If you wanted to, it seems like you could draw up a sort of family tree of the films Indian superstar Amitabh Bachchan made during his late seventies to mid eighties prime, tracing each of those movies’ origins along three very distinct lines, each leading back to a particular career-defining blockbuster that provided the template for much of what was to come. Of course, while Bachchan would star in films that were virtual remakes of Deewaar, Sholay and Don over the course of his career, the lines leading back to those three classics would not always be perfectly straight. For one would also have to consider films like 1978’s Be-Sharam, which draw upon elements of all three.
I once read a review on some site that contained the statement “Slaughtered Vomit Dolls is not for everyone”, which is my favorite line ever from an online review of a cult movie. Not only is it admirable for being refreshingly direct, but also for how it so clearly provides the guidance that we depend on from such reviews. It makes you truly grateful that the internet exists, especially if you’re one of those people who might otherwise have considered purchasing Slaughtered Vomit Dolls as a Mothers Day gift.
In the spirit of those words, then, I would like to begin this review by stating that Hausu, the 1977 debut feature from Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi, is not for everyone. However, if you are one of those people whom Hausu is for (or for whom Hausu is?), I think that you will find it not only fascinating, but addictive. I myself have seen it five times now, and it’s a testament to its uniqueness that each time I watch it I find myself surprised anew at just how strange it is. It’s as if it contains too much that’s beyond the normal frame of reference for the brain to adequately retain it all. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it is one of the most unique horror films that I have ever seen.
Obayashi came to Hausu from a background in television advertising, and, in making it, he not only employs all of the tricks of that trade, but also turns many of them on their head. This is a film in which no fraction of any one frame escapes being stylized to within an inch of its life. In addition to working with a woozy pallet of saturated and uniformly unnatural colors (not to mention a chaotic sound design), Obayashi uses every special effect technique available at the time, in concert with a large repertoire of “naive” optical effects not typically seen since the early talkies, to create layers of visual and aural signals that constantly bombard the viewer at every level. While this can at times come off like a first-time director simply showing off, the film is far from an empty exercise in style. Hausu is simply energized by too much passion (and perhaps rage) for there not to be a vision–and heart–behind its madness.
Obayashi, at least in his early directing years, seemed to be drawn to fantastic stories that centered on school-aged protagonists, especially those that played on themes of teenage angst (his other films include Exchange Students, The Little Girl Who Conquered Time and the manga adaptation Drifting Classroom), and Hausu is no exception, following the fate of a close knit group of seven teenaged schoolgirls. Of these seven, only the ethereally beautiful Oshare (Kimiko Ikegami) is provided with any kind of back-story–or character, for that matter. The remaining six are simply an assortment of types, each paired down to a descriptive nickname and one corresponding signature behavior: Mack (for “stomach”) overeats; Fanta (Kumiko Ohba) is prone to romantic daydreams; Melody (Eriko Tanaka) plays piano; Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo) practices Kung Fu and has her own action theme music, etc.
Collectively these girls inhabit a world straight out of a seventies Saturday morning cereal commercial, one in which people rise to greet the day with arms outstretched to the sun as cartoon rainbows play across the horizon to the strains of treacly soft rock. As Obayashi presents it, you wouldn’t be at all surprised if one of those freaky psychedelic football mascots from Syd and Marty Kroft’s PuffnStuff or Lidsville were to bound into frame at any moment. Oshare’s life outside of the group, however, is presented a little differently, though in no less cavity-promoting terms. Hers is a world of movie-fuelled romanticism with the kitsch level pushed to belligerent extremes (think Douglas Sirk on eleven): Beyond the balcony of her father’s high-rise flat, a permanent artificial sunset stretches across the sky like a glorious, lurid bruise, and, as we watch Oshare, all of the camera’s means of idealizing dewy young womanhood–gauzy soft focus, halo lighting, fan-blown hair captured in dreamy slow motion–are amped to the level of the grotesque. Taken together, the world that’s presented in the first section of Hausu is one in which a malignant, over-ripe greeting card sentimentality has poisoned the very atmosphere. And, given that, it should come as no surprise that rottenness lurks just around the corner–or, at least, just a short train ride away.
Things start to turn when Oshare, heartbroken over the prospect of her widowed father marrying a creepily serene younger woman named Ryoko (Haruko Wanibuchi), reaches out to her beloved dead mother’s sister, an aunt (Yoko Minamida) whom she hasn’t seen for many years. That aunt has remained in the family home, alone, honoring a decades old promise to wait for the man to whom she was engaged, even though, as we have seen, he was long ago killed in the war that took him away in the first place. (In keeping with the psychotically chipper tone of Hausu‘s first act, the flashback of the aunt’s tragic story is played out as a silent era film while, on the soundtrack, the girls coo inanely over how cute and quaint it all looks.) The aunt in return invites Oshare and her friends to come stay at the remote family house for the holiday.
Quickly after the group of girls arrives at the house it becomes apparent that, not just something, but everything isn’t right. The aunt, they eventually learn, has long ago died and become a ghost whose vengeful spirit has infected the very house itself. Furthermore, in order to maintain itself, the house must literally devour any virgin girl who steps within it. It is at this point that Hausu resoundingly turns against its first half, and the opening scenes’ creepy yet chaste fetishizing of the young girls gives way to an explosive sexuality so uncontainable that it literally permeates and animates the physical environment that they inhabit.
It is also at this point that Hausu takes on the structure of a conventional modern horror film, with the girls being picked off one by one by a variety of gory means. But the nature of those means, given that it’s the house itself that is implementing them–combined with the delirious, candy colored nightmare of their presentation–makes those sequences anything but conventional. The scene in which we watch Melody getting eaten, and then digested, by a grand piano is probably the most memorable, but there are a number of others that equal it in terms of their combined horror and absurdity. Obayashi here performs a neat (and, to my mind, never repeated) trick by drawing on the queasy, hallucinatory imagery of Italian horror directors like Argento, while replacing their languid, dreamy pacing with the sugar rush velocity of a particularly demented Saturday morning cartoon. The result is as intoxicating as it is overwhelming.
