It’s no secret that since the tail-end of the 1990s the Hong Kong film industry has had a rough time. After being gutted by gangsters for decades and plagued by the most rampant video piracy in the world resulting in films being available on bootleg VCD before they even opened in theaters, Hong Kong’s once illustrious cinematic juggernaut found itself on thin financial ice. Big stars were either getting to old to perform as they once had or were simply packing up and heading for the greener pastures of America. The new generation of stars, culled primarily from the ranks of teen models and pop idols, did little to spark interest in the new generation of films.
If I say “post apocalypse film,” then chances are, one of two things will pop into your mind. If you are my age or younger, or slightly older for that matter but not by much, then it’s entirely likely you’ll immediately picture Road Warrior and its many imitators often of an Italian origin. Pink mohawked men running wild in the desert atop supped up dune buggies while a stoic hero in leather mumbles and saves some band of peaceful folk trying to re-establish civilization. If you’re older, or more in tune with the length and breadth of exploitation film, then you might also drum up less-than-fond memories of those old 1950s atomic paranoia films, or the more interesting sci-fi films set after such a war had devastated the world and left it populated by nothing but nubile, sexy young women and virile, two-fisted scientists from the 20th century.
What you won’t think of, I’m willing to bet, is a gritty Japanese yakuza film set in the years immediately after the end of World War II, but that’s exactly what Battles Without Honor and Humanity can be construed as. It is, after all, taking place in the wake of the one atomic war we’ve actually had, and you can’t get more post-apocalyptic than Nagasaki or Hiroshima after the Bomb. And while you may not, thankfully, spy any pink-haired men in assless leather pants or bodybuilders in a Quiet Riot mask imploring a bunch of people in shoulder pads and burlap sacks to, “just walk away,” and while there may be no rolling deserts in sight, there are roving gangs of hooligans in leather jackets wreaking havoc on the innocent. The only real difference is that in the postwar chaos of Hiroshima, no hero emerges to defend the honor of the downtrodden. Everyone is too desperate, too defeated, too decimated to worry about heroism or honor – a state that seems foreign and inconceivable in a nation preoccupied with such notions. Here the hooligans are no better off than the citizens, and everyone is wracked by a panicky confusion that manifests itself either as defeatism or rage. This being a yakuza film, we’ll focus on the group of people who react with rage.
But if this is a post-apocalypse film of a different color, it is also a yakuza film quite unlike most anything that had come before it, and that difference stems entirely from the challenges facing postwar Japan, when survival suddenly seemed a hell of a lot more important than honor. Honor was paramount as a theme in yakuza films. Always there is the righteous gangster with an impeccable sense of honor and loyalty who stands in stark contrast to his foil, who will inevitably be the yakuza or samurai who has turned his back on “the code.” Even among thieves, there is still honor. Maverick director Kenji Fukasaku, however, would put an abrupt and bloody end to the classically romantic notion of the honorable gangster. After all, it is and always has been a load of crap. But no number of backstabbers, internal wars, hits, or squealers ratting out their fellow gangsters to the police seemed able to tarnish this idea of honor bound warriors abiding by a code of fair play, loyalty, and decency.
Fukasaku’s films sought to debunk this myth by portraying the yakuza as what gangsters and criminals often were – petty, vindictive, deceitful, and ready to exploit any vice if it’ll increase their power or the size of their bank account. He never dismissed the notions or any of the other conventions that were expected of the yakuza film as set down by the great icon Takakura Ken, who starred in dozens of post-war yakuza films that all seem to start with him being released from prison. Fukasaku knows the genre inside and out, and he makes sure he includes each of the clichés – the main character fresh out of prison, notions of honor, someone cutting off a pinky, so on and so forth; Once they’re in there, however, he twists them around wildly and turns them inside out in a way that hadn’t been done since yakuza genre deconstruction got its start under Seijun Suzuki in films like Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. At the same time, however, he hasn’t set out to simply make a movie full of seedy characters in sunglasses shooting each other and selling drugs to little kids. At the center of it all is the motivation, the reason, these men have abandoned honor, and that is the war.
It all comes from a long lineage and the yakuza film’s peculiar position as one of the true Japanese cult genres. Samurai films were obviously Japanese, but they were also easily adaptable to other genres – as a good many Western has proved. And although they had in them the ideals of honor and loyalty, there were also swashbuckling sword films that could be, at least on the surface, translated into any number of other genres, such as sci-fi or fantasy. Yakuza films, on the other hand, are often so obsessed with the esoterica, Japanese tradition, secret codes, handshakes, and minutiae of their subject matter that it can’t be repeated without losing almost all its meaning. Strip it away, and you just have another gangster films, and while yakuza films were, on the surface, gangster films, they were also something quite different. There aren’t very many action-oriented shoot-em-ups in the yakuza genre. Most of them are fairly slow-moving, and that’s because most of them aren’t about the crime as much as they are about the criminals and the counter-culture they inhabit. A yakuza film without it isn’t a yakuza film; it’s just an action film. At their core and below the violence and gruff men shouting at each other, these are movies about a culture with roots stretching as far back as the Tokugawa Shogunate that first unified Japan and introduced to it a whole class of disenfranchised wandering samurai, or ronin, who basically lost their jobs when the petty warlords and regional masters become obsolete under the one government, one country system.
Suddenly, and in a way that eerily mirrors the post-bubble Japan of the early 21st century, these men who thought they’d been guaranteed jobs for life as noble samurai were out on the streets with nowhere to go and no one in need of their skills. Bands of ronin started forming their own societies, some acting almost like local police defending villages from marauders and greedy officials (like the chaps in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai), others acting like local thugs. These bands of ronin eventually became known by the name yakuza – Japanese for the unlucky 8-9-3 combo in dice gambling that means you just lost. The early yakuza films dealt primarily with these historic and usually heroic samurai. 1927′s Chuji’s Travel Diary was the first of the bunch, but others quickly fell in and began writing the rules by which the genre would play. After World War II, however, yakuza films were more or less banned under the thinking that, to keep the Japanese from standing up to fight again, you had to strip them completely of their dignity and take away anything that might showcase that famous fighting spirit. Hey, it was MacAurthur’s idea, not mine.
The result, of course, was the desperation we see in the beginning of Battles Without Honor and Humanity. When we first meet our rowdy bunch of central characters – and there are a lot of them, with plenty more on the way, so you better keep a flow chart handy – they are bitter hustlers trying to stay alive in the turmoil and madness of post-bomb Hiroshima. Ostensibly, our main character is a young hustler named Shozo, played by yakuza film staple Bunta Sugawara. Sugawara became one of the most recognizable and beloved faces in the yakuza films of the 1970s, thanks in large part to his partnership with director Kenji Fukasaku. Shozo and his mates live in a world without a future. They’ve just survived the most horrific single attack man has ever seen (and no, I’m making a pro- or anti-atomic bomb statement there – I think proponents and opponents of dropping the bomb on Japan can agree at least on the fact that it was a pretty big deal), and in the aftermath, they find themselves at the mercy of an occupying force determined (so the story goes) to strip them entirely of what little dignity they may still retain. In such an atmosphere, honor and humanity was a distant consideration to simply staking out a claim, and if the myth of the yakuza code had ever been real, it was certainly killed in the atomic blasts.
