely have fun and walk away very entertained. The key here really is all about expectations. This is the first film from RZA, one of the most influential musicians and producers of the last 30 years. The man’s talent -- and his obsessive love for kung fu films, which is where the Wu-Tang Clan got their name -- is undeniable, but he is new to filmmaking. Cut the man some slack. 

The Man with the Iron Fists sprouted as an idea during the shooting of Tarantino’s Kill Bill, which RZA scored. He discussed the story idea with horror director Eli Roth, one of Tarantino’s proteges, and Roth and RZA eventually sat down to the pen the script together. A “presented by” credit from Tarantino and some A-list actors helped bring the project to fruition. 

Set during nineteenth century China, a freed slave turned blacksmith lives in Jungle Village and navigates life amidst warring clans, many of whom want him to craft deadly weapons for their ongoing war. The blacksmith and his girlfriend, the prostitute Lady Silk, are saving up money to earn Silk’s freedom and to set out on their own. The Lion Clan are charged with protecting a shipment of the government’s gold, but Gold Lion, the leader, is betrayed and assassinated by his second and third in command, Silver Lion and Bronze Lion. They take command of the clan and plan to steal the gold from its protectors, assassins known as the Geminis. Gold Lion’s son Zen-Yi plots revenge against them. Meanwhile a stranger known as Jack Knife arrives at the Pink Blossom brothel on “vacation,” but it is clear he has ulterior motives. The brothel’s owner, Madam Blossom, is also more than she seems, and convinces Silver Lion to hide the gold in her booby trapped cellar as they prepare for attacks from various clans. 

It may have been unwise for RZA to direct and write his first film and cast himself in the lead role, as he is an inexperienced actor and filmmaker, but he does better than expected as the blacksmith. The film’s major problem is that none of the characters are particularly well developed. The blacksmith has little dialogue and a lengthy, unnecessary flashback sequence in the middle of the film that pretty much brings the proceedings to a halt. Fortunately he is surrounded by some robust performances from actors like Russell Crowe, who is totally on top of his game as Jack Knife, the emperor’s opium-smoking, pussy-eating undercover agent. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him have so much fun with a role. I don't really enjoy Russell Crowe as an actor (Romper Stomper and L.A. Confidential are notable exceptions), but every moment he's on screen here is delightful. For an added bit of interest, Jack Knife was allegedly based on Ol’ Dirty Bastard, RZA's cousin and fellow Wu-Tang Clan member. 

Lucy Liu is decent as Madam Blossom, though due to the script limitations it feels like somewhat of a lazy reprisal of Kill Bill’s O-ren Ishii. Rick Yune (Ninja Assassin, Die Another Day, The Fast and the Furious) is good as Zen-Yi and has some very well choreographed fight scenes. The WWE’s David Batista appears as Brass Body, an evil martial artist with a special power. Jamie Chung (Sucker Punch) is the blacksmith’s lovely, if ineffectual girlfriend, Byron Mann is delightfully diabolical and vain as Silver Lion, and kickboxer Cung Le (True Legend) puts in an energetic performance as Bronze Lion and has a great fight sequence with Lucy Liu. There are numerous cameo appearances from exploitation and kung fu stars, such as Pam Grier, Chen Kuan-tai (Iron Monkey, Crippled Avengers), Gordon Liu, Bryan Leung (Five Shaolin Masters and dozens of other Shaw Brothers films throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s), and others. 

The film is messy, both in terms of editing and script, and the direction is a bit clunky, but it's brimming with enthusiasm and love of the kung fu genre. Despite the fact that it bombed critically, there are enough positive elements to make it worth watching. There’s a typically good, if overwhelming score from RZA and Howard Drossin. The action sequences, which were choreographed by Corey Yuen (The Transporter), are some of the finest moments of the film and the lengthy sequences towards the climax are excellent. To RZA’s credit, practical effects were used in favor of CGI, though there is a bit of the latter. The film is very violent and gory, probably more in the vein of Kill Bill than ‘70s kung fu films. Russell Crowe gets to cut in a man in half. 

