Whenever someone is promoting a film as either “getting back to the spirit of the original” or “the most faithful adaptation of the novel,” you know you’re going to be in trouble. They never recapture “the spirit of the original” even when the spirit of the original wasn’t that hot to begin with, and the more they crow about how faithful their adaptation is, the less likely it will be to stick to the source material.
Ahh, Sangster and Fisher. If you want my opinion, and you must or else you’d go read a much better website that this, that screenwriter-director team is as integral to the success of the Hammer horror films as the Cushing-Lee acting team. When you make a list of the best films Hammer produced, the Fisher-Sangster duo comes up quite frequently. The whole quartet is at it again with this, Hammer’s third reimagining of a classic Universal Pictures horror icon. By now, there was no real gamble involved in the Hammer formula. Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula had proven the effort, and Hammer’s only challenge now lie in maintaining the high standards set by those two films. With two Universal legends left, those being the mummy and the Wolfman, Hammer decided to go all old Egypt and bring the bandaged avenger of desecrated tombs into the Technicolor world of Hammer horror.
Hammer Studio’s Horror of Dracula is, without a doubt (at least in my mind), the absolute best vampire film ever made, and quite simply one of the finest examples of proper Gothic horror that’s ever been filmed. It was a busy couple of years for Britain’s Hammer Studio. In 1955, their sci-fi/horror thriller based on the popular TV character Quatermass became a smash hit, and the studio soon learned it was because audiences were hungry for shocking, boundary-pushing films of the fantastic and horrible that still handled themselves with a degree of wit, intelligence, and dignity as would befit a rousing British tale of terror. Inspired by that film’s success, execs turned to studio director Terence Fisher to rework Mary Shelley’s classic tale of Gothic horror, Frankenstein. It was a risky move for any number of obvious reasons, not the least of which was the fact that Universal’s Boris Karloff version of the monster was practically a global icon. Hammer had to come up with a completely new approach to the monster’s appearance, since the Universal version was copyrighted, and they figured that while doing so, they might as well ratchet up the sex and violence and see just how much they’d be able to get away with in a horror movie.
So this is what a Playboy-produced film used to look like. You know, back before they modeled themselves after their brainless FHM style spawns and were still at the very least attempting to inject some cutting edge material in between the shots of naked women with badly feathered 1970s hair. I know the joke is old and tired, but you know there used to even be something worth reading in that magazine. Not so much these days, from what I can tell. I have many vices, but Playboy ceased to be one of them round about the time it forsook that dapper jet-set lifestyle and became just another frat boy publication. And Playboy films? Don’t even get me started. Yeah, I’ve seen one or two. They’re awful erotic thrillers, which I know seems like a silly criticism to level at Playboy films until you consider for a moment that there, for a brief spell in the 1970s, Hugh Hefner decided to throw the Playboy name and money at Roman Polanski’s stylish, intelligent, and grim adaptation of one of Shakespeare bloodiest plays.
Anyone claiming that Spirits of the Dead isn’t a good movie is probably only just saying that because Vadim’s contribution to this anthology of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations as conceived by three of Europe’s maverick directors is so sloppy and unengaging. Vadim’s contribution, “Metzengerstein,” is certainly not the way you’d want to start a film. As was par for the man, Vadim casts his current sexy main squeeze in the lead, which just happened at the time to be Jane Fonda. The duo were fresh off Barbarella, and this story was originally envisioned as a feature film follow-up to that piece of sci-fi pop art. How they could have every stretched this thing out to a full running time is beyond me, though it’s not as if Vadim wasn’t a pro at stretching out thin-to-nonexistent plots and pasting them together with eye-popping, mind blowing costume and set design. Fonda plays the Countess Metzengerstein, heir to a vast fortune she squanders by throwing lavish orgies and torturing the underlings. Actually, they’re rather dull and lifeless orgies. You know, orgies always seem like a good idea until you try and hammer out the logistics of the whole thing. As for me, I’d be too worried about people knocking stuff over. Anyway, she delights in hurling barbs over the fence at her more modest cousin, played by none other than Jane’s brother, Peter. Eventually, she becomes sexually obsessed with him — kind of, well, you know, but then this is Roger Vadim we’re talking about, and it was the sixties — until he rebuffs her advances. I mean, heck, Henry was probably already pretty steamed at the both of them for being a coupla hippies. Incest would have really set him off.
As revenge, the mad Ms. Metzengerstein burns down his stables, and he in turn dies in the fire trying to save his horses. Or so it would seem. A big black stallion bursts through the flames and gallops to safety, but there is no record of such a horse in the stable. Metzengerstein becomes convinced that the horse is the reincarnation of her beloved cousin, and her obsession with the horse crosses into madness and, frankly, borders on bestiality. Despite all the weird stuff thrown into the mix, this is a decidedly dull and uninspired way to kick off the film. The costuming, usually one of Vadim’s only strong points, is relatively without shock or beauty. Jane dons some navel-exposing Little Lord Fauntleroy type outfits, but everything else looks like it’s on loan from the local community theater. The cinematography is listless, and Vadim’s usually striking composition of scenes is non-existent. In addition, everything is shot in soft-focus “Playboy-o-vision.” The English speaking actors are dubbed into French in the currently available version, which means the only way we can judge their performances is through body language, most of which consists of them staring half-stoned at the camera.
The tone of the film is all wrong too, at least in my opinion. A tale of mystery and the bizarre, as this is meant to be, should have some sense of menace and the macabre, some sort of tension. There is none of that here, and the film instead unfolds like a languid, ethereal, and intensely boring dream. Fairy tales and Cocteau Twins songs conjure up more darkness and dread than this supposed Edgar Allen Poe tale. There are some nice crumbling castles and decaying seaside scenery, but Vadim doesn’t seem to understand how to take thematic advantage of it or relate it to the decaying morality and mental state of his central Nero/Caligula-like figure (though I must say I bet Jane Fonda’s figure is better than Nero or Caligula’s). When you fail to match even someone as hit-or-miss with similar atmosphere as, say, France’s Jean Rollin, you know you’re way off the mark. It’s like Vadim wasn’t even trying here. The hilariously silly ending was repeated in Vadim’s 1973 film Don Juan (Or if Don Juan Were a Woman), which we covered right up there at the very beginning of this journal.
Things pick up, but only just, for the second story in the trilogy. Luis Malle directs “William Wilson.” Malle is probably most infamous for flirting with child pornography when he introduced the world to Brooke Shields in his 1978 film Pretty Baby. Before that, he was a member of the French New Wave, which helped get him this gig. He’s pretty far off his game for this outing, though, turning in an entry that manages to be less ponderous and a little more tense and eerie than Vadim’s meandering hunk of nonsense, but it still just doesn’t play out the way it should, perhaps because the story itself has been done so many times and this one offers nothing new. French heartthrob Alain Delon stars as the titular Wilson, whom we meet as he stumbles into a confessional and claims to have killed a man. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn the history of Wilson, who in every regard is a grade-a prick. As a young boy attending a military school where his classmate was no doubt Damien from The Omen II, he encounters a boy with the same name as he who seems dedicated to countering everything he does. He encounters this double, who even grows to look exactly like him, throughout various points in his life until, ultimately, they face one another in a fencing duel.
There’s very little to surprise here. The man fighting his doppleganger, and by killing it killing himself, is nothing new, and Malle’s approach is so straight-forward and by the books that the story, while decent for a single viewing, has nothing more to offer. Like Vadim, Malle seems to almost be phoning it in just to collect his paycheck. The primary difference is that the performers, native French speakers, are better and the story is, as I said, OK at least for the first go-round. Brigitte Bardot shows up briefly in a gambling scene. All in all, the segment isn’t bad. Direction is nice, acting is good, and it moves at a fair clip. There are also a few effective moments, chiefly the scene of a young Wilson lowering a new student into a barrel full of rats and a later scene in which Wilson, now a medical student, seeks to practice his dissection technique on a living subject. So OK, it’s not bad. It’s just not that interesting.
If you make it through the awful first story and middling second, they pay-off is Federico Fellini’s entry, the final piece in the trilogy and easily one of the most delirious, grotesque, and utterly insane forty minutes of film you’ll ever come across. Fellini was known for a lot of things, not the least of which was his fondness for the absurd. If you’re familiar with the director, and you should at least try to be, then try to imagine everything about him and his style distilled down and concentrated in one forty-minute sequence. Quite frankly, it’s almost too much, and that’s simply divine.
