I expounded recently, in my review of Throne of Fire, on the fact that I am still a sucker for cool cover/poster art, even though I know full well that the movie being advertised is rarely as good as the illustration advertising it. So let me now explore another of my sundry weaknesses: I have a weakness for cool-sounding team-ups. It probably started back when I was a wee sprout camped out in front of the television late at night, watching old Universal horror films. Frankenstein and the Wolfman, in the same movie? Boss! And while the high concept team-ups were generally slightly more dependable than poster art, that didn’t mean that they still weren’t, by and large, a bit disappointing most of the time. But still, come on! Frankenstein versus the Wolfman! Dev Anand versus hippies! And in the case of Our Man in Marrakesh, Tony Randall versus Klaus Kinski. Tell me that one isn’t epic sounding. And while my gullible faith in the high-concept team-up often let me down, I was certain that Tony Randall versus Klaus Kinski in a lighthearted Eurospy adventure would live up to the promise. I’m happy to say that, unlike Throne of Fire, I was pleasantly rewarded this time around.
The phrase “Jess Franco at his worst” is something that should strike fear in the hearts of even the stoutest of cult film aficionados, to say nothing of the mainstream masses who go about their daily lives in blissful ignorance of the sundry celluloid abominations lurking in the dank, shadowy alleys of the cinematic landscape. Even at his best, Jess Franco manages to illicit negative reactions (to put it politely) to his work from the vast majority of viewers. And Jess Franco at his worst? The sane mind dare not even imagine what such a beast would look like! I, as has been stated elsewhere, am a fan of Jess Franco, and a pretty big fan at that. And as a fan of Franco, I recognize that often times the dank, shadowy alley leads to the secret door that opens up into a magical psychedelic jazz strip club decorated with garish pop art excess and populated by the bizarre and decadent fringes of lunatic society.
I freely admit that, for one not predisposed toward Franco’s peculiar predilections and directorial quirks, his films can be inaccessible and rather impenetrable — which I guess is my way of skirting around calling them boring and incompetent. As for myself, my appreciation of Franco and of the Franco aesthetic has grown over the years, aged like a fine wine, until I have reached the point where I positively adore his warped creations. If I could have any filmmaker’s career, I would most likely end up picking Jess Franco. If nothing else, imagine the sheer number of bizarre stories he must have amassed over the decades of his long career as a cult filmmaker on the fringe.
Franco himself probably could have picked the film career of any other filmmaker to be his own, but he eventually picked Jess Franco as well. He was not always the maverick nutjob over-indulging in his own obsessions. There was a time, however brief and long ago, that Franco flirted with mainstream acceptability and garnered praise and work from more established and well-respected members of the cinematic industry. But every time the choice was presented to him: play the game and be accepted or play by your own rules and remain on the fringe, Franco took the fringe route. You can chalk this up to whatever you want: dedication to a personal vision, artistic madness, or the inability to make a sound business decision. It’s probably all three, and then some. Whatever the case, Franco become a filmmaker so prolific and so committed to his own idiosyncrasies that at some point he may very well have stopped making movies in specific genres and became a genre unto himself.
If you know Jess Franco, then you know what I mean when I say “a Jess Franco film.” You know that there are tropes and themes that run through most all of his films regardless of whether they are horror, science fiction, espionage, sexploitation — all other labels applied to his films are secondary to that of “a Jess Franco film.” And at times, not only is Jess Franco a genre unto himself, but his films attain such lofty levels of bizarreness that they perhaps stop being movies at all and become some entirely new and incomprehensible type of art. Or maybe he’s just bad at what he does. Whatever the case, and probably because Franco and I seem to share a lot of common interests, fetishes, and obsessions, I have grown to look upon his body of work with considerable fondness and respect.
And I am not alone. As more and more of his films find their way to DVD in uncut and properly presented formats, Franco’s fanbase is growing. However, even among his fans, the jungle adventure Diamonds of Kilimandjaro (their spelling, not mine) gets very little love. Even those with a tremendous talent for digesting Franco seem to regard Diamonds of Kilimandjaro and it’s follow-up, Golden Temple Amazons, as among the very worst films Franco ever made. And while “Jess Franco at his worst” is more than enough to keep most people away (hell, “Jess Franco” alone is enough to keep most people away), that phrase is, in turn, more than enough to make me think, “Man, this I gotta see!”
So with my love of Franco in general established, let me further say that I also have a weakness for jungle adventure movies. Some of the earliest films I remember seeing were the old Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller, and between those and all the Poverty Row b-movie adventures about jungle goddesses that filled Matinee at the Bijou when I was a kid, plus a dollop of old pulp stories when I could find them, I knew that jungles were full of crocodile wrestling, hot chicks in loin cloths, lost treasure, ancient crumbling cities carved into the sides of cliffs, and oblivious British professor types in pith helmets explaining some anthropological point as they puff on a pipe and fail to realize that they are slowly sinking in quicksand. And men of adventure — men like me — would stride through those leafy quagmires with a machete in one hand, a colonial rifle in the other, and harvest glorious tales of adventure and romance. Yes sir, that was the life for me. And even though I’m in my thirties now, I still haven’t let go of the dream that one day I’ll be living that kind of life. The closest I can get is the jungle adventure film, all full of the good stuff I just mentioned, and usually even fuller of scenes consisting of the stars pointing at something off camera, followed by a cut to grainy stock footage of an elephant or a rhino or something.
So that brings us to Diamonds of Kilimandjaro, an old fashioned jungle adventure film as directed by Jess Franco and produced by Eurocine Studios in France. Man, for a guy like me, it just keeps getting better! Eurocine was infamous for being the production house that looked at the very cheapest, laziest, and sleaziest of European exploitation films and felt that they could do it even cheaper, lazier, and sleazier. In fact, “Cheaper, Lazier, and Sleazier” might have been their corporate mission statement, and as far as I can tell, they always lived up to it. You knew that with any Eurocine production, you were going to get a plot that had been written on the back of a used napkin five minutes before filming started. You knew you would get stars with no interest in acting in the movie. You knew you would get a director who was considered to be the worst by most people but was still working beneath himself when working for Eurocine. And perhaps most defining of all, you knew you were going to get a whole lot of nudity. I’ve always wanted to research and write two film books. One would be a history of exploitation filmmaking in Florida, when folks like David Friedman, HG Lewis, and Doris Wishman were running wild and setting gorillas loose in nudist colonies. The other would be a history of Eurocine, driven by personal anecdotes from the people who worked for and with them. It must have been insane, and any book on the subject would be a tome of ultra-cheap filmmaking techniques and hilarious personal accounts. Sounds like a job for Tim Lucas and Pete Toombs!