Overall The Man with the Iron Fists is an uneven, but fun action flick and a flawed, yet entertaining first film from a director who clearly loves the genre. You could find plenty of things wrong with it, or you could just sit back and enjoy it for what it is: unabashed worship of the Shaw Brothers. Pick up the Blu-ray, which includes the special features and the extended, unrated cut as well as the theatrical version. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

THE PRIVATE AFTERNOONS OF PAMELA MANN

Radley Metzger, 1974
Starring: Barbara Bourbon, Sonny Landham, Darby Lloyd Rains

"She needs a cock down her throat the way another woman needs a chocolate cake down her throat."

After making a series of semi-successful softcore films, Radley Metzger adopted the pseudonym Henry Paris and churned out five of the most interesting hardcore films of the ‘70s, possibly ever made. Though The Opening of Misty Beethoven is undeniably his classic, The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann is his first and one of his best. A housewife, the titular Pamela Mann, goes on a series of adventures and her wealthy, paranoid husband sends a private investigator after her to see what (or who) she’s up to. She deep throats a random stranger on the Brooklyn Bridge, visits a hooker, distracts a conservative politician, gets kidnapped and raped by would-be revolutionaries, etc. There is a nice little twist ending that gives the whole affair a satirical note and explains away the rape fantasy sequence for those of you instantly enraged by the rape segment.  

Like Metzger’s artsy softcore film, The Lickerish Quartet, Pamela Mann is full of humor, twists, and plot complexities usually absent in hardcore porn films. As a result, it lends itself to repeat viewing and the sex is predictable enough that it would probably be safe to recommend to anyone interested in erotica but afraid of anything too hardcore. The sex scenes are fairly short (not like that doozy of a couple-swapping scene in Metzger’s Score) with a focus on oral sex, and there is nothing too transgressive at work. The movie is packed with visual and verbal jokes, including a running gag where a hippy polling girl repeatedly questions Pamela to allegedly give the film some socially redeeming value.

It is also clear that this is Metzger’s (ahem, Henry Paris) first hardcore film, so things don’t run as smoothly as in some of his later works. The sex scenes feel a little forced (not in a non-consensual way, despite that rape fantasy) or almost amateur, and the character development is rather lacking, but it is an enjoyable film regardless. The cinematography of ‘70s New York is particularly fascinating and will be a point of interest for many cinephiles, along with the film’s refreshingly self-aware tone. 

In addition to the stylish visuals and surprisingly developed plot, the film is full of familiar faces, at least for followers of ‘70s porn. The very sexy Barbara Bourbon, who stars as Pamela, sadly wasn’t in many films, though she is absolutely wonderful here. Sonny Landham (The Passions of Carol, Slippery When Wet, The Warriors, Poltergeist, Predator) makes an appearance as a politician. I have had a crush on him since Predator, where many of you will recognize him as Billy, one of the mercenaries. Darby Lloyd Rains (Naked Came the Stranger, Linda Lovelace Meets Miss Jones, Every Inch a Lady and many more) is one of the rapists and famous genre star Jamie Gillis makes an appearance as his partner in crime, though he barely appears in the cut, softcore version of the film. Prolific performer Eric Edwards (over 350 titles including Great Sexpectations and Laura’s Toys) also appears, as does one of my favorite sex film stars, Georgina Spelvin (Devil in Miss Jones), who has a part as the saucy prostitute. 

The wonderful Distribpix released the ultimate edition of Pamela Mann, a restored, two-disc delight that is chock full of special features. Though it is hard to compare anything to their stunning, crowd-funded release of The Opening of Misty Beethoven, this is definitely the best edition of Pamela Mann available and likely better than anyone could have expected. The first disc presents the remastered, uncut, hardcore version of the film, plus a wonderful commentary track with Metzger, a lengthy interview with Eric Edwards, and a Pamela Mann trailer. The second disc includes the softcore version, a substantial interview with Georgina Spelvin, and a series of featurettes focusing on the New York-based locations. Also included is a lovely booklet with a series of essays about the film. So far out of all the Metzger films I've reviewed, Pamela Mann is at the top of the list and the Distribpix release is a wonder to behold. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

DEEP THROAT


Gerard Damiano aka Jerry Gerard, 1972
Starring: Harry Reems, Linda Lovelace, Dolly Sharp

“There should be bells ringing, dams bursting, bombs going off!”