When, in 1951, the Japanese regained much of their freedom as a nation, period films were back in action, but most of these were samurai films. They were the best way for the Japanese to recapture their lost glory and start to rebuild a sense of self-worth. Honor, nobility, self-respect – these were the things that made the samurai movie tick. And loyalty – loyalty was essential, both to the samurai and to the mid-century Japanese who were trying to forge a new nation and establish a new government unlike any they’d had before. The era of shoguns and emperors had given way to the Japanese Diet, or parliament, and democracy.
If there weren’t many yakuza on the screen, then it was compensated for by the fact that so many of them were involved behind the scenes. Bored with turf wars among themselves and with the Chinese and Korean minorities who formed their own gangs, the postwar hooligans saw money to be made in the newly revitalized Japanese film industry. Many of them became involved as scouts, producers, and a few even became studio heads. Eventually, of course, yakuza films started creeping back onto screens, this time set primarily during the period of rapid modernization just prior to World War II and involving a heroic gangster usually stubbornly clinging to traditional Japanese clothing facing off against corrupt gangsters who had usually sold out and started wearing Western style suits – very similar to what we’d see again in the 1970s when Hong Kong kungfu films invariably featured a guy in that traditional Chinese shirt and pants and slippers kicking the crap out of a bunch of thugs in bell bottoms and those Little Rascal caps.
When the yakuza films started toying with a more modern, post-war setting, the films were still richly melodramatic and steeped in nostalgia for the old ways. Takakura Ken became the poster boy for the new yakuza film and starred in more than a sane person would want to count. By the end of the 1960s, the social upheaval that was engulfing much of the world was just as strong in Japan as anywhere else, and people weren’t buying these sentimental doomed heroes bound by codes of honor and love. Seijun Suzuki had started messing with the truisms of the yakuza film, but his wild pop-art experiments were more a rebellion against assembly line, characterless filmmaking than they were against the yakuza genre itself. The real hit on honor-heavy yakuza films came in 1967 with the release of Junya Sato’s Organized Violence starring Tetsuro Tanba (best known to Western audiences as Tiger Tanaka from the James Bond film You Only Twice) and Sonny Chiba. In 1973, Kinji Fukasaku upped the ante with Battles Without Honor and Humanity, a cutthroat, unflinching, and decidedly unromantic look at the world of post-war gangs in Japan.
At the center of the maelstrom is Bunta Sugawara, a former matinee idol turned iconic bad boy and sporting a severe flattop and all-around stern, militaristic look. After striking back at some rowdy American GIs, typically portrayed as loud-mouthed, swaggering, and ready to beat up or rape anyone in sight, Bunta’s Shozo goes to prison, where he becomes blood brothers with another inmate, Hiroshi, played by Tatsuo Umemiya. When he gets out, Shozo is taken under the wing of the boss of Yamagumi Gang, but he quickly learns that the yakuza world is not as it was, if it was ever that way in the first place. His boss is a coward, ready to backstab at the drop of a hat, and equally ready to cower and sob if he can’t get a sucker punch in. Shozo is bewildered by the array of gangsters all fighting amongst themselves and jockeying for political alliances and territorial gains. It gets to the point where so many players are introduced and so many loyalties switch back and forth that it soon becomes impossible for the viewer to keep everything straight – which is precisely the effect Fukasaku is going for, as it mirrors perfectly the feelings of the confused and frustrated Shozo, who wanders through this madness in a half-dazed state, harboring still some notion of loyalty and honor that manages, paradoxically, to both make him the center of attention and marginalize him completely, to keep him in the crosshairs but also safer than most. When an old friend makes a dramatic power play, Shozo is caught between him and his old boss, who is hardly worthy of Shozo’s continuing loyalty.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity was based on a book by journalist Koichi Iiboshi chronicling the history of the real life Mino gang. As such, the film rings especially factual in its documentation of dirty yakuza life, playing at times almost like a series of yakuza home movies. The film is brutally violent but not action-packed. The drama between the character, and the stripping away of every lofty romanticized delusion regarding the yakuza and the yakuza film are the film’s primary weapons. When the violence does come, it is fast, ugly, and street-style. You’ll see no white-clad gangsters with two guns leaping through the air in balletic slow motion. Instead, there is only sweating, grunting, screaming, and blood. Fukasaku employs a lot of street-level hand-held cameras – something that was in vogue at Toei Studios, owing mostly to the fact that they were cheap, easy to use, and resulted in faster shooting schedules. The effect was often detrimental to the film, as in many of the Sonny Chiba karate flicks whose action was undermined by blurry, shaky handheld camera work. Here, however, it serves to throw you into the thick of the action and further confuse you and make you relate to Shozo and makes the movie feel even more like a piece of guerrilla documentary filmmaking.
Although the sheer number of characters keeps you from ever becoming too emotionally attached to any one person, Shozo included, it’s still an emotionally engaging film. It’s the entirety of the situation that pulls you in, the mere act of watching these people pull themselves – and ultimately, their entire country – out of the ashes only to self-destruct once the hard part was over. It’s a common occurrence that continues to play itself out on a daily basis. It’s easy to find unity when there is a common struggle, but once the struggle has been surmounted, once the battle has been won, people find it’s even harder for them to hold things together. The experiences in the desolation of Hiroshima pulled these men together, and the increasingly secure and prosperous times that followed tore them apart. The peace, as they say, is always harder to keep than to win. Compare these post-war yakuza, then, to something like the criminal gangs and militias of Chechnya. Like the yakuza, they banded together against a common enemy, in this case the Russian army and the utter ruin visited upon the country of Chechnya.
Like Hiroshima after the bomb, Chechnya has been reduced almost to ashes, its infrastructure shattered, its people hopeless and angry, and its future even bleaker than that of Japan at the close of World War II. Gangsters became politicians became resistance fighters and military heroes, and after years of bitter struggle the inhumanity of which may be unparalleled in the 20th Century, even by the standards set by such atrocities exhibitions as Sierra Leone and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the Russians finally withdrew, claiming a bogus victory in the war and leaving the Chechens with a wasteland to rebuild. Unfortunately, the men who proved so valiant, fearless, and admittedly bloodthirsty and brutal in (and out of) combat could not rebuild the nation they defended. The war had been their element, but peace and rebuilding proved too much. In the end, at least for Chechnya, it didn’t matter, since as soon as Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia, he made a point of resuming hostilities with a shocking ferocity that should leave the world aghast if the world ever bothered to pay attention to some bunch of mountain rabble with ties to fundamentalist Islam. The bitter cold of the Caucasus Mountains seems an odd place for jihad, accustomed as we are to seeing it played out on the sands of the Middle East. But then that whole area where the Middle East collides with Europe and Asia is a fascinating, confusing, and endlessly tumultuous corner of the world that few people seem to understand or take much interest in.