Among cult film fans, Eurocine’s best-known production is probably Zombie Lake, a film of staggering incompetence directed by one of my favorite directors, Jean Rollin, after another of my favorite directors (Jess Franco) turned it down because the movie was just too cheap and crappy. Too cheap and crappy for Jess Franco, huh? Truly, it boggles the mind. But Franco wouldn’t get through a lifetime career in exploitation films without doing some work for Eurocine. Diamonds of Kilimandjaro and Golden Temple Amazons were two of the movies Franco apparently didn’t think were as cheap and shoddy and ill-conceived as Zombie Lake. And while even Franco fans seem to hate both films, I have to admit that, well, just like Zombie Lake, I kinda like them. Actually, I more than kinda like them.
Diamonds of Kilimandjaro is basically the end product of someone at Eurocine getting stoned and proposing a movie probably with the description, “It’d be like Tarzan, but with tits!” And from what I can tell, that’s about as far as you had to go with concepts and pitches at Eurocine. All that’s left to do is call Jess Franco and tell him to have the film done in a week or two. Diamonds of Kilimandjaro begins with a plane crash, as all good Tarzan rip-offs do. The only survivors are a caricature of a Scotsman and his daughter, Diana, who grows up to be German sexploitation actress Katja Bienert. For some reason, the natives who find them decide to worship the Scotsman as a god, even though they already seem to know what white people are and thus shouldn’t really be so enraptured when one of them drops by wearing a knit cap and kilt. Years later, an expedition to the jungle results in an explorer running into Diana, who has an aversion to wearing tops — an affliction all women in this movie seem to have. When she frees him after the others want to put him to death for trying to take sacred diamonds from the jungle (actually, it’s a small chunk of amethyst), the explorer returns to civilization and reports to the dying matron Hermine (Lina Romay in heavy old-person make-up) that her daughter is still alive. Hermine then commissions an expedition to find the child and return her to civilized society.
So begins the adventures of one of the worst-equipped jungle expeditions of all time. Two of the guys (Albino Graziani as the dickish but ultimately moral Fred, and Antonio Mayans as the friendly but ultimately immoral Al) at least spring for proper jungle attire, or as proper as dungarees and t-shirts can be. But the other guy, Diana’s drunkard uncle or something, played by Olivier Mathot, shows up wearing his finest flared slacks and loafers. Still, that’s nothing compared to his wife, Lita (played by Mari Carmen Nieto, aka Ana Stern), who shows up for their jungle adventure wearing the same tank top, denim cut-off hot pants, and high-heeled, hot pink 1980s scrunchy boots that she would later wear in Jess Franco’s Mansion of the Living Dead. Seriously, someone needed to get this woman one of those old Banana Republic catalogs, from back when the catalogs were digest sized and printed on thick brown paper, and all the clothes were safari and adventure themed, with lots of tales about rum and gauchos and jungle expeditions thrown in for good measure. Lucky for all involved, Lita’s questionable taste in rain forest hiking attire will not be much of an issue, as she spends much of the movie naked.
In fact, if you are going to like Diamonds of Kilimandjaro, you are going to have to really like two things: naked women and random shots of jungle foliage, because that’s about all this movie is comprised of. In fact, they should have just titled it Tits and Foliage, because it’s not like I wouldn’t watch a movie called Tits and Foliage. In fact, I’d probably be more likely to watch Tits and Foliage than something called Diamonds of Kilimandjaro. Plus, the movie is full of tits and foliage, but there are no diamonds, and there is no Kilimandjaro. For like 89 minutes this is a movie about a group of dumb people trying to find a naked white chick in the jungle while a naked black chick in the jungle throws spears at them. And then in the last minute, some Scotsman in a hut stammers, “You are here to steal the treasure!” Huh? Treasure? What treasure? What the hell is anyone in this movie talking about?
If you asked me if I like this movie, the answer would be an enthusiastic “yes!” If you asked me why I liked this movie, I would sort of shuffle and mumble and get all awkward like a little kid who has just been asked what the teacher just said after being caught not paying attention. Certainly, there are very few, if any, artistic merits about Diamonds of Kilimandjaro. Most of the signature Jess Franco flourishes are absent. There’s no jazzy psychedelic score. There’s no ultra-cool pop art nightclub. There’s no interesting cinematography or direction. Jess pretty much sits the camera in the jungle (or a Spanish stand-in for a jungle) and lets stuff happen in front of it. If the movie is short on running time, no problem. He’ll just shoot fifteen seconds worth of random palm fronds and jungle scrub to pad things out. Still short on time? Might as well use some of that stock rhino footage Eurocine found lying around in a warehouse somewhere. It’s obvious that Franco was as bored making this movie as most people are watching it. And yet, I really like the movie. Is it the threadbare plot? Is it the bored acting? The listless direction? The plodding pace? I can’t say for sure, but something about this movie delighted me. I guess, Like I said before, I’m just a sucker for jungle movies, especially when they feature an adventurer in high-heeled, hot pink 1980s scrunchy boots.
Lead actress Katja Bienert has little to do beyond walk around the jungle naked. When she is given more than that to do — swinging from a vine, for example, the results are usually pretty good evidence for why she wasn’t given much to do beyond walking around the jungle naked. She sort of flails around on the vine for a second and is obviously about to fall right before Franco cuts away and dubs in a war cry that sounds more like, well, the sound you make when you are about to fall. I don’t think even Tarzan himself would have seemed as cool if his war cry had been, “Whoops!” Bienert looks good in a loin cloth, of course, and she worked with Franco a number of times before and after this film, including Eugenie, Lillian the Perverted Virgin, and one I absolutely must see, Linda — aka Naked Super Witches of the Rio Amore. In fact, as late as 2002, she was still working with Franco, appearing in Killer Barbys vs. Dracula, as well as doing a fair amount of work on German television shows. As you might guess from the titles that make up the body of her work, she hasn’t exactly achieved an air of respectability, but then, neither has Teleport City, and I’d probably be much happier hanging out with Katja Bienert than I would with Meryl Streep or the Dali Lama. Sorry, Your Holiness, but I’m bailing on you to hang out with a German sex film star, because that’s the kind of awesome guy I am. Katja spends the bulk of Diamonds of Kilimandjaro looking vaguely confused and amused, which is nice because that’s how I spent the bulk of Diamonds of Kilimandjaro, too.
