That some of Bollywood’s worst sins have been committed in the name of nepotism is a fact which anyone who has borne witness to Karisma Kapoor‘s early career can sadly attest to. For the Hindi film industry’s directors, stars and producers, dynasty building seems to be a top order of business, right alongside the practice of their chosen craft. For a fearsome reminder of this, one need look no further than director Raj Kumar Kohli’s 2002 film Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani, as terrible a monument to a father’s love for his son as has ever been erected.
Cecil B. DeMille’s final silent film, The Godless Girl, had the misfortune of being released in the shadow of The Jazz Singer, making it a casualty of the rapid shift in public tastes from pictures that didn’t talk to those that did. As a result, it became something of a footnote in DeMille’s career, which is a shame. For people, like myself, who entertain a fairly narrow conception of the director based on his association with Bible-thumpers like King of Kings and The Ten Commandments, viewing it can be an eye-opening experience — because even though it is, in part, concerned with the spread of atheism among the young people of its day, it doesn’t quite come down on that topic in the way you might expect.
Though an “A” picture in its time (it was produced at DeMille’s own studio in Culver City for a cost of $722,000), The Godless Girl bares all the hallmarks of a classic exploitation picture, in that it boasts sensational content housed within the legitimizing framework of social concern. This is not to say that DeMille was disingenuous in that concern — as we’ll see, he put a good deal of effort into insuring the accuracy of the film’s didactic content. He was, however, an entertainer first and foremost, and a crusader somewhere below that, and it would have been a betrayal of his instincts to not present the lurid details of his expose in a manner as thrilling to his audience as possible. That said, those parts of The Godless Girl dedicated to presenting the harrowing conditions of Coolidge-era reform schools might come off as tame to those steeped in the conventions of modern prison movies (in my case, for instance, the last reform school movie I watched subjected its inmates to depradations that would have made Pasolini blush).
The incident that inspired The Godless Girl was reported in the Los Angeles Times in 1927 and involved the discovery, on the campus of L.A.’s Hollywood High School, of pamphlets for an atheist student group. Tensions subsequently erupted between Christian-identified students at the school and those associated with the group, leading to a noisome confrontation at one of the group’s off-campus meetings. DeMille and his regular scenarist, Jeanie Macpherson, set out to blueprint a film based on this event and, somewhere along the line, also decided that said film should serve as an expose of the nation’s juvenile reformatories. To this end, DeMille commissioned six month’s worth of research on the topic that involved extensive interviews and information gathering, and even extended to him hiring a young woman to go undercover as an inmate in one such institution. This resulted in DeMille being able to make the claim that, no matter how titillatingly brutal the depictions of reform school life in his film might be, they were all based on documented facts and eyewitness accounts.
As fascinating as The Godless Girl is for being a sort of proto-youth-behind-bars movie, for me its real interest lies in the atheism-themed hijinks of its first act. Given DeMille’s Christian preoccupations, we — looking back upon the film from these ostensibly more enlightened and tolerant times — might expect The Godless Girl to demonize and vilify those who would renounce God. But the surprising fact is that, while DeMille certainly doesn’t advocate the atheist position, he takes pains to present zealotry on the part of the film’s believers as being equally divisive and intolerant as that of the atheist students. In addition, he clearly takes the position that the apparent ferocity of these beliefs, as expressed by his characters on either side, is merely the product of youthful enthusiasm, and in no way cancels out those characters’ essential decency (and certainly doesn’t make them deserving of the punishment that is meted out to them). The end effect is of a plea for calm and understanding, as if DeMille is trying to assure the adult America of 1929 that, yes, the kids really are alright — and, as such, it’s an authoritative, mitigating voice that no doubt would have served the country well during the many youth-focused hysterias that would sweep it during the generations to come.
The film begins with high school student Judy (Lina Basquette), the leader of the atheistic Godless Society, distributing fliers throughout the school for one of the group’s upcoming meetings. These fliers, displaying a gift for deft rhetoric sure to win many converts among the Christ-preferring members of the student body, read “Join the Godless Society – KILL THE BIBLE!” Predictably, much uproar and consternation ensues among both the students and faculty, not the least on the part of young Bob, the president of the student body and one of the school’s most outspoken mouthpieces for imposingly waspy piousness. Bob is portrayed by a ruthlessly handsome young actor named George Duryea, who would not long after enjoy considerable success as a cowboy star under the name Tom Keene — a somewhat vanilla career lived out between the exotic bookends of this film at its beginning and Keene’s role as Col. Tom Edwards in Plan 9 From Outer Space at its close. Interestingly, despite their mutually-antagonizing viewpoints, there are obvious sparks of attraction between Judy and Tom, and Judy even appears to get noticeably turned on by the righteous fury that Tom beams in her direction. Of course, given that DeMille was more of a “big picture” director who left actors to their own devices, this randyness on Judy’s part could easily have been a result less of the text than of the inclinations of the particular actress assigned to play her.
In Keith’s review of The White Hell of Piz Palu, he remarked upon how the naturalism of the acting in that film contrasted with what one would typically expect from a silent film of its day. Lina Basquette, on the other hand, provides pretty much exactly what one would expect — and, if she doesn’t, it is perhaps by dint of her performance being anachronistic even for its time. Eye bulging, breast heaving, and elaborate, spidery hand gestures are her best friends here, sometimes to the extent that she is at odds with the other cast members, none of whom are slouches in the histrionics department themselves. On top of that, when called upon to express any type of passionate feeling on the part of her character — be it ideological fervor, furious indignation, or what-have-you — Basquette seems to fall back upon an exaggerated carnality as her guiding principle. And, lord knows, no one can express exaggerated carnality like a silent movie actress. After all, while the relaxed standards of later eras may have allowed actors to do and say nasty things, these actresses were required to exude nastiness on a molecular level. In the case of Basquette, this overheated comportment — along with the corresponding reaction to it on the part of George Duryea — gives the distinct impression that much pain could have been avoided had Judy and Bob dedicated those energies spent on petty religious squabbling to what was actually on their minds. Again, whether this was DeMille’s intention is another matter, but it still provides The Godless Girl with an amusingly steamy little subtext, accidental or not.
Anyway, the fateful evening finally arrives, and it is time for the Godless Society’s meeting, held “in a shabby hall on a squalid street… where little rebels blow spitballs at the rock of ages”. (Anyone who holds up silent films as an example of purely visual storytelling is forgetting just how much editorializing tended to sneak its way into the title cards.) It’s during this scene that we’re put on notice that the film’s sober subject matter is not seen by DeMille as necessarily requiring sober treatment — a rude wakeup call delivered by the comic relief stylings of Judy and Bob’s classmate Bozo Johnson (Mack Sennett regular Eddie Quinlan), who, over the course of this sequence, will do several pratfalls and have a monkey run up his pants leg. This monkey, of course, is part of Judy’s characteristically fiery presentation to the group, and is introduced to the assembled blasphemers as “your cousin” — a reference that was probably pretty edgy at the time, given that the Scopes trial was a very recent memory. Despite this scandalous talk, the Society’s meeting is clearly being conducted in an orderly manner, and well within the limits of the law. This places in unflattering contrast the actions of Bob, who shows up at the meeting with his own sizeable God squad in tow, all of whom come armed with crates of rotten eggs and are obviously spoiling for a fight. They get it, of course — after a brief stand-off, during which the devout demand that the meeting be shut down and Judy stands her ground — and soon the scuffle devolves into a full scale melee, at its height spilling out onto the rickety stairwell outside the meeting room.
The multi-leveled set that represents the stairwell is a truly impressive construction, and in this scene is the setting for the first of two breathtaking set pieces that bookend The Godless Girl‘s action. (If you thought that the subject matter of this film would put a damper on DeMille’s predilection for spectacle, you were wrong.) The frantically battling crowd ends up surging out along the entire length of the structure like one giant writhing mass, causing the railings to bulge ominously with their weight. Finally, an unintentional shove from Bozo sends one of the Godless Society’s young female members — identified in the credits only as “The Victim” (Mary Jane Irving) — plummeting from the uppermost landing to her death. DeMille makes the interesting choice of shooting the girl’s fall from her perspective, and presenting it as playing out unnaturally slowly, so that we see the horrified faces of the kids lined up along the stairway watching her as she passes (perhaps affording The Victim the opportunity to say a few quick goodbyes to her friends among the crowd as she goes by — though, since it was shot from her POV, I couldn’t tell you if she was waving or not.)