Hausu, perhaps surprisingly, dates very well. Despite its surface appearance, it manages to escape itself being 1970s kitsch by presciently recognizing that kitsch for what it was in its own time. From that vantage point, it can treat those treacly feel good excesses, not with nostalgic affection or condescending dismissal, but as a telling symptom of something malignant underneath. It may just be wishful thinking, but I like to believe that it’s no coincidence that Hausu came out in the year commonly associated with the birth of punk–that, though not apparent on the surface, hidden within it is a mischievous punk sensibility. After all, what better symbol of everything that punk rose up against than the smiley face? If Obayashi did not officially count himself among punk’s practitioners, he at least attacked that symbol and everything it stood for with a bile and passion equal to theirs.
Hausu also benefits greatly by comparison to contemporary Japanese horror movies, which typically suffer from their makers’ grim determination to make every moment pregnant with ominousness and foreboding–with the end result being films that are pretty much uniformly tedious and annoying. In contrast, Hausu, a film that is rich with humor and a subversive sense of play, not only delivers a number of effective scares, but also manages to be profoundly disturbing as a whole. At a time when it is becoming distressingly apparent that the Japanese have forgotten how to make horror movies that are actually scary, it might just be that their film industry could take a lesson from Hausu. Perhaps they could learn from it that their taking the horror genre too seriously could be the very thing that is leeching it of all of its horror, and that it’s time to bring a sense of fun and mischief back into the process. The American film industry, on the other hand, should continue in their benevolent ignorance of Hausu, because no one wants to see a remake of it starring cast members of Gossip Girl.
So, if you think that Hausu is for you, that’s the good news. The bad news is that, though long a soft and grainy staple of the grey market, Hausu is, as of this writing, only legitimately available as a German PAL region DVD without English subtitles. That shouldn’t be too much of a deterrent, however, because its simple story and emphasis on visuals make it a perfect example of the type of film that’s easy to enjoy without understanding the spoken language. Still, given the ready availability of so many old Japanese genre titles on the market, it’s somewhat astonishing that no one has seen fit to give a film as ripe for cult appreciation as Hausu a proper American release. Mind you, it’s no Slaughtered Vomit Dolls, but it still deserves to be seen.
Release Year: 1977 | Country: Japan | Starring: Kimiko Ikegami, Yoko Minamida, Kumiko Ohba, Saho Sasazawa, Haruko Wanibuchi, Eriko Tanaka, Miki Jinbo, Masayo Miyako, Mitsutoshi Ishigami | Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi | Writers: Chiho Katsura, Nobuhiko Obayashi | Cinematographer: Yoshitaka Sakamoto | Music: Asei Kobayashi, Micky Yoshino | Producer: Nobuhiko Obayashi
The Delinquent Girl Boss movies are just my speed, because as much as I hate to admit it, I’m a bit of a Pinky Violence lightweight. It’s not that I don’t like the genre. I do, very much. It’s just that it’s one that’s so fraught with potential pitfalls that watching an unfamiliar entry can be a bit of a risky proposition. In my experience, the most successful PV films maintain an almost painfully delicate balance between sleaze and artistry, and those that don’t leave me with nothing more than a ninety minute hole in my life and a feeling of being mildly pervy.
It’s for this reason that, for all the depravity on display, I can still get a kick out of Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom, while Girl Boss Guerrilla, from the same director, makes me want to tear my brain out and scrub it with a Brillo pad–or that, while I consider Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable, with all its incest and bloody backroom abortions, to be a small masterpiece, Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs just reminds me that I should probably wash my hands after handling the discs I get from Netflix.
The Delinquent Girl Boss movies, on the other hand, could best be described as Pinky Violence “lite”. That is due in great part to their star, Reiko Oshida, who is simply so adorable that you’d never want any of those things that happen to Miki Sugimoto and Reiko Ike in their movies to happen to her. (Not that you necessarily want them to happen to Miki Sugimoto and Reiko Ike, either–but obviously someone does, because it seems like neither of them can get through a movie without having some sweaty yakuza or lesbian prison guard string them up and whip them across the chest.) Though Rika, the character that the baby-faced Oshida portrays, is certainly a tough customer, she’s less worldly and careworn than her sister delinquents, and you get the clear impression that her bravado is to some extent meant to cover up for some residual adolescent doofyness. In contrast to the hardened teenage killing machines typically played by Sugimoto or Ike, with Rika there is a faint glimmer of hope of a brighter future lying ahead, and that not only keeps you rooting for the character, but also allows the series as a whole to take on a somewhat lighter tone than other films in the genre. Not that it’s all picnics and popsicles, mind you.
Blossoming Night Dreams is the first in the Delinquent Girl Boss series, as well as Toei’s first entry in the Pinky Violence genre. Spurred to jump into the game by the success of Nikkatsu’s Stray Cat Rock series of female delinquent films, the studio would go on to make the PV genre their own through more brazenly exploitative franchises like the aforementioned Terrifying Girls’ High School and Female Prisoner Scorpion films. At the time of this film, the template that those later films followed had yet to be set, and so, while there is a fair share of tits and blood on display, there’s nowhere near as much as would become standard within a couple years. Furthermore–and again unlike perennial PV stars Miki Sugimoto and Reiko Ike–Oshida was not required to shed her clothing for her role, leaving the burden of baring all upon her supporting stars.