That nations are often built on the backs and from the sweat and blood of criminals is a frequent theme in history, and indeed most human history is little more that a chronicle of criminal acts committed in the name of god, king, and country. Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York sought to examine that very piece of the history of New York in particular and the United States as a whole, as did Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather before it. Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity does the same for Japan, and later entries into the series would trace the development even further, going so far as to make the claim, perhaps not outrageously, that much of Japan’s emergence as a global economic power is the result of the machinations of driven but corrupt criminal gangs. For the first entry in the series, we see simply their emergence from the war and subsequent failure to work cohesively without the immediate threat of US occupation. Left to their own devices, boredom sets in and brings with it violent internal conflict and turf wars. They were born of chaos and need chaos to survive. If there is no external threat to unite them, after all, then they will create an internal one to rip themselves to shreds.
Fukasaku’s film is not completely devoid of the yakuza genre trappings; it simply presents them so that it can dispel them. Indeed the beginning, in which Shozo is sent to prison and we meet him again as he is released after some brief scenes while incarcerated, could be the opening to any of a number of Takakura Ken films. The only difference is that there is very little in the way of nobility to any of it. Takakura Ken was always a majestic figure who radiated righteousness and honor even as a criminal. He was strong, confident, and trustworthy. Bunta Sugawara, however, plays his part with a sullen shiftiness. He never radiates confidence of nobility as much as he does awkward discomfort and confusion. Both actors and characters steep themselves in the melancholy, however, and Bunta’s Shozo might ultimately be what one of Takakura Ken’s yakuza figures would be like if he came out of prison and was faced with the ream world of organized crime, where men hardened by the experience of the war had little use for outdated romantic notions of the noble yakuza.
Fukasaku plays with other genre conventions as well. The obligatory pinky-chopping scene (chopping off a finger being the traditional way to atone for some offensive transgression of the code in the yakuza world) is played for laughs on an almost slapstick scale. Shozo, like Takakura Ken’s many yakuza characters, leaves prison to find the world is not as he left it, but rather than standing in stark contrast to it like one of Ken’s Walking Tall-esque gangsters, Shozo becomes a participant in it, maybe not as active as others, but a participant none the less. And no, he won’t be making any moving or eloquent speeches. If Takakura Ken was the Elvis of the yakuza film, then watching Bunta Sugawara must have been like The King seeing The Beatles for the first time.
By the time the final shots are fired and the groundwork is laid for future films, the viewer is exhausted, physically and emotionally, partly from the not-so-simple task of trying to keep straight all the betrayals and factions that come into play in this battle between the Doi and Yamagumi gangs. Besides Shozo, who is relegated almost to the role of spectator, there are very few people for whom to root, no honorable yakuza. There are only backstabbers, petulant childlike bosses, and the occasional visionary who wants to run the yakuza like a corporation and reap huge profits as a result – the road that would eventually win out, as it was. Bunta Sugawara remains, through it all, a solid presence with a deadly gaze. In effect, he’s seeing things the same as we see them and is just as confounded by it all. His performance is one of subtlety, which is often how people try to describe a bad performance they don’t want to call bad. Chuck Norris, for instance, is more bad than he subtle. Clint Eastwood, on the other hand, was subtle and deadly good at it. Bunta is more Clint.
If the film has any weakness, it’s in some of the period costumes. The film is set in the 1940s and early 1950s, but some of the cars and fashions on display are without a doubt early 1970s. It’s a good idea not to sweat a detail like that. Kinji isn’t Akira Kurosawa after all, who demanded that whole sets on Tora! Tora! Tora! be destroyed and rebuilt because the shade of paint on the battleship wasn’t historically accurate. That might be why Akira Kurosawa was replaced on that film by.hey, Kinji Fukasaku! So just let the big collars and ’70s shades slide. The film is trying to accurately dissect the yakuza, not the fashion trends that surrounded them.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity is a demanding film, especially for audiences who don’t speak Japanese or aren’t familiar with the intricacies of the yakuza genre. People looking for knockdown, wall-to-wall action are going to be disappointed. The action here come sin spurts and is ugly, unchoreographed, and very real. First and foremost this is a drama and a societal study, a philosophical film but stripped of lyricism and poetry. It is more like the streetwise wisdom delivered by some old crank. After all, you don’t sit down to watch Goodfellas or Miller’s Crossing for the action scenes. This is crime drama, and as crime drama and modern day film noir, it’s complex and engaging on multiple levels and remains one of the best and most unconventional yakuza films around. It does require a lot of the viewer, but then most good films do. Unlike many films in the crime genre, it can’t be enjoyed on a purely popcorn level. It’s not one of those movies where you can just sit back and enjoy the ride. You have to actively engage it and work at it, and even then it’s the film’s point that sometimes you’re going to be lost, just like Shozo.
If you aren’t interested in the yakuza as a social phenomenon or cultural study and not just as an action movie cliche, then Battles Without Honor and Humanity won’t do much for you. Not that the movie is dull or lacking in action, but it’ll seem that way if you were expecting something more.modern, I suppose. Guys in sharp suits posing and doing Hong Kong style kungfu fights, that sort of thing. Even contemporary Japanese audiences don’t seem that interested or able to grasp what a film like Battles Without Honor and Humanity was attempting to accomplish. This is a completely brilliant film, and like most brilliant films, it just isn’t dumb enough for some people.
It was a major hit at the time and made Kinji Fukasaku’s career. It’s odd that until the release of Battle Royale, the director was best known in the West for the movies that least defined his oeuvre. Sci-fi quickies like The Green Slime were hardly Fukasaku’s calling card, but since the yakuza films, and especially the kind of yakuza films Fukasaku was making, were and to some degree still are fairly inaccessible to most audiences, it’s Green Slime and Message for Space for Kinji. Or at least it was until, as an aged man with failing health and nothing to lose, he set Japan — and this time a good portion of the rest of the world — afire again with Battle Royale, another movie that seeks at its heart to pick away at Japan’s notion of itself as an orderly and honorable country in much the same way a chicken in Battles Without Honor and Humanity picked away at the dismembered pinky of a disgraced yakuza.
Films like this would later become some of the most popular films among real-life yakuza, who would gather in old theaters and watch them and pine for the days when crime was nasty and tough and violent instead of white-collar and dull and corporate. It probably has a lot to do with films like Battles Without Honor and Humanity being so grounded in the reality of the situation and with the fact that many of them involved real gangsters. Heck, Noboru Ando was a real life yakuza who eventually starred as himself in a series of more or less autobiographical film adventures about his seedy life. It’s the ultimate irony that these guys would get nostalgic for a type of film that made a point of dismantling nostalgia, romantic for a film that strove to strip away any notions of romanticism from its subject matter. It’s also a sign that when Kinji Fukasaku made this film, he was doing more than making a film; he was documenting an entire culture and way of life.
And we were doing so well! Most movie studios can’t sustain the quality of a film series beyond two films — and quite a few have problems even getting that far. It was no small feat, then, that Hammer managed to produce not one, but two consistently good series. Their Dracula and Frankenstein films set the benchmark for quality horror during the late fifties and throughout the 1960s. And you know, they almost made it to the finish lines with both of them. The Frankenstein series featuring Peter Cushing as the titular mad doctor lasted six films, with only the third film being a misfire, and not a very bad misfire at that. By the time Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was released, it was clear that the series was at its end, both creatively and financially. Still, it managed to go out with a dash of class, and the final film features the second worst monster in the series (the honor of worst, in my opinion, goes to Kiwi Kingston’s shrieking slapdash Karloff wannabe from Evil of Frankenstein) but one of the best stories and finest performances from Cushing. Even if the final film was not a financial success, everyone involved could hold their heads up high and be proud of all six movies.