Linda, played by genre icon Linda Lovelace, has never had an orgasm. She asks one of her friends for advice and even attends a sex party, but, only winding up more frustrated, goes to a doctor that her friend recommends. The doctor (Harry Reems) discovers that Linda has a unique birth defect: her clitoris is in the back of her throat. Thus, the only way she can achieve orgasm is by performing deep throat (oral sex requiring no gag reflex, for anyone born under a rock) on the good doctor and a variety of his sexually frustrated patients, acting as a sort of literal sex therapist. 

Perhaps the most famous porn film of all time, Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat kicked off a brief period of “porn chic,” where it was fashionable to see and talk about porn films. Deep Throat was one of the first hardcore films to have a very high budget for the time period, as well as a detailed plot, some actual character development, and a sizable dollop of humor, including such scenes as fireworks going off during Linda’s long overdue first orgasm. It was shown in some mainstream theaters and reviewed in major publications like the New York Times

Deep Throat has also been the source of a number of different controversies. Producer Louis Peraino helped fund the film with money from his father Anthony Peraino, a member of the Colombo mafia family in New York. The mob, known for funding porn, claimed the film made $600 million dollars at the box office, though this is likely grossly inflated. Although initially signed up for a one-third share, Damiano was paid a sum after the film’s release and then forced out of the partnership. Part of the money he was denied allegedly also came from laundering, drugs, and prostitution rackets. The FBI has estimated that the film made $100 million dollars, still a sizable sum for a ‘70s porn film. 

Beginning with growing instances of the film being banned -- at one point 23 states in the U.S., as well as a number of countries -- Deep Throat was also part of a lengthy obscenity trial. Mature Enterprises, which owned one of the theaters in New York screening the film, was taken to trial for the promotion of obscene materials. The film was ruled obscene, skyrocketing it to fame. In 1976 there were more cases charging a variety of people involved with the film, including star Harry Reems, for distributing obscenity across state lines. Well-known actors, film critics, and even a psychiatrist testified on the film’s behalf, but convictions were still upheld. Not too long after, Reems eventually got his overturned with public and Hollywood support. 

“Mind if I smoke while you’re eating?”

Linda Lovelace aka Linda Boreman was the source of yet more controversy. Despite achieving almost instant fame from her role in Deep Throat and writing a number of sex-positive biographies, she later embraced anti-porn feminism and recanted. She claimed her husband sexually and physically abused her and then forced her into porn and prostitution. She stated that watching her performance in Deep Throat akin to watching a woman’s rape. While the abuse is most likely true, and I sympathize, I call bullshit that her performance in Deep Throat was anything other than consensual and enthusiastic. She later changed her mind again and appeared in a porn magazine tribute to fans of Deep Throat. I would call her a hypocrite of the highest order, but Linda passed away in 2002 after a car crash. RIP, lady. 

Damiano, who got his start as a hair dresser, directed a number of other well-known porn films from the period, including The Devil in Miss Jones and The Story of Joanna. Like Radley Metzger, Damiano’s portrayal of female characters is generally positive and, in the case of Deep Throat’s Linda, represents a woman’s search for pleasure. Many of his films are highly recommended for fans of sex films and ‘70s cult movies. Deep Throat, in particular, is a must-see, simply for its cultural importance. Also RIP to Damiano, who passed away in 2008 at the age of 80 after a stroke. It's a shame he was never able to do a commentary track for Deep Throat, but a number of interesting interviews exist. 

Arrow Films released the movie on DVD, along with other ‘70s porn classics like Alice in Wonderland and Debbie Does Dallas as part of their fantastic cult cinema catalogue. I'm hoping that Deep Throat gets a restored version with special features sometime soon. I also highly recommend the recent documentary Inside Deep Throat

"The End. And Deep Throat to you all."

Friday, March 15, 2013

INSIDE DEEP THROAT

Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, 2005

It is almost inconceivable that someone would read this blog and not know about
Deep Throat. Part of the heyday of '70s porn, Deep Throat resides alongside The Devil in Miss Jones, Beyond the Green Door, The Opening of Misty Beethoven, Debbie Does Dallas and Emmanuelle as some of the most famous porn films in history. In addition, most of these brought porn into normative American culture and created (though Deep Throat alone takes credit for this term) 'porn chic.'