Once The Victim finally touches down, a distraught Judy rushes to take her in her arms. Asked by the dying girl for reassurance that there really is something on the other side after all, Judy is only able to deliver a series of deliriously overwrought facial expressions. Fortunately, there is a kindly old cop on hand to tell the girl — in a soothing Irish brogue, I imagine — that the J Man is indeed awaiting her arrival with open arms and, probably, a gift bag of some kind, after which the child blissfully shuffles off this mortal coil. With the crime established, and the law present, it is now time for Judy and Bob, as the instigators of the riot — along with Bozo, for his apparent part in the girl’s accident — to be carted off to the youth reformatory.
The reformatory — represented by a surprisingly convincing set constructed by designer Mitchell Leisen on DeMille’s back lot — is a bleak, castle-like structure of brick and mortar with an electrified fence neatly bisecting its yard to separate the male and female inmate populations — a clear visual reference to the divisions wrought by intolerance and zealotry that DeMille is seeking to decry. Here, Judy and Bob, obviously upper middle class kids accustomed to a not inconsiderable amount of creature comforts, step up to the hard slap in the face that the institution’s harsh, military style of discipline has to offer them. For Judy, of course (being, you know, a girl, and all) the first insults are the unflattering haircut and the sack-like clothing (though, I’ve got to say that the hats look oddly fashionable), followed by the lack of privacy and the frequent dressing downs from the shrewish wardens. For Bob, the Civil War-like uniforms and the borderline-emo asymmetrical shearing he gets are also an issue, but are no doubt eclipsed by the frequent, enthusiastic beatings he receives.
Fortunately for Bob, he’s not alone in his confinement, because Bozo is right there with him — which, actually, upon consideration, has got to be nearly as awful for Bob as it is for us. So Judy is clearly the winner here. However, she also ends up with a friend and confidante on the inside: a tough talking, Bible-toting blonde by the name of Mame. Mame is played by Marie Prevost, an actress who is likely known to readers of Teleport City more for having the ignominious circumstances of her death immortalized in song by Nick Lowe than for any of her actual screen performances. It seems that the talkies were not kind to Marie, and, in January of 1937, a lethal combination of anorexia and severe alcoholism lead to her death from malnutrition at the age of 38. As legend has it, some few days passed before her body was discovered, and when it was, the cadaver showed signs of being the subject of some postmortem noshing on the part of Marie’s pet dachshund. Contrary to that legend, the police report at the time indicated that the bite marks were assumed to be the result of the dog trying to rouse Marie, rather than eat her. But being that consumption of humans by domestic animals has always been such a favored subject of popular song, Lowe couldn’t resist that spin, and so, in his song “Marie Provost”, blessed the world with that evergreen couplet, “She was a winner/Who became a doggie’s dinner.” (As much of a fan as I am of Lowe — and that song, for that matter — I must say that I think it’s a little raw that, while making light of Marie’s pathetic demise, the singer didn’t even bother to get her name right.) Those sad facts aside, we can here enjoy Marie in her heyday. And I’m happy the report that, as the movie’s representative tough cookie, she’s blessed with all the best, colloquialism-riddled lines, variably referring to her fellow inmates as “Mama”, “Sister” and “Bimbo” while striking all manner of slouchy bad girl poses.
Back on Bob’s side of the fence, we see that one time-honored prison movie convention really is, in fact, time-honored, and that the boys’ wing of the reformatory comes complete with a sadistic head guard, billed only as “The Brute” and played by perennial silent movie heavy Noah Beery. In classic fashion, a battle of wills breaks out between Bob and The Brute, with Bob’s spirited refusal to be broken resulting in ever more severe beatings, blastings with the fire hose, and unwarranted stints in solitary. The Brute even delivers a crippling beat-down to Bozo, which, admittedly, is kind of awesome. Meanwhile, Bob and Judy’s separation has allowed for the nature of their true feelings for one another to dawn upon them, leading to a furtive tryst at the electrified fence. The Brute, unfortunately, is a witness to this meeting and, seeing it as an opportunity to forge new frontiers in bastardry, turns up the juice on the fence just as the two lovers are clasping onto its wires and gazing at each other longingly. Being that electrified fences are notoriously unsubtle, this incident leaves Judy with identical burns on each palm in the shape of a cross, something she chooses to see as a “sign” of some kind — probably related in some way to Jesus, and perhaps having something to do with the fact that she’s been making a halting journey toward Christian belief ever since setting foot within the reformatory walls.
Eventually an opportunity for escape arises when Bob gets the drop on The Beast during a scuffle in the solitary block. After locking the monstrous guard in one of the cells, Bob disguises himself as a laundry cart driver, collects Judy, and flees with her into the countryside beyond the reformatory gates. A brief, idyllic interlude follows in which the lovers enjoy their newfound appreciation for the simple fruits of freedom and the beauty of the open landscape before them. Both, we see, have undergone a shift in their beliefs during their confinement, with Bob coming to question his faith just as Judy is coming to embrace it, and the result is that each is now able to see and respect the other’s position free from the distorting influence of dogma. It’s a development that seems to indicate some confusion on the part of DeMille as to what his message is exactly, since the very harsh conditions that he’s decrying appear to be what has brought about the attitude of humility and tolerance that he is simultaneously making a plea for.
Of course, Bob and Judy’s liberty is short lived, and they are soon recaptured and returned to their prison, setting the stage for The Godless Girl‘s apocalyptic finale — a spectacular fire that consumes the reformatory as Bob struggles to free Judy, who is shackled to her bunk in a solitary cell. The fire effect here is achieved by the most analog means possible — i.e. by lighting the set on fire and forcing the obviously-in-real-peril-actors to struggle their way through it while being pelted by huge pieces of flaming debris from all sides. By reports, DeMille seemed to get a bit of a kick out of putting his actor in harm’s way like this, and was known to berate them when they objected to the notion of being killed in pursuit of his vision. Callous? Perhaps — but, hey, you sure can’t argue with the results. It’s a really riveting sequence, and you certainly have no trouble buying the looks of abject terror that play over the faces of Basquette and Duryea as it plays out.
Though our modern eyes might see The Godless Girl as containing, at best, the makings of a solid “B” type feature, DeMille clearly saw himself as making an epic, and the resulting two hour-plus running time of the original cut might come across to most as spreading the movie’s content just a tad too thin. Its final acts, after all, are largely comprised of prison movie tropes that have become all too familiar in the ensuing years — and the interest they hold pales in comparison to both the juicy subject matter and surprising even-handedness presented in the film’s opening moments. You have to wonder what this movie might have been like had DeMille not gotten distracted by his reformist crusade and instead tried to plot out a path to understanding between Judy and Bob that was less dependent on drastic dramatic interventions like sudden death and imprisonment. Chances are that, at the very least, audiences of today would get a clearer picture than the one hinted at of what popular attitudes regarding these — amazingly — still controversial issues were during the picture’s day. It’s a common assumption that attitudes in eras previous to ours were by their nature less “modern” than our own, even though the reality of our current era often renders that notion ridiculous. In light of that, The Godless Girl — just like any high school teacher worth his or her salt — might handily reminds us of the perils that lurk within the word “Assume”.
Release Year: 1929 | Country: United States | Starring: Lina Basquette, Tom Keene (as George Duryea), Marie Prevost, Noah Beery, Eddie Quinlan, Mary Jane Irving | Writer: Jeanie Macpherson | Director: Cecil B. DeMille | Cinematographer: J. Peverell Marley | Producer: Cecil B. DeMille
Who’d have thought, back in the 1960s, that our nation’s youngsters were being fed communist propaganda by one of the most mercenary elements within the American film industry? Well, a lot of people, probably. It was a pretty paranoid time. Still, had they known, those people could have at least taken comfort in the fact that it was being done out of only the most purely capitalistic motives. After all, Eastern Bloc science fiction movies presented an irresistible lure to B movie producers like Roger Corman and his ilk. Being that they served as representations of the bright, technologically-advanced future achievable through socialism, these films were often the beneficiaries of relatively lavish government funding, and, as a result, boasted special effects and production design that were well beyond what makers of American sci-fi cheapies could afford. All that remained for these yanks to do, then, was to acquire these films and then strip them of everything that might identify them as being the product of a communist country — a process of Americanization that often resulted in the original films being disfigured almost beyond recognition.