And then there was the Dracula series starring Christopher Lee.
Last time we saw the prince of the undead, he was impaled on a cross and turned into that pink sawdust bus drivers sprinkle on the floor when kids throw up. For just about anyone, even the common vampire, that would signal the end, once and for all. But this is Dracula we’re talking about, and if Dracula Has Risen from the Grave proved to be a financial success for England’s Hammer Studio, then you could bet good money on the fact that they’d find yet another way to bring the Count back from the dead, even if he’d been impaled on a cross and even if series star Christopher Lee was back out on the streets again telling anyone and everyone who would listen that the Dracula movies were awful and he would absolutely, positively, under no circumstances ever play Count Dracula again. Anyone who knows the cycle knows that means that the next film in the cycle, Taste the Blood of Dracula, stars Christopher Lee as the titular count, and that in turns means we’d have to read even more quotes from Lee about how he was practically forced to do this film, but that he’d sure as heck never do another one.
This lavishly colorful and thoroughly enjoyable comic book romp features what is without a doubt one of the most wonderful moments in all of cinema, if not the most wonderful. Having just completed a major heist, our cool-as-liquid-nitrogen anti-hero, Diabolik, returns to his sprawling, space-age underground lair full of cool pop art furnishings, where he and his staggeringly beautiful girlfriend, Eva, proceed to make love on a gigantic rotating bed covered in piles upon piles of the money he’s just stolen. When I was young, and even not so very long ago, I always looked at this moment as the goal to which all people should aspire. Our lives should be like this, lived with ferocity and daring, panache and style, sexiness and suaveness. I swore, on that day, that I would work tirelessly toward such a destiny, never resting until I too could collapse into my rotating bed covered in cash and roll about with the woman of my dreams.
As it stands right now, rather than going out drinking with socialites, rubbing elbows with countesses, and dancing the night away in a fancy club before stepping out to steal priceless emeralds and sapphires (I always preferred those stones to diamonds), I spent the evening sitting at home drinking bourbon, watching Secrets of New York, and cutting out little color cover printouts for all the VHS tapes I’m finally converting to DVD-R in the name of conserving precious space in my ever-shrinking Brooklyn apartment. And while I could, if nothing else, cover a bed with money, the denomination would be pennies, and making love on a pile of pennies may be someone’s bag — but not mine. Diabolik would weep for me. Or rather, he would ignore me and laugh heartily before bounding off to live his dreamlike, lusty life of adventure and romance. Make no mistake about it. Though I may try to dress well and stay in slightly acceptable physical condition (though tonight’s dinner of bourbon and cake could put an end to that), I’m still pathetic in my own special, lonely way. Diabolik would look at the whole thing I call a life and shake his head in amused disbelief as he hopped in his Jag and drove off to go punch a criminal kingpin then make sweet love to his woman all night long. Rather than let this get down however, I simply double down on my efforts and try harder.
The 1960s were defined by different things to different people, and while some saw the paramount of the decade as a bunch of scruffy hippies wallowing in the mud for a few days in upstate New York, I always looked at the defining moments of the decade as the films Barbarella and Danger! Diabolik. That or the violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Or, um, the start of American involvement in the Vietnam War. Or the Bay of Pigs. Or maybe the assassination of the Kennedy Brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. Or the arrival of The Beatles. No, it was Barbarella and Diabolik, if for no other reason than they were the exclamation points at the end of an era of which I am particularly fond, that being the carefree Swingin’ Sixties that brought the world pop art, slim cut mod suits, mini-skirts, go-go boots, lots of spy films, and that cute pixie haircut sported by Twiggy. Not since the 1920s and the era of the flapper and the dandy has an era appealed to me so deeply.
Although born a shade too late to enjoy the proceedings, it’s the time with which I most closely identify and still attempt to recreate in my own impoverished and pathetically un-daring way. With the escalation of the war in Vietnam and ensuing civil unrest and violence, not to mention the whole hippie movement destroying any vestige of standards in the realm of courtesy, manners, social grace, and dress (I say that assuming it will be taken by hippies as a compliment; if not, I apologize — I have nothing but affection in my later years for the flower people), there was really no way the swingin’ era could survive. Being care-free was taboo, even though hippies tended to spend a large amount of time smoking pot, dropping acid, and staring at their hands. Likewise, adhering to a uniform anti-code of dress became the standard. I won’t argue that increased social awareness is a boon to an individual, though I would argue against anyone who claims those who defined the latter portion of the 1960s were any more politically aware than those who came before them who were seen as shallow because they enjoyed go-go dancing more than that weird wavy-hand dance.
I know many of you enjoy the ultra-casual, anything-goes world in which we live thanks in part to our hippie forefathers, but I can’t count myself among you. I don’t wear a shirt and tie because I have to; I wear one because I want to. I like it. It’s comfortable to me. Granted, I didn’t always hold this sentiment, and there was a time when I could deliver a wild-eyed sermon against the chains of suit and tie oppression as well as any other young punk rocker. But as you get older and start having more important things about which to worry, such as how you’re going to get that rotating bed covered in money and a delicious European partner in crime to accessorize it, you realize that punk, casual, mod, hippie — everything is as much a fashion uniform as anything else, and there really is no sin in putting a little effort into things. The only sin, really, is in wearing pleated, relaxed-fit Dockers. In this, there can be no leniency.
By the release of Danger: Diabolik!, the mod era was well on its way out, and what better way to send it off than with a duo of eye-popping, self-indulgent cinematic flings? In 1968, director Roger Vadim gave the world a zero-G striptease by his then-wife Jane Fonda, who was without a doubt in her prime as far as bombshell status is concerned (and she looked damn good defiantly power saluting the police mug shot photographer, too). Dino De Laurentiis, famous for throwing big budgets at low-budget genre ideas, produced this phantasmagoric Technicolor acid trip adapted from a French comic strip about a sexy space agent plying the galaxy in search of missing scientists and lustful encounters. It was such a hoot that De Laurentiis decided more of the same would be in order. Again he turned to European comic strips for his source material, this time setting his sights on Diabolik, the ongoing saga of a master criminal who confounds both the police and the established criminal underworld.
On paper it was supposed to be a spiritual if not narrative follow-up to Barbarella. De Laurentiis snagged Mario Bava to direct, and it couldn’t have been a better choice. Since his first film in color, Bava had been a master at playing with light and creating surreal atmospheres even on the tiniest of budgets. Films like Blood and Black Lace (1964), Planet of the Vampires (1965) and Kill, Baby…Kill! (1966) continue to influence films to this day thanks to their bold, convention-bucking use of color and lighting (not to mention violence). With Diabolik, Bava would be allowed to indulge his sweet tooth for candy-colored psychedelia equipped with a budget that dwarfed anything with which he’d previously been supplied. Not that the bigger budget mattered to him. In fact, though De Laurentiis granted Bava some $3 million for the film, Bava brought it in right around $400,000. You’d never know it. The film looks like he spent the full budget, and one can only imagine how out-of-this-world it would have been had Bava not been so conditioned to make the most of every single cent — or lira, or whatever currency applied.