I love '70s porn. It has an optimistic, creative, exploratory and almost naive spirit that contemporary porn completely lacks, as well as an exaggerated sense of style. Mostly, the "industry" wasn't anything like the money making machine American porn is today and was made up of legitimate actors and directors trying to break into mainstream film and have fun at the same time.
Deep Throat is one of the exemplary films of the period. Inside Deep Throat is the story of its genesis, theatrical run, public reception, censorship trials, and aftermath.

It was written, produced and directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the team behind
Party Monster (1998, the documentary) and Party Monster (2003, the theatrical film). Inside Deep Throat is narrated by the late, great Dennis Hopper and includes informative, entertaining interviews with such smut peddlers as Hugh Heffner, Larry Flint, John Waters, Gore Vidal and Wes Craven. There is also a remarkable amount of time spent with original cast members including producers, director Gerard Damiano and male star Harry Reems. Damiano's interviews are among my favorite part of the film. He was obviously a man who loved his work, as he also directed The Devil in Miss Jones and The Story of Joanna, among other things, and was proud to bring two of the most famous porn films of the '70s to American audiences. His sharp, enthusiastic reminiscence brings a lot to the documentary, both factually and emotionally.

There is some great archival footage at work here and a big chunk of the film is about the censorship trials that surrounded the film. In a way, it reminded me of a documentary version of
The People Vs. Larry Flint. Someone should really make a Hustler documentary. Anyway...

There are also some great moments about
Deep Throat's distribution to theatres and porn's connection to the mob. Allegedly, Deep Throat resulted in a room full of money. It came in so fast that that it couldn't be counted, only weighed and put in towering piles on the floor. A smaller section of the film discusses the late Linda Lovelace and her famous change of heart. She gave testimony that she was brainwashed, abused and forced to make the film, and anytime you watch Deep Throat you are participating in her rape. I'm all for victim's rights, but she looks like she's having a really good time deep-throating in Deep Throat. And she filmed all of her sex scenes while her abusive, weirdo husband was off running errands for the director.

My only real problem with the film is that it sweeps over a number of interesting topics without really delving deeply into any of them: '70s porn culture, the making of Deep Throat, the pornography censorship controversy, Times Square grindhouse theatres, the connection between porn and the mafia, etc. Overall it is a quick paced, entertaining documentary that captures a singular moment in American entertainment history and provides a great introduction for '70s porn newbies. I'm reviewing the single disc Universal release, though it is also currently streaming on Netflix. Be somewhat forewarned that the documentary was given an NC-17 rating because it shows a few clips of, you guessed it, deep throating.


Deep Throat, it seems, will never die. In addition to this documentary and the film's enormous public presence, it continues to receive attention. There have been six sequels over the years. The first starred the original actors and some of the later attempts were directed by Ron Jeremy. Most recently, there was a Showtime series, Deeper Throat, about a slated remake of the film with porn star Sasha Gray.

In case anyone was confused, the clitoris is not in the back of the throat.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Malleus Maleficarum: Hammer of the Witches


“No one who reads the histories can doubt that there have always been witches, and that by their evil works much harm has been done to men, animals, and the fruits of the earth, and that Incubus and Succubus devils have always existed.”
-Malleus Maleficarum, Part 2, Chapter IV

Yesterday, I wrote about Benjamin Christensen's Häxan, which is somewhat based on and was definitely inspired by the 1486 witch hunting manual, the Malleus Maleficarum, Maleficas, & earum hæresim, ut phramea potentissima conterens, which translates to The Hammer of Witches which destroyeth Witches and their heresy as with a two-edged sword. Known today as the preeminent medieval witch hunting tome, the Malleus was written by Heinrich Kramer, a German priest and self-styled inquisitor. Jacob Sprenger, another German priest, also become involved with the publication, though contemporary scholars, such as Hans Peter Broedel, have come to believe Kramer was the primary author. Kramer sought to prove the existence of witches and educate other inquisitors on the best ways to locate, identify, and convict witches, most of whom he believed to be female, because of women's supposed predisposition to sin and vanity.