His story is “Toby Dammit,” based loosely on Poe’s “Never Bet the Devil Your Head.” A wild-eyed, completely mad looking Terence Stamp stars as Dammit, a drunken, wild British film actor who seems to be hovering on the brink of a career collapse. He travels to Italy to star in a film in which Jesus is reincarnated as a pioneer in the American West, but nothing about his trip to Rome is the least bit ordinary. Fellini saturates his film in colors, and they’re all the wrong ones for what should be going on. Think of film that has been cross-processed. The world of Toby Dammit is awash in red and yellow, billowing orange clouds and dust, like driving through someone’s hallucination of the end of the world. Given the Biblical nature of the film Dammit is to be starring in, it wouldn’t surprise me if Fellini’s own inspiration for the look of the film came straight from the Book of Revelations.
Dammit’s biggest problem, besides his addiction to and disdain for fame, is that he is haunted by visions of a smiling young blonde girl (shades of Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby, Kill) who he believes to be The Devil himself. We follow Dammit onto a bizarre talk show, an even more bizarre awards show, and finally a manic, out of control car ride as he attempts to escape the increasingly bizarre and artificial landscape around him (people on the street are frozen in mid-motion, and eventually become mannequins).
The difference between the two French directors and the Italian Fellini couldn’t be more obvious. He seizes his story with gusto, indulging every bizarre notion that crosses his mind and throwing it all onto the screen with a madcap zeal totally lacking in Vadim’s entry and an absolute lack of predictability as seen in Malle’s. Nothing is the slightest bit real. It’s all highly stylized and has its grotesque alien factor cranked to the very top. Everyone is grossly overdone. Their make-up is outrageous; their movements are more the movements of stage props and puppets. Lights flash and glitter from every angle, and a non-stop of psychedelic detail and sheer lunacy require that you watch the segment several times just to catch everything that goes on in each scene.
And standing above this gaudy, gorgeous horror show, this gleeful dissection of fame and the film industry (or rather, the industries that affix themselves to the film industry) is Terence Stamp, white-faced and genuinely looking like he’s just come of a weeklong binge. He’s haggard and sweaty and pasty and looks utterly spent, while at the same time seeming completely and utterly hysterical. Although in the currently available version all his dialog has been dubbed into French, unlike the Fondas in the first segment, he gives you plenty more by which to judge his frenzied performance. He’s a whirlwind of agitated energy, and it’s one of the best performances in the career of one of England’s best actors. It’s impossible not to compare him here to Malcolm McDowell’s equally cracked performance in 1971′s A Clockwork Orange. I’m no expert on the film, but I’m willing to bet Stamp’s turn as Dammit (right down to the wild driving scene) was a major influence on both Kubrick as director and McDowell as actor. Spirits of the Dead is owned by Fellini’s segment, and Stamp owns that segment. It is sublime, and a must-see.
Where Vadim and Malle try, or we assume they try, to invoke dreamlike and Gothic horror atmospheres respectively, grounding themselves in historical settings and costumes, Fellini sets his film in a warped and twisted version of the present, a fever dream where the mood he goes for is more one of psychosis and hysteria than creeping dread (or oozing boredom, in Vadim’s case). “Toby Dammit” is as funny as it is warped. It is a celebration, in it’s own way, and by dispensing entirely with the “typical” Poe setting, Fellini seems to have achieved the only truly eerie Poe feeling in the entire anthology, though it might be Poe on one of his famous drug binges. Every scene drips with the promise of menace, albeit a completely absurd one, and his ending is as comical as it is spooky. And those images of the maniacally grinning little girl/Satan? Positively brilliant. The whole thing is an orgy of a psychotic, surreal Hell on Earth populated by annoying comedians and glittering women in gigantic false eyelashes.
So skip the first segment. Sit through Malle’s middle segment, but for the devil’s ball-bouncing sake, don’t miss Fellini’s finale. It’s the sort of lunatic filmmaking that makes you happy to be watching a movie. It’s a five-star segment trapped in an otherwise two-star film, but more than justifies the effort of getting through the film.
Chor Yuen’s mind-blowing Magic Blade is a prime example of something I’ve always appreciated about kungfu films. You see, there are certain things that, while deemed horrible in real life, are perfectly acceptable and even admirable activities for the hero of a kungfu film. I’m not talking about the obvious will-nilly killing of anyone who offends you in some way. No, I’m talking about, first foremost, the stamp of approval kungfu films put on beating up senior citizens. Outside of an Adam Sandler film, no one is going to cheer for a hero who beats grannies and tries to skewer them with elaborate bladed weapons. Even street thugs who don’t give a damn about anything won’t stoop so low as to mess up someone’s grandma. That’s why grandmas can get in between two jackasses waving guns at each other and send them home with tail between legs using nothing but harsh words and an umbrella or oversized pocketbook or maybe an oversized copy of The Bible.
But in kungfu films, old people get beat up all the time, and not just by the villains. Of course, granted the old folks are themselves often the villains of the story, and they’re often imbued with near supernatural fighting powers, but the fact remains that there really aren’t any other genres where taking a swing at your elders is considered the proper thing to do. Even in other genre movies where oldsters are the bad guys, you still rarely see the hero just haul off and slug them in the jaw. Usually the movie serves up some contrived accidental death, and the old ne’r-do-well will be impaled by some trap of their own making. Evil old white guys who run heartless multinational corporations are usually sent off to jail while their underlings get blown up by Steven Segal, but even stops short of kicking 80-year-olds in the groin.
I know you can defend this behavior by pointing out what masters of the martial arts these old people are, but I stick by my claim. Even in other types of movies where the evil old people are competent at something, few and far between are the good guys who try to beat them up.
Kungfu films are also among the only genres where it’s considered heroic to gang up on someone. It’s hardly uncommon to find yourself with a finale where the hero has to team up with several other people to beat the main bad guy. Sometimes it’s because the main bad guy is so good that no one person can beat him. Other times, it seems like they do it just to be dicks. But again, regardless of the power of the villain, you don’t see too many other genres where they approve of the heroes going ten on one against the rakehell. Where’s the honor in that? When you add the fact that the rakehell is often old enough to call Bob Hope “young man,” then you’re really in dubious territory as far as the character of your hero is concerned.
Of course, you can flip it and say these movies teach us a valuable lesson about teamwork, though I’d say that you learn about teamwork by going to an Amish barn-raising, not watching a bunch of kungfu heroes beat up old people.
Not being an expert on social psychology, my theory as to why a kungfu guy can beat up old folks would go thusly: in China, they are famously honorable toward elders. Your grandmother can boss you around long after she dies, and usually you get stuck with three or more generations all living with each other or next door to each other. It stands to reason then, that if you have to devote so much to your elders in real life, you might want to see them get the tar kicked out of them once in a while in the movies. Conversely, in America we don’t give a rat’s ass about our elderly. We move out as soon as we can and ship them off to be confined in a nursing home the first chance we get. And yet, we want to deny our abuse of the elderly by treating them well in the movies. The reason people are afraid of vengeful grannies is because we fear the unknown. We expect old folks to drool and watch Matlock. It scares us when one of them goes off and gives everybody hell. Plus, we never want to directly physically abuse the old people. We prefer to do it through neglect, or by paying professionals to physically abuse them.
I doubt that theory would hold much water if out to the test, but then, what psychological theory does? And none of that changes the fact that kungfu superstar Ti Lung spends a lot of time in Magic Blade trying to beat up someone called Devil Granny. You can’t beat up people named Granny, even if they are evil and cackle a lot and possess amazing kungfu skills. Anyway, on with the show…
Ti Lung plays the poncho-wearing swordsman Fu Hung-hsu, who is challenged one dark night by rival swordsman Yen Nan-fei, played by Lo Lieh in “relatively ugly” mode. The late, great Lo Lieh was one of the true legends of the martial arts movie world, but very few would ever consider calling him handsome. Luckily, this never really mattered in kungfu films, where you could always find a greater proliferation of ugly heroes and leading men than in any other genre. Ugly men beating up old people. Anyway, Lo did have a few stages of ugliness he could employ. In the 1960s when he frequently starred alongside Jimmy Wang Yu in classic swordsman tales, he was “not especially ugly.” His characters were usually cool, and he was at times almost dashing in a weird way. In the 1970s, things really went downhill for him though, and while his fame grew bigger so too did his level of ugliness. Relegated primarily to villainous roles, Lo was usually in “relatively ugly” mode. It was only on special occasions that he’d trot out his “fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down” brand of ugly, which relied heavily on things like an excessively oily face, stomach-churning amounts of greasiness in the hair, and lots of close-ups of his mouth (and his mangy little mustache) when he’s doing stuff like eating chicken. Revenge of the Zombies may be his crowning achievement in the uglies, because it combines all the oiliness of the above-mentioned grades of ugly with a vile, flared 1970′s wardrobe.