As with Worthless to Confess, the final entry in the Delinquent Girl Boss series (and the only other one that I’ve seen) Blossoming Night Dreams opens in a girls’ reform school, giving us a scene in which the rowdy inmates make a mockery of a presentation on bridal etiquette, using it as an opportunity for what you have to guess is just the latest in a series of regularly occurring wild brawls. This presentation, in which a prim charm school matron delivers such dispiriting bromides as “to look like a bride is life itself”, paints a pretty cynical picture of the possibilities that await these girls on the outside, and it’s not hard to side with them when they run riot over the thing. Still, these possibilities have to be confronted, and we soon shift forward a year, where we find nineteen year-old Rika back on the outside, trying to put her past behind her and play it straight and narrow. Unfortunately, as countless films have taught us, that’s rarely an easy thing to do.
Rika first finds work at a laundry, but loses that job when the owner attempts to rape her, and his wife, stumbling in on the two of them, assumes that it is Rika who is trying to seduce him. The next horny male Rika encounters, however, ends up being a little more helpful, as Tsunao (series regular Tonpei Hidari) is able to provide her with an introduction to Umeko, a former inmate of the same reform school who runs a bar and nightclub where a number of the schools’ alumni work as hostesses. It seems like Rika may have found a safe haven under the wing of the maternal Umeko, but the old ways start to exert their pull again once she discovers that a local Yakuza clan is trying to muscle Umeko out of her ownership of the club. Just when you think you’re out…
As is typical with Pinky Violence movies, pretty much all of the men that the girls in Blossoming Night Dreams encounter are goonish, sex obsessed louts. In the case of the more sympathetic ones, you get the sense that only a thin layer of civility (or, in some cases, just timidity) prevents them from simply taking by force what they want from these women. This conceit makes watching Pinky Violence movies in general a complicated proposition for a male; While you’re invited to ogle at the exposed female flesh on display, these films pretty much tell you that, in doing so, you’re no different from the leering and slobbering potential rapists that inhabit them. Aside from the odd reformed yakuza, the only nobility you’ll see is that displayed by the women, who know that they only have their own community to protect them within a world dominated by ruthless male predators (something that’s driven home, as it is here, by the mournful enka ballad that opens so many of the films in the genre–which is usually a tragic rumination on a woman’s narrow options in a heartless male world). Because of this, the scenes of stoically endured torture and abuse that you see in some of the harder-edged entries in the genre are as much tableaus of martyrdom as they are mere kinky spectacle. Finally, placing a further obstacle in the way of enjoying these films as pure titillation is the fact that what consensual sex occurs is almost always joyless for these women, with sex presented as just another cynical means of survival.
Now, by this I’m not saying that these films are necessarily feminist in their perspective–though they do seem, despite being written and directed by men, somewhat anti-male (which–sorry guys–is not the same thing). I’m just trying to point out that the viewpoint they present is certainly one that’s more complex than one might assume. And that complexity provides a framework for, among other things, some well drawn and sympathetic female characters–though not so much the male ones. Don’t get me wrong, of course: while Blossoming Night Dreams is pretty tame, a lot of the other films in the genre could fairly be called “dirty movies”. But to dismiss them as being only that would be a mistake, and would perhaps deny you a challenging and rewarding movie watching experience… with boobs.
Anyway, because suffering is such an important part of these movies–and Reiko Oshida seems to be off limits in terms of baring the full brunt of it–it’s a good thing that we have on hand Yuki Kagawa’s character Mari. Judging from this and Worthless to Confess, Mari serves as the Delinquent Girl Boss saga’s emotional pin cushion. Here Mari is working as one of the bar hostesses, and a major subplot involves her desperate search for her drug addicted younger sister, Bunny, who is on the run after having stolen a stash of drugs from the Yakuza (those same yakuza who are trying to take over the nightclub, naturally). After failing to reach Bunny before the gang can, with predictably tragic results, Mari goes out seeking revenge, only to end up being viciously gang raped. Kagawa gives one of a number of solid performances in the film, investing Mari with a haunted soulfulness that makes her plight all the more painful to witness. Because of that I wish I could say that things improve for Mari as the series progresses, but I’m afraid no one saw fit to give the poor girl a break, as the final film ends with her stricken with a case of TB contracted from her no good yakuza boyfriend.
The above is not to say that Rika is wholly exempt from being at the receiving end of some hard treatment and harsh lessons. There’s a somewhat surprising episode in which she naively offers herself to the yakuza boss Ohba in return for him waiving a debt he’s been holding over Umeko’s head. Of course, Ohba avails himself of what’s offered (though, unlike with Mari, we’re only shown the aftermath) but with no intention of keeping up his end, and he allows the rest of the gang to rough Rika up before kicking her to the curb. Though there is a brief scene in which Umeko admonishes a shame-faced Rika for her stupidity, the film gives only cursory attention to the effect that this presumably traumatic event has had on Rika, and mostly just uses it to provide fuel for the bloody payback that we know is coming. It’s not the only time that the series is a little dishonest in how it isolates its star from the worst of what it has to dish out, but for me it was the instance in which that practice was the most distracting.
Once every other avenue of recourse has been exhausted, and the accumulated insults and injuries have become to great, the women of the Bar Murasaki determine that screaming, blade slashing, blood spraying vengeance is the only answer. It’s at this point that those of us who have already seen Worthless to Confess (which is most of us who would watch Blossoming Night Dreams, given that Worthless beat the first film to DVD by a couple of years) realize that Blossoming Night Dreams has followed pretty much the exact trajectory as that later film: We have the opening in prison, followed by various attempts to go straight in the outside world, which are foiled in turn by the greedy machinations of the Yakuza, and, finally, a number of intertwining subplots that coalesce into a hyper-violent girl-on-gangster finale. This, however, doesn’t make the sweet, sweet payback any less satisfying, and it’s to Blossoming Night Dream‘s credit that its predictability doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.