French star Jean Sorel (Short Night of Glass Dolls, Lucio Fulci’s One on Top of the Other) was slated to portray the suave super-villain/anti-hero Diabolik, while the beautiful Catherine Deneuve (Roman Polanski’s Repulsion) was to star as his partner and lover, Eva. Mere days into the production however, Bava determined that Sorel simply wasn’t right for the part. He was replaced by John Phillip Law, who had starred as the blind angel Pygar in Barbarella and would go on to appear as Sinbad in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Law was a jaw-dropping hunk with near inhuman good looks, but he was never the greatest actor on the block. Still, since the idea behind Diabolik was not style over substance but rather, as with Barbarella, style as substance, he fit the bill perfectly and certainly looks the part. His reserved – some would say wooden – acting style clicks nicely with the character, a man so far removed from traditional human morality that he seems at times almost unable to act human, sort of like how the Sidhe are described in fantasy literature.
Casting woes continued however, as Deneuve refused to do the nudity required for the aforementioned “making love on a pile of money” scene. Bava had always thought more of concealing than revealing. While there is certainly plenty of flesh both male and female on display in the scene, there is no actual nudity per se, as in no one sees the earth-shatteringly taboo bare bottom or nipple. All the areas proscribed by or moral watchdogs as naughty were suitably and strategically covered by piles of money. But the scene had to be shot with both actors in the buff and Deneuve balked. She was quickly and, for us viewers, blessedly replaced by European starlet Marisa Mell. Nothing against Ms. Deneuve — we do love her — but like John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell was practically born to play the part.
Mell is every bit Law’s physical match. A beauty so great as to cause folk to drop to their knees and weep. As the sophisticated and liberated sidekick to the devil-may-care Diabolik, I can imagine no one else better than Marisa Mell. A serious auto accident in 1963 had left her partially disfigured, and after years of rehabilitation and reconstructive surgery, she emerged looking like some incredible kind of goddess, with the only lingering side effect of her accident being a quirky upturn at the side of her mouth which, just about everyone agrees, amplifies her beauty tenfold. Nothing is more boring and predictable than perfection, after all. It is most unfortunate that her life would take a drastic downturn not too long after this film. She was relegated to B and C-movie status then more or less forgotten, making ends meet by posing in a nudie mags and reading poetry to try and supplement what was, by most accounts, rather a wild lifestyle. In the end, she died from cancer in 1992, relatively penniless. A melancholy note, but still she exists on screen in this movie as one of the great and timeless images of grace and beauty. It is that way that I think she is best remembered, as a stunning woman with an impish and playful curl to her lip.
For the roll of Diabolik’s foils on both sides of the law, Bava had experienced French actor Michel Piccoli as the dogged Inspector Ginco, and the robust Adolfo Celi, still relatively fresh off his memorable turn as the vastly enjoyable villain Emilio Largo in the James Bond film, Thunderball (1965), as the flamboyant Mafia boss Valmont. It was as solid a cast of character actors as Bava had ever had. He plucks them down into a world that isn’t quite real. One of Bava’s great strengths, and the element that perhaps made his horror films so successfully eerie, is his ability to warp the familiar, to twist the mundane into something foreign and menacing. Here, he’s pulling the same stunt, but purely for laughs. The world of Diabolik is not the world in which we live, though it bears a striking resemblance. It is instead a campy pop-art extraction. Money is transported in bags marked with huge dollar signs on the front, for example. Stylistically it has the most in common with Bava’s previous Blood and Black Lace and forthcoming Five Dolls for an August Moon and Four Times that Night, both of which revel in trippy modernist fashion and psychedelic over-indulgence. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the characters from any one of those movies show up in the other, though Diabolik is in my opinion the most realized artistically and conceptually. It is also Bava at his most impish and playful, with only a slight hint of the blackness that would inform the humor of his later Bay of Blood.
The story, as stated earlier, was adapted from a long-running European comic strip, or fumetti. Although I’ll admit to being a comic book reader in my youth, with intellectual fare like G.I. Joe and the ten thousand or so Spider Man titles that littered the 1980s being at the top of the list, I don’t really count myself among the legion of comic book fans. I have little interest in them now other than academically, and even the ones that people insist I’ll like because they’re intelligent and mature, leave me cold and a bit disappointed. Even the ones where people tell me, “no, this one is different,” still fall flat. It’s not that I deny their power or their artistic merit, even if I find some of the obtuse attempts to appear more “adult” by adding more violence, sex, and cussing, to be monumentally tedious.This is not an absolute statement, mind you. every now and then I do run across one I love– Brian Wood’s DMZ, for example — but I am by no means someone to whom one should turn for authoritative opinions on the medium.
That said, these European comic strips from the 1960s seem like they would have been a lot of fun. Considering they birthed such chain-smoking, sexy anti-heroes as Diabolik, Barbarella, and Modesty Blaise, all clad in skintight fetish gear, I guess I would have been a fan. Having never read any of the original Diabolik comic strips, but having at least glanced over some English-language plot summaries, I don’t think the storyline for the movie is lifted from any single episode, though bits and pieces may have come from all over the comics. The main characters certainly come from the comic strip, and here we get to watch them as Diabolik goes through a series of heists that get him on the bad side of both the police and the old crime syndicates – the establishment, basically. Chief of police Ginco sets a number of traps for Diabolik, but each time Diabolik outsmarts the inspector and makes his getaway with the loot. When one of his heists angers crime lord Valmont, Ginco hatches an unholy alliance with the mob to finally catch this thorn in both their sides.
Each heist is more or less a little self-contained episode building toward Ginco’s plan to melt down the whole of France’s gold reserve in order to lure Diabolik into a trap. The heists are exciting and outlandish, this again being a fantasy world in which the standard laws of common sense and logic do not apply. In his quest to steal a priceless jeweled necklace, Diabolik defeats the inspector’s trap by pulling the ol’ “stick a photo in front of the security camera” gag. He later smuggles the jewels to safety by fashioning them into bullets, using them to kill an opponent, then posing as said opponent’s relative to collect the jewels after cremation. Obviously, there are some logistical problems with this plan, not the least of which would be fitting jewels into a revolver, but this is a comic book world.
We’re not meant to take anything seriously or worry about realism. This is part of the reason it’s also easy to accept Diabolik as the hero of the story even though he is, without a doubt, a villain. He kills cops. Not corrupt cops, but regular guys just doing their job. He has no concern for anyone but himself and his one true love, Eva. When he dynamites the nation’s tax records, he doesn’t do it out of any sense of Robin Hood-esque duty to the poor and oppressed masses. He simply wants to screw with The Man — which leads to one of the film’s funnier moments, in which the Minister of Finances (a cameo by British film staple Terry-Thomas) makes a public plea to all the outstanding citizens to come forward and voluntarily pay the taxes they owe. Comedic touches like this, along with the purposeful disregard for realism, keep the movie light-hearted and chipper even when our main character is committing acts of a most heinous nature.