Being ugly doesn’t stop him from being a fan-favorite, though. Think of him as the Ron Jeremy of kungfu. The fact that he lacks the dashing good looks of Ti Lung makes him someone more real to most of us. We also understand that almost no guy looks good when he’s shot in lots of sweaty close-ups. All of this, of course, ignores the fact that ugly or not, Lo Lieh was one hell of a performer; a great actor and a dazzling martial artist. He could play anything from the hero to the villain (the Shaw Bros’ most dependable baddie next to Wang Lung-wei) and even the comic relief (a la his role in the terrific Buddha’s Palm). He is one of the great stars of kungfu’s gritty Golden Age.
Both he and Ti Lung are in top form here. When the two rivals find themselves under attack from a legion of mysterious goons, they put aside their friendly attempts to kill one another and join forces to see who is behind the would-be assassination. They soon discover that the evil Lord Yu is trying to kill the both of them off. Why? Well, to rule the Martial World of course. Fu and Yen are the only two swordsman who can challenge the evil lord’s attempts to bully everyone. Key to his plans for domination is a sacred weapon called the Peacock Dart, which isn’t so much a dart as it is a massively powerful collection of grenades in the shape of a peacock’s tail fan. Needless to say, Fu is judged trustworthy enough to possess the dart, but the weapon’s owner also sends his daughter Yu-cheng (Ching Li) on the quest to put an end to Lord Yu’s evil ways – a quest that has always been difficult since no one actually knows who Lord Yu is, though they do know he employs some the most lethal assassins the Martial World has ever beheld.
Tops among Yu’s henchmen is the aforementioned Devil Granny (played by Ha Ping). I guess to be fair, I should point out that if old people want to stop getting beat up by kungfu heroes, they should stop taking jobs where their primary goal is to start fights with kungfu heroes. I’m all for seniors in the workplace, but with some jobs, you have to accept a certain degree of being rammed through with a sword without complaining about it. All the henchmen have supernatural powers, and everyone spends a lot of time indulging in the requisite fantastic feats like disappearing into puffs of smoke and jumping through ceilings. If you were looking to get rich in medieval China and didn’t want to resort to becoming a corrupt official, you could always go into roof repair. It seems not a movie goes by where someone doesn’t go flying up through the roof.
Our trio of heroes manage to overcome most of the obstacles thrown in front of them, and those obstacles are plenty creative. During one scene, our trio of heroes find themselves standing amid a bustling market where no one is moving because they’ve all been killed so efficiently that they remain sitting exactly as they were the second before they died. Another encounter finds our heroes in a battle set atop a giant chessboard, with Devil Granny on the sidelines cooking people and cackling incessantly. I guess if I met an old person who indulged in cannibalism and never stopped cackling, maybe I’d take a swing at her too. So Fu is forgiven for beating up old people. Other opponents include a transgender kungfu master, a saucy monk, a duo of lute-playing female assassins, and several dozen nameless lackeys. One conflict after another leads to the big showdown with the enigmatic Lord Yu in his elegant estate. Once again, Fu gets to beat up some old people!
Devil Granny is a wonderful example of just how over-the-top creative Kung Lu’s original stories were. Not every genre of film can give you an elderly character who drinks human blood, boils people alive, and wheels around a food cart armed with explosive Thunder Bullet weapons and filled with armed henchmen waiting to burst out at a moment’s notice. Her catering cart could give Ogami Ito’s baby cart a run for it’s money, that’s for sure. People tend to attribute the whole “quirky assemblage of characters” thing to a post-Tarantino cinema landscape, but kungfu films were filling themselves with deadly killer hermaphrodites (or whatever those guys become when their kungfu makes them change sexes), naked lesbian assassins, and flesh-gobbling grandmas long before it was cool.
Of course, this being a Chor Yuen film based on a Kung Lu novel, nothing and no one is ever exactly as it seems. Fu must contend with the never-ending legion of killers who possess all sorts of crazy supernatural martial arts ability, and at the same time must unravel the complicated plot and figure out who is on his side, and who is just trying to kill him. Ching Li, of course, we know we can always trust, but what about that Lo Lieh?
As with the other films in the Chor Yuen – Lu Kung collection, which includes Clans of Intrigue and Legend of the Bat, this film strikes a perfect blend of martial arts madness, fantastic supernatural shenanigans, a dash of eroticism, and a mystery plot so convoluted that it takes multiple viewings to comprehend everything and catch all the little nuances. There are several instances where the plot twist is overly obvious, and Yuan seems aware of this. That doesn’t stop them from making the twist, which toys with disappointing you until he subverts the whole thing and twists the twist. He’s the Chubby Checker of martial arts films. Despite some storyline curveballs, Magic Blade is probably the easiest of Chor Yuen’s films to follow. The plot keeps you on your toes, but it’s fairly straight-forward and concentrates less on the mystery and more on Ti Lung chopping people to bits in the name of righteousness. It’s relative accessibility compared to many of the other Chor Yuen/Kung Lu films makes it a perfect place to start if you’re new to the director.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Chor Yuen’s films is his ability to take the same cast, same crew, and come up with something fresh each time. Although they all share certain similarities, each of the director’s films has a unique feel that is generated primarily from the characters. Because Fu is a serious, no-nonsense kind of guy, Magic Blade has a serious, no-nonsense kind of feel despite all the unbelievable things going on. Although he plays essentially the same type of character (the superhuman, can-do-no-wrong swordsman) in Clans of Intrigue and Legend of the Bat, Ti Lung goes for a more relaxed, playful characterization resulting in a lighter-feeling film (once again, despite all the mayhem). The fact that Chor Yuen never lets action steal the movie from his characters means he can tweak each film and make it different, something Chang Cheh was unable to do thanks to his dedication to the character as a symbol rather than as a human being.
And where his character in subsequent Chor Yuen films is regal in appearance, Ti Lung’s Fu is a more rough and tumble sort of guy. His look, especially the scruff and the poncho, seems derived directly from Clint Eastwood’s appearance in Sergio Leone’s Western epics like The Good the Bad and the Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars. Westerns, kungfu films, and Japanese samurai movies all share a common, somewhat tangled bond that keeps them forever linked to one another and allows new fans of each genre to discover the connections without ever growing tired of the game. So Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, inspires Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars, which in turn inspires the look of a character in Magic Blade, which coincidentally stars Lo Lieh who would later star alongside Lee Van Cleef in the Western/kungfu cross-over film Stranger and the Gunfighter. All three genres of film deal with the same basic types of characters and even underwent similar changes in theme and appearance (the transformation of the Western from the heroic, polished old days to the gritty, sweaty Leone era, the move of kungfu films from the classical settings and theatrical structure of the early films to the greasy, grimy grittiness of the 1970s, and samurai films from the lofty Kurosawa classics to the gore and blood-soaked Lone Wolf and Cub films). All that Magic Blade is missing is Walter Matheau running up behind people and shooting them in the back with a double barreled shotgun.
As was his trademark, Chor Yuen drapes his film in eye-popping beauty, and I don’t just mean Betty Tien Ni and Ching Li (or Ti Lung, for the ladies…or Lo Lieh for the crazy people). Relying almost exclusively on sets within the Shaw Bros sprawling compound, Chor Yuen is able to control every last detail of each scene, filling them with lavish decorations and splashes of color and augmenting them with inventive camerawork that shows once again a kinship with the outrageous gothic horrors of Italian director Mario Bava. Only one sequence is filmed outdoors, an encounter in a misty forest and hillside. There is an additional scene set in an open-air courtyard, but even that is strictly controlled. The rest is on sets and allows Chor Yuen to show off the highly stylized look.
Matching the director’s vision pace for pace is the superb cast lead by the always-charismatic Ti Lung. For my money, he was the number one martial arts star in the history of the Shaw Bros studio, and nowhere is his prowess both physical and dramatic. The only problem here is the same one he has in Clans of Intrigue – his character is so bad-ass and so skilled that you never doubt the outcome of a conflict. Fu is always one step ahead of the game, sometimes in the most outrageous ways possible (wait until you see what he can do with his sinus cavity). It’s still fun watching him find a solution to every problem, but sometimes you wish he’d be caught off-guard at least once. Even when he’s getting beaten up, it’s because it’s all part of his plan. Or so he says. At least here he does have to fight a lot. In his Chu Liu-Hsiang role, Ti Lung seems almost along for the ride, just to amuse himself and relieve the boredom of living in a floating boat-palace where his every need is attended to by a trio of beautiful women. Fu at least has to work for a living, and pretty much every fight scene involves his character.