Based on earlier works, such as Johannes Nider’s Formicarius from 1435, the Malleus Maleficarum is divided into an introduction and three main sections, with the ultimate goal of asserting the existence of witchcraft and describing the variety of black arts available to servants of Satan. The first part serves as a lengthy introduction to witchcraft and explores such themes as why witches exist and what forms they can and cannot take, how they must have commerce with the Devil in order to bring about magic, the existence of incubi and succubi, the necessity of witches having sexual intercourse with the Devil, the fact that the majority of witches are female and why, and a description of the variety of powers that witches may possess. 

Part two explains these powers in further depth - who witches can and cannot affect, their methods of disturbing and seducing the innocent, how they form a pact with the Devil, how they transport themselves, how they copulate with the Devil, demonic possession, and how they affect human procreation and fertility, and many other things. Part three examines bringing witches to trial, interrogation, and sentencing, covering such topics as who is fit to be a judge in a witch trial, number of witnesses and the examination process, whether or not “mortal enemies” are acceptable witnesses, what kind of defense may be presented, etc. What kind of torture is acceptable is a major part of this section, which reveals details such as that witches must be shaved to displays the devil’s marks and red-hot irons are a great means of producing confessions. 

Based on his attempts at organized witch hunting in various regions of Germany, Kramer was given a papal bull in 1484 by Pope Innocent VIII, the Summis desiderantes affectibus, which gave him full authority to persecute and prosecute German witches. The bull declared, “Persons of both sexes, unmindful of their own salvation and straying from the Catholic Faith, have abandoned themselves to devils, incubi and succubi, and by their incantations, spells, conjurations, and other accursed charms and crafts, enormities and horrid offences, have slain infants yet in the mother's womb, as also the offspring of cattle,” among many other alleged evils. The bull threatened local clergy with excommunication if they did not cooperate and Kramer wound up using this text as the preface to the Malleus Maleficarum

Despite this papal mandate and the book’s enduring popularity and infamy, it was not officially used by the Inquisition. Witch hunting (and the belief in witchcraft at all) was initially considered to be unlawful superstition by the early Church leader, but from the 12th to 15th centuries, largely due to political motivation, the idea of persecuting caught on with increasing fervor. Regardless of the Church’s stance on the Malleus, witch hunting caught on, particularly after the invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century, making the Malleus far more accessible and kicking off a potential propaganda firestorm. 

Though the Malleus has long been associated with the Inquisition, in the last forty years academic critics have relegated its importance to a more symbolic function. It is doubted that Innocent VIII ever saw the book and it is now believed that the text had much less of an effect on medieval witch hunting practices. It was soon condemned by the Church, in particular Spanish Inquisitors, the most infamous branch, warned against accepting its veracity. I can't pretend the Malleus is compelling reading. Despite subject matter like covens, witches' sabbaths, sex with the Devil, feasting on babies, incubi and succubi, Kramer's book reads like the dullest legal brief imaginable. Regardless, it stands as an important symbol, both of a time of persecution and near genocide, and as the potential, if ironic source for something more contemporary: Wicca and neo-paganism. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

HÄXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES


Benjamin Christensen, 1922
Starring: Benjamin Christensen, Clara Pontoppidan, Oscar Stribolt, and Astrid Holm

"The belief in evil spirits, sorcery, and witchcraft is the result of naive notions about the mystery of the universe."

Unusual, macabre, blackly humorous, insightful, and unsettling, Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages (1922) is an inspired landmark of early satanic horror. Directed by Benjamin Christensen and starring Christensen, Clara Pontoppidan, Oscar Stribolt, and Astrid Holm, Häxan is an incredible documentary-style silent film about Satan, evil, and witchcraft. This Swedish/Danish film is based partly on the Malleus Maleficarum, as well as other medieval books about witches and witch hunting, and is a brilliant and original film. Häxan essentially aims to show how superstitious interpretations of psychiatric illness can be perceived as occult phenomena, leading ultimately to torture and genocide. Though some segments are shot in a documentary style, others are like short horror films. There is an interesting mixed media feel, where Christensen inserts still of photographs, paintings, and other art work. 