You might think that the women-in-prison genre is so rigid in its conventions that it wouldn’t allow room for much experimentation, but leave it to the Japanese to prove that assumption wrong. The first three films in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, all of which were directed by Shunya Ito, stand out for me as the pinnacle of artistically-rendered 1970s Japanese exploitation. Each film is stuffed full of surrealist imagery, imaginative compositions and breathtaking visual lyricism. Of course, being that they are women-in-prison films, they are also stuffed full of shower scenes, lesbianism and graphic violence. But, unlike the previously discussed Norifumi Suzuki, who was content to just let the sleazier elements of his movies sit uneasily alongside his occasional moments of cinematic inspiration, Ito somehow managed to make all of those elements blend together into a more or less cohesive whole.
Though the first Female Prisoner Scorpion (or Joshuu Sasori) film, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, was Ito’s debut as a director, he had already served an apprenticeship in trangressive genre filmmaking as a frequent assistant director to Teruo Ishii during his early years at Toei Studio. Ishii, who directed the popular Abashiri Prison films, is probably best known outside of Japan for controversial mindbenders such as Horrors of Malformed Men and the Joy of Torture series, as well as for the Super Giant serials that were repackaged for US television as the Starman films (and which were, despite being aimed squarely at the kids, some of the most disconcertingly dark examples of Japanese superheroism committed to film). It’s hard not to assume that some of Ishii’s hallucinatory sense of invention rubbed off on Ito, especially given the aversion to the ordinary that’s apparent in his filmmaking style.
The source material for the Scorpion films was the popular manga series Sasori, which was created by artist Tooru Shinohara and began its run in Japan’s monthly Big Comics magazine in 1970. This inspiration explains a lot of Ito’s more striking visual constructions, which were clearly an attempt to emulate the violent expressiveness of manga’s graphic style. While he was successful in this regard, Ito would have a tougher time preserving Shinohara’s conception of his heroine in translating her to the screen. As presented in the manga, Sasori was a foul-mouthed street brawler, an earthy characterization that lead to some objections on the part of the star who was assigned to play her — a star who clearly had very definite ideas about how she did and did not want to be represented on screen.
That star, of course, was Meiko Kaji, who has gone on to achieve cult icon status worldwide due to her role in Toho’s Lady Snowblood films, as well as for her turn as Scorpion. Kaji had recently come over to Toei from Nikkatsu, fleeing her former studio when it made the turn from action movies to the almost exclusive production of kinky soft-core films. Before that time, she had attained stardom with her lead role in Nikkatsu’s Stray Cat Rock series of films, which were somewhat milder early forays into the Pinky Violence genre. Now being groomed as an action star at Toei, Kaji was likely a natural choice for the role of Sasori. However, the actress didn’t take kindly to the comic character’s expletive-spouting demeanor, which resulted in Ito taking Sasori’s screen incarnation in a markedly different direction.
As resonant as it is, Shunya Ito’s style is anything but subtle, and the director wasn’t averse to presenting his characters as boldly drawn archetypes. As such, Sasori was reimagined as something far more elemental than in her manga depiction, as a wraith-like embodiment of feminine rage. The Scorpion films are essentially Pinky Violence movies, after all, and are even more explicit and mantra-like than other films in that genre in presenting the state of balance between the sexes as being a literal war, with men as an oppressive force representing all of society’s ills. As the series’ theme song — a mournful enka ballad sung by Kaji herself — makes abundantly clear, all that women can expect from these men is betrayal — or, as Kaji’s character says at one point, “To be deceived is a woman’s crime”.
Female Prisoner #701 even goes on to extend culpability for that betrayal to the nation itself. Ironically framed images of the Japanese flag abound. And, early in the film, when Matsu — aka Scorpion — loses her virginity to the man who will ultimately sell her out, we’re shown a red spot of blood on a white sheet that spreads in mimicry of the flag’s design. (I’ve got to say that, in their desperate attempts to lure audience members of both sexes with seemingly very opposite types of catharsis, the makers of Pinky Violence movies really came up with a unique combination, seemingly drawing in part from the Hollywood “Women’s Pictures” of the forties: Think Mildred Pierce with lots of tits and gore.)
So clearly Matsu has a lot to be angry about. And, indeed, her rage goes so deep that it seems to render her almost superhuman, burning within her like an empowering nuclear core. She is capable of dying, you imagine, but is just too pissed off to ever let it happen. Given that this is the character’s one essential trait, Kaji’s portrayal of her basically boils down to one facial expression. Which is not meant in the least as a criticism of Kaji’s performance — because, you see, it’s a really good facial expression. In fact, during those moments in Female Prisoner #701 when Kaji is not making that expression, the audience is left in a tense holding pattern, waiting for that expression to make its appearance. Because, when it does, it means that some deserving soul is about to do some serious suffering.
While not conventional on its own merits, Female Prisoner #701 is definitely the most conventional of the three Scorpion films that Ito directed. This is partly because it’s saddled with the responsibility of telling its protagonist’s back-story, a seeming necessity that, once you’ve seen the other films, doesn’t end up seeming all that necessary at all. As portrayed by Kaji, Matsu is such a force of nature that it doesn’t really matter why she became who she is. She just is. Still, that this element is included in Female Prisoner #701 certainly doesn’t take away from the film. And being that it shows our heroine’s transformation from a naive and vulnerable young woman into the dagger-eyed vengeance engine that she becomes, it affords Kaji the opportunity to show a bit more range, as well as say a few more scattered lines of dialog than she does in the subsequent films, in which she’s practically mute.
Providing Matsu with a story of how she came to be in prison — one that, while not presenting her as innocent, clearly shows her as a victim, and hence worthy of audience sympathy — is also one of the aspects that makes Female Prisoner #701 hew more closely than the other films to the conventions of the typical WIP film. Another is that it is the only of the original Scorpion films whose action — beyond flashbacks — takes place almost entirely within the prison’s walls. The two succeeding films would increasingly stretch their creative and locational legs, gradually doing away with their dependence on the prison setting as they set out to explore more and more bizarre thematic territory (culminating in Ito’s farewell to the series, the sublime, hauntingly beautiful Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable, which tops the previous two both in terms of depravity and genuine emotional impact).
Female Prisoner #701 begins with an escape attempt by Matsu and her partner Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe), which is foiled when Yuki is injured and Matsu refuses to leave her side. (Matsu’s relationship to Yuki is never spelled out, but the younger prisoner is the only other character in the movie toward whom Matsu shows any amount of tenderness or concern.) It’s clear that this escape is not the first act of defiance on Matsu’s part, and it further strengthens the resolve of the dictatorial warden (Fumio Watanabe) to break her will once and for all — a project he pursues variably on his own or by proxy through the efforts of his cretinous guards and the cackling group of hags who have been granted trustee privileges by him. Resolve is something that Matsu is no stranger to, of course, and she matches the warden’s every attempt at suppression, not only with increasing deployments of THE LOOK, but also with increasingly creative acts of payback against his minions. It’s a cycle of perpetually regenerating enmity between Matsu and the warden that we will see continue into the next film in the series, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41.
In the aftermath of the scuttled breakout, as Matsu lies hog-tied in a dungeon-like solitary cell, we’re given a dream-like flashback of the events that lead to her ending up in the nick. It seems that on the outside Matsu fell hard for a narcotics cop named Sugimi (Isao Natsuyagi) — so hard, in fact, that when Sugimi asked her to take part in an undercover sting operation he was involved in, she readily agreed. It is only after we’ve seen Matsu’s cover blown, and her viciously raped by the members of the gang she’s infiltrated, that we find that Sugimi is actually working in league with a rival Yakuza gang, and is about as crooked as they come. His true nature revealed, the evilly chuckling Sugimi callously tosses a few crumpled bills in the ravaged girl’s direction and summarily casts her aside. As might be expected, this occasions the first appearance of THE LOOK, and, not soon thereafter, Matsu is accosting Sugimi in a freaky, topless, street corner knife attack. This attack, sadly, is nowhere near as effective as it is picturesque, and soon our scorned heroine is in custody.