While it lacks those unexpected moments of transcendent lyricism that mark Norifumi Suzuki’s better PV films–and that can be found throughout the first three Female Prisoner Scorpion movies–Blossoming Night Dreams is not without its instances of visual poetry. Still, its overall look is most representative of the type of high level craftsmanship that was standard in the Japanese commercial cinema of its day. Director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi would go on to direct all four films in the series, and his work here–along with that of cinematographer Hanjiro Nakazawa–shows a studied attention to composition and color that insures that each shot has an appealingly hyper-real sheen. This serves especially well in the psychedelic nightclub numbers, which are largely indistinguishable from the psychedelic nightclub numbers in many other Japanese movies of the period, and are all the better for it (after all, why mess with a winning formula?).
I really liked Blossoming Night Dreams. As I’ve indicated, it won’t overwhelm you with its artistry, but it is a handsomely made film, and the performances are uniformly top notch. And because I didn’t have to spend half of its running time cringing and hoping that my wife didn’t walk into the room, it afforded me the opportunity to savor some of those aspects of the PV genre that are most appealing to me. I imagine that the other two movies in the cycle that I have yet to see are largely the same, but that doesn’t make me want to see them any less. The fact is, I would watch them for Reiko Oshida alone, even if they consisted entirely of her reading the Tokyo phonebook to a stuffed ocelot. She’s simply one of the most appealing stars of her day, period.
Release Year: 1970 | Country: Japan | Starring: Reiko Oshida, Masumi Tachibana, Yukie Kagawa, Keiko Fuji, Hayato Tani, Toshiaki Minami, Bokuzen Hidari, Yasushi Suzuki, Saburo Bouya, Tatsuo Umemiya, Tonpei Hidari | Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi | Writers: Norio Miyashita, Kazuhiko Yamaguchi | Cinematographer: Hanjiro Nakazawa | Music: Toshiaki Tsushima | Producers: Kenji Takamura, Kineo Yoshimine
Once you’re done with the knowledge-based cherry picking, there are a wide variety of factors that come into play in deciding which are the potential gems among the selection of five dollar Bollywood dvds at your local Indian grocer or favorite online vendor. Familiar names or faces in the cast or crew of a film are always helpful, but there are also certain thematic or conceptual lures that might serve to tip the scales. In the case of Dharam-Veer, for instance, it certainly didn’t hurt that the cast included the stunning Zeenat Aman–and while its male lead, Dharmendra, isn’t one of my favorite actors, I do harbor a lot of good will toward him thanks to his co-starring role–with Amitabh Bachchan–in the classic Sholay, as well as his appearance in other highly enjoyable films such as Ankhen and Alibaba aur 40 Chor.
The road that lead me to Tony Falcon, Agent X-44: Sabotage was, as is often the case with these things, a somewhat long and circuitous one. It began when I was watching the third Christopher Lee Fu Manchu movie, the Shaw Brothers co-produced The Vengeance of Fu Manchu, on TV, and found my attention drawn to the actor Tony Ferrer, who was playing the fairly substantial supporting role of Shanghai Police Inspector Ramos. Ferrer was certainly charismatic, and handled himself admirably in his action scenes. But what really struck me was that here was a Filipino actor playing a character whom the filmmakers had gone out of their way to identify as Filipino (why, after all, name a Shanghai policeman “Ramos”?).
What is it, to be a man? This is the question, indeed, many of us ask ourselves. In this, our post-macho, post-feminist, post-metrosexual era, what then becomes the measure of a man? What is it that defines his life, gives him meaning, makes him a man? Indeed such a question is difficult to answer, at times perhaps even seemingly impossible. And so we enter an era of confusion, of aimlessness, until at last something emerges from the chaos to point the way, to illuminate us, to help us along on our journey and, at long last, make the answer as clear as the crystal blue waters of Cozumel. What is it, to be a man? Let Franco Nero tell you. No, no — let Franco Nero show you.
The first fifteen minutes of Enzo G. Castellari’s Shark Hunter play as follows. We meet the titular shark hunter, Franco Nero, looking like he just stumbled out of the jungle and fell into a puddle of crazed hippie biker, while perched on a rock overlooking the ocean. Suddenly a shark catches his eye, causing him to leap up, run down the beach while accompanied by the sounds of Guido and Maurizio DeAngelis prog rock, and struggle to haul the thrashing beast to shore. He then retires to his open air beach bungalow to make love to his beautiful Mexican senorita, then goes to a bar where he beats the crap out of half a dozen thugs. Happy that Franco has whooped ass on the goon squad, a local takes him out for a bit of parasailing. I know, I know. You’re thinking to yourself that while hauling in a fishing line hooked to a man-eating shark is tough, and making love on the beach to a sexy gal is tough, and beating up half a dozen hired bruisers is tough, there’s not much that’s tough about parasailing. That’s what sunburned fat Americans do when they visit resorts, right? What’s so tough about that? Well, nothing. But while Franco does admittedly get a kick out of the parasailing, what makes this tough parasailing is that, while in mid-air, he spies a shark in the water below, let’s out a primal whoop of excitement, cuts himself loose from the parachute harness, plunges into the water, and immediately starts punching the shark in the face.
Although everything about the movie, from the title to Franco Nero’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for punching sharks in the face, would lead you to believe that this is going to be another in the brief but highly enjoyable line of Italian Jaws rip-offs along the lines of director Castellari’s own L’Ultimo Squalo, a film that so closely aped (or sharked) Jaws and Jaws 2 that an injunction was issued against it, spoiling big plans to unleash it in American movie theaters and, in fact, even going to far as to ensure that it would never see the light of day even on home video. However, after the insane opening and Franco Nero’s lesson on how to be a real man, Shark Hunter settles down into being a rip-off not of Jaws, but of another American film, 1977’s The Deep starring Nick Nolte and Jaqueline “Miss Goodthighs” Bisset as scuba divers who stumble across a fortune in sunken drugs. That film was remade in 2005 as Into the Blue, starring Paul Walker and Jessica Alba. That movie was completely idiotic, but I enjoyed it if for no other reason than it had cool scuba scenes and lots of shots of Paul Walker and Jessica Alba being scantily clad. Plus, it’s not like doing a dumb remake of a movie that was pretty dumb to begin with was any great crime against cinematic art. Of course, I also like The Deep, and it used to scare the crap out of me as a kid.