Lo Lieh is also in top form as Yen. Lo Lieh is known for playing villainous roles, and the movie exploits his reputation as the heavy to its advantage. He does a decent heroic turn here, but his past typecasting keeps you wondering whether or not you can trust him. Ching Li has a lot less to do here than in other outings with Ti Lung and Chor Yuen, but she’s always a sight for sore eyes. Speaking of which, Chor Yuen does like to pepper his movies with nudity, and we get here an actress who doffs her duds and orders two nubile nymphs to make out with each other in a bid to bring Fu over to the dark side. Personally, if I was Fu I’d be much happier with sort of attack than with Devil Granny trying to cut my throat. Like Fu, I would valiantly endure the onslaught of beautiful maidens performing wanton acts of carnality. Perhaps someday he and Sir Galahad from Monty Python and the Holy Grail can go a-questing together.
The supporting cast is made up of an endless parade of Shaw Bros. stalwarts and recognizable faces. Their job is primarily to laugh and kill, and next time you’re on a job interview and they ask you what your previous job duties entailed, simply say, “I was there to laugh and kill.” Ku Feng, who also appears alongside Ti Lung in Clans of Intrigue and Legend of the Bat, plays one of the killers, and Fan Mei Sheng, who starred as “the smiling fat guy” in just about every movie ever made, plays the evil yet jolly monk. Devil Granny Ha Ping had a long career playing a surprising variety of characters. Sometimes she’s an aging brothel matron (as in Human Lanterns), and other times she plays a character named auntie, Mrs. someone, or someone’s mother or grandmother. As far as I can tell, she was born playing elderly characters, sort of like Peter Cushing. Very few of her other roles allowed for this much toothless cackling and eating of human flesh, though.
What really makes this film a fan favorite, though, is the amount of swordplay it showcases. While other Chor Yuen films rely heavily on whodunit plotting and feature numerous scenes of people trying to figure stuff out, Magic Blade sports a much faster, blood-soaked pace. The fight scenes come fast and furious but never so endlessly that they become boring. The choreography by Tong Gai is exhilarating and definitely ahead of its time. Most filmmakers and action choreographers wouldn’t learn how to shoot fight scenes this fluid and exciting until well into the 1980s. Although the movie is full of fantastic elements, when the fights get down to the nitty gritty, they’re pretty realistic within the realm of realism that includes the ability for a single guy to ward of dozens of armed attackers. But he doesn’t fly or shoot lasers out of his eyes. If your top demand from a martial arts film is breathtaking action, then Magic Blade has you covered.
Magic Blade was the second pairing of Chor Yuen with the literary source material of Kung Lu (the first was Killer Clans, released the same year). It was the beginning of a long and impressive series of films in which the director relied on the author’s martial arts novels, usually with Ti Lung cast in the lead and Ching Li as the supporting female heroine. Ti Lung would even reprise the role of Fu Hung-hsu in a cameo for Chor Yuen’s Death Duel starring David Chiang’s younger brother, Derek Yee. Chiang and Lung were, of course, practically inseparable as the dynamic duo of director Chang Cheh’s output throughout the 1970s. Chiang himself (along with many of the Shaw Bros. stars) has a particularly insane cameo in the same film.
Although lost for many years as a result of never being released on video, the recently released DVDs from Celestial offer fans of martial arts films a look at the work of the man who was arguably the best martial arts director working at the studio, and one of the best martial arts directors of all time. He took the classical wuxia tradition of directors like King Hu and Chang Cheh in the 1960s and revolutionized it with his eye for artistry, beauty, and frenetically paced action sequences. Without Chor Yuen, there might very well have never been a Hong Kong new wave, and the no-holds-barred swordsman pieces of the 1980s would have looked very different had it not been for Chor Yuen’s pioneering work. As an example of the director and author’s love of complicated plots and nonstop storyline twists, Magic Blade is a fine specimen. As an example of the director’s mastery of staging fast-paced, action-packed swordplay drama, Magic Blade simply cannot be beat.
This sun-drenched French production set in St. Tropez, one of the first for that country shot in color and scope, is famous — or notorious, if you prefer — for several reasons. For starters, it is the film that launched the career of Roger Vadim, a member of the French new wave in cinema who looked at his films as more of a fashion and art design show than as a way to actually tell a story. His tendency to romance beautiful women, them feature them in his films wearing as little as he could get away with, is among his many great contributions to global society. And here, in his debut film, he decided to give the world Brigitte Bardot.
I said when I reviewed the final Vadim-Bardot collaboration the dreary-yet-intriguing Don Juan (Or if Don Juan were a Woman), that a film of that sorry caliber was not the proper place to discuss the life and times of Brigitte Bardot, that she deserved something a little more impressive. Well, you can’t find a much better place to discuss her than here, the film that launched her to superstardom. She had been working in film since 1952, but this was the one that turned her into the endearing cinematic icon she would become. She started out training in music and dance but quickly moved into modeling and, as seems to often be the case, film. During the first year of her film career she met Vadim, and they planned to wed just as soon as it was legal (she was 17 at the time). Hey, it was France after all. Their marriage only lasted five years. Vadim was a legendary womanizer, after all, and a young Jane Fonda was waiting to become his next muse.
But the Bardot juggernaut was rolling, and she became a huge hit in America despite remaining a wholly French performer. Her photos and dubbed movies created a sensation and outraged Puritanical thinkers who were shocked at the level of sauciness her films often displayed. Yeah, that old chestnut. Will grumpy, uptight American blowhards ever get tired of being shocked and outraged at everything? This overblown reaction to everything, this desperate attempt from so many people to seem shocked and outraged by everything just so they can create a scandal or a sensation where none exists, is perhaps one of my least favorite things. It would be different if the shock was ever genuine, but no, it’s always something concocted purely to make waves in the media, who being utterly and fantastically idiotic and useless and an insult to the entire history of journalism, lap it up like mad dogs (if, indeed, mad dogs lap things up more fervently than regular dogs. You know what I mean). And lest you think I’m aiming my criticism purely at “the Conservative right,” let me throw into the ring that colossally moronic parade of indignation that was parades through the Left simply because Dick Cheney told someone to go fuck themselves, or way back when G.W. called a NY Times reporter an asshole. Or any of the countless times some innocuous something or other sends a money-hungry lawyer into fits of hysteria because it might offend someone somewhere, possibly.
Man alive, it’s enough to send me into fits of moral outrage. We live now in a society where sexuality comes in two flavors: either we’re totally repressed or we’re totally pornographic. That middle ground where things are playful and fun and teasing and healthy seems to have been eliminated from our concept of sex. We’re either uptight moral watchdogs fuming over some pop star’s boob or we’re ten-year-olds in thongs freak dancing in some lewd video full of sweaty strippers and guys in needlessly baggy trousers. We’re a nation of extremes growing ever further apart, even though in reality, I would bet most people are somewhere in the middle wishing the nutjobs on either edge would just shut the hell up. But that’s not going to happen, and as long as the middle doesn’t speak up and increase the noise even more, we just have to endure the crazies around us and hope that they keep canceling each other out as we remind ourselves most of them don’t even believe what they’re screaming about. They’re just trying to get more time on television.
So what does any of this have to do with Brigitte Bardot, Roger Vadim, and And God Created Woman? Well, it’s that same old story, though I guess it was newer in 1956 than it is now, but it was still pretty old even then. The film opens with a playful nude profile of BB as she sunbathes amid sheets of flapping laundry. This is back when people hung things out on lines to dry, you know. This was pushing what you could show in any film that wasn’t playing in the grindhouse and featuring a plotline about an escaped gorilla that terrorizes a nudist colony, but the French seemed to roll with it (the nudity, that is; not hanging laundry out to dry). Say what you will about their snootiness. At least they know not to get totally outraged at something like a naked butt. That could be their national motto.
When the film sought release in the United States, however, we trotted out our usual shock and outrage. Or rather, the handful of cranky sons of bitches in charge of such things trotted it out on our behalf without ever stopping to inquire as to whether the greater portion of America was actually going to be as offended as they were telling us we were. But even more so than a glimpse of Bardot’s behind, the powers in charge of national outrage were outraged, it seems, simply by the naked sensuality in the film, even though it wasn’t accompanied by actual nakedness, and by the open depiction of a woman who is at ease with her sexuality, her own body, and not prone to play the demure and loyal housewife. It seems, almost, that Vadim’s picture was made specifically for this sort of reaction. It is the story of a sexually liberated woman named Juliete who is perfectly nice and friendly but, because of her tendency to do things like mambo with them colored folks, is considered a trollop by the small-minded villagers around her. Conversely, the men in the film are all highly regarded and can do no wrong because they are successful and society-minded men, never mind how rotten they may actually be. Their transgressions can be forgiven since they are men, and well-dressed men at that.