Albino Graziani is another Franco regular. In fact, I don’t think he ever worked with anyone but Franco. He stars here as Fred, vying for Alpha Male status on the expedition with the less boisterous Antonio Mayans. But while Fred spends all his time carrying around a gun and shouting, Mayans is busy laying every female he sees, including Lita and, eventually, Diana herself. If there’s anything close to a complex character in this film — and there really isn’t, to be honest — it’s Fred, who reacts with disgust when he learns that there is more to this expedition than he was initially told. It turns out that Lita and boozy uncle whatever his name was are intent on making sure Diana never returns to civilization, lest they lose out on their inheritance. Al himself eventually has a crisis of conscience as well but ultimately sacrifices principal in order to steal the diamonds that are actually amethyst. Pretty much all of his character development takes place in the span of thirty seconds, which is convenient if you lead an active lifestyle and don’t have a lot of time to spend watching some dude with a beard discover himself and ultimately succumb to temptation and greed.
Actually, one of my favorite things about the Eurocine films I’ve seen is that they all try to throw in some deep, important message amid all the gratuitous scenes of naked jungle chicks and skinny dippers. Diamonds of Kilimandjaro has the moral conflict between Fred and Al. It has the moral conflict between the primitive and civilized. It has the moral conflict over whether it is right to take Diana from the jungle if she does not want to leave — would she even know if she wanted to leave? And it throws in an angry, frighteningly hot black chick (Aline Mess, also in the jungle adventure Devil Hunter with Al Cliver and possessed of the most alluring bloodthirsty snarl I’ve seen in a while) who knows these white fools are no gods and have only come to plunder her land. Mess seems to relish her role, and if there’s anyone to watch this movie for, it’s her. She spends the entire thing running naked through the jungle, beheading obnoxious jackasses with unbridled glee, doing sexy ritual dances, and throwing spears at irritating people. You could be offended by the stereotypical portrayal of blacks as primitive and superstitious, but I look at her behavior and think, “Man, what’s not to love about this girl?” Plus, she’s like the only one who isn’t falling for the “white man from sky is god!” shtick.
Oh, and there’s the moral trickiness of a father who hangs out with his naked daughter in the jungle all day, but the film seems unconcerned with that one. It is European, after all. But the script, penned by Franco and Olivier Mathot in a writing session that probably lasted twenty minutes, crams all these “big ideas” in with no real thought. Not that Diamonds of Kilimandjaro is deep or meaningful in any way. Hell, I’m like one of maybe three people in the entire world who love this film, and even I wouldn’t try to sell that claim. It’s like something I would have written when I was twelve and all hopped up on jungle adventure movies and copies of Penthouse than my friend’s dad had hidden in their utility closet.
Franco at his worst? I don’t really think so. Diamonds of Kilimandjaro is certainly not Franco at his best, but I really thought this goofy mess of a film was kind of fun. I can’t justify it, and don’t feel like I even need to. I certainly wouldn’t promise you that you will like it as much as I did. But I did like Diamonds of Kilimandjaro. It really is a throwback to old style adventure films, only without much adventure and with more nudity. It has nothing to do with the better known Italian jungle films of the 80s, all of which were gory, serious cannibal movies. Compared to those, and even with the near-constant gratuitous nudity, Diamonds of Kilimandjaro is sort of this dumb, innocent old-fashioned movie. It has a charm for me I can neither explain nor deny. It’s pure, idiotic cheesecake, and then it attempts to cram complex thematic elements in between the scenes of Ana Stern skinny dipping and Ana Stern getting laid and Ana Stern wearing her high-heeled, hot pink 1980s scrunchy boots, and Katja Bienert topless and falling out of trees. I admire that.
Release Year: 1983 | Country: France/Spain/maybe Germany | Starring: Katja Bienert, Antonio Mayans, Aline Mess, Albino Graziani, Javier Maiza, Olivier Mathot, Ana Stern, Daniel White, Lina Romay | Screenplay: Jess Franco, Olivier Mathot | Director: Jess Franco | Cinematographer: Jess Franco | Music: Jess Franco and Daniel White | Original Title: El Tesoro de la Diosa Blanca
At my age, and with my experience, I shouldn’t fall for it. And yet, on occasion, I’m still taken in by cool posters and cover art. At these times, I actually leave my body and hover above myself, screaming warnings but powerless to prevent my corporeal self from plunking down a wad of cash on a movie that has a cool looking cover. “You fool! You know the movie isn’t going to be anything like the cover!” my spirit cries, but alas his words are unable to prevent the transaction. And so it is I end up owning movies like Throne of Fire, a dreary, slow-moving, largely uninteresting Italian sword and sorcery film with a cover that featured an illustration of a big-breasted nude chick swinging around a sword and wearing a little metal thong. “This looks pretty good,” I said to myself, even as my other disembodied self was shouting, “Dude, seriously! That chick probably never even shows up in the movie! Didn’t you learn anything from the cover of Hot Potato???”
Well, I didn’t, and true enough, Throne of Fire never features a sexy, naked Valkyrie type chick swinging around a sword. In fact, it’s the rare sword and sorcery film that doesn’t feature any toplessness at all. The whole thing plays out more like a really bad throwback to 1960s peplum than it does a 1980s sword and sorcery film. Once again, the jazzy, saucy poster art lured me in and let me down. And once again, I learned nothing from the transaction. I’d do it again, I tell ya! I’d do it again! Ha ha ha!