Now I realize that the above related plot details are women’s prison picture rote to the point of being generic. But you have to keep in mind that, as they are playing out, director Ito deploys all the tools available in his visual arsenal to keep the viewer as disoriented as possible. The camera pivots restlessly so that you can never know, when a person enters a room, whether he or she will appear to be walking on the wall, the ceiling, or the floor. Self-conscious use of live theater-style movable sets is made to shift background locations as the foreground action remains the same. Bold comic book-style visual signifiers are used to express intense emotion, as when Matsu’s hair arranges itself into the shape of flames as she lies atop a red back-lit glass floor. There’s a haunting, horror movie feel to many of these visuals, made most explicit in a scene where a fellow inmate who is attacking Matsu transforms into a leering kabuki demon — at which point the lighting abruptly switches from naturalistic to that patented Mario Bava green, and the remainder of the scene plays out as a surreal, slow motion nightmare. All of this serves to underscore the fact that the ritualistic predictability of the movie’s plot is not beside the point, but rather the point itself, since Ito is far more interested in presenting archetypal conflicts than he is in exploring the peculiarities of character, or presenting us with novel situations.
The aforementioned kabuki demon attack has the unfortunate side effect for the warden of him ending up with a shard of glass embedded in his eye socket, an injury which understandably further stokes his desire to crush Matsu’s spirit. (I won’t get all Women’s Studies and touch upon the whole “male gaze” thing here, but the wound is definitely significant, foreshadowed as it is by a shot earlier in the film in which the image of Matsu is framed within the watching eye of one of the guards.) This leads to him really turning the screws, subjecting not just Matsu to all kinds of humiliations and forced labor, but the other prisoners, as well, in the hope that they will turn against Matsu as a result. Meanwhile, Sugimi and his boss begin to worry that Matsu will tell the authorities what she knows about Sugimi’s crooked dealings, and decide to have her eliminated. Of course, what Sugimi doesn’t realize is that Matsu’s overwhelming desire to carve him up like a Christmas turkey is pretty much the only thing that is keeping her going, and she would lose all hope of making that dream a reality if he were to be locked safely away in prison. On the contrary, the corrupt cop is so deluded by arrogance and self-regard that he entertains the notion that Matsu still has feelings for him. And so, just to be on the safe side, he recruits Katagiri (Rie Yokoyama), a sociopathic fellow inmate of Matsu’s, to do his dirty work.
Eventually the warden’s quest to get under the scorpion’s shell leads him to send a young female guard into Matsu’s cell posing as an inmate. The hyper-vigilant Matsu is quickly clued in by her new roommate’s inquisitiveness, however, and, being a true Pinky Violence heroine, proves that she is not above using her body to turn the tables. Apparently those bottomless reserves of white hot rage of hers provide Matsu not only with the power to endure all manner of physical hardships, but superhuman lovemaking skills as well. Because, after only a few moments of Matsu’s ministrations, the guard, Kitoh, is reduced to being little more than a pleading love slave. Later, when the warden relieves the young rookie of her spying duties, she has a melt-down that is one of the film’s most hilariously over-the-top moments, hysterically begging her superiors to send her back into the cell with Matsu to continue her mission. As depicted by Ito, Matsu’s seduction of Kitoh provides an example of another distinction between the director and his aforementioned fellow in artsy grindhouse excess, Norifumi Suzuki. While Suzuki wasn’t shy about piling on scenes of nudity and soft-core sex, he frequently neglected to make those scenes the least bit erotic, perhaps because he was more preoccupied with being shocking than arousing. (Some moments in Convent of the Holy Beast are exceptions to this… Either that, or I just have a thing for nuns.) Shunya, on the other hand, shows here that he is capable of delivering an erotic scene that packs some serious heat.
By the way, the actress playing Kitoh is Yumiko Katayama, who might be recognizable to those of you who grew up with Johnny Socko and his Flying Robot as the lone female member of that Tokusatsu series’ heroic Unicorn organization. Not too long after that, Katayama changed her focus a bit by becoming the Pinky Violence genre’s go-to girl for extensive nudity. I’d like to think that this change in direction was the result of generosity, rather than desperation, on her part. But, whatever the case, I have to say that it escapes me as to why she never made it beyond playing supporting roles in these films, because she is not only striking, but possessed of an intense presence, and has delivered solid and memorable performances in every film I’ve seen her in — the final Delinquent Girl Boss film, in particular.
Female Prisoner #701, beneath it’s hallucinatory exterior, pretty much follows the narrative rules of the prison picture through to its conclusion, which means that the warden’s draconian policies ultimately lead to a prison revolt — though one played out on a wildly expressionistic set complete with a painted backdrop of a sky consumed by a blazing red vortex. The prisoners take several guards — who are subsequently gang raped — hostage and hold up in one of the prison’s supply warehouses, where the hired killer Katagiri sets about trying to turn her keyed-up fellow inmates against Matsu.
This leads to Matsu being hung in chains from the rafters and mercilessly beaten, a predicament which she endures with predictably Christ-like stoicism. Finally, a raid by the guards and a fire in the warehouse provide the cover Matsu needs to escape, in turn giving her the opportunity to hit the streets of Tokyo and prove the deservedness of her nickname. It is in these final scenes where Meiko Kaji really puts the weight of action behind THE LOOK, methodically dealing out retribution to Sugimi and his gang like a silent angel of vengeance — albeit a particularly pimped-out angel of vengeance in a wide-brimmed hat and dramatic ankle-length coat.
Female Prisoner #701 is a thrilling piece of exploitation cinema, as well as a challenging work of visual artistry. But, as great as it is, it merely set the stage for what was to come. With its follow-up film, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, director Ito would give much freer reign to his experimental tendencies, and the result would haunt and intoxicate in equal measure.
The Pinky Violence films of Norifumi Suzuki represent one extreme of the tendency of Japanese exploitation films of the seventies to combine a very high level of craftsmanship with an unflinching preoccupation with human behavior at its most sleazy and mysteriously perverse. I’ve found some of his films very difficult to get through, while others — such as Convent of the Holy Beast and the film I’m discussing here, Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom — I was able to ride out on a seductive wave of Norifumi’s combined visual imagination and sheer audacity. However, unlike Shunya Ito, whose distinctive vision lifted the Female Prisoner Scorpion films damn near the level of art, Norifumi produced trash that, while littered with artistic touches and surprising moments of beauty, never really quite rose above the level of trash. This is in part due to the fact that, unlike Ito, he had a habit of punctuating the episodes of exaggerated sexual violence that characterize much of his work with moments of direly unfunny juvenile comedy, a mixture that in most cases added up to one pretty noxious cocktail.
Further making Norifumi’s films a tough proposition is the fact that — unlike tamer examples of the Pinky Violence genre, such as those in the Delinquent Girl Boss series — he never gives us a relative innocent to root for amongst the hard cases that populate the amoral universe he creates. His heroines have typically been reduced by their surroundings to being little more than cold-eyed engines of vengeance, and we side with them only because they are the least odious of the options we’re given to choose from. Furthermore, because the society they inhabit is one that has so clearly gone completely off the rails, we can’t realistically root for them to triumph over it, but rather to simply tear the whole fucking thing down once they’ve come out the other side.
Still, I have to admit that I get a kick out of some of Suzuki’s films — Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom in particular — for how he so spiritedly endeavors to offend seemingly every conventional notion of decency that he can get within his sights. His masters at Toei Studio, seeking to boost their audience by courting controversy, encouraged him to do this, of course — and judging from the results, that encouragement was akin to coaxing a chronic binge eater toward a free buffet. While I’m pretty sure that his motivations didn’t go beyond the commercial, Suzuki, in the course of exercising his aesthetic scorched-earth policy, seems to have tapped into the subversive spirit of certain underground filmmakers of his era, delivering an all-inclusive “fuck you” to society and its combined pieties and hypocrisies with the gleeful enthusiasm of a confirmed outsider. In fact, if its female cast were to be replaced with a troupe of drag queens, Lynch Law Classroom would be in many ways indistinguishable from one of John Waters’ early movies.
But the stars of Lynch Law Classroom are, of course, not drag queens, but real women, a fact which the film offers ample proof of by having their clothing rent from their bodies as often as possible. In the case of leads Miki Sugimoto and Reiko Ike, they are so womanly, in fact, that, despite both actresses putatively being in their early twenties at the time, its difficult to buy them as highschoolers. However, this is not only pretty much par-for-the-course for this type of film, but also one of the least credibility-challenging aspects of the insane alternate reality that it presents, and in the end is only one of the things that contributes to the movie coming off as some kind of surreal allegory.