Compounding Juliete’s problem is that she is an orphan adopted by a stern couple that doesn’t approve of her free spiritedness and are planning to send her back to the orphanage unless she settles down and gets married. I didn’t know you could send grown adults back to the orphanage, but I guess there are a lot of things I don’t know. She eventually finds a man she could love, but he treats her like a one-night stand and takes off the next day. His younger, more sensitive brother takes pity on her and falls in love, and eventually the two are married against the wishes of nearly everyone. Things get more complex with a wealthy shipping magnate takes an interest in her as well, and even more complicated when the older brother returns with romance on his mind. Although the men think of Juliete as a “destroyer of men,” Vadim’s film is positively on the side of the heroine. She’s the victim not just of opportunistic men, but also of the backward attitudes of those around her.
Though the film is somewhat sympathetic to Juliete, she is not without her faults. She is unable to remain faithful to her husband, though you could say this was simply because she was more or less forced into the marriage by circumstance. She seems less malevolent than she is simply innocent and ignorant of the fact that she, as a woman, is expected to do anything other than behave like the men around her, which means she should be free to flirt and sleep with whomever she wants. She comes across at times and thoughtless and impetuous, sometimes selfish, and as unable to control herself as the men around her. Like them, she wants to disregard any responsibility she should take for her own actions. All of them deserve a good kick in the bum to wake them up. However, it’s not Juliete fault the men turn into a bunch of leering goons every time she comes around — even though that seems to be the pervading (and damnably persistent) attitude of society at large, where the woman is always to blame when a man gives in to temptation or acts like a vicious cur.
It became difficult, if not impossible, to separate the movie from the controversy it caused. Well, it’s been a few years since 1956, so it’s easier now to look at the film on its own merits, though it certainly gets points still for having caused such a stir. And separate from said controversy, it’s an enjoyable film for me. Vadim would become famous for his art design and composition, and though this film lacks the eye-popping op-art madness of films like Barbarella, it’s still supremely gorgeous. Vadim takes full advantage of color and the richness of the lush Mediterranean setting. He alternates between painfully composed art shots and wild naturalism, using the wide scope format to its fullest to convey a sense of serene beauty and haunting desolation amid the color-drenched French seaside.
Of course, let’s not kid ourselves, since this is a Vadim picture. It is a serviceable psycho-sexual drama, but like most of his films, it’s rather sloppy in the narrative department and wanders without a care between art and exploitation. The plot is breezy at its heaviest, and the few times it attempts to inject serious drama into the proceedings are clumsy. It’s unevenly paced and drags in spots, but I’m partial to a slower film these days anyway. And of course, every single reviewer will refer to the formerly shocking scenes like the bare bottom or the mambo finale as “rather tame by today’s standards,” which has always been a phrase that I don’t like. Can’t say exactly why, other than to relate it to my even more fervent distaste for the “looks dated” criticism. Maybe it’s because it just seems stupid. Okay, we get it. Standards have changed in the past half a century. That’s not exactly a news flash. Personally, I think this film remains plenty daring and sexy, if not for what it shows then certainly for what it has to say. The “woman in touch with her sexuality” line has been trotted out countless times since this film as if it remains something new, daring, or unique. It’s much more enjoyable to go back to a film where it was new, daring, and unique. What the film manages to do with its daring, however, is where the wheels start to come off.
The film seems confused about what to do with its theme and often comes across as reactionary as it is progressive. It seems unable to make up its mind whether it wants to stick by Bardot’s character or pull the ol’ morality tale ending and teach us all a valuable lesson about the wanton ways of womanhood. If it seems hesitant to support the woman, it’s also hesitant to condemn the men, resulting in a film full of mixed messages. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is often campy and stilted. Vadim was never one for a stellar script, after all. Rather than try to decipher the message the film itself seems unable to bring into focus, it’s best to look at the film as something of a time capsule, of masculinity on the cusp of a new era trying to come to grips with a new breed of woman it fears and cannot fully comprehend.
But Brigitte is the main attraction, and she truly shines here in a film that could almost be summarized as a series of provocative postcards, or as a love letter to the form of Brigitte Bardot. She’s playful, charismatic, and hints at a touch of devilishness. It is quite easy to understand why the men around her are willing to throw their lives into disarray (even as they blame their weakness on her) for her affections. She is hypnotic and possessed of a quality few women have been able to convey onscreen. Her supporting cast is quite good too, including a turn by future James Bond villain, Curd Jurgens, here as the charming older captain of industry Carradine and later in The Spy Who Loved Me giving Roger Moore and Barbara Bach a hard time. But everyone else pales in comparison to BB, who was one of the few mode-turned-actress sex kitten types with real acting ability behind the pout to die for. Her mambo madness during the film’s finale is a sight to behold, that’s for sure.
Ultimately, the film’s aspirations slightly outreach its ability to deliver, but we’re left, if nothing else, at least with a film that had aspirations and looks damn good while trying to attain them. Bardot is stunning, the cinematography is divine, and the story may not be perfect, but it’s still a satisfying film for me. Is it art or cheap titillation? Well, does it really even matter? Is there a difference? As I’ve always maintained, what counts in a film, and with any sort of medium isn’t whether or not some body of strangers pronounces it as “art” or as “important.” What matters is, “did you enjoy it?” and “did it entertain or move you?” And you know, I did and it did, and that’s that. Like any Roger Vadim film it’s flawed, and things really start to fall apart the closer you examine the confusing messages behind the pretty pictures and see a movie that manages to be sexy, sexist, and sexually liberating all at once, that somehow is pro- and anti-feminist at the same time. In the end, what you have to remember is that this train wreck of moral messages is simply more proof that even at the beginning of his career, Vadim was far more interested in the image than the story. And God Created Woman emerges as an exploitation film wrapped in a art film — something that would become Vadim’s trademark. You can’t necessarily take it seriously, but that’s probably for the best. If you did, it would just make your head spin.
Bardot would go on a spectacular career full of many bad movies and a few more good ones. Her marriage to Vadim crumbled shortly after the completion of this film. In the end, the fact that she was reportedly a rather kind and generous person got the better of her, and relentless tabloid attention (you didn’t think those were new inventions, did you), crazed fans breaking into her home, and ultimately demonization simply for the fact that was sexy and willing to show the fact off, drove her to the brink of a breakdown. She retired from film in the early 1970s and did her best to disappear entirely from the public eye, eventually becoming active in the fight for animal rights. Vadim would reunite with her for her final picture, and then in 1988 go on to remake/rewrite And God Created Woman with Rebecca DeMornay in the lead.
Release Year: 1956 | Country: France | Starring: Brigitte Bardot, Curd Jurgens, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jane Marken, Jean Tissier, Isabelle Corey, Jacqueline Ventura, Jacques Ciron, Paul Faivre, Jany Mourey, Philippe Grenier, Jean Lefebvre, Leopoldo Frances, Jean Toscano, Marie Glory | Writer: Roger Vadim | Director: Roger Vadim | Cinematography: Armand Thirard | Music: Paul Misraki | Producer: Raoul Levy | Original Title: Et Dieu… crea la femme
Technically, this should have been the first Hammer horror film I reviewed, if for no other reason than the sake of some chronological order running through this ongoing journal. This is the one that started it all. Well, no, technically I guess Quatermass Xperiment started it all, but this is the one that really made “all” all that much more. But in our zeal to watch a good vampire movie, we skipped ahead a bit and went for Horror of Dracula first. A faux pas, perhaps, but thanks to the miracle of hyperlinks and the web, you can always read this one first then skip on back to the other one. Or you can do what most people are probably doing anyway, and just not worry about it.
1955′s Quatermass clued the folks at Hammer in to the fact that maybe they had something on their hands with this horror and sci-fi business. They rushed out two more horror-scifi amalgamations, then in 1956 went to work on what was to be their first in a series of films that were, depending on who you are, either adaptations of classic works of British gothic horror, or remakes of old Universal Pictures horror films. The four biggest films in the Universal pantheon of horror were Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff, Dracula with Bela Lugosi, The Mummy again with Karloff, and The Wolfman with Lon Chaney Jr. For their first crack at the legends, Hammer went with Curse of Frankenstein.