What Throne of Fire lacks in sexy, naked Valkyrie type chicks swinging around a sword it makes up for with plentiful scenes of people sitting around in poorly lit throne rooms discussing events that would be more interesting if they were actually happening on screen instead of just being described to us by bored Italians. Keep in mind that my capacity for liking even the absolute worst of 1980s sword and sorcery films is legendary. I like Barbarians. I like Conquest. For crying out loud, I like Hawk the Slayer and Archer: Fugitive from the Empire! Right now, I’m sitting here and thinking about how I want to watch one of the Ator movies — and possibly all of them!!! And that seems like a good idea to me, and it’s not something I haven’t done before. This past weekend, Krull was on TV, and not only did I watch it, but I also watched it when they did the late-night replay — and I already own that shit on DVD, man! So for a sword and sorcery movie not to get my easy-going seal of approval really has to mean something, I think. Throne of Fire is a bad movie. Not Yor, the Hunter from the Future bad, which is awesome, but regular old boring “is this asshole still explaining the plot to us?” bad.
Taken at face value, the description of Throne of Fire’s plot is as deceptively enticing as the lurid artwork. Satan wants a son so he can plunge the world into darkness, but instead of siring the kid on his own, he sends his messenger. When he becomes a man, the son of…well, the son of Satan’s messenger will sit upon the throne of fire, thereby giving him power to — honestly, I’m not sure, but it probably has something to do with more plunging the world into darkness type of business. Only a hero pure of heart and clad in naught but a loincloth and leather bicep tassels can stop the evil one’s dastardly plan. Also, only the rightful heir can sit in the throne of fire without being set ablaze (something you’d think wouldn’t bother the son of Satan, but since this is the son of Satan’s errand boy, I guess it’s important), so Satan’s ward must also kill the proper king and marry that king’s daughter. In time, you will learn that setting people on fire when they sit on it without permission is the sole power of the throne.
But really, I mean that doesn’t sound so bad, right? Aside from the fact that Satan is too lazy to sire his own son. But then, I guess technically God didn’t do the deed with Mary, so he didn’t sire his own son, either. Seriously, you Christian gods and demons need to take a page out of Zeus’ pick-up artist manual. Now there was a god who knew how to sow his seed. That cat could hardly find time to hurl his mighty thunderbolts, so busy was he getting busy and seducing fair maidens by appearing to them as a shimmering mist of impregnation or a horny silver-furred pygmy marmoset waving its hands wildly and yelling, “I’m king of the gods, baby!” I guess Satan was too busy tempting the souls of good men and pressing Slayer CDs to find time to bang some disinterested lady in a crappy Italian sword and sorcery film.
Anyway, with a plot like the one possessed by Throne of Fire, you figure you’re going to get some random scenes of villages being pillaged, and an old man or woman will probably talk rapturously about how the hero has come to fulfill the prophecy, and then since this is the devil’s adopted son we’re talking about, there will probably be scenes of sweating people being tortured, and there will be an orgy. Hell, that could be the entire plot, with the finale consisting of a plodding sword fight and probably some crudely animated magical ray beam effects. And you know what? I’d be pretty satisfied. But even in the admittedly modest realm of being “at least as good as Iron Warrior,” Throne of Fire fails miserably. And while it does have the prophecy, the torture chamber, and random scenes of pillaging, there is no orgy (Seriously? The son of Satan isn’t going to have an orgy? He isn’t even going to litter his throne room with scantily clad maidens? Lame, son of Satan, lame!), and even the stuff that is present is so unimaginatively staged and so lacking in energy that it hardly even registered. I mean, dudes are pillaging a village and setting huts on fire, and I didn’t even notice.
So where were we? OK, yeah. Satan sends his messenger to impregnate a woman, so that this child may sit on the titular throne of fire, a feat which seems to have absolutely no effect, positive or negative, on the powers of the people who sit upon it. Morak, the son of the messenger of Satan, grows up to be Harrison Muller, who spends his day sending gangs of killers out to perform the most boring acts of pillaging you’re ever going to see. On the plus side, some of them have pretty cool eagle wing helmets. It seems like, given the free reign Morak has with sending around death squads, that he has already succeeded in conquering pretty much the entire crappy kingdom, but people are still talking about the good king on his throne of fire. It apparently never occurs to Good King Fire Ass to send out an army to stop Morak’s band of brigands. Seriously, Morak’s army has like ten guys in it. How can they possibly not be defeated? Maybe if the king spent more time attend to the affairs of his kingdom and less time worrying about his fire throne, he wouldn’t be in this situation. The last time we had a fire king around these parts, he had armies of scantily clad barbarian dudes and was able to fend off attacks from a guy who could hurl icebergs at him. By comparison, Morak doesn’t seem to have any powers at all beyond the powers of prolonged exposition, and still this fire king gets his ass handed to him.
The king eventually falls to Morak, but the princess Valkari escapes. Hey! She does look like the sword swinging chick from the cover, though she keeps what little top she has on through the entire film. Sabrina Siani plays Valkari, and she at least is a welcome sight for eyes that are fast becoming difficult to keep open. She was a staple of the Italian sword and sorcery industry during the 1980s, having appeared shortly before this film as the largely naked evil Ocran in Lucio Fulci’s completely bizarre barbarian fantasy film Conquest, which would be a much more entertaining film to watch than this one. She also appeared in The Invincible Barbarian, Sword of the Barbarians, White Cannibal Queen, and Ator the Fighting Eagle — all of which would be more enjoyable to watch. Yes, even Ator. I never thought I’d find a movie that would make me think, “Man, I sure wish I was watching Ator right now — no, I really wish I was watching Ator III!” but I guess that’s the thrilling part of this job: you always learn new things.
Only one man stands in the way of Morak, the little gang he has, and his mad scheme to do whatever it is he’ll be able to do by sitting on the throne of fire. That man is Siegfried, played by Invincible Barbarian star Pietro Torrisi. Pietro is a huge guy who gives off a sort of “Brad Harris with a perm” vibe, and his career in Italian exploitation was extremely long if unremarkable. He mostly filled uncredited roles, starting out as far back as 1963 with an appearance in The Ten Gladiators. In 1965, after a few more gladiator movies, he made the jump to Eurospy films, appearing in a couple pretty movies starring George Ardisson. Still, his roles were restricted to things like “Bodyguard.” He continued this steady but minor work throughout the spaghetti western trend, the violent cop film trend, and the sexploitation trend.
