As enjoyable as it is to verbally flay the filmic road apples I stumble upon in my journeys, it is the occasional gems that sustain me. All the more enlivening, though even more rare, are those occasions on which I discover an entire, previously unexplored film industry, one whose prolific output of quality entertainments I can gorge upon like a cinephilic Augustus Gloop. As has been well documented, Bollywood was one of these for me–but the rabbit holes I’ve plunged down over seven-plus years of writing about world cult cinema have led to a couple of other very strong contenders for my affections. One of these is the Egyptian popular cinema of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, which offers a glamorous world of artfully wrought escapism comparable to—and yet quite different from–classic Hollywood.
He was young, handsome, popular with the ladies, and knew how to dress. And just like that, he vanished. It was such an abrupt and, at least to those who did not know Adam Diment, unexpected departure from the public eye that many assumed he had been murdered, or committed suicide, or perhaps been spirited away in the night to a quirky village full of people who knew too much and needed to spend time wearing cardigan sweaters and running down the beach away from giant balloons. The reality, as it so often is, of Diment’s jarring disappearance was rather more mundane that some of the wild conspiracy theories that popped up in the wake of his stepping away from the limelight. He left behind a literary legacy of only four relatively short novels, almost entirely forgotten today but, in their time — the time of London during the Swingin’ Sixties — much beloved, as was their author. Adam Diment, a shaggy-haired, dope-smoking, free-love cat who decided one day to set about writing the counter-culture equivalent of James Bond.
With a few exceptions scattered throughout the past hundred years or so of feature filmmaking, the French never really embraced the horror film. Instead, drawing from a literary tradition capped by the writing of Gaston Leroux and Victor Hugo, the French response to what we in the United States (and Britain, and Italy, and Japan, and…well, most of the world) define as horror was cinema fantastique. Certainly it had elements of horror, sometimes more overt than others, but more traditionally recognizable characteristics of horror were mixed into a dreamy mist that also included romance, science fiction, mystery, and melodrama all spun with a disregard for logical narrative structure and progression in favor of a dreamlike (or nightmare) quality. It did not matter if one scene connected to the next, or if there was a rational explanation for a particular image or action. That was not the point. The language of cinema is vast, figured directors working within this nebulous genre of cinema fantastique, and the idea that film has to conform to a particular structure or style or storytelling — or that it need tell any story at all — is tragically limiting. Of the many films that make up the body of cinema fantastique, few have developed an enduring reputation, good and bad, quite like Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visage, aka Eyes without a Face.
People unfamiliar with genre films sometimes have this weird idea that the movies all carry themselves with an air of complete seriousness, that a particular type of film can’t possibly be aware of its own cliches and pitfalls until some smarmy mainstream director steps in and makes a spoof. That spy movies, even James Bond, can’t be aware of their own absurdity. Or that horror has never noticed its own cliches. The fact of the matter is that genre films are far more aware of their own short-comings and trappings than most mainstream films. For better or for worse, genre films — science fiction, horror, sexploitation, action, and so forth – have been self-referential and satirizing themselves since the early days. The Italian sword and sandal films that were so popular during the first half of the 1960s were no exception.
I am back over on the Gentlemen’s Blog to Midnite Cinema, the companion blot for my favorite film podcast, writing about Incredible Paris Incident aka Fantastic Argoman aka half a dozen other titles, as is the way for these kinds of movies. Hovercrafts, psychic powers, robots, and men in banana yellow bodystockings will abound.
The Devil used to have a lot more to do on Christmas Eve than he does these days, having been supplanted more or less in the Christmas time evil business by retail store owners and Black Friday stampedes. There was a time, however, when Ol’ Scratch regarded the night before Christmas as prime soul-stealing time, what with so many panicked, distressed, depressed, or otherwise vulnerable humans ripe for temptation. Depending on whose folklore upon which we rely, Satan’s midwinter rascalry was combatted by a variety of traditional characters. In Mexico, since time immemorial, they have told the tale of how Pitch the Devil was thwarted in his efforts to corrupt the young and innocent by Santa Claus, who lives on the moon and employed the assistance of his most trusted friend, Merlin the Magician. In The Ukraine, which these days is more concerned with contesting the antics of Vladimir the Bare-Chested Yuletide Goblin, the corrupting efforts of the more unsaintly of the famous Nicks had to be foiled by a hearty peasant in a big furry cap.
“Demobilized officer, finding peace unbearably tedious, would welcome any excitement. Legitimate, if possible, but crime of humorous description, no objection.” — Bulldog Drummond, 1929
Basil Dearden’s 1960 caper film League of Gentlemen is a little bit like if, instead of ending up solving crimes for a living, Bulldog Drummond ended up committing them; as if his humorous classified ad was answered by a fellow demobilized officer putting together a crew for a heist. Surely the overly complicated ladder theft that results would appeal to Drummond’s sense of humor. Unlike the old Bulldog Drummond movies however, beneath the breezy, dryly comical veneer of League of Gentlemen is the sort of political and social unrest that characterized much of Dearden’s work in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. The man was a master at making mainstream, commercial films that packed powerful, at times very pro-counter culture messages.
If jungle adventure movies have taught us anything, it’s that modern man, with all his so-called “refinement” and “civilization”, is the most dangerous animal of all. Whatever perils the jungle may hold, it is those city folk — greedy, thoughtless, and cruel — who step within its borders who pose the greatest threat. Even though those city folk ultimately fall prey to quicksand, cannibals, and hungry wild animals. Hey, the jungle was just defending itself.
“There is no monster in the world so treacherous as man.”
So we are reminded at the beginning of Larry Buchanan’s Creature of Destruction and, just in case we forgot, at the end of the film as well. I like a film with a message, but the message is considerably less interesting if the film has to print it out for you. But hey – at least the guy was trying, which is more than can be said for most films. And in the end, this film is made in the tradition of sci-fi and horror films of days gone by, when such films had messages and delivered them with all the subtleties of a stoic military general surveying some scene of mass carnage and reflecting on the follies of man. Creature of Destruction is Buchanan’s homage by way of remake. In this case, it’s a remake of 1956’s The She-Creature, a movie that never exactly called with deafening thunder to be remade.
Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy was Russia’s less internationally known Tolstoy. While the one was writing thousand-page tomes about sad people losing things (pretty sure that’s the plot of most Leo Tolstoy books) that would be forced upon generation after generation, the other Tolstoy was writing slick science fiction adventures like Aelita (1923, adapted into a movie a year later), Engineer Garin (1924), and Count Cagliostro, which American high school students did not get to read, since there was no time left after plodding through Anna Karenina — in which absolutely no one travels to Mars, builds a death ray, or practices alchemy. To be fair to Leo Tolstoy though, it’s been twenty-six years since I read Anna Karenina, and all I really remember is a chapter where two rivals for the love of the title character retire to a nearby barn to try and outdo one another in feats of gymnastic prowess, and I may even be getting that wrong. In fact, I think much of what I remember of Anna Karenina is actually Great Expectations. I am, however, quite certain there was no death ray.