It was a bit of a gamble, what with the Karloff film being one of the great iconic films not just of horror, but of movies in general. Hammer was going to have to figure out a way to do something just as good but totally innovative, something that would at once hearken back to and be largely different from its legendary predecessor. To start things off they assigned studio director Terence Fisher to the project, then furnished him with well-known television star Peter Cushing to portray Frankenstein. A good start, but if the Karloff film had taught anyone anything, it was that whoever plays the Monster will be the focal point of everyone’s attention. Hammer had a long series of auditions for a variety of big, hulking men before finally deciding on a tall but relatively lean actor by the name of Christopher Lee. Lee already had a decently long filmography under his belt, but most were small parts in small films, so he was more or less an unknown at the time. So an unknown director directs two seasoned but obscure character actors in a film based on a character that had more or less been made into a parody by the time Universal was finished with it, all at a time when interest in old Gothic horror was at an all-time low in favor of whiz-bang science fiction adventures. No problem.
There were other hurdles to clear. Universal was none too happy about someone making a new Frankenstein film. Although they didn’t create the character, they reasonably argued that when the average moviegoer heard the name Frankenstein, they didn’t think of Mary Shelley’s novel; they thought of the Universal movie. Hammer could have argued back that nothing they were going to do could have been any worse than some of those Frankenstein sequels that Universal pumped out during the 1940s. But that would have been rude to bring up. Universal threatened to sue Hammer if their monster came out looking anything remotely like the Karloff Monster, so Hammer went about stitching together, if you will, an entirely new look for Frankenstein’s frightening creation. Hammer also decided that, rather than focus on the tragic tale of the Monster and “tampering in God’s domain,” they’d focus, like the book, on the title character and his obsession with research.
The gambles paid off in spades. Christopher Lee’s monster, while never the icon that Karloff’s was, looked hideous and creepy because, for the most part, it looked so real, like a ghoulish, pallid man who had been created out of sundry body parts from other corpses. And the focus on Frankenstein himself allows Peter Cushing to shine and give audiences a doctor who is as memorable as the creature was in the original film. At the center of the film is Frankenstein’s own mania regarding research. As one character points out in the film, minutes before being pushed to his death by Frankenstein so the mad doctor can have a fresh, genius brain, some scientists have trouble with becoming obsessed with research then quickly growing bored with the outcome. Cushing’s Frankenstein is obsessed with research to the point that he really doesn’t care about the outcome. When he and his assistant Paul revive a dead dog, thereby making the single greatest achievement in the history of science, all Frankenstein is concerned with is taking the research to the next level. And when that next level is achieved, when he has created a man from the parts of dead men, all Frankenstein is interested in is yet more research, further pushing the boundaries of what he’s doing all day and night locked up in that lab.
Cushing’s portrayal is brilliant. He plays the doctor not as a mad scientist who turns remorseful and attempts to atone for his transgression, as was done by Colin Clive in the original, but instead as a man so engrossed by his research that he completely lacks any concept of the notion of good or evil. He doesn’t willingly violate taboos; he simply doesn’t comprehend that they even exist. Everything he sees is either an aide to or obstacle in his research. He is utterly amoral, but never evil. Cushing strikes the proper blend of British reserve and over-the-top histrionics. A role of this nature requires one to go over the top at certain moments, but there are a lot of different grades of over the top. Lesser actors simply ham it up and look ridiculous. Cushing, however, pushes it to exactly where it needs to be. The story revolves around him, and he’s more than up to the task of carrying its weight.
He’s surrounded by a superb supporting cast. Robert Urquhart is wonderful as Paul, first Frankenstein’s mentor and later his colleague, a man torn between a sense of decency and morality and a sense of curiosity about just what this brilliant madman can achieve. He suffers the car wreck syndrome, wanting to turn away but unable, too enticed by the doctor’s bizarre experiments just as he is repulsed by them. Hazel Court, who would go on to star in a handful of the Edgar Allen Poe adaptations that came from AIP and Roger Corman, is featured as Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s hapless bride-to-be who finds herself loyal to the baron even as he ignores her utterly in favor of his research. And then there’s Christopher Lee, charged with turning in a world-class performance as the monster without uttering a line of dialogue beyond “Arrhhh!” Karloff was able to do it in 1931, and Lee repeats the feat by giving us a monster that is not nearly as gentle and innocent as the Karloff creature but still plenty pathetic and tragic.
His make-up and outfit are truly ghoulish and eerie. I remember seeing a picture of him long before I’d ever seen the movie, back when I was in the second or third grade and bought a set of monster movie books through that Troll Book Order thing that made us so happy at the end of every month. There were four books in the set: Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, and then a general one about space monsters. I don’t recall there being one about mummies, but I could be forgetting, though everything else about the books remains vivid. I was already a huge monster movie fan by that time and had devoured the old Universal movies and Godzilla, but these books opened up a world I’d never seen. I was particularly impressed by the woodcut print of Vlad Tepes with all those impaled guys around him – you know the one. It shows up in any and every book or documentary about Dracula. But the thing that really scared the heck out of me was the full-page picture of Christopher Lee as Frankenstein’s Monster, in that black coat with the ragged skin and the misty eye. Freaked me out, and I still think it’s the most effective Frankenstein make-up there’s been. Man, I sure wish I still had those books. I remember they had black covers with a picture of the signature monster on them. There was this picture in the space monster volume of some guy in a weird black spacesuit kneeling over another guy in a black spacesuit who has been reduced to a skeleton. I’ve looked for years for that movie, but I have no recollection of the title, and that one photo isn’t much to go on.
The appearance of the creature is, of course, of thematic importance and always has been. Frankenstein goes on about how he will create man from scratch, perfect in every way, with the hands of an artist, the body of a hero, and the brain of a genius. And in every adaptation, this one included, the best he can do is a shambling flesh mound with homicidal tendencies. For Curse of Frankenstein it’s a symbol of the fact that the doctor doesn’t care about the ends so much as he does the means. All he wants to do is build and research. He’s created life, after all, and he’s blind to the eventual repercussions or its position as something of an abomination.
The attention to set dressing is wonderful as well. The film looks gorgeous and would set the high standard that would become one of the trademarks of Hammer films. If it’s not historically accurate down to the very last detail, it’s at least suitable convincing and complex. Frankenstein’s lab is, naturally, filled with all manner of scientific gadgetry, including a spinning turbine that makes that “mad scientist lair” whir, though I can’t help but think his experiment might have ended up better if he’d had a Jacob’s Ladder on hand. Fisher’s shot composition is wonderful as well. The scenes of Lee’s monster ambling through bleak, yellow-and-brown fall forests is still incredibly creepy, as the scene in which Paul takes aim and blows off a goodly portion of the monster’s head remains shocking.
The script by Jimmy Sangster is wonderful, literary feeling without being slow, and with several nods to the Shelley source material, though like all adaptations of both that and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it plays it pretty loosely with what was in the book versus what goes up on screen. Curse of Frankenstein manages to be suitably bombastic with subtle touches, and because like subsequent Hammer Gothic horrors it takes itself so darn seriously, it never devolves into the arena of camp. This is, after all, a film based on a famous work of literature, and so it is lent the proper weight and respect. The film never lagged for me or got boring, and this is a testament to Cushing’s command of the screen and the sharpness of the dialogue and pacing. It’s a film that realized you don’t have to pack in a generic “thrill a minute” to keep audiences interested so long as what you are saying is reasonably intelligent and engrossing.
Curse of Frankenstein was a smash success. Audiences went wild for the film’s brazen mixture of Gothic horror, vivid Eastmancolor, and gore. It opened the door to several sequels and established Hammer as the preeminent name in horror the world over. It revived the entire concept of the Gothic horror movie, paving the way for such coming innovators and history makers as Mario Bava and Corman’s Poe films with Vincent Price. It launched the careers of both Lee and Cushing into the stratosphere, though it would be several more movies before Christopher was allowed to really use that theatrical, booming voice of his on more than a few lines. The success of Curse of Frankenstein also convinced Hammer to try their hand at reinventing a couple more classic Universal monsters thought flogged to death during the ’30s and ’40s. And once that started, everything else at the studio was put on hold as they became the Hammer House of Horrors, so to speak. Their resurrection of Dracula was another smash. To complete their cycle, they would then turn once again to the team of Fisher, Cushing, and Lee and give the world The Mummy.
Where to start with this one? First off, it’s a mess. Not necessarily an unenjoyable mess, but a mess never the less. Comparisons to Barbarella are, at least for me, inevitable since this is once again director Roger Vadim constructing a film around pop art, outrageous fashion, and his sex kitten obsession of the week. This time around it’s French bombshell Brigitte Bardot. Granted, constructing your movie around Brigitte Bardot wearing outrageous outfits (or nothing at all) and parading around a series of equally outrageously designed space-age pop sets is certainly not a bad thing, but where Barbarella was freewheeling fun and campy enough to make the darker moments seem palatable, If Don Juan Were a Woman is possessed of a grubbier, perhaps even sleazier feel that makes the cynicism and nastiness of the characters difficult to bear. It certainly lacks the sexy-yet-innocent perverse glee of Jane Fonda’s space opera.
