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.
Allegory, symbolism, fantasy, and surrealism are often the refuge of artists working under the oppressive thumb of authoritarian regimes. Usually, it works, thanks in large part to the average censor being unable to process art on any but the most literal of levels. To them, a cigar is always just a cigar. This short-coming of the censorial mind is a blessing, allowing artists to slip all sorts of subversive work under the nose of watchdogs. Sometimes, however, an artist has the bad luck of running afoul of a censor who is a little more savvy to the trick, either being more creative of mind than fellow censors or having perhaps been burned enough times after a work was heralded for its subversive nature by critics in other countries. That sort of thing eventually gets back to the native censors. And that can breed over-sensitivity. In the case of Polish director Wojciech Has’ confounding, bewildering, and wonderful 1973 film Sanatorium pod klepsydrą — The Hourglass Sanatorium, everything was reversed. Censors perceived a political film in what was meant to be a personal film. Censors saw concrete criticisms of life under Soviet rule and were upset by it, decided it should not be seen. Has had intended to screen the film at Cannes but was forbidden from doing so. He did it anyway.
When it comes time to make a fairytale movie in the United States, we tend to either take a macabre old story and scrubbing it relatively clean of shocking aspects and trolls yanking the thumbs off a child and forcing the poor tyke to eat them (pretty sure that’s a real story), which are replaced with singing home appliances and household pests; or we go the “21 century gritty and edgy” route, where the picture itself is digitally filtered and color tinted, the costumes showcase a lot more cinched-waist leather and absurd weaponry (almost always a rapid fire “machine gun” crossbow), there is more gore and computer generated blood, and the dialogue is made more modern and peppered with a greater amount of foul or modern language. This is not to say that entertainment cannot be wrung from these sorts of films. Wearisome devotion to the same color alteration, leather outfits, and general tone aside, the modern “dark and grim” fantasy genre has produced some winners, or at least some films that were perfectly acceptable entertainment. But it’s much more impressive to unnerve, chill, enchant, and disturb the audience in the bright, cheery light of a sunny meadow full of flowers. And that’s exactly what is accomplished by Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divu), an allegorical Czech fantasy film which on the surface is about a teenage girl just trying to get a decent night’s sleep.
Over on the Cultural Gutter, I’m celebrating the 40th anniversary of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The world doesn’t need another review of the movie, so Whatever Happened to Saturday Night? is instead a mini-memoir about my first time seeing the movie, at Louisville’s Vogue Theater in 1987, what it meant to me, and how radically the movie — and that old theater — changed my outlook on life for the better .
I hate the Spanish horror movie The Blood-Spattered Bride, but I still managed to involve myself in nearly two hours of talking about it on an episode of The Trashy Trio Podcast. OK, maybe 40 minutes was about The Blood-Spattered Bride. The rest is about Jack Parsons and Disney’s Haunted Mansion and Sasha Mitchell and my inability to run a mile. And then eventually we get around to this sordid, grubby little adaptation of Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” only featuring a misogynistic rapist wife abuser as the hero. Be prepared — it’s a rare occasion on which I’m working blue. Like Redd Foxx blue. Trigger warning for me not being very good as a podcaster.
Space: 1999 taught me two valuable lessons. The first is that space is depressing and best represented by the color taupe. The second is that, with few exceptions, aliens are jerks. At least in the first season, Space: 1999 captures malaise, chronic low-grade depression and inertia perfectly. Moon Base Alpha itself is unsteerable. It is filled with people who have survived mostly by evaluating their situation and accepting it. Charleton Heston would not last long on Alpha—he would blow up the moon when he attempted seize control of his destiny and the moon by attaching engines to it. As the moon exploded, Commander John Koenig and Dr. Helena Russell would silently turn to one another in a final affectless, unspoken admission of their love.
I’ve been sitting here trying to think of an adequate way to describe exactly what it is that Sonny Chiba does and wears in this second film in Kinji Fukasaku’s highly enjoyable, highly influential Battles without Honor and Humanity series of films that delve into the world of organized crime and the role it played in rebuilding post-war Japan. The closest I can come up with to summarize the acting display by Chiba is to say that you should try to imagine William Shatner and Jimmy Walker being merged into one creature, which the director then instructs to “stop being so subtle.”
Over on the Gentlemen’s Blog to Midnite Cinema, I’m bringing the Jess Franco and Soledad Miranda. The Devil Came from Akasava, Jess Franco delivers a dreamy Eurospy by way of Edgar Wallace krimi film full of Soledad Miranda in pop art fashion. All else is, of course, of secondary consideration.
Director Gordon Hessler is back for another AIP Poe adaptation, this one mildly clever in the way it incorporates the Poe elements into the film. As we saw with The Oblong Box and many others, it was common to take the title of a Poe short story or poem, apply it to the film, then have not the slightest thing to do with the Poe story of the same title in the plot. Murders in the Rue Morgue takes the title from Poe’s story, but instead of adapting it or discarding it, sets its action around a theatrical production of Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue that becomes plagued with murders and yet another vengeful disfigured madman who was buried alive. According to Hessler, this was done because Murders in the Rue Morgue had already been made into a movie, and everyone knew how it ended. Thus there was no suspense in the film — not that Hessler was all that great at creating suspense anyway.
Time for another Frolic Afield over at The Cultural Gutter, where I am writing Einstein and the Bearded Lady, about the Czech science fiction comedy I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen (Zabil jsem Einsteina, panove) from 1970. The film asks the question, “What would men of the future be willing to risk to make sure women don’t have too much body hair?” Silliness ensues.
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