In 1982, after nearly twenty years in the business, someone finally decided that the post-Conan sword and sorcery boom was the right time and place for Pietro to step up to the plate and take on a starring role. And so he became Zukhan, king of the barbarians, in Franco Prosperi’s Invincible Barbarian. He had another starring role shortly thereafter in Sword of the Barbarians, then was back to an uncredited role in The Iron Master, one of the few Italian sword and sorcery films that has eluded my prying eyes up to this date. And then it was on to the role of heroic Siegfried. At age forty-something, he still looks good, and if nothing else, he handles the action scenes with gusto. It’s just too bad there are so few of them. He spends most of the movie getting captured, escaping, getting captured again, being taunted by Morak, escaping, then getting captured. And to make matters worse, Morak isn’t even a very good taunter.
The movie threatens to pick up when Morak has Siegfried cast down into the Well of Madness, where he will be assaulted by all manner of ghoulish monsters and hallucinations. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t really deliver on the Well of Madness, and Siegfried is menaced by one guy with blobs of make-up on his face and some spooky underlighting before he is allowed to go about his business. While down there, he happens to find his own father, who has been imprisoned lo these many years by Morak. It turns out that Morak can’t kill the old man because the guy knows the secret of the prophecy that prescribes by when and in exactly what manner Morak must sit upon the throne of fire. He imparts this knowledge to Siegfried, and then just for the hell of it also gives him a spell of invisibility and the gift of invulnerability to anything but fire — which is kind of a lame gift when you are fighting a guy who is about to take over the fire throne. Anyway, there’s a long bit where Siegfried and Valkari keep rescuing each other and then getting captured again, and the whole things finally boils down to the inevitable showdown between Siegfried and Morak. By the time this admittedly competent — especially within the realm of Italian barbarian movies, where the sword fight choreography was often legendarily awful — sword fight occurs, you will have stopped caring, fallen asleep, or coughed up your own skeleton in an attempt to relieve the mind-numbing tedium.
So let me put this in perspective: there is a movie directed by Jess Franco called Diamonds of Kilimandjaro. Even among fans of Jess Franco, it is considered to be terrible and tedious. I am going to give that movie a tepidly positive review and claim that it’s not as boring as, well, as Throne of Fire. Other than the fact that some of the sword fights are OK and the leads look good, I have almost nothing positive to say about Throne of Fire except to mention that Siegfried is a master of gymkata. I go into movies like this expecting to be entertained no matter how awful they are. And I almost always am. And when you put this movie in, and it’s got that topless barbarian woman cover and the first thing you are greeted with is the Cannon films logo and a remarkably crappy synth score, well things seem to be headed in the right direction, at least to me. But it doesn’t take long for you to realize that you’d be much better off watching one of Cannon’s other cheap-ass barbarian films, possibly Adventures of Hercules. Anything would be better than Throne of Fire.
Although you can’t fault Torrisi and Siani for their one-note but largely competent performances (relative to the performances one usually sees in these types of movies), there is plenty of blame to be spread around among the writers and director. By this point in his lengthy career, Franco Prosperi should have known better. Way back when, he helped write the script for Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World, one of the very best peplum adventures and arguably one of the best fantasy films of all time. He was originally slated to be the director before Bava took over. He must have died inside the day Bava took on directorial duties for Hercules in the Haunted World, because shortly thereafter Prosperi settled into a career of churning out scripts and doing directorial duties on a slew of sleazy mondo exploitation films. By the time he was tapped to direct a couple sword and sorcery films in the 1980s, he must not have given a damn about anything. His direction in Throne of Blood is as listless and boring as the script, and while me manages to keep everyone in frame and in focus, he doesn’t put much effort beyond that into things. Frankly, though, I guess it’s hard to blame him. After Throne of Fire, he decided to direct and a write a couple Cannibal Holocaust rip-offs. Cannibal Holocaust rip-offs…think that one over for a few minutes.
Complicit in the crime of boring me to tears are writers Giuseppe Buricchi and Nino Marino. Between the two of them, they had almost zero experience writing scripts, and their lack of ability shines through in every scene. There is no sense of pacing, not a single moment that generates even a spark of excitement. The dialog is dull and pointless and abundant. The entire thing is lazy. Why is the son of Satan’s messenger doing all this instead of the actual son of Satan? Why does the son of Satan’s messenger need a Christian friar to perform his wedding ceremony? Shouldn’t he have his own devil-y friar? Why is the good king so easy to beat? Why do all the peasants killed in one scene show up again, alive and well, a few minutes later in another scene? OK, OK — that one we have to blame on Prosperi. The only bright spot in the entire dismal affair is a single gag where Morak agrees to let Valkari’s people free. He then proceeds to shoot them in the back with arrows as they try to leave. But hey, at least they were free. Still, a ten second gag in ninety minutes of undiluted dullness hardly makes for a film worth recommending.
You know the worst thing about Throne of Fire? It’s that I just finished watching the movie and writing a review about how boring it is and how much I hated it. And then I look over at the table and see the bad-ass cover and think to myself, “Hey, Throne of Fire. That movie looks kind of cool. Maybe I’ll watch it…”
“Dreams and life — it’s the same thing, or else it’s not worth living.” — Baptiste, Jean Rollin’s Les Enfants du Paradis
From time to time, I notice there are certain directors whose films I undeniably love yet always preface a positive review of with some manner of disclaimer along the lines of “not for everyone” or “you have to be in the right mind.” More times than not, the director to which I’m referring is Jess Franco. However, this largely reflexive defensiveness could just as easily find itself employed in the shielding French director Jean Rollin. But I’m not going to fall back on any of that today, or any other day from here on out until I forget that I’ve just made this proclamation. I’m a big boy, after all, and its time to embrace my love of Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, and any other thoroughly cockeyed Eurocult director without any caveats or attempts to justify my love out of some ill-conceived sense of guilt that, because of some glowing review I might write of Blue Rita or La Vampire Nue, someone is going to go out and watch those movie and then wonder what the hell is going on. But really, that’s not something of which I should be ashamed of or feel guilty over, is it? Because if more people were watching Diamonds of Kilimanjaro or Shivers of the Vampire, then that’s a step in the right direction, isn’t it? Provided you think the right direction is mod Euro starlets constantly taking off their clothes during psychedelic stripteases performed to crazy jazz music in some club decorated with pop art sensibilities on overdrive — and you all know that’s my vision of a perfect world. Also, I would be able to fly and turn invisible, and anything I carry is also invisible if I want it to be. And I am immortal.