It’s not that Diabolik is immoral, however. If anything, he is adamantly amoral, completely rejecting the standards by which society judges the concepts of good and evil. He’s not an evil person. In fact, he’s quite likeable, almost childlike, even when he’s clad in a skintight white leather outfit and scaling a castle wall to rip someone off. At his heart, he is 1968. He is the social upheaval, the youthful rebellion that was engulfing countries across the globe. It’s no coincidence that the two forces most opposed to him are established law and established crime – two sides of a coin in which Diabolik sees no difference. They are the old guards; the outdated, out-of-touch generation whose lack of modern sophistication and intelligence is best exemplified by the fact that Valmont’s gangsters dress anachronistically, looking like something out of a 1930s mob movie.
They don’t understand Diabolik’s approach to crime, his use of modern technology and embracing of modern ideals. Likewise, on the other side of the coin is Inspector Ginco, a man who seems to respect Diabolik in a way, just as Diabolik respects him. In fact, it’s possible that Ginco could catch Diabolik, best him, if only the inspector could break away from the established way of thinking. Unfortunately, he is a man too mired in the old ways, and thus destined to be one step behind Diabolik. If only he could escape the constant supervision and micro managing of the bureaucrats, Ginco could make real progress. In a way, Ginco must envy Diabolik his freedom of thought.
It is in this way, more than through the story itself, that Diabolik achieves the depth so many people seem to claim it lacks. It is a tale of a super criminal versus the cops on one level, but on a deeper level it is a tale of the generation gap, of the culture conflict between young and old that characterized the late 1960s. Diabolik and Eva are the new way, feared and misunderstood by their elders. They are the iconoclasts, perhaps more symbols than actual people, as is Valmont. Ginco is the man in the middle, who knows things and times must change but not by the methods employed by the amoral and self-serving Diabolik. He is, despite being the supporting character and foil to Diabolik, the most sympathetic and human of all the characters. He is, in effect, most of us, dissatisfied with the establishment but still committed to some sense of orderly progression and society.
The relationship between Eva and Diabolik is further example of the film’s hidden but most definitely present depth. They are in love, deeply and passionately. Ginco seems to forego romance in favor of duty, and Valmont can see women as nothing more than playthings to be insulted. But Eva and Diabolik are liberated and modern. They are sexually attractive and have an insatiable appetite for one another, but they are also in love. Diabolik steals for Eva, but Eva does not stay with him because he steals; she stays because she loves him. Stealing is simply what they do, a game, and an amusement. Another way for them to thumb their noses at the generation that does not understand them. Their relationship is strong, and they are willing to sacrifice for one another. In the face of a world that wants to rub them out, they always have each other. Sometimes, they have each other on a rotating bed covered in money. So Diabolik is not an example of style over substance as much as it is, as I mentioned earlier, an example of style as substance. The liberated pop-art lifestyle of Eva and Diabolik is a stark contrast to the buttoned-up, confining world inhabited by Ginco and Valmont.
Not that the style lets itself be overshadowed by the substance. They walk arm in arm, and even if you disregard anything Diabolik might have to say, there’s no denying its look. That Mario Bava pulled this off on a self-imposed minuscule budget is staggering. With the possible exception of Barbarella and some of the wilder Bond adventures from the 1960s, few films look as sleek and sophisticated as Diabolik. The fashion is impeccable, and for a man like me who has endless admiration for the mod styles of the 1950s and 1960s, it’s like some crazy kind of dream come true. Every outfit donned by Marisa Mell is gorgeous enough to make you cry, especially when it’s draped upon someone as beautiful as she was. Likewise, Diabolik’s fetishistic head-to-toe leather outfits are beautiful, leaving as they do only John Phillip Law’s intense and deep eyes visible.
Their underground lair is a sight to behold, as are the old Jags they both drive. I love me a good Aston-Martin, but if I had to chose, I’d go for a ’67 Jag. They’re just about the coolest cars ever manufactured. Ahh, I hope they come in automatic. Diabolik is, indeed, a mod-futurist fan’s dream, even more so than the more outlandish Barbarella. After all, someone out on the town dressed as Barbarella would turn heads but ultimately look just kind of silly; someone out dressed in the mod fashions displayed by Marisa Mell would simply look breathtaking. Someone dressed in Diabolik’s leather catsuit is probably on his way somewhere special.
This isn’t the type of film where you fret over the details, and if you do you’re just going to miss the point. Like I said, it exists in a fictitious comic book world. It’s not meant to be any more realistic than any other superhero/villain movie or comic book. What does count is the pace of the story, and Bava keeps things moving along at a fair clip. It’s not an action-packed movie, not by today’s standards where something big must explode every five minutes in between a sequence involving bikini girls freak dancing. But it is expertly and briskly paced, with a light-hearted tone that keeps you from worrying too much about the fact that the man we’re supposed to love is a murderer and a thief. Ultimately, of course, Diabolik is a criminal and must pay for his crimes. The film’s ending is vague in its resolution but absolutely fitting. Ginco must prevail, after all. The exuberance and reckless abandon of youth must be tamed. And so we are left with Diabolik encased in a coffin forged out of his own indulgence, a gold plating from which he cannot escape…
…or can he? We’ll never really know. De Laurentiis was so pleased with the fact that Bava brought the movie in $2.6 million under its $3 million budget that he practically begged for a sequel. Unfortunately, the reportedly mild-mannered Bava could not bear the oppressive and often dictatorial producer so no sequel ever came about. We are left then with the final shot of Diabolik imprisoned by his own greed, laughing either slyly or maniacally, protected by his special suit from the molten gold but unable, as far as we can tell, to escape. His rebellion, after all, was not perfect. And while the establishment is able, at least for the time being, to contain Diabolik and his socially challenging threat, while they may suppress it, it’s unclear as to how long that will be the case. It could always resurface. It is a beautiful tongue-in-cheek ending, one that even works quite cleverly in conjunction with the fate of Valmont, who finds himself on the more fatal and literal end of greed.
Although it would seem, at first, to be a major departure from Bava’s greater body of work, most of which up to the point had been gothic horror and giallo, Diabolik still manages to cover most of the director’s pet themes and thus fits quite perfectly into his oeuvre. Diabolik is an outsider who rejects what those around him see as established common sense. Appearances are, as always, deceiving at their very best. Diabolik’s use of disguises and his foiling of Ginco’s trap by using a photograph of an empty, peaceful room are the most obvious examples. And like most of Bava’s anti-heroes, Diabolik eventually gets his comeuppance.
For my money, Diabolik is an unabashed success on all levels. The art design is without parallel. The script is crisp, witty, and fast-paced. The universe Bava creates is wild and enjoyable. And the performances – yes, even John Phillip Law’s – are wonderful. It is the ultimate super-villain movie, with a villain so charismatic that you forget he isn’t the hero. Campy, clever, and never taking itself as seriously as some dim-witted critics seem to think it does, Diabolik is one of the best, if not the best, European comic book/fantasy/sci-fi films, not to mention of the most breathlessly beautiful and fun films of the 1960s.