You see, I come from a long line of scuba divers, and by “long line” I mean my dad and, later, my sister. But I grew up around diving and diving equipment, and as a kid I used to get into my old man’s trunk full of equipment and get gussies up in the way-too-large for me wetsuit and flippers, mask, and dive knife, which I referred to more dramatically as the shark knife. I’d then stomp around the basement, playing Thunderball and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and trying to throw the knife into the bare 2x4s of the unfinished walls. When I got to watch The Deep on our brand new Betamax video machine, it enthralled and terrified me. I loved all the scuba stuff, and even at a young age I know there was something special about Jaqueline Bisset in a bikini. But the one thing anyone remembers about that movie is the moray eels. My dad used to tell me outrageous tales about moray eels, and how the way their teeth curved in meant that once they bit you, it was impossible to remove them. You just had to pull out your knife and amputate your arm. The Deep certainly backed those stories up, and for years, the sight of sharks and barracuda did little to phase me, but I was always wary of eels. Even after I learned that moray eels are basically docile so long as you don’t go shoving your arm into their hidey holes, I still get antsy when I turn around underwater and see one of them floating there, staring at me inquisitively with that horrible, evil grin they all have.
Shark Hunter, however, is better than either The Deep or Into the Blue, and Franco Nero looks less like Nick Nolte in The Deep and more like Nick Nolte in his more recent mug shot. But the gist of Shark Hunter is that Nero’s character, Mike di Donato, gets pressured by a local gangster into helping salvage a downed plane full of loot. Franco and his parasailing buddy try to figure out a way to get the gangsters off their back and outsmart them. Despite the expectation generated from a title like Shark Hunter, there isn’t much shark action in this film other than the beginning and the very end. Most of the action revolves around Franco Nero in his ratty shirt and bell-bottom dungarees getting into fights on the beach, only to have his beloved Juanita (Patricia Rivera) threatened by the gangsters. And there’s a lot of scuba diving, sometimes with sharks present, which is a touchy subject for a lot of people.
Scuba scenes usually get a bum rap in movies for being somewhat slow moving and boring. They do happen underwater, after all. I actually think a lot of scuba diving scenes are kind of keen, owing to my enjoyment of scuba diving, and depending on how they are filmed. Thunderball, for example, has pretty thrilling scuba scenes. All those Jacques Cousteau documentaries have cool scuba scenes. The Incredible Petrified World does not succeed as well with its many scuba scenes of guys sort of doing nothing for like ten minutes at a time. Anyway, point is that scuba scenes don’t have to boring, even if they frequently are. Shark Hunter has pretty good scuba scenes, though one wonders why Nero spends so much time diving in his blue jeans when he later reveals he owns perfectly good shorts and a wetsuit. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to swim in blue jeans, but it’s not pleasant. The scuba scenes are also aided by the fact that Castellari was fond of slow motion action scenes anyway, so you hardly even notice the diving is slow. At least he didn’t film them in slow motion.
Castellari and Nero worked together several times before most notably on the superb 1971 poliziotteschi thriller High Crime. Among the many, many directors who made a living in the murky waters of Italian exploitation films, Castellari was one of the best when he was on his game. Like Umberto Lenzi and Antonio Margheriti, Castellari managed to direct some really great action films. He also managed to direct some really awful ones. Castellari, however, directed fewer truly awful films than did Lenzi and Margheriti, possibly because Castellari managed to avoid having to make crappy cannibal movies. Where as other directors skipped from one genre to the next based on whatever trend was at the forefront of exploitation cinema that week, Castellari stayed pretty well grounded in action films. He avoided horror almost entirely. Even when he ventured into the realm of other genres — most notably a few post-apocalypse Road Warrior rip-offs in the 1980s — he treated them more or less like action films. The one time he worked almost completely outside the realm of what he was familiar with was 1989’s Sinbad of the Seven Seas, and we can see how that worked out for him. By the 1980s, there was no doubt Castellari knew his stuff, even if he wasn’t exactly what you might call a visionary artist. He did have his style though, and he seems interested in Shark Hunter, which he keeps moving along nicely and crammed full of action both above and below the ocean surface.
If there’s anything to criticize in Castellari’s direction, it’s the choice to use footage of real sharks being caught and killed. This only happens once or twice, and I suppose scenes of shark fishing are more defensible than other scenes of real animal cruelty that pop up in Italian exploitation films, but it’s something to warn people about. I understand why they used real footage, though I don’t necessarily agree with the decision. But then, I used togo fishing, and lord knows we used to take pictures of ourselves with our fish, so I guess that’s why I can’t see to getting too worked up about the scenes of a hooked shark in this movie, as opposed to the far more frequent and far more abusive animal killing that goes on in those cannibal films.
Franco Nero is in good form here, looking completely deranged and badly in need of a shower. You’d think a dude who constantly went swimming and shark punching in the clear waters of Cozumel, Mexico, wouldn’t have so much soot and crap smeared all over his face, but then you’d also expect that a guy with a girlfriend that pretty would have at least two pairs of clothes. But the only thing he has is his outfit, and then the same outfit with a hat and sunglasses. Nero throws himself headlong into the role though, lending it gravity and a great intensity, and the look is pretty spectacular. Nero made a career out of playing bad-asses, and while he’s not as bad-ass here as he was in some of his old cop films, he still punches sharks in the face and jumps out of parachutes to wrestle them. Eventually, the movie gets around to explaining why sharks piss him off so much, but it’s pretty uneventful and predictable. He goes on to have family members killed in a traffic accident, but he doesn’t run around Mexico punching cars and trying to drag them back to his bungalow. And given how much the guy hates sharks, and how he seems to spend all day sitting around just waiting for a change to sock one in the jaw, you have to wonder they come to his aid all Aquaman-style during the underwater finale. I guess they respect his predatory, killer instinct and knotty tangle of blond locks.