The Terrifying Girls’ High School series, which was comprised of four films in total, came into being as sort of a companion to Toei’s popular Girl Boss — or Sukeban — series, the first four of which were directed by Suzuki. Running from 1971 to 1974 — and spanning six entries in total — the Girl Boss movies each starred one or both of the studio’s top two ass-kicking, clothes-shedding female stars, the aforementioned Ike and Sugimoto. Though Ike was the bigger star of the two, Sugimoto was a close enough second to keep Ike on her toes, and the two, when sharing the screen, were usually cast on equal terms, often as leaders of rival girl gangs. Being that they were so identified with the Girl Boss films, it was only good business to cast them as the leads when Suzuki set out to direct the first Terrifying Girls’ High School film, Women’s Violent Classroom, in 1972. Sugimoto would only stay with the series as long as Suzuki, however, and both she and the director would leave after the second entry, making Lynch Law Classroom their farewell to the franchise. (I know next to nothing about the remaining two films in the series, but the title of the third entry, Delinquent Convulsion Group, is pretty hard not to be tempted by.)
Lynch Law Classroom lives up to any possible interpretation of its title by setting its action in a girls’ reform school that is not only terrifying as advertised, but also populated by girls who themselves are mostly terrifying. That this institution is named The School of Hope for Girls is just one of its many distinctly Orwellian attributes, seeing as its dungeon-like jail is referred to as the “Introspection Room” and its doddering, clueless administrator, Principal Nakata, natters on about turning wayward girls into “good wives and wise mothers” while all manner of depravity and vice plays out under his nose. Those who truly set the tone at the school are its chairman, Sato (Nobuo Kaneko), a corrupt politician with ties to the Yakuza and seemingly the entire city bureaucracy in his pocket — and who treats the student body as his personal harem — and the cravenly ambitious vice principal Ishihara (Kenji Imai), who operates the school as a front for Sato’s various unseemly dealings while scheming to further his own designs on power. Acting as Ishihara’s personal police force within the school is the Disciplinary Committee, a sort of schoolgirl Gestapo lead by the sadistic Yoko, who keep their fellow students in line by means of lots of diabolically imaginative — and mostly genital-based — torture, while also assisting Ishirara in his criminal activities outside the school walls. The members are compensated by Ishihara with funds from a bogus scholarship.
This film is indeed strong medicine, but the faint-hearted viewer can at least be assured in the knowledge that he won’t be lulled into a false sense of security before it delivers its worst. On the contrary, you will know in no uncertain terms within the first thirty seconds of Lynch Law Classroom whether it’s something you’re going to be able to hang with, and can then plan your next ninety minutes accordingly. Greeting us with the distorted sound of a woman screaming in agony and fear — accompanied by the familiar Toei logo — the film quickly proceeds to a shot of a bound woman’s blouse being torn open, and then of a scalpel being drawn across the exposed breast beneath. This is the handiwork of the Disciplinary Committee — kitted out in school uniforms uniquely accessorized with fascistic armbands and matching bright red surgical masks — who have decided to teach their latest charge a lesson by forcing her to watch as her blood is slowly drained into a series of beakers in the school’s science-lab-cum-torture-chamber. Before this can be completely accomplished, however, the terrified captive manages to make a break for it, ending up on the school roof, where, outnumbered by the evil Yoko and her fellow D.C. members, she is forced over the edge and plummets to her death. Making this sudden visual assault just that much more jarring is composer Masao Yagi’s nerve-jangling musical accompaniment, which is made up of ominous analog synth washes perforated by hysterical stabs of abstract guitar and saxophone.
We will soon learn that this latest victim of the Disciplinary Committee was a student by the name of Michiyo Akiyama, who, in her life on the outside, was lieutenant to a notorious Yokohama girl gang leader known — thanks to her ever-present crucifix necklace — as Noriko the Cross — or, more poetically “The Boss With the Cross”. And it’s not long before Noriko (Sugimoto) — either by coincidence or design — arrives at the school herself, bringing along with her two other hard cases, Kyoko Kubo (Seiko Saburi) and the inexplicably cowgirl-attired Remi “The Razor” Kitano (Misuzu Ota). Noriko is soon made aware of Michiyo’s fate by Tomoko, an over-achieving young innocent whose angelic demeanor (a) makes it something of a mystery as to how exactly she ended up at the School of Hope in the first place and (b) in the shark infested waters of Lynch Law Classroom, has the virtual effect of painting a gigantic, day-glo target on her forehead (which doesn’t make her eventual fate, however predictable, any less disheartening when it comes).
Noriko vows to avenge Michiyo’s death, shrewdly perceiving that it’s not just the girls of the Disciplinary Committee, but the whole school (and by extension — given that the film so obviously presents the school as merely an organ of the corrupt society it serves — the whole world) that is her enemy. Remi and Kyoko pledge to help her bring the school down, and are joined in doing so by two other inmates, Junko “The Jacker” and Nobue “The Pipe Basher”, both of whom are former gang members impressed by Noriko’s street credentials. Eventually the group also comes to benefit from the assistance of Wakabayashi (Tsunehiko Watase), an unscrupulous tabloid journalist who hopes to in turn use the girls in a blackmail scheme against Sato and the various officials who make up his power base.
It’s fitting that Wakabayashi, the only man to side with Noriko and her crew, would do so out of purely mercenary interests. Lynch Law Classroom is a Pinky Violence film, after all, and as such presents a world whose male population is made up exclusively of cartoonish grotesques who are as oafish as they are predatory (in one scene, for instance, Principal Nakata is shown literally drooling). Less “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”, these films’ portrayal of the disparate spheres in which the sexes travel is more like “Men are from the Hell, Women are Just Visiting… and Will be Leaving as Soon as They Can Work Out How”. In the meantime, while negotiating this hostile terrain, the only way that these women can survive is by hewing close to their own. In this light, the women of the Disciplinary Committee are as despicable for being traitors to their gender as they are for their murderous acts (a fact that’s placed in unflattering relief when, as we’ll later see, other of the film’s female rivals initiate a temporary laying down of swords to deal with the threat at hand). Other movies in the genre mitigate this message somewhat by including at least one marginally sympathetic male character, who is usually a love interest for one of the female leads. But Lynch Law Classroom is the rare exception that doesn’t even toss us guys — nonetheless drooling oafishly at home over all of the flesh and smut that’s being proffered — that thoroughly gnawed-over bone. The result is that the most flattering reflection of ourselves that we have to gaze upon is the oily, cash-driven manipulator Wakabayashi.
Given this milieu, it’s not surprising that the women of Lynch Law Classroom view sex as little more than a tool of brute exchange. Correspondingly, most of Noriko and her crew’s master plan to bring about the school’s downfall involves them plying their bodies like so much insensate meat. The first such gambit involves the bisexual Kyoko engaging in a furtive bathroom stall seduction of Toshie, a member of the Committee who, after a little below-the-belt coaxing, freely confesses to the group’s involvement in Michiyo’s death. This indiscretion leads to Toshie being on the receiving end of one of the Committee’s more creative acts of pelvic retribution, involving her doing lots of push-ups with a light bulb housed in her nethers. This is followed by an episode in which the girls lure old Principal Nakata to a no-tell motel and basically gang rape him. His resistance is short-lived, of course, and soon his cries of joy at winning the jailbait jackpot are being broadcast over the school P.A. system with predictably career-ending results.
The girls’ final act of strategic harlotry involves them tricking a group of Sato’s influential supporters into participating in an “orgy” while Wakabayashi secretly photographs them for blackmail purposes. This is an inexplicably creepy scene, shot under an eerie red light and depicting the girls, all wearing masks to hide their identities, lying as silent and motionless as corpses as the goonish officials maul and grope them to their hearts’ content. Filmed with the same voyeuristic eye for pervy detail as the previously described erotic episodes, this was just one of the sex scenes in Lynch Law Classroom that left me wondering exactly who was meant to be titillated by it. (Another was the one in which a profusely sweating Nobuo Kaneko gives a matronly middle-aged teacher a thorough going over with a vibrator.) These films are, after all, meant to function as soft-core sex films to some extent, but Suzuki, in signature fashion, seems to have abandoned that mandate in favor of simply trying to freak his audience out.