I went through a couple decades and then some having never even heard of Jean Rollin. It wasn’t until Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs’ book Immoral Tales that I heard mention of Rollin’s name. While the description of Rollin’s films seemed interesting, it was the smattering of stills that really entranced me, and not just because they were frequently of unclothed women. They were also of unclothed men. Because, you know, the French and all. Unfortunately, my new knowledge of Jean Rollin was not accompanied by an ability to actually see any of the movies about which I was reading. At the time, pretty much the only source for Jean Rollin films was Video Search of Miami, and having once ordered a video from them, I knew to never do it again. But then I noticed whilst browsing the videos at a local establishment that they had a couple Rollin films of dubious legality and questionable reproduction quality, but whatever. It only cost a buck-fifty for the rental, so I picked up a little something called Raisins de la Mort. Raisins of Death? That didn’t sound too scary, even if the California Raisins sort of creeped me out. But it was also a zombie film, and up until very recently, when a long line of horrible shot on video zombie films did me in, I could never pass up a zombie film.
Then came the DVD explosion, and thanks to Redemption Video, a whole slew of Rollin films found their way into my collection and, it goes without saying, into my heart. Because, you know, the French and passion and all that. I learned a few things about Rollin, chief among them that the first of his films that I’d seen was not really typical of his output, which often revolved around vacant-eyed vampire girls in mod mini-dresses, when they had anything on at all. By comparison, Raisins de la Mort was almost an actual film. Most of the time, Rollin shot his films with the intent of achieving a surreal, logic-defying atmosphere. He also tended to shoot with almost no money, only amateur actors, and usually no script. The end results were often…complex…to digest. Rollin’s first film, La Viol du Vampire, was made more or less on a whim by Rollin and a group of enthusiastic horror film fans. It was never meant to be much more than a fan film, and Rollin’s goal was to pack a small theater with friends and friends of friends and have a fun night. As fate would have it, France happened to be in the middle of a slew of crazy demonstrations and riots, meaning that Rollin’s little homemade experimental art-horror film was one of the only new films theater owners could get their hands on. And thus, Rollin found himself with an actual release on his hands — albeit a poorly received release. Parisians may have been looking for a revolution in 1968, but not the one Rollin’s film offered them.
But Jean Rollin continued unphased. After all, he never intended for his film to be embraced by a wide audience. Rollin had been raised by artist and, as a child, surrounded by luminaries and lunatics from the fringe of the art world, including a number of Surrealists. Their vision of art obviously informed Rollin’s eventual work, and his repertoire is comprised largely of films that concentrate heavily on dreamy imagery, hallucinatory surrealism, and general weirdness. Sacrificed in the fray were things like logic, scripts, plot — little things like that. European cult film directors have often been criticized for shuffling these things to the back burner, just as they’ve been praised for their ability to create amazing imagery and mood. I’m torn, since on the one hand, I like scripts and plots and feel that film is a medium in which so many aspects of art — imagery, music, writing — must come together. On the other hand, I really like a lot of these relatively plotless movies, and I have a tremendous capacity for extracting meaning from apparent meaningless. That’s what you learn, kids, if you take film classes and work as a journalist who interviews both politicians and movie stars.
But that’s a discussion for a different Rollin film, because we’re here today to discuss one of his more accessible films, though it certainly has its fair share of Rollin’s signature oddity. Compared to most of his work, though, Grapes of Death, as it is known this week, is positively comprehensible and well-planned.
For many of the cult film fans who might be familiar with Jean Rollin without being Jean Rollin fans, it’s probably because of his infamous zombie film, Zombie Lake. The Internet certainly doesn’t lack for coverage of this masterpiece of complete and utter incompetence, and lord knows I’ve done my part. The big difference between Rollin’s usual bizarre output and Zombie Lake is that Zombie Lake is pretty much indefensible. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Zombie Lake. I might even watch it again tonight, but the incompetence on display there is purely born of a complete and total lack of interest in making a good movie, and not from some desire to make a weird, arty film. Given the reputation of Zombie Lake, which in turn has informed the opinion of many people who don’t know Rollin for anything but Zombie Lake, delving once again into the rich, creamy lather of a Jean Rollin directed zombie film would seem…well, about as enticing as doing anything involving rich, creamy lather other than getting a good shave with a straight razor and dollop of heated shaving cream.
And while Grapes of Death may not be quite as satisfying as a good shave delivered by a talented barber who smells of menthol blended with spices and lower woodsy notes, it’s still a heck of a lot better than Zombie Lake, and just as Rollin doesn’t deserve to be judged purely on the “merits” of Zombie Lake, neither does Grapes of Death deserve to be off-handedly dismissed and placed at the same low level as that green-faced Nazi zombie opus.
Grapes of Death is an episodic series of events following Elizabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal), who finds herself on the run after she and her friend are attacked on a train by a young man who seems well on the way to having his face fall off. It turns out, we learn, that an experimental pesticide has contaminated the grapes used to make wine, thus turning much of France into — well, not exactly zombies, but close enough, especially in this post 28 Days Later era when the definition of zombie has been somewhat blurred. Rollin’s zombies showcase certain obvious characteristics of zombies as defined by the George Romero movies that have become more or less the de facto zombie rule handbook. Some of them shamble aimlessly about with their arms in awkward positions. They like to bite people. And their bodies and faces tend to decay and fester with oozing boils. But they also like to stab people with pitchforks, brandish torches, travel at a relaxed jog, and prepare dinner. Depending on the state of the infection, some people seem completely gone into a flesh-hungry zombie state, and some are still able to talk and even feel guilt and remorse over what they are being compelled by the infection to do.