Release Year: 1968 | Country: Italy | Starring: John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli, Adolfo Celi, Claudio Gora, Mario Donen, Renzo Palmer, Caterina Boratto, Lucia Modugno, Annie Gorassini, Carlo Croccolo, Lidia Biondi, Andrea Bosic, Federico Boido, Tiberio Mitri | Screenplay: Arduino Maiuri, Mario Bava | Director: Mario Bava | Cinematographer: Antonio Rinaldi | Music: Ennio Morricone | Producer: Dino De Laurentiis
It didn’t take long for the genres of horror and science fiction to start mingling. It’s a natural marriage, after all, and the two often blend seamlessly, the best and among the earliest example likely being the first two Universal “Frankenstein” movies. Throughout the 1950s, horror and science fiction were frequent bedfellows as atomic terrors ran amok across assorted landscapes. Increasingly, however, it was the science fiction element of the films that was in the forefront, with the horror placed in the background unless one was genuinely terrified of superimposed grasshoppers. By the middle of the 1950s, science fiction was still enjoying the occasional big budget celebration a la This Island Earth (1955) and Forbidden Planet (1956) while horror films were becoming increasingly cheap, b-movie quickie affairs. Not that that means there weren’t plenty of gems in the mix, but compared to science fiction, horror was lagging.
What the hell? It’s rare these days that I have that reaction to a film. By this point, I really have seen just about everything, and the one thing that keeps that from being a depressing revelation is that sometimes something will pop up to remind that I haven’t seen anything. This movie was apparently based on a book called The Disoriented Man, and while watching it, that was definitely an apt description of me. Scream and Scream Again seems for much of its running time to be three completely different movies. By the end, of course, things will be tied together, but not in a way that necessarily makes much sense. The end result is not unlike watching one of those Thomas Tang/Godfrey Ho ninja movies where they’d buy bits and pieced of a couple old Hong Kong films, splice them together with some scenes from some unfinished Italian action film, then stick in a series of newly shot scenes featuring white guys in red and yellow ninja outfits with headbands that say “Ninja!” on them and call the whole hideous Frankenstein’s monster a movie.
After the runaway success of Fall of the House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum, Corman was growing dissatisfied with his AIP contract. He had proven to be a profitable director, and now he was a critically acclaimed director as well. His two films had more or less single-handedly lifted the reputation of AIP out of the realm of the drive-in circuit and established them as a genuine studio that made genuine movies with genuine class. Corman’s two Poe films also lifted the flagging reputation of horror, which since its heyday at Universal during the 1930s had sunk lower and lower until it was basically considered schlock, then almost replaced entirely by science-fiction and Communist paranoia films. Hammer’s Horror of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein had gone a long way to revitalizing the horror genre, but Corman’s Poe films undoubtedly contributed a great deal to solidifying the resuscitation, at broad but especially in the United States where theater owners were proud to see that yep, we could make ‘em just as good here as they could over there.
So while Corman was basically getting along with AIP head honchos Sam Arkoff and John Nicholson, he thought that maybe in light of his more or less revolutionizing the way he, the studio, and horror films were regarded in America, he might be entitled to a better contract. AIP politely disagreed with him, and so Corman took himself and his idea for the third Poe film elsewhere. Because Vincent Price was under contract to AIP, he couldn’t cast Price in the lead role, and so he set about looking for a new actor to fulfill the spotlight in his production of The Premature Burial. Corman eventually came up with Ray Milland. Milland was blissfully ignorant of the fact that one day in the future AIP was going to graft his head to Rosie Grier, and so he agreed to take on the Poe-perfect role of a man obsessed with the belief that he will be buried alive, as was his cataleptic father. Because Richard Matheson was also under contract to AIP, Corman turned to screenwriters Charles Beaumont (7 Faces of Dr. Lao) and Ray Russell (X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes). The essence of the films, however, came with Corman. Like the previous two films, The Premature Burial would come steeped in the signature atmosphere of the Poe films: billowing fog tumbling across eerie landscapes, tormented souls, a psychedelically-tinted nightmare sequence, creepy old houses, brooding characters, and as is obvious from the title, a thing or two about being buried alive.
The day Corman was to begin principal photography, he was pleased to see Arkoff (or maybe Nicholson, or maybe both of them) show up on the set to wish him good luck despite the differences they’d had over Corman’s new contract. Differences, hell! It turned out that AIP had just purchased the studio for which Roger Corman was making the picture, so it was going to be an AIP film after all. Granted it was too late to recast the lead, but Milland was still thought of as an Academy Award winning actor, and not as “the white guy from The Thing with Two Heads,” so his casting in the lead was something to crow about, even if the part, like all other leads in the Poe films, was tailor-made for Vincent Price.
Milland plays Guy Carrell, an upstanding and intelligent member of the gentry who has a small quirk in the form of a near crippling fear of being buried alive. Now no one wants to be buried alive, except maybe show-off escape artists and people competing for fifty bucks and a burger on the latest reality show, but Guy’s fear of being entombed while still among the living goes way beyond the usual healthy fear of having dirt piled on top of you. So obsessed is he with the concept that it threatens to ruin his newly minted marriage to Emily Gault, who is played by Hammer Studios veteran Hazel Court (The Curse of Frankenstein, and she would appear later in two more Corman AIP Poe films, The Raven and The Masque of the Red Death) — and if you know Hazel Court, then you don’t want to derail anything involving her in your bedchamber. Guy shuns his wife and friends in favor of building the most elaborate tomb ever devised.
I’m not exactly certain what Guy’s occupation is, but it must have something to do with being an architectural, engineering, and mechanical genius, because the failsafe tomb he constructs for himself is a marvel. If I set out to build my own premature-burial-proof tomb, it would probably end up looking like a couple of pieces of plywood nailed together with a hole cut in the back so I can crawl out if I should happen to find myself mistaken for a corpse. Buy Guy’s tomb is utterly lavish. In fact, it’s seems even nicer than his home. It comes stocked complete with a break-away coffin so that should one wake up and find oneself in such a pine box, one need only tap the side to have the whole thing spring open or fall to pieces. A variety of levers sound various alarms to let everyone know he’s been mistakenly buried, just in case the half dozen or so escape hatches don’t open. And should that happen and he has to wait for someone to her the bells, he can while away the hours reclining in plush overstuffed chairs, drinking brandy, and flipping through the tomb’s selection of reading material. And should these ten thousand redundant escape plans all fail, he’s also stocked the tomb with poison, so that when he’s finished all his sausages and books, he can just kill himself rather than be bored. I’ve seen fewer failsafe devices on the nation’s nuclear arsenal! Not that I’ve seen the nation’s nuclear arsenal, but I can’t imagine it’s as well thought-out as Guy’s crypt.