Helping the movie be that much cooler is the music by Italian exploitation film staples Guido and Maurizio DeAngelis. Blending rock, prog, and film orchestration, G&M, who also worked under collective name Oliver Onions for some reason, turn in a great score that perfectly matches the action and fires up the blood. Pairing all that with nice location work in Cozumel — my dad’s favorite dive spot, incidentally — makes for an all-around thrilling action film that is far different than the Jaws inspired title would otherwise lead you to believe.
You wouldn’t think that a movie with a title like Strip Nude for Your Killer would turn out to be among the sleazier, trashier, less redeemable Italian thrillers — or giallo — but what do you know! Strip Nude for Your Killer turns out to be among the sleazier, trashier, less redeemable Italian thrillers, and if you know anything about gialli, you know that sleaze, trash, and irredeemability are practically requisites for the genre. Strip Nude for Your Killer is also probably not the best film to use as a primer on the tropes and history of gialli, but at the same time, perhaps the fact that it slavishly caters to the lowest common denominator expectations of giallo films and never exhibits much in the way of style or ambition beyond fulfilling the base formula requirements make it the perfect, if not respectable, candidate for the following brief — and possibly wildly inaccurate in spots — history of what fans loving refer to giallo.
Giallo is, like pulp fiction in America, a loaded and often misrepresented concept that takes on various attributes and boundaries depending on who is doing the defining. Pulp, for example, was used to cover everything from romance to cowboy to crime to sci-fi and horror stories, though in time it became more specifically identified with crime and fantastic literature. And then, in the 90s, pulp started being used as a description of outrageous action cinema from the 70s, applied interchangeably with “cult film,” “drive-in movie,” and most recently, “grindhouse.” Pulp thus became an adaptive term, and even though it no longer meant what it used to mean, just as “drive-in movie” could have been any movie (I saw Jaws and Star Wars at the drive-in in the 70s, after all) but now has a very specific exploitation-oriented definition, “pulp” has an agreed-upon (more or less) pop culture definition that most people live with.
The history and evolution of giallo in Italy is very similar. Giallo originally referred to a series of pulp novels published by a company called Mondadori. The name “giallo” arose from the bright yellow covers that identified books as part of the series. As with American pulps of the same era (the first giallo was printed in 1929), the subject matter of giallo varied wildly, but in time they seemed to settle down into a steady pattern relying predominantly on murder mysteries, horror, and lurid tales of wanton sauciness. From time to time, the stories of well-established and well-respected mystery authors like Edgar Wallace and Agathie Christie showed up as part of the giallo series. Thus, like pulp, giallo became a much more specific phrase, irritating some (as does the abuse and rampant application of the descriptor “pulp”).
Making any claim regarding which film was “the first” of any type of film is pretty silly. No matter what you pick, someone is going to find an earlier film that fulfills the same basic requirements of whatever genre you’ve chosen, and then they’ll start claiming that movie was the first. Sort of like, “who was the first punk rocker,” a debate that includes everyone from Iggy Pop to Joey Ramone to the MC5 to Mozart. Or, to relate it to film, there’s the endless debate over “the first slasher film.” With “first” being nigh impossible to nail down, what becomes more important is the first film to act as a major cultural touchstone. So, while nailing down “the first slasher film” may be almost impossible, nailing down “the film that inspired the slasher movie boom of the 80s and defined the tropes of that trend” is much easier.
The exact same problem exists in determining “the first giallo movie.” Considering that Edgar Wallace and Agathie Christie books were part of the giallo series, you could reasonably argue that one of the movies based on those was the first giallo. What is more pertinent, again, and at least for our purposes here, is to define the film where the giallo trend really arrived, and the film that served as the template for the movies that would follow this trend. Regarding this, most people agree that it’s Mario Bava’s 1963 thriller The Girl Who Knew Too Much (which even features the lead character reading a giallo novel), with a major assist from Bava’s Blood and Black Lace in 1964. It is in these two movies that we see most of the “rules” of the genre established, sort of like how George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead certainly wasn’t the first zombie film, but it was the zombie film, and it set forth a template that is followed to this very day. Bava’s two early murder mysteries laid the foundation for what would come after them. And of course, just to dirty the martini further, from that start point forward, you can spend plenty of time endlessly debating which films are or are not gialli, or which films are or are not zombie films. So on and so forth. After all, us film nerds gotta debate something, and some of us are tired of arguing about whether or not Star Wars was awesome or sucked.
Bava’s two movies give us the framework and the common themes that define giallo: the unreliable eye witness and the general unreliability and subjectivity of observation, the international jet set flavor (including frequent use of American and British leads), the obsession with fashion and photography (another form of observation) and the industries that exist around each, prolonged and often fantastically complex murder sequences, highly stylized lighting and cinematography, and perhaps most famous of all, the black-gloved killer.