Reiko Ike finally makes her entrance at Lynch Law Classroom‘s midway point, playing Mako, a rival gang leader who shows up at the school to settle an old score with Noriko. (An interesting aspect of The School of Hope is that, despite it being a reform school, both students and outsiders are apparently free to come and go as they please.. or at least whenever the plot requires it.) Noriko pleads with Mako to set aside her beef until after Noriko has settled her own score with the school, and Mako agrees, though not before forcing Noriko to jump over a bunch of oil barrels on a motorcycle — a scene that will no doubt hold a special place in the hearts of audience members with a fetish for schoolgirl stunt cyclists. Ike doesn’t really end up having a whole lot to do in the film, and seems to be gracing Lynch Law Classroom with her presence mainly for her marquee value. Still, she’s a welcome presence, injecting the film with a bit of flashy style thanks to her gold lame motorcycle jacket and pleather pants ensemble, as well as providing a mutually complimentary contrast with Sugimoto. The pair work well together, Ike being more of a traditional sexpot, and Sugimoto, lean and intense, cutting a figure more akin to that of fellow Toei action heroine Meiko Kaji.
From this point out, both the action and the depravity in Lynch Law Classroom kicks into high gear, with Noriko and her gang’s clashes with their enemies escalating toward the final showdown. With all of the Christian iconography that’s getting hurled around — not to mention the Pinky Violence genre’s typically literal approach to feminine martyrdom — it can’t come as too much of a shock when the girls of the Disciplinary Committee finally manage to get Noriko trussed-up in a crucifixion pose with electrodes jiggered to her tender bits. Fortunately, Mako barges in to save the day before too much of a crack can be put in Noriko’s stoic exterior. Meanwhile, the powers that be at The School of Hope prepare for the institution’s twenty-fifth anniversary celebration, and Chairman Sato’s first order of business, upon arriving in town, is to select a virgin to defile from among the student population. We know, with a queasy sense of inevitability, that when he points into the yearbook and says “that one” he’s singling out the trusting young innocent Tomoko.
Given all of the callous and exploitative sexual shenanigans that have preceded it, it’s somewhat surprising when Suzuki ends up playing the rape of Tomoko for all its tragic weight. Though neither graphic or prurient in its presentation, it’s an excruciating scene to watch, and Suzuki — who has spent a good piece of the preceding running time training the camera on his actresses’ crotches — suddenly transforms himself into an outraged moralist, effectively shouting at the audience “My god, look what is happening to this child!” Amazingly, it’s an abrupt tonal shift that works, and we’re startled to learn that, all this time — and despite all appearances — Lynch Law Classroom actually had a soul and a conscience. And it was Tomoko. Which of course means, given the film’s worldview, that Tomoko is not long for this life. Suzuki handles Tomoko’s subsequent suicide with the same solemnity and funereal sense of visual poetry as he did her defilement, closing the episode with a visceral emotional punch and setting the stage for the unhinged catharsis that is to follow.
That Lynch Law Classroom ends with a nihilistic orgy of violence pretty much goes without saying. Given all that has lead up to it, it really couldn’t be any other way. Still, that doesn’t make the sight of hundreds of screaming schoolgirls frantically smashing the School of Hope to pieces with bats and throwing rocks at cowering riot police from behind makeshift barricades any less exhilarating. It’s the hard-earned, protracted howl of rage that the film has been implicitly promising us all along, and Suzuki doesn’t shortchange us in the least. In fact, he even throws in a shot of a burning Japanese flag for good measure. Sure, no solutions to society’s ills are offered, but for anyone who has ever, in a weak moment, seen the world as this movie presents it — as a place in which anything innocent or pure exists only to be shit upon — it definitely hits a sweet spot.
There’s no escaping the fact that Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom is one nasty little beast, and I have never been more serious in saying that a film is not for everyone than I am in this case. There is, however, the possibility that some viewers might even get a secret thrill out of hating it, and decrying it for all of the many things it contains that are vile and offensive. Me, I like it. Sure, it has a sleaziness that prevents it from completely rising above its tawdry skinflick roots, but it also has a genuinely feral quality that goes way beyond the bounds of typical exploitation fare. And the intermittent flashes of beauty that it contains only serve to further spotlight that convulsive wildness. The movie has real teeth, and it makes me glad that, for all the antisocial madmen out there who have devoted their energies to activities that have perhaps left this world a worse place than they found it, others, like Norifumi Suzuki, have simply picked up cameras and committed their visions of it to film, as seriously fucked up as those visions may be.
Release Year: 1973 | Country: Japan | Starring: Miki Sugimoto, Reiko Ike, Seiko Saburi, Misuzu Ota, Rie Saotome, Tsunehiko Watase, Yuuko Mizusawa, Yukiko Asano, Ryoko Ema, Emi Jo, Rena Ichinose, Rika Sudo, Takako Yamakawa, Kaya Hodumi, Nobuo Kaneko, Kenji Imai, Nobuo Kaneko | Writer: Tatsuhiko Kamoi | Director: Norifumi Suzuki | Cinematographer: Jubei Suzuki | Music: Masao Yagi | Producer: Kanji Amao
The German-made animated feature Felidae has, at least at first glance, the slick commercial look of the type of Hollywood productions we’re used to seeing from the likes of Disney and Don Bluth. If you’re anything like me, that might prove to be a bit of a stumbling block, because, being that I’m no big fan of mainstream animation, that’s not the type of cinematic experience I tend to seek out. And indeed, during its first few minutes I had some serious doubts about whether I was going to enjoy Felidae. Then came the moment when the film’s protagonist, a feline detective by the name of Francis, stumbles across his first horribly mutilated kitty corpse, and I quickly realized that there were quite a few shades of difference between Felidae and Fievel Goes West.
Based on the first of a series of novels by author Akif Pirincci, Felidae starts out like an especially grue-spattered boys’ adventure (but with cats) and quickly turns into a bleak apocalyptic noir along the lines of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (again, but with cats). In the service of this dark vision, the filmmakers pile on the extreme gore and nightmarish imagery, still managing all the while to deliver a complex and compelling mystery. Needless to say, this isn’t one to show the kids, and I would hesitate to recommend it to the more sensitive cat lovers out there. However, feline enthusiasts of a bit more two-fisted nature might find much to like, especially in the obvious respect and care that the filmmakers bring to the task of representing their titular creatures (“Felidae” being the name for the biological family to which cats belong).
Both Pirincci (who scripted) and the animators charged with bringing his words to life do a pretty good job of providing their furry cast with feelings and motivations recognizable to humans without simply turning them into humans in cat drag. While these cats speak to each other in complete sentences and have an awareness of human doings far beyond what one might expect, there is no doubt that theirs is a world entirely “other” from the one that their oblivious owners inhabit. There’s also been an effort not to sentimentalize the beasts; these tabbies, for all their anthropomorphic antics, are just as likely to casually display their buttholes, gulp down a passing fly, eat garbage and piss wherever they please as your own little Whiskers or Tigger. Oh, and they also screw — and, as in life, it’s no candlelight-and-Barry-White-on-the-stereo affair, but rather the same brutal spectacle of hissing, biting and forced penetration that plays out every day in suburban backyards from here to Munich and beyond.
Felidae begins with Francis, who is gifted with an inquisitive temperament beyond that of the typical house cat, moving into a new neighborhood where a feline serial killer appears to be on the loose. While his newfound friend, a battle-scarred and foul-mouthed tom by the name of Bluebeard, shares the belief of the other cats in the neighborhood that the bloody murders are the work of a human, Francis thinks that the evidence points to another cat, and sets out to sniff out the culprit. His search brings him in contact with a messianic cat cult who worship a perhaps mythical super-feline martyred at the hands of a sadistic human scientist (and who express their worship through a ritual of mass self-electrocution); and later leads him to discover that the very house he and his owner have moved into may have been the site of the fabled atrocities — which in reality go way beyond what anyone could previously have imagined.
Francis is guided in his search by a series of vivid dreams which make up some of Felidae‘s most memorable — and horrifying — moments. I challenge anyone who has seen this film to forget the mentally scarring spectacle of a gigantic Gregor Mendel rising up from a vast feline killing field to wield hundreds of mangled cat corpses as marionettes. Another indelibly disturbing image occurs when Francis and Bluebeard stumble upon an underground catacomb filled with decomposing and skeletal cat remains — at which point they realize that, contrary to what they thought, the killer they’ve been tracking is responsible for the murder of, not just several, but hundreds of their brothers and sisters.