You’d think that would be the end of it, but various things keep happening to keep Guy preoccupied with being buried alive. Additionally, his wife and the local quack think that if he’s ever going to make any progress in combating his phobia, he needs to, among other things, ditch the tomb. You’d think that since the tomb has brought him an unparalleled peace of mind, they’d just let it be. I mean, it is a nice crypt, after all, so why not keep it around? Even if he isn’t buried alive, it’ll be a swell place to just be buried regular and dead. This being a Corman Poe picture, it’s no great leap to figure out that someone is plotting to use Guy’s fear of premature burial to drive him mad and thus achieve some small sort of financial or property gain that hardly merits such a lavishly complex and psychologically difficult scheme. Some people would just whack him on the head with a candelabra and blame it on Colonel Mustard, but these people always have to construct intricate “drive them mad” intrigues that are as complicated as Guy’s crypt.
Like the previous two Poe films, The Premature Burial has a tendency to get bogged down beneath the weight of its own exposition-heavy plot. Unlike the previous two films, however, it doesn’t have Vincent Price on hand to liven up the material. Milland gives it the ol’ college try, but he seems lost with this type of material despite his commitment to delivering a solid performance. Where as Price would have had no problem taking the script and making it work for him, Milland’s portrayal comes across as excessively whiny at times and dreadfully dull at others. Still, at least Milland put effort into the role and manages a few strong scenes, which is more than could be said for the shameful display put on by Jason Robards when, some years later, he too found himself filling in for Vincent Price in a Poe film, that one being Gordon Hessler’s Murders in the Rue Morgue.
If nothing else, The Premature Burial proves that it wasn’t just fan bias toward Vincent Price that kept Milland and the movie from earning a more cherished spot. Price was more than a fan favorite: he was an integral ingredient in making the films successful. Without him, it wasn’t just that “things just aren’t same.” His absence from the Poe films very nearly causes them to cease being Poe films. Exactly why Price is so indispensable to Corman’s Poe pictures is a little difficult to explain, but if you see them, well then you just understand. Part of it, naturally, has to do with the fact that Price was a marvel at turning a bad script into a good movie, and while the script for The Premature Burial isn’t bad per se, it is perhaps something much worse: dull.
Corman pours on the atmosphere – there is more fog here than in the previous two films combined, and believe me those films had a lot of fog in them – but Ray Milland simply doesn’t have Price’s knack for making you want to listen to him talk even during the slow spells. He never manages to invest the character with any sort of spark, and as such no real sympathy for him or his story ever develops in the viewer. It’s a perfectly serviceable performance, and Milland has nothing to be ashamed of (unlike you, Jason Robards!), but, well — just watch the end, when Guy emerges from his inevitable getting buried alive scene and has thus gone completely bonkers and launches into a gleefully mad bout of revenge. Milland is OK, but you just can’t help thinking how great the whole scene would have been if Price was given a chance to do it.
The rest of the cast performs with the usual competency one has come to expect by this point from both AIP and Hammer films, though some of the characters seem to be involved in subplots that never really go anywhere or get fully explained (why was Guy out there helping steal a corpse in the beginning of the film anyway?). Besides Hazel Court, who gets more of a chance to act here than she did in Curse of Frankenstein (and has one of the best scenes in the movie, during which she explains to Guy that he’s already dead, and his obsession with being buried alive has, in a way, already buried him alive), familiar faces like Alan Napier (Alfred the butler from the old Batman television series) and Dick Miller (The Terror, Truck Turner, Gremlins, and about ten million other movies) are on hand to round out the cast with their solid character acting. Unfortunately, the script tends to let the performers down, and almost all the characters are either undeveloped, underdeveloped, or just plain unlikable.
Without Price around to liven things up, the weakness screams at you like one of those screaming skulls. You know the ones. The ones that scream. I don’t know enough to know how closely the movie clings to the original 1844 story, but by all accounts, it sticks to the source material pretty tightly. Poe himself was possessed of a very similar fear of being buried alive, which is why it figures so frequently into his stories and thus so frequently into the Poe movies. Still, after seeing a buried alive plot in both of the previous films, one can’t help but hope for something a little different the third time out. Instead, we get the “total package” buried alive movie, one in which interment of the living isn’t just a part of the plot, but the entire plot. And speaking of plots, did I miss the part where they tell us exactly why shadowy characters are attempting to drive poor Guy insane? Plus, you’d think that after the guy has gone on and on about catalepsy for the whole movie, when he actually does lapse into a cataleptic state, they’d do more than just shrug and go, “Well, looks like he’s dead. Let’s get to burying’”
The lack of freshness combined with some gaping lack of explanations keep The Premature Burial situated firmly around or maybe, if I’m feeling good, slightly above the mediocre mark. Plus, it’s just not scary. Even with the gnarled old trees and fog, there are never any chills, and certainly nothing on par with the rampaging sister Usher in House of Usher or any number of scenes in Pit and the Pendulum. As such, Premature Burial remained for a long time the ignored entry into Corman’s cycle, more or less skipped over as people hastened to get from Pit and the Pendulum on to Tales of Terror, Masque of the Red Death and The Raven, when everything was back as it should be and Vincent Price was once again stalking across the screen in period costumes. Premature Burial feels like a misfire – not a dreadful misfire, or an entirely unwatchable one, but a misfire never the less. The pieces — Corman, Poe, Price, Matheson, and musical composer Les Baxter — clicked so perfectly in the first two films that it becomes obvious something is amiss in The Premature Burial. The film does have its moments — chief among them Milland’s exquisitely enthusiastic tour of his “buried alive-proof tomb” — but the whole thing never fully gels. It was obvious that there just shouldn’t be any tinkering with the formula, so AIP made sure everything was back in place for the fourth film, the anthology Tales of Terror.
Release Year: 1962 | Country: United States | Starring: Ray Milland, Hazel Court, Richard Ney, Heather Angel, Alan Napier, John Dierkes, Dick Miller | Writer: Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell | Director: Roger Corman | Cinematographer: Floyd Crosby | Music: Ronald Stein and Les Baxter | Producer: Roger Corman
When a creature is so vile, so evil, so much an affront to the nature of the world and of God himself as is the vampire Count Dracula, there is no easy way to destroy him and keep him down. So it is that in every episode of man’s struggle against this infernal prince of darkness, we mortals seem to succeed in wholly destroying this spawn of Satan only to see him find some way to cheat death yet again, as he has for so many centuries now, so that he may once again rise up and cast his long shadow of terror and bloodshed across the countryside. It seems this notorious bloodsucker has any number of ways he can reverse the effects of his apparent destruction, but the most powerful one by far is making certain that his movie provides bushel baskets full of money for the producers.
In 1960, American International Pictures – well-known for being a low-budget film production house possessed of some genuine talent – released The Fall of the House of Usher. It was something entirely new for the company: a color picture, released by itself instead of as part of a black and white double-feature package as was standard operating procedure for AIP. Director Roger Corman, one of the studio’s most valuable assets, had pushed for AIP to extend their usual shooting schedule (from ten days to fifteen!) and shoot the film in color. AIP was wary, but Corman had proven his ability to deliver profitable results for the company over and over, so after hearing his pitch, they were willing to give the benefit of the doubt to his risky venture. With Corman as director, Vincent Price as the star, and Egdar Allan Poe as the source material, it seemed like it would be a decent enough success.