Giallo simmered through the 60s, but it was in 1970 that things really exploded. That year, a former scriptwriter and assistant director named Dario Argento made the film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Here, what started with Bava became crystal clear and fully realized. From 1970 on, the always zealous Italian exploitation market began cranking out all sorts of films that fit the giallo bill, more or less. Adding a dose of 1970s libertinism to the Bava formula, the giallo directors of the 70s were able to heap on more gore, nudity, and general sleaze. The films also showcased an increasingly cynical viewpoint of the morality of man, often featuring victim characters who were only marginally less rotten than the mysterious killer. Some of these films were incredibly good. Some wallowed in their own filth. A few were just plain awful, but most were enjoyable in a wild Grand Guignol fashion that demanded you abandon logic, accept often wildly improbably plot twists and resolutions, and concentrate instead on the imaginative style and outlandish setpieces. In other words, if you are going to be upset about disappointing revelations and idiotic, illogical behavior on behalf of the victims, giallo is not the genre for you to play in, and you will find little, even in the best films, that will convince you otherwise. These films take place in a world that appears similar to ours and involves characters who resemble humans, but ultimately, the world of the giallo film and the people who inhabit it resemble humans and the human world only superficially. Gialli operate under their own set of rules, and dealing with it can often be irritating — especially since that leads to the age-old battle over when something is an intentional artistic vision and when something is just incompetent crap.
In the case of Strip Nude for Your Killer, the debate is pretty one-sided. This movie is definitely incompetent crap. It’s largely unimaginative, always seedy and mean-spirited, and laughable in its attempt to build the central mystery. That said, it’s also horribly fun in a way you should be maybe just a little bit ashamed of, and it stars the queen of 70s giallo and one the most perfect and beautiful women to ever walk the planet, French Algerian actress Edwige Fenech.
To be fair, Strip Nude for Your Killer may be scummy, but it wastes no time letting you know exactly where you stand, as the first shot is a full frontal nude shot of a woman in a doctor’s office, legs up in medical stirrups, with a doctor’s face firmly planted between her legs. If this image — and keep in mind that it is quickly revealed she’s in the middle of an abortion — offends or insults you, then it’s best to just skip ahead to some other movie. I recommend Dario Argento’s Deep Red. It’s really good, and as far as gialli goes, it’s pretty clean. At least it doesn’t start off with a close-up of a chick getting an abortion. From this auspicious opening salvo, Strip Nude for Your Killer has the woman suffer a heart attack, causing the doctor and his pal to bring the woman back to her home and leave her in the bathtub in hopes that the police will just chalk it up to a heart attack without noticing the abortion thing.
From there, the film picks up at a photography studio staffed primarily by snide, condescending people who all seem to hate each other. Among them are star photographers Carlo (Nino Castelnuovo) and Magda (Edwige Fenech), who are involved with each other though Carlo is by no means a one-lady man. The other cast members all have names too, but there’s not much point in remembering them since, 1) they’re all basically the same character, and 2) they’re all going to die anyway. And sure enough, it doesn’t take too long before someone is stalking the employees of the studio and killing them off. Signature murders include the stabbing of a woman who, upon realizing a prowler may be in the house and all her co-workers are getting murdered, investigates while completely nude except for a pair of clunky platform clogs; and then there’s the one where, after charmingly attempting to rape a co-worker before going impotent, we get ample shots of an enormously fat man in his sagging tighty whities and black dress socks, clutching a deflated blow-up doll in one hand and a kitchen knife in the other while he cries uncontrollably. Tasteful!
Eventually, the cast is whittled down to a few potential suspects, including Carlo, Magda. Carlo and Magda take it upon themselves to investigate the murder, though it’s possible on of them is actually the culprit, and for some reason, any time they turn up a clue, they make a big fuss about how they couldn’t possibly go to the police with it, even though there’s no actual reason they couldn’t go to the police beyond the fact that the giallo film depends on the concept of the amateur sleuth, and writer-director Andrea Bianchi sort of blows at writing stories. When the killer is finally revealed…well it’s best for this movie and for many gialli to master the use of the phrase, “Oh, come on!” Strip Nude for Your Killer isn’t quite so bad as to have the killer be someone that hasn’t been in the movie until the point they are revealed to be the killer (“Why, it was his brother we’ve never seen all along!”), but it’s really close. And there’s plenty more “Oh, come on!” moments to keep your eyes rolling. Like the part where Magda goes to retrieve film from Carlo’s studio that presumably has pictures of the killer on it. While there, the lights go out, and Magda hears someone else sneaking around. So, knowing that everyone who works at your studio is being murdered, knowing that you have a piece of evidence that could reveal the killer, and knowing that the killer knows you have this and also knows where it is, when you are in this place, and the lights go out all of a sudden, do you instantly think, “Goodness, it is entirely likely this killer who has been stalking us has now arrived here!” Or do you think, “Aw, it must be a blown fuse!”
In fact, there are three distinct points at which you will need to master the use of “Oh, come on!” if you are ever going to get very far into the world of Italian murder mystery horror fun. The first is used pleadingly and comes when you engage in the following exchange with a friend:
You: Let’s watch Strip Nude for Your Killer.
Your Friend: That looks like crap.
You: Oh, come on!
You will also find the phrase handy to use in a sort of “just roll with it” use. For example:
Your Friend: Wait! Why can’t they go to the police? Man this movie is idiotic.
You: Oh, come on!
And finally, there is the point at which you and your friend can finally agree on the proper application of the phrase. This comes at the end, when the killer is revealed to be someone you can’t even remember if they were in the movie before. It is here that you can both roll your eyes and exclaim, “Oh, come on!”
Strip Nude for Your Killer definitely requires a healthy sense of humor to get through. Director Andrea Bianchi does not possess the stylistic flourishes that make many other bad gialli worth watching even when their plots are of dubious merit. What Bianchi lacks in terms of inventive direction he attempts to make up for with sleaze, and at least on that level, he’s a Viking. Before you even start the movie, you can guess what sort of ride you’re in for. And while some titles may make lascivious promises the movie can’t keep, Strip Nude for Your Killer definitely is not one of them. I mean, here’s a film that plays a botched abortion for cheap titillation and ends with a joke about a guy strangling his girlfriend and sodomizing her against her will. Oh, the hilarity! In between, you get near frequent male and female nudity (often in the form of people you never wanted to see nude), plenty of slasher gore (usually in the form of the aftermath of a murder), and an all-around level of scumminess that becomes so thick it takes on the properties of camp excess. I’m sure John Waters would appreciate the ludicrousness of it all. It’s that gleeful willingness to reel about in the muck with such reckless disregard for even the most frayed threads of decent taste that keep Strip Nude for Your Killer from being offensive. It’s far too idiotic to be taken with that degree of seriousness. This movie is like stumbling upon a hobo jerking off behind a dumpster. Sure you can get offended, but honestly, what’s the point?