The film is split into seven parts. The first, an essay on witchcraft in Early Modern and Medieval culture, is comprised of text and stills. Christensen includes photographs of statues and woodcuts, paintings, models, and some medieval mechanical art. The second section uses dramatic vignettes to explain Medieval beliefs about Satan and witchcraft. Christensen’s Satan (gleefully played by Christensen himself) is hairy and potbellied, a sort of diabolically sexualized prankster, while his witches are portrayed flying on brooms, making brews out of babies, kissing Satan directly on the ass as part of a greeting ritual, and gracing the doors of their neighbors with fresh urine. Satan’s other minions, devils and demons, are shown as as perverted versions of farm animals, such as pigs and cats, or as writhing insects birthed by a witch. 

Part three has a more cohesive narrative structure and relates the story of an old woman falsely accused of witchcraft in the Middle Ages. She is tortured and confesses her experiences at a Sabbath, but is eventually released. Part four examines witchcraft trials, part five explores the torture practices used to coerce alleged witches into confessing, and part six wraps up the exploration of hysteria, witchcraft, and Medieval torture methods. The seventh and final section explores how superstitions are understood in contemporary times. Like academics and films many years after him (such as Lars von Trier’s Antichrist), Christensen hypothesizes that occult behavior was really misunderstood mental illness. While he praises the fact that these people currently receive treatment instead of being sent to the rack, he laments that modern mental health treatments are appallingly similar to Medieval tortures. 

The film has surprisingly shocking subject matter despite the fact that it came out in 1922 and was initially banned in the U.S. for nudity, perversion, sexual content, and torture, which is not surprising considering the many depictions of grave robbing, possessed nuns, a satanic rite, and Satan tempting a number of people. There is also an impressive amount of sexual content for the time period, expressed both in the witches’ relationship to Satan and the depictions of torture. Somewhat surprisingly, this was the most expensive Scandinavian silent film ever made and received positive reviews in its home territory. Christensen sought funding from both Sweden and his native Denmark, which allowed him more creative and financial freedom. 

With Häxan, Christensen delivers a serious commentary about Medieval superstition that provides insightful parallels to modern times and influenced nearly all subsequent satanic horror films. Chris Fujiwara wrote an essay for Criterion about the film, where he stresses the its importance and influential nature. He writes, “Häxan also has ties to F. W. Murnau’s Faust and later films based on the Faust legend, to demonic-possession movies like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), and to the many movies in which the devil comes to Earth in human form, of which George Miller’s The Witches of Eastwick (1987) is a pertinent recent example.”

Häxan is available freely on the internet, because it is now in the public domain, but the Criterion DVD release is the most superior edition available. It includes the full 104 minute version, as well as a shorter version that was recut in the late ‘60s and includes a jazz score and narration by William S. Burroughs. The fantastic special features include lengthy notes, a new score from the Danish premier, a restored print, commentary by a Danish scholar Casper Tybjerg, Christensen’s original introduction, outtakes, and more. Tybjerg’s insightful commentary explores Christensen’s life and career, the early Scandinavian film industry, studies of hysteria and witchcraft, representations of the Devil, connections to contemporary films, and more. The original soundtrack, which included classical pieces from Schubert, Wagner, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Gluck, and Beethoven, among others, was also restored and arranged by music scholar Gillian Anderson. 

The film is clearly a labor of love from an innovator of cinema who deserves to mentioned alongside greats like Pabst and Griffith, but unfortunately many of his films are lost or in poor condition. According to James Hendrick from Kinoeye, Häxan was intended to be the first entry in a trilogy of films that would explore the history of superstition. The two other films in this proposed trilogy, however, The Saint and The Spirits, were left unrealised.” It is a shame these never got to see the light of day, because Häxan is an important part of early world cinema and easily one of the most influential and still-relevant silent films, worth seeing simply because of its unforgettable visuals, editing techniques, and special effects, as well as its progressive views of medieval witch hunts and the evils of religious superstition. 

Also of interest for lovers of Satanic cinema are two of Christensen’s other films that deal with the devil, but remain unavailable on DVD: Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), about a young couple who are kidnapped and brought to a mansion full of of high society Satanic cult members; The Devil’s Circus (1926) concerns a trapeze artist and pickpocket who get involved with a diabolical lion-tamer and his crazy wife.