Images of mass graves and genocide abound in Felidae, as do references to eugenics and racial purity, and it is one of its flaws that its approach to allegory is just a bit too on-the-nose. (And, seriously, all you Germans who are far too young to have had any direct involvement in the Holocaust? We forgive you. Honestly.) Another for me is that, for a noir protagonist, Francis comes off as just a bit too bland and innocent — bushy-tailed, if you will. An over-dependence on catnip might have been a nice touch in this regard, and in lieu of that, we might have at least got a better sense of the effect that Francis’ descent into darkness has had on him. He appears to be less cynical about humans than the other cats in his new neighborhood (he is at first unfamiliar with the local term “can opener”, which refers to humans in terms of what the cats see as their only useful function), and while he appears troubled by the human cruelty he witnesses, we don’t really get much of a sense of him wrestling with any dissonance between his old and new perceptions.
Still, these are all minor complaints in light of what Felidae accomplishes. Given both its concept and execution, its novelty value is guaranteed. But that it goes beyond that to deliver such a solid and involving mystery, rife with powerful moments and some nasty shocks, is something to be celebrated. One might think that having cartoon kitty-cats prancing across the screen would work against the consistent atmosphere of oppressive dread this story calls for (even if those kitty-cats are doing some pretty awful things), but the finished product proves otherwise. Furthermore, on a technical level, Felidae is — if a little slick at times for my taste — gorgeous. A glance at the various credits of the large, international crew of animators who worked on the film indicates that they were among the most accomplished professionals in the business at the time. In addition to the solid character design and studied believability of the movements, the backgrounds are beautiful without exception — rich with color and lush detail to an extent that they sometimes threaten to upstage the foreground action.
Given that high level of technical artistry, I’m glad that Felidae was made in 1994 — rather than today, when it would undoubtedly have been done with CGI. CGI is to me intrinsically post-modern, always seeming to be about nothing so much as itself — constantly, by way of its very resemblance to live action, calling attention to the trick that it’s pulling on the audience as it’s doing it. As such, it might be fine for films that are just an episodic series of gags, but in service of a sustained narrative — especially one that requires the attention to detail that Felidae‘s does — it’s just a distraction. Drawn animation is definitely the ideal medium for creating the kind of enclosed reality that’s needed for us to invest ourselves in a vision as quirky as Felidae‘s. Given that, this film should stand as a testament to the viability of that medium in the face of the increasingly indistinguishable CGI features that hog our theater screens each holiday season.
Felidae, though in German (the original voice cast includes a number of noted German actors, including Klaus Maria Brandauer), oddly features an English language theme song sung by Boy George. There also exists a perfectly acceptable English language dub, which can be found on the German DVD release (which, sadly, doesn’t include English subtitles for the German language version). All of this indicates that it was made with an eye toward an overseas release, which is not surprising given the obviously high financial investment that went into it. Yet chances are that you have never even heard of it, much less seen it.
That it never received a theatrical release in America is a no-brainer; distributors would undoubtedly have hit a mental logjam trying to market a movie that looks on the surface like a family film but plays out like an angst-ridden version of The Aristocats as imagined by Eli Roth. But surely there are enough people here in the states who would love this orphaned little cinematic tabby — who would take it into their homes, let it curl up in front on the fire, and then rip their throats out — to merit it’s release on domestic DVD.
If memory serves, the thing that first brought me to Teleport City was a Google search I did for the Hong Kong director Chor Yuen. At the time I was in the early stages of a now full-blown obsession with Chor, specifically with the adaptations of Ku Long’s wuxia novels that he filmed for Shaw Brothers during the late seventies and early eighties. Given that obsession, you might think — now that I’m living the dream and actually writing for Teleport City — I would have gotten around to covering one of those films. But, the truth is that I’ve been a little intimidated by the prospect. You see, I enjoy those films on such a pre-verbal level that I fear words will fail me in communicating just what it is that I love about them so much. Fortunately, Keith has already done a lot of the heavy lifting for me by covering some of Chor’s better known, more revered films like Clans of Intrigue and The Magic Blade, which affords me the opportunity to turn my attention to one of the lesser-known, perhaps not quite as accomplished, but none-the-less thoroughly enjoyable films from this chapter in his career. You see? Baby steps.
The character of the high-kicking female badass was fairly commonplace in Asian cinema by 1974, especially in films coming out of Hong Kong and Japan. But in Bollywood, not so much. In fact, until recently, the only such character in a seventies Bollywood film I would be able to name off the top of my head would be the one played by Zeenat Aman in the original Don. Still, the 1974 film Geetaa Mera Naam puts just such a character front and center, talking tough, sticking it to the man, and dealing out whoopass to all comers without a thought of depending on male chivalry for her fortunes. Just what would it take to get a film focusing on such a character made in the Bollywood of the early seventies? Well, in the case of Geetaa Mera Naam, it probably didn’t hurt that the film’s director was a woman, and that that woman was also the movie’s star — a star who intended Geetaa Mera Naam to be her farewell to her audience after a short-lived but eventful career as a beloved screen icon.
Kaala Sona is another example of the Basmati — or “Curry” — Western, that Bollywood take on the Western that seems to draw more on the European model than the American for its inspiration. Of course, the Amitabh Bachchan classic Sholay, released at roughly the same time, is considered the gold standard of that genre, and Kaala Sona follows along much the same pattern. Like Sholay, for instance, it’s a Western in feel rather than period, setting its action in the present day while taking advantage of some of the still relatively untamed regions lying within India’s borders. Such an approach allows both films to highlight a favorite Bollywood theme: the urbanized ne’er-do-well who, in being called upon to defend a rural community from a destructive outside force, has his soul awakened to the simple and essential virtues embodied by that community. (In more recent films, that urbanized ne’er-do-well tends to be, more specifically, a Westernized product of the Diaspora, but same idea.)
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I find the Philippines’ Tagalog language pop cinema of the 1960s strikingly similar to Turkish pulp cinema of the same period. The products of both are comparably rough hewn and action oriented and, by necessity of their staggering volume, bear the hallmarks of being churned out at a very brisk pace. Both are also brimming with fanciful costumed heroes, many of which are lifted directly from Western pop culture sources with little or no concern for matters of copyright. Of course, the Filipino’s have their own rich comic book history to draw from, and the decade would also see numerous screen adaptations of homegrown superheroes such as Captain Barbell, Lastikman, and Mars Ravelo’s Wonder Woman inspired Darna, but audiences at the time were just as likely to be treated to fare along the lines of Batman Fights Dracula or Zoom, Zoom, Superman!
Filipino cinema had not always been that way, however. In fact, the previous decade had been what is now considered a golden age for the country’s film industry, dominated by a quartet of major studios known as “The Big Four”, who turned out relatively lavish prestige productions built around their respective stables of glamorous stars. Financial troubles and the resulting defection of contracted talent started to take their toll on those studios toward the end of the fifties, and by the mid sixties Sampaguita Productions was the last of the Big Four left standing.
And the landscape that Sampaguita found itself a part of was a markedly changed one, made up of dozens of scrappy independent production companies seeking to turn a quick profit by grinding out hastily produced imitations of whatever international product Filipino audiences were paying to see at the moment. This translated primarily into countless indigenous interpretations of the James Bond and Eurospy films (resulting, among others things, in the phenomenally successful and long running Tony Falcon: Agent X-44 series), Spaghetti Westerns. and, of course, the ubiquitous Batman television series and the numerous European costumed capers inspired by it. In this sense, Sampaguita’s 1966 production James Batman can be seen as one of the studio’s efforts to go with the dollar-chasing flow of this new industry environment.
Another tendency in Filipino cinema that is at play in James Batman — one that, in fact, can still be seen in the industry’s current cinematic output — is a fondness for broad, Mad Magazine-style lampoons of Western pop culture products. It doesn’t take a cultural anthropologist to see this as reflecting some ambivalence on the part of the Filipino people regarding the inescapable cultural influence of their former occupiers, but, whatever the case, the result was that, alongside more earnest efforts such as the Agent X-44 films, Pinoy filmmakers were producing an equal number of spoofs along the lines of James Bone, which starred the emaciated comedian Palito as a skeletal superspy.
This particular trend was a boon to one performer born Rodolfo Vera Quizon, who, under the name Dolphy, would go on to become the most beloved screen comedian in the history of Pinoy cinema (such was his popularity at the time of making James Batman that he had recently had the gig of warming up the crowd for The Beatles during the mop-topped ones’ ultimately disastrous visit to the islands). After initially rising to fame in the fifties in a series of cross-dressing roles (sure-fire comedic gold in the macho culture of the Philippines), Dolphy had, by the mid-sixties, reinvented himself somewhat in a series of secret agent spoofs such as Dr. Yes, Dolpinger, Genghis Bond: Agent 1-2-3 (all 1965) and Napoleon Doble and the Sexy Six (1966). Dolphy didn’t limit himself to parodying the spy genre, and also lampooned comic characters such as Tarzan and Captain Barbell during this period — and for James Batman combined the two with a dual performance as comedic versions of both James Bond and Batman.
What makes James Batman such a strange animal — aside from the obvious — is that, in parodying the James Bond films of the mid sixties and the Adam West Batman television series, it’s spoofing two things that are already spoofs themselves. On top of that, the film, in addition to delivering lots of very broad slapstick comedy, also strives to function as a proper action film, and as such features quite a lot of fairly soberly staged fight sequences and action set pieces. In fact, by the time we reach the final act, most of the comic antics have been dispensed with, and James Batman plays out its remaining length as a fairly straightforward action melodrama. The result is that the movie gets to have it both ways by presenting Batman and James Bond, as the objects of parody, as cowardly and preening, while still having them go on to perform the daring heroic feats that the audience expected of them.
James Batman‘s action starts at what is apparently some kind of congress of Asian nations, at which a Fu Manchu-like emissary of the criminal organization CLAW shows up to make extortion demands and threaten nuclear annihilation upon those who would not comply. What was most striking to me about this scene was the CLAW emissary’s sidekick, who was played by a very elderly man who looked both disoriented and confused throughout, leading me to speculate that someone’s grandfather had been put to work during furlough from the rest home. Anyway, the combined nations decide that the threat from CLAW is so great that the services of both Batman and James Bond are required. An actually kind of funny scene follows in which the movie’s distinctly childish and self-regarding versions of both Batman and Bond, who are obviously none too fond of one another, sit before the committee and argue why each of them should be given the job exclusively — an argument that quickly devolves into each of them shouting “pick me!” at the delegates.
One of the perks of the job for Batman is that it will increase his proximity to the chairman’s beautiful young daughter, Shirley. Unfortunately, while Shirley is crazy about Batman (exemplified by a shot of her gazing dreamy-eyed at a magazine that confusingly features a photo of Batman and Robin as portrayed by Adam West and Burt Ward), she has no time for Batman’s alter ego, Dolpho, despite the insistence of her controlling older sister Delia that Dolpho, with his many millions, is a prime catch. Meanwhile, the members of CLAW — which include a cloaked figure called Drago, an especially tall and roided-up interpretation of The Penguin, a guy with a spiked ball for a hand, and a masked female called The Black Rose who is clearly derived from the character in Chor Yuen’s Cantonese film of the same name — have learned that Bond, Batman and “Rubin” are on the case, and determine to eliminate them before they interfere with their plans.
In addition to former Sampaguita contract player Dolphy, the cast of James Batman serves as something of a showcase for Sampaguita’s house talent at the time. Boy Alano, who plays Rubin, began his acting career at the age of ten, when he co-starred in the 1951 film Roberta, a smash hit that helped rescue the studio from bankruptcy following a fire that consumed a large part of its property. Bella Flores, who plays Delia, had portrayed the female heavy in that same film, and her performance was so iconic that it pretty much doomed her to the type of bad girl roles we see her essaying here. Finally, Shirley Moreno, who plays “Shirley”, was a recent discovery whom Sampaguita head Dr. Jose Perez had that year included in a promotional launch of the studio’s new faces dubbed “Stars 66″. Despite the Spanish surname, the fair-skinned, conspicuously Anglo-looking Moreno serves as a perfect example of the Caucasian standard of feminine beauty that dominated in the Pinoy film industry at the time — and still does to some extent today.
With its simple set-up out of the way, James Batman proceeds along a trajectory not unsimilar to that of most spy films of its era, trotting out a succession of action set pieces based around the villain’s serial attempts to pick off our heroes. Only, in this case, those set pieces are punctuated by gag scenes in which, to give a few examples, Batman gets pantsed and produces condiments from his utility belt, and James Bond gets bitten on his bare ass by a rubber centipede. Alano’s portrayal of Rubin as somewhat of a cretin also provides the opportunity for some Three Stooges-style rough stuff, since Dolphy/Batman is frequently driven to violence by his idiocy. Elsewhere, the level of the movie’s humor can best be summed up by the phrase “boobies… hee hee”.
For the most part, Dolphy’s scripted dialog is painfully unfunny, but what struck me as I watched James Batman is how he comes across as being a genuinely funny guy despite that. This is conveyed mostly through what appear to be throwaway bits of physical improv — such as when, as Batman, he follows a pre-crime-fighting snack by casually wiping his hands on Rubin’s cape — and by a genuinely quirky repertoire of mannerisms and physical gestures that make the most of his spindly frame and boney, thin-lipped countenance. I think that what really works for Dolphy is his somewhat sadsack, sour-faced demeanor, an aspect that not only serves to distance him from the goofy obviousness of the humor he’s perpetrating, but also provides a contrast to the type of desperate, googly-eyed antics so often seen in cinematic comic relief characters from this period.
As mentioned before, Dolphy’s portrayals of Bond and Batman veer toward the comically vain and juvenile — an exercise in broad-stroke subversion that’s aided by some equally unsubtle costuming choices. These include Batman/Dolphy’s baggy long johns-based costume that continually slips to his knees, and which is adorned with a chest emblem that looks like a female silhouette better suited for a semi’s mud flaps. Bond/Dolphy, for his part, is decked out in a stunning plaid three-piece suit with matching Trilby, an ensemble that is really shown to best advantage during a makeout scene that takes place on an identically patterned couch. (Though, to be honest, whether this outfit was actually intended to look ridiculous, or was instead someone’s actual idea of high style was unclear to me.) Interestingly, despite being the only character to receive a satirical rechristening, “Rubin” gets to wear a costume that is entirely faithful to that of his inspiration.
Predictably, James Batman looks like it was made for about a dollar, but that doesn’t mean that efforts weren’t made to make it look as good as possible under the circumstances. Director Artemio Marquez and cinematographer Amaury Agra imbue the film throughout with fluid camera work and imaginative, comic book-influenced compositions, and the many action sequences are generally well staged and shot. Furthermore, the black and white photography serves to some extent to mask the heavy cardboard and construction paper content of the sets, and elements such as the modified Cadillac that serves as the Batmobile actually don’t look too bad as long as the camera doesn’t dwell on them for too long. Spicing things up further are some interesting location choices, including the operational processing plant in which the climactic battle scene is staged, which looks like it must have presented some very real hazards for the actors involved.
James Batman comes to a dramatic head when the CLAW gang, in accordance with their supervillain mandate, kidnap Shirley and abscond with her to their secret headquarters. Bond, Batman and Rubin are close behind, of course, and, with the aid of two undercover agents working within the organization, lay siege to the compound, all the while dodging the deadly cartoon rays shooting from the giant lady fingers that ornament Drago’s throne room. All leads to a dramatic reveal of the real brains behind the organization and, ultimately, some stock footage explosions. It’s a climax that offers the type of crossover thrills that only a flagrant disregard for international copyrights can guaranty — and if you’re the type of fanboy for whom a fight between James Bond (or, at least, a malnourished-looking, Pacific Islander version of same) and The Penguin represents sheer nirvana, it should seal the deal on whether or not you are going to begin the long grey market search for a murky dub of the film.
Personally — and much to my surprise, given my expectations going in — I’m going to come down reservedly on the pro side of the James Batman argument. This is due in part to the fact that, given that the majority of Filipino films from its era have been lost, it is one of the few remaining examples of films of its type. But I also have to say that, despite it being every bit as stupid as I expected it to be, it was still entertaining, and proceeded at a fast enough clip that none of its potential irritants were with me long enough to do much damage. Points are also in order, I feel, for the fact that its humor, no matter how juvenile, really does have a subversive component to it; the underdog lover in me just has to feel a little warm and fuzzy about inhabitants of a downtrodden island nation like the Philippines so gleefully thumbing their noses at institutionalized symbols of Western might like James Bond and Batman. That in doing so they manage to make the voraciously plundering pulp cinema of Turkey seem reverent by comparison is even more impressive. Plus, you know, boobies… hee hee.