Bardot stars as Jeanne, a self-proclaimed man-destroyer who recounts her deeds to a young priest. Her goal in life, after deciding that men are contemptible creatures is to seduce them, then drive them to ruin and, from time to time, suicide. She does this all while living on a partially submerged boat that looks to be the end result of a fight between interior designing mods and those weird 1970s people who dressed in flowing, shiny “future wear.” Mod meets Freddie Mercury, I reckon. The script has a tendency to be so bland that this orgy of campy fashion and décor becomes the main reason to keep watching. Well that and the fact that, even a few years past her sex kitten prime, Brigitte Bardot is still a wonder to behold. She need only look at the camera to make you understand why men are willing to destroy themselves for her. Heck, I like her more for being “a bit past her prime” and showing that yep, older women can indeed still be one hell of a sight. Still, if you’r elooking for a movie to discover Brigitte Bardot and discover why so many of us old farts are, even today, prone to wobbly knees and dreamy eyes at the mention of her name, this film is a pretty bad place to start.
As I said, the movie has a real nasty streak. The woman who is abused by men to the point that she seeks to extract revenge on as many of them as possible should be a sympathetic character, but the script never really gives Bardot’s Jeanne a chance to do much that is likeable. She fancies herself, as the title suggests, something of a reincarnation of the famed 16th century lover, Don Juan. In the end, as befits a broadly drawn morality tale, she gets her comeuppance, but not before the film has indulged in numerous saucy moments that are, in reality, fairly tepid even by standards of the day. BB shines in a few erotic moments, but most the film lacks any real sexual charge. It all feels a bit…I don’t know. Tired, I suppose. I think the movie would have been better played as a farce with more drive and spirit. Instead, it takes a more serious approach and sinks under it’s own attempts to be important. Vadim was never a good director, but he had a great eye for the absurd, both in art design and storytelling. He should have indulged that predilection more in this film. Instead, it wallows not so much in its own mean-spiritedness as it does in its own tedium. It was meant to be sort of a autobiographical stab at the audiences from BB, the fading arthouse sex symbol who saw her life ravaged by tabloid attention. I guess the main problem isn’t so much the darkness as it is the fact that everything unfolds in such dull fashion.
Actually, I guess the fashion is the one thing that isn’t dull about this film.
Chalk it up to this being a French production. Where Vadim under the guidance of the Italians was wild and free, here as part of the French New Wave he is morose and dreary, a hipster whose hippest moments are behind him in the same way Bardot’s best days were behind her. He goes about making this movie devoid of joy, passion, or insight. It is clinically dry, even when Bardot is reclining naked in her big furry bed with another woman. Vadim was a stylist, and this movie relies too much on storytelling from a man who can’t really tell a story. We are left with a train wreck of a film, too listless to be pleasurable, too silly and broadly drawn to be intellectual.
But it’s not all drudgery here. There’s enough eye candy on display to keep a viewer like me marveling at the tacky beauty of it all. And while they call her over the hill or past her prime, the way I see it Bardot, then age 39 or 40 is still plenty in her prime. This was, however, her last film, but I guess my taste for older women biases my views. Give me a woman in her thirties any day over those babbling young things, especially if that woman in her thirties looks like, say, Brigitte Bardot or Nicole Kidman. Even with her icy, detached performance here, Bardot still can’t help but smolder. Too bad for this film that nothing every actually ignites. There’s plenty to dicuss when it comes to Brigitte Bardot, and God knows we love her even in a bad film, but I think I’ll hold off on that discussion until we get to one of her better films (we have both Contempt and And God Created Woman coming up soon).
Of course when it comes to eye-popping art design, Vadim was an ace, and this movie, despite its failings elsewhere, is still quite beautiful to behold. Nice cinematography helps highlight the truly cracked vision of this world that exists somewhere between the swingin’ sixties and the self-destructively indulgent seventies. The look of the film is enough to merit slogging all the way through to the end, but just barely. And when you get there, the end is pretty goofy anyway.
Still, I can’t help but defer to the quirkiness of it all. As big a mess as it is, as haggard and confused and tired as it may seem in some parts, there is still something curiously alluring about the film. It’s like probing a cold sore with your tongue. You know it just hurts, but you can’t stop doing it. Of course, I’d much rather probe Brigitte Bardot with my tongue but then, well, I’ve crossed the line, haven’t I?
I’m no Christian. This is probably pretty obvious to anyone who’s been with us for a while. I don’t believe in God. Not any of them. Well, maybe God of Gamblers, but that’s about it. However, while this would place me firmly in the camp of the atheists, I’m much happier not camping with anyone based on religious beliefs or lack thereof. Where I confuse people is that I like to discuss religion and religious evens, the sociology and history of religion, religious and Biblical archaeology, but I have absolutely zero interest in debating the existence of God. It bores me to tears utterly and completely. I don’t want to be argued at by people trying to convert me any more or less than I want to hear atheists hurling their arguments at believers. I’m a laid-back kind of non-believer who doesn’t care what you dig, at least not up until the point where you start executing people for religious reasons.
My interests in religion are not theological. They are, as a said, historical, archaeological, social, and literary. I was simply interested in the story as a story, in the metaphors and meanings behind the action, in the humanism of the New Testament and the guts and gore action and warfare in the Old and how those who would use The Bible to justify their hatred of another so often selectively forget the teachings of that bearded dude they claim to love. I read the Bhagavad-Gita for the same reasons. I bear no religion a grudge, though most organized churches and sects I could do without. That said, I should also confess another fact some of you might already know: I love me a big overblown epic. Especially big overblown ancient-world epics. Give me a cast of thousands in tunics stabbing each other and careening about in chariots, and I’ll probably be a happy viewer. So obviously, throw all these tastes together, and you can guess that I really love big, lavish Biblical productions. Charlton Heston standing in front of special effects and throwing stone tablets down at people, things like that.
As a fan of these films, I’ve always been struck by how few of them are about Jesus. He does, after all, play something of a large role in the whole Christianity thing. And yet, few and far between are the films about the man. You’d think there would be hundreds. Perhaps it’s simply too daunting a task. After all, it’s a long and complex story possessed of much depth that might be difficult to translate to screen, especially in a way that would be intelligible to the so-called uninitiated (actually, I don’t know if they’re called that at all). Plus, the man is a gigantic, larger-than-life character who must radiate charisma, compassion, emotion, and majesty on a grand scale. That’s a tall order for an actor other than Nicolas Cage to fill, to be told “try and act just like the son of God.” So it is that most directors stuck to other stories from The Bible, and John Huston tried to do the entire thing with disastrous results. Jesus would stroll in from time to time, but he was never the central figure.
And curiously, he’s not exactly the central figure in King of Kings, one of the first grand-scale retellings of the life of Christ.
It’s not really important, at least to me, whether or not Jesus was the Son of God. Personally, not believing in God, I find it difficult to believe he had a son. So that’s a pretty easy one, as far as I’m concerned. Whether or not he was a true historical figure is a thornier issue, but I figure yeah, there probably was a Jesus or someone very much like him, and some the events of his life are more or less based on fact. Regardless of whether or not he’s your homeboy, there’s little point in arguing against the notion that, at the very least, he’s a compelling historic and/or literary character, not to mention being one of the most influential men of all time, regardless of who or what he was or was not. So a movie about him is a pretty big undertaking, and King of Kings goes about this Herculean task primarily by not focusing on Jesus.
We do get to see his greatest hits and usual highlights reel: the three wisemen and the manger, the meeting of John the Baptist, the pilgrimage into the desert, Sermon on the Mount, and needless to say, the Last Supper, crucifixion, and resurrection (but he doesn’t get to show off his watar-to-wine or water walking bits). But these are exactly how I describe them: highlights. With the exception of the Sermon on the Mount, they don’t take up much screen time and aren’t delved into too deeply. It’s almost as if the movie doesn’t know exactly what to do with Christ, like he’s too big and too intimidating a character to tackle. So we skip around with only a cursory touching on the big moments. Heck, other than being born, Jesus hardly even shows up for the full first third of the film, which deals more with King Herod, Roman governor of Judea Pontius Pilate, and the Roman general (I think he was a general) Lucius.