Elizabeth wanders a bleak French countryside, encountering infected people from time to time and screaming in fear. Occasionally, she also meets uninfected people, but she still usually finds reason to scream in fear, since those people often end up on the wrong end of some bladed farm implement wielded by a grinning ghoul. Grapes of Death takes the unique approach of eschewing the standard “hunker down in a house and argue with each other as the living dead amass outside” for a much more freewheeling and wide open approach. Elizabeth spends most of her time outdoors in wide-open spaces. She is, at these times, relatively safe. It is only when she ventures into the closed quarters of homes or walled medieval style farm towns that the trouble begins, and the confined spaces always work against her. She eventually meet two uninfected farmers who avoided the infection because, although it is very un-French of them, they prefer beer over wine. Elizabeth’s fortunes seem to change once she meets up with these blue collar salts of the earth, but a rather large coincidence brings her into contact with her boyfriend (who we’ve never seen until he shows up at the end of the movie), and since things never end well for people in a zombie film…well, you get the picture.
In a crowded field of zombie films that tend to be largely identical to one another, few stand out. Those that do either accomplish this because they invented or are so good at executing the well-worn formula, or they have found some way to provide a unique twist on expectations while still conforming to certain expectations. Grapes of Death falls into the latter category. It is basically a zombie film, but it’s not like other zombie films. It’s open instead of confined; the zombies are cognoscente of their descent into murderous bloodlust, even if they are helpless to stop it; and although the film has plenty of gore (and gratuitous nudity), the scares come not from any sort of visceral punch but rather from the eerie atmosphere Rollin creates. The desolate French countryside Rollin uses as his location is at once familiar and strangely alien. What we expect of idyllic rolling hills and quaint old villages is subverted as soon as the oozy-foreheaded crazies start prowling about. Similarly, Rollin keeps seasoned viewers of zombie films off balance by delivering something other than what you expect, at least some of the time. And where as many zombie films, especially recent ones, rely on pumped up adrenaline and action, Grapes of Death meanders aimlessly across the French countryside at the same pace as its confused protagonist.
Coming out in 1978, Rollin’s pseudo-zombie dream was one of the earliest European attempts to mimic George Romero’s hugely influential Dawn of the Dead, though in tone and approach, Grapes of Dead has more in common with Jorge Grau’s oft short-changed 1974 zombie film Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. Both films share a pastoral rural setting turned sinister with experimental pest control methods being the culprit behind the madness. But Grau’s zombies are most definitely the living dead, where as Rollin’s zombies have more in common with creations from another George Romero film, 1973’s The Crazies. In fact, if I had to pick one film that was the most likely influence on Grapes of Death, it would be The Crazies, which is the tale of a small town that becomes infected with a virus that turns people into murderous nutjobs. Where Grapes of Death differs significantly from Romero’s film is in the mood. Romero, a former director of industrial and instructional films, has always been a largely clinical director, injecting a sense of matter of fact reason into fantastic events through his reserved direction. Rollin, on the other hand, allows the bizarre events of his film to dictate the atmosphere. Thus, while both films take place in somewhat foreboding, winterly rural locations, Rollin’s looks much more like something out of a fevered nightmare. In addition to the ragged countryside, punctuated by strangely shaped rock formations and mist, Rollin makes excellent use of crumbling old walled towns. Everywhere is a palpable sense of decay.
Both The Crazies and Grapes of Death inform the basic premise of more current films, like 28 Days Later, though whether or not those films played much role in influencing 28 Days Later is something I do not know. And of course, that movie takes yet another very different approach to the same basic premise.
Then there’s the trance-like electronic music score, minimalist and reminiscent of Tangerine Dream. Composer Phillipe Sissman only has this and one other work to his credit, and even here he doesn’t contribute much more than one weird synth theme that is used to remarkably good effect. It clashes with the natural setting around it, and with the decrepit, lived-in look of the film’s overgrown villages, but it works perfectly with the hypnotic mood of the film. It helps communicate the idea that something is not quite right.
Rollin’s film depends largely on young Marie-Georges Pascal, who like many of Rollin’s actors, was minimally experienced at the time. She appeared in a number of erotic films with titles like I Am Frigid…Why? and Hot and Naked. Although Grapes of Death is a great leap forward for her, nothing really ever came of it. In 1985, with her film career having gone nowhere, she committed suicide. Her eventual fate lends an additional level of melancholy to the film, especially given the downhearted ending. It’s obvious she has some talent, though, as she manages to create an interesting character even though she (like everyone else) has minimal dialog and spends an inordinate amount of time screaming as she witnesses one horror or another. It’s the simple everyman (or everywoman) quality that endears her to the viewer. Plus, she rarely does things that are completely and incomprehensibly stupid just so she can move the plot along. I guess that’s one of the benefits of not having much of a plot.
Supporting her are a cast largely unrecognizable to me, as like most Americans, if it isn’t Gerard Depardieu being flustered or Jean Reno punching someone, I don’t know many French actors. Some of them, like the two beer-loving guys who come to Elizabeth’s rescue, are experienced actors. But the only real familiar face to me is Brigitte Lahaie, the French porn star turned Jean Rollin muse. She appeared in many of his films and acted as sort of a muse, in much the same way Soledad Miranda (and later Lina Romay) did for Jess Franco. She has a small part here, as a woman who befriends Elizabeth (or so it would seem) and gives her protection from a town full of crazies. Of course, I’d always like to see more of her, but that’s what films like Fascination are for. She did star in one more of Rollin’s variations on the zombie theme, 1980’s strange Night of the Hunted, in which France is afflicted with mass memory loss and hysteria, causing Brigitte to have to wander around nude a lot for some reason I’ve never fully comprehended but am never the less happy to accept.
Grapes of Death may not be exactly what people expect from a zombie film, and even if it is Rollin’s most accessible and straightforward narrative, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t rely heavily on weirdness and surrealism. I personally find it thoroughly hypnotic and imaginative. Especially after watching so many poorly-made carbon copy zombie films of late, it’s refreshing to return to something this unique. A year later, Lucio Fulci’s Zombie would come out and pretty much define the European (by then, almost exclusively Italian) zombie film for the next…well, to this very day. Fulci works in much the same way as Rollin and considers many of the same things important — the creepy atmosphere; the construction of striking, haunting imagery; the sense of decay generated by moody locations; and of course the disregard for strong scriptwriting. But Rollin is much more lyrical in his approach, and even though Grapes of Death has plenty of goo and gore (it was one of the very first — possibly the very first — French gore film), there is something decidedly different about it. If Lucio Fulci is the Chang Cheh of zombie films — all visceral punches and testosterone — then Jean Rollin’s Grapes of Death is like something from Chu Yuan. Poetic, dreamy, perhaps feminine in a way, even when naked women are being beheaded or run through with pitchforks.