One of the fun things about gialli is that they actively invite psychoanalysis. Regardless of how shoddy and shallow the product may be, if it just follows the template close enough, it can piggyback on the psychological groundwork of Bava, who himself was nodding to Hitchcock. It’s like buying meaning wholesale, or shopping at Hot Topic instead of making your own punk clothes. For example, I have no doubt that Bianchi had absolutely nothing to say with Strip Nude for Your Killer. He wanted to make a sleazy murder mystery and get Edwige Fenech naked as often as possible, plus show a fat guy in saggy underpants. And that’s exactly what he did. But because, by 1975, so many gialli had been made and the cliches of the genre were so well established, he didn’t have to put any thought at all into having things us film nerds could pick up on in our never-ending quest to artistically justify even the basest and greediest of crap. Strip Nude for Your Killer is rife with the standard giallo themes, the most obvious of which is the deceptive nature of observation. You could even justify the tasteless opening by saying that Bianchi is intentionally duping the audience into thinking they’re getting a bit of cheesecake right off the bat, only to spoil it by introducing a dramatic and tragic revelation regarding the nature of the nudity we are observing. You would, I think, be full of shit if you did this, but it’s still fun.
Later in the film, the roll of film with the killer’s identity is brought into play, under the assumption that a photograph of a murder in progress is irrefutable proof. Once again, however, very little is what it appears to be. Edwige spends much of the movie poring over photographs of the victim, an old magnifying glass plastered to her face as a visual homage to the dime store detective novels from which the giallo film grew (and also as a fine example of how magnifying glasses aren’t designed work). In Strip Nude for Your Killer as in many other far superior gialli (specifically Dario Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red), the protagonist spends a great deal of time examining and re-examining something that seems perfectly clear but is later revealed to hold a significance no one recognized. Bird with the Crystal Plumage is one of the most obvious indictments of the notion of eye witness, but Deep Red is my favorite for playing off the lead actor, David Hemmings, and his role as a photographer obsessed with the grainy, minute detail of a photo in Anonioni’s Blow Up. In the case of Strip Nude for Your Killer, Bianchi is obviously just copying what he’s seen before, but it’s still kind of fun and one of the reasons bad gialli are often still enjoyable to dissect.
Bianchi is no stranger to sleazy thrillers. His filmography includes Cry of the Prostitute, The Malicious Whore, and Burial Ground, infamous for casting an obviously older midget as a child, and then having him bite off his mom’s breast while she lovingly breast-feeds him. I ain’t talking no Harry Earles looking guy, either, where you could almost believe the illusion that he was a little kid (still way too old to be breast feeding though, at least off his mom). No, this was more like a cross between Dustin Hoffman and Chris Kattan. Anyway, Bianchi isn’t much of a director, and whatever style exists in Strip Nude for Your Killer is most likely the product of Bianchi aping those who came before. The direction is competent and professional, but not much else.
Of course, for most viewers, there is one big reason, at least above the simple blanket “because it’s Italian giallo,” to watch Strip Nude for Your Killer, and that’s the appearance, usually nude or in little more than panties and an unbuttoned men’s dress shirt, of Edwige Fenech. Fenech was a staple of both Italian sex comedies and the giallo film, and she brought to the game a wicked combination of actual acting talent, comedic timing, a willingness to drop her robe for pretty much no reason, and some of the most devastating good looks I’ve ever seen. She split her time evenly between exceptionally great gialli like All the Colors of the Dark and other films with director Sergio Martino, and dodgy nonsense like this and The Case of the Bloody Iris. She was always game, though, and never looked to be half-assing it, even when her primary role was to show half her ass. In Strip Nude for Your Killer, she’s about as close as you’re going to get to a likable character, even though she’s kind of condescending and nasty to people. But when you’re surrounded by the likes of mean-spirited S&M lesbians, a guy who thinks anal rape is hilarious, a fat crying guy who also thinks rape is the way to a woman’s heart, and someone who is killing a bunch of people — well, it’s not hard to look like the good guy.
If you are looking for a good and proper introduction to the world of Italian murder mysteries, Strip Nude for Your Killer is not your movie. You want to be watching Deep Red or Blood and Black Lace or All the Colors of the Dark. Still, if you are already prepared for the peculiarities of sloppy Italian filmmaking, Strip Nude for Your Killer is surprisingly enjoyable. Even though it’s poorly written, even though it’s relentlessly tasteless (actually, because it’s relentlessly tasteless), even though it has very few points you could single out as being good other than Edwige, and even though it’s packed full of gratuitously seedy garbage (once again, what I mean is because it’s packed full of gratuitous, seedy garbage), it ultimately comes across as harmless.
I think it’s because you never get an opportunity to take the thing seriously for even a minute. Compare it to, for instance, Lucio Fulci’s New York Ripper, a film that is marginally less sleazy, almost as absurd, but a whole lot meaner. The hatred for mankind is palpable in that film, and if you make it through to the end, all you really want to do is take a shower. Conversely, Strip Nude for Your Killer comes across as little more than a bunch of drunk Italians wanting to make a movie with a lot of nudity in it. If you go to the shower after watching it, you’re doing something, but it’s not because you feel grimy and depressed. Sure, the film is mean, but it never seems serious about it or committed to its misanthropy. This could just be my perception as a horribly twisted and dark individual, but Strip Nude for Your Killer just doesn’t have that visceral kick you would need to really be offended. It was preposterous anyway, and I was having