When Jesus shows up to do some preaching or work some miracles, it’s rarely shown in much detail. More often than not, narrator Orson Welles comes on and something more or less along the lines of, “And then Jesus did show up and perform some miracles and preach a spell.” On the other hand, we get long looks at the court of King Herod, at Brigit Bazlan as Salome doing her seductive dance (thank you Satan, or whoever was responsible for that sequence), and at Judeaic freedom fighter and political agitator Barabbas (Harry Guardino) making plots and launching guerrilla attacks on the Roman legions. Barabbas, in fact, becomes one of the two most interesting characters in the whole film, the other being the compassionate Roman soldier Lucius (Ron Randell). See the problem there? Yeah, in a movie about Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ really should be your most interesting character.
Instead, Jesus Christ is Jeffery Hunter, the very spitting image of the blue-eyed, blond-haired messiah that dominated the West for much of the 20th century. Hunter was definitely the hottest Jesus in film history until Mel Gibson made his Jesus torture-porn movie, but hot doesn’t make for interesting. It looks like poor Hunter was simply overwhelmed by the role. Rather than trying to conjure up any of the fire or charisma or passion (not that passion) that made Jesus the sort of man who could move thousands, Hunter simply glides glassy-eyed from one big set to the next. He’s not so much playing Jesus as he is wearing a robe and showing up on set to read passages from The Bible in a dull monotone. If you didn’t know who the character was already, you’d be utterly baffled as to why anyone would follow him. He’s non-dimension, completely devoid of charm or spark or anything that might make you think this Jesus guy, he’s something special all right. The only reason anyone would follow this king of kings is because the story demands it of them or they thought he was the Burger King.
I think another part of the problem is the movie is simply too scared to play it straight with Jesus. They err on the side of reverence to the point of dullness. He speaks without emotion. He seems to have nothing inside, because the script seems to think it’s safer to portray him in this otherworldly fashion than to deal with his humanity and passion (not that passion). Or maybe they’re of that group that considers Christ entirely divine and not human. What were they called? It caused a lot of problems for Justinian and Theodora in Byzantium. Remember? Unfortunately, my history falters at the name, and my book on Byzantine history is all the way across the room. Oh what the heck? There, are you happy? I got up and walked all the way across the room to look the term up, only to find out that that was my book on The Crusades. I don’t know where my Byzantium books are right now. The place is a bit of a jumble.
Anyway, you had the Orthodox Byzantine church that maintained Christ was human then divine, which makes sense to me and makes his story more compelling. The other faction believed he was entirely divine, which again in my opinion, makes his story less moving. A divine being on the cross almost seems like he’s only pretending to be in pain, while a human up there speaks more to my human side, especially when that side is getting poked by a spear that will eventually be used by Robert Patrick to defeat neo-Nazis. I don’t know, though. I’ve never tried to crucify a god, and I’m not looking to have the experience any time soon. So the people who made King of Kings either believed Christ was entirely divine and thus should show no human charisma and emotion, that the mere fact of his divinity is what sways people, or they simply believed that divinity was dull.
As much as the film falters in the story of Christ, if succeeds in many other areas, and is quite more effective if you think of it not as the story of the life of Christ, but the story of the times of the life of Christ. The movie is not without its wonderful moments and engrossing characters, chief among them as I said Lucius and Barabbas. Herod is there only to cower and simper, while Pontius Pilate is there only to be smug and condescending. Lucius, however, is a more complex character. A soldier in the service of Caesar, charged with maintaining the peace in volatile Judea, Lucius still shows interest in and compassion for the locals. His belief, and indeed that of Rome in general, is that Judea should be administrated without interfering with the local religions. Frankly, as long as they’re paying their taxes, the Jews can believe whatever they want to about Jehovah and Jupiter. As Lucius’ position brings him into contact with John the Baptist, and later with Jesus himself, he grows to admire Christ and the message of peace and understanding. He never betrays Rome, never takes up arms against the emperor, but he does eventually defend Christ with vigor at the sham of a trial before the crucifixion. He’s not a Christian, but he believes in the rights of others to be Christians.
On the other side of the conflict is Barabbas, who eventually got himself his own movie starring Anthony Quinn. Barabbas is a freedom fighter, a Jewish rebel who thinks Christ’s sermons are eloquent, but that freedom from oppression at the hands of the Romans will come only through armed insurrection. He is Bose Chandra to Jesus’ Gandhi (or rather, I suppose, Bose Chandra is Barabbas to Gandhi’s Jesus. Or something. You know what I mean). He sees Christ as a man with the same goal but different methods, and ultimately, as a convenient distraction to the Romans that will allow Barabbas and his men to launch a really pathetic little rebellion. Scenes with Barabbas lend the film a political tone, but just as it never seems to trust Jeffery Hunter with the role of Christ, neither does it trust itself to deeply explore the political struggles in Judea that serve as the backdrop to Christ’s story. It is perhaps Ray’s most daring move to cast Barabbas not as a thief and criminal as is so often done, but as a rebel and warrior. To me, as one interested more in history than theology, I would have been happy to see it dig more in this direction.
Other characters fare well also. Rip Torn plays Judas, who here I think gets a fare shake. It’s common among people who don’t sit around thinking about this stuff to simply see Judas as the great villain of Christ’s life, when the way I see it, he was actually the great facilitator who allowed Christ to become the messiah and martyr that changed the world. Certain groups of theologians even feel that Christ himself instructed Judas to betray him so that he may fulfill his destiny. In King of Kings, we see a Judas who believes that the key to Judea’s freedom lies somewhere in between the gung-ho war-waging of Barabbas and the peace and compassion of Jesus. He believes totally and without doubt in the power of Jesus, and thinks that if he can orchestrate a situation in which Jesus “feels the blade of a Roman sword against his neck,” then the Savior will finally break down and use his powers to free Judea from the yoke of Roman rule. As we all know, it doesn’t quite work out that way.
Other incidental cast members leave a little to be desired, and some are downright awful. But that happens. In particular, the portrayal of Mary (with her lilting Irish accent, no less) is puzzling. Like Hunter, she plays her part with a lack of emotion that borders on tedium. We get it, Mary. You’re holy. You think you could at least show a little emotion while your son is being nailed to a cross?
Production-wise, King of Kings manages to be an epic without an epic budget. Sets are big and opulent, the cast is large, and the scenery is sweeping, though it’s certainly more American West than it is Middle East. Miklos Rosza’s score is suitably bombastic and epic and moving. Rosza was the final word on epic soundtracks, and he’s in fine form here, though not quite top form. The writing is, as you can ascertain, uneven, and it takes liberties with The Bible when it has to, or when it departs from the source material and includes bits and pieces taken from other, later Biblical dramas. But all in all, it stitches together a story that is perhaps too big for the big screen, and does a decent job if you’re less interested in Biblical accuracy than you are in just getting a halfway decent epic. Even if you discount this whole Jesus thing, Nicholas Ray has assembled a thoughtful film that manages, I think, to pay proper if slightly boring respects to the source material while also giving the increasingly socially and politically aware audiences a little something more contemplative to chew on. Not subversive, by any means, but also not rote repetition of existing ideals.
Costumes are so-so, and another problem pestering this movie is that everything is so spotless and clean. Jesus’ robes look like they just came back from the dry cleaners, even after he comes in from his pilgrimage to the wilderness. A lot of other costumes have a stiffness to them that makes them look like, well, costumes, and not actual clothes. And while I don’t have the lust for blood and misery in the torture and crucifixion of Jesus that Mel Gibson seems to have, I’d still have to say this is the cleanest, least painful scene of a guy getting nailed to a cross that I’ve ever witnessed. Once again, chalk it up to the ratings code, Hunter’s weakness as an actor, or the film’s own timidness about really sinking its teeth into the meat of the story. In the end though, this is less a movie about his death than his life, and less about his life than the times, if you know what I mean.
Problems abound, but in the end, I still found this a plenty pleasing epic tale where the best parts are in the least epic moments and within not the story of Jesus, but in the many subplots and schemers anchored by director Ray’s cunning but not obvious look at power and the quest for direction in life. King of Kings, despite the weak portrayal of the actual king of kings, is still big, impressive, and possessed of enough multi-dimensional supporting characters to keep me both interested and entertained. And as far as cinematic Christs have gone, not many — if indeed any of them — have gotten it right, so we can forgive King of Kings its rather naive, outdated, and somewhat dull approach to the man. If you dig a good overblown Biblical epic, King of Kings isn’t the best, but it’s not a bad way to spend some time.
Monophysites! Those were the cats in Byzantium who didn’t believe Christ had a human portion, that he was entirely divine. There. That was going to bug me all night. Now I’m just going to worry that I got the entire thing wrong.