It’s a shame that Zombie Lake, the movie that was too crappy even for Jess Franco, remains the best known Jean Rollin film. Most of his movies remained unseen for years, and even their initial releases played to scarcely more than a smattering of people. Grapes of Death is one of my favorite zombie films, or whatever those sort-of zombie, crazy bleeding people are called. I can, and often do, watch this and many other Rollin films over and over. Sometimes I may only half pay attention to them, like albums playing in the background, but keeping them in the corner of your eye or at the periphery of your consciousness suits them well. Of course, I also like sitting down and paying attention to them, as I think many (but not all) of his films are quite rewarding. If you are as tired as I am of movies where a group of strangers board up the windows and yell at each other for 75 minutes until the zombies bust in and eat everyone, Grapes of Death might be the remedy you’re looking for. I recommend you view it with a nice, fruity Cabernet Sauvignon.
At the time of Yorga’s release, there were very few people making vampire movies. Hammer was pretty much the only game in town, and they were still setting their vampire films in the Victorian era. Devils of Darkness was one of the first vampire films to transport a vampire into the current era, at least since the 1932 Tod Browning production of Dracula, which was set in what was then modern-day London. However, one can argue that the differences between the London of 1897 and 1932 is markedly less than the difference between 1897 and 1970, and so for our purposes here, Devils of Darkness is a more substantial foray into an unfamiliar time period than Dracula. It’s also less substantial because almost no one saw Devils of Darkness, and without a dedicated distributor or studio, it quickly faded from memory and was almost totally forgotten until it finally found its way to DVD in 2007. Which means that Count Yorga, Vampire, is really where we can say this short-lived trend began.
So let’s say, just for the sake of argument, you’re a vampire. Not one of those post-Anne Rice vampires with the leather trenchcoat and the bad poetry and the ill-advised appreciation of Pigface. No, I’m talking about one of those older, more distinguished vampires. Not too bad, huh? I mean, yeah, there are drawbacks. I, for one, would miss the sun and a good day’s surfing. On the other hand, if you were to become any monster, a vampire would be pretty sweet. A mummy or Frankenstein monster would be the worst, of course. Mummies only have one outfit, and they have to spend the entire afterlife shambling around in pursuit of some dame who looks like some other dame the mummy loved back in ancient Egypt, and then a dude in a tweed jacket sets you on fire. And Frankenstein monsters have to do pretty much the same thing in terms of shambling, though at the very least they get to smoke cigars and drink wine. As for werewolves — sure, cool power, but you have no control over it, it only happens once a month, you can’t remember anything afterward, and your clothes are constantly getting ruined by your transformations.
What a long, strange trip it’s been for Hammer Studio’s lord of the undead, the prince of darkness, the king of vampires, Count Dracula. When first we met him back in 1958, he was a snarling beast, a barely contained force of nature that ripped into his prey with lusty abandon and was explained by his arch-nemesis Dr. Van Helsing in purely rational, scientific terms. Dracula, and vampirism in general (as expounded upon by Van Helsing in Brides of Dracula), was nothing more than a disease, like any other disease, and what we regarded as “supernatural” was really nothing more than an explainable part of the rational world that humanity had simply not yet learned how to explain. As Hammer’s Dracula series progressed, however, Van Helsing faded from the picture and was replaced by a procession of forgettable guys named Paul, usually in league with some sort of religious authority figure. In Dracula, Prince of Darkness, we have a monsignor who seems to have some degree of faith in faith’s ability to defeat Dracula, but he’s far more reliant on his trusty bolt-action rifle than he is on the Lord Almighty.
And so we enter the dire straights of Hammer Films in the final throes of a long, drawn-out death much like those experienced by Dracula himself. As has been detailed elsewhere and will be summarized here, by the 1970s, England’s Hammer Studios — the studio that pretty much defined and dominated the horror market through the 50s and 60s — had fallen on hard times. The old guard had largely retired or died, and the new blood was flailing about, desperately trying to find the direction that would right the once mighty production house. The problem was that everyone felt like they needed to update their image, but no one actually knew how. In retrospect, though they may have seemed painfully antiquated at the time of their release, many of Hammer’s releases during the 70s were quite good and often experimental (by Hammer standards, anyway). This movie isn’t really one of them, but it’s still pretty enjoyable in a completely ludicrous way.
Since I started Teleport City many moons ago, I’ve gotten a lot of email from people claiming to be ninjas. One was so batshit insane that I had to break confidence and send it around to other people. I’ve since lost it, but maybe someone still has it. It’s the one where a single sentence goes on for a full page. There was also a guy who used to write all the time and tell me about how he was a member of a secret ninja society that guarded Washington, D.C. But my favorite email is probably from a ninja who believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was Jim Kelly. The first time he wrote me, telling me how he loved my movies and wanting to know if I had any merchandise for sale, I did my best to let him down politely and tell him I’m not Jim Kelly without making him feel stupid. Then a few months later he wrote me, addressing me as “Mr. Jim Kelly” again. This time he was asking me what I’d been up to and when I was going to make another movie. For this time, I just didn’t reply, figuring that would cause him to lose interest. It didn’t.
The Mexico of the lucha libre sci-fi adventure films is just about as close to our version of the Promised Land as you can get. I’d gladly turn in our world of turmoil, suffering, and nouveau French cuisine for a good chimichanga and a world where the biggest news comes when pro wrestlers have to thwart the diabolical scheme of some mummy. Oh sure, no one is going to be crazy about a world full of mummies all walking around with their dusty heads full of diabolical schemes, but once you get over the shock of “Hey, look! A mummy! Is that a midget in a cape next to him?” things really are not so bad. The mummy might kidnap a sexy chica in a flimsy negligee so he can carry her around a bit, and he might injure some old pipe-smoking man by knocking him out with the patented “chop to the shoulders” blow that seems to comprise the mummy’s only real offense, but that’s about it. In the end, you know the mummy poses only a minor threat to the world as a whole, and Santo or Mil Mascaras will be around eventually to bodyslam the mummy and burn down an old castle. Compared to what we have to deal with in the real world, I’d much prefer luchadores duking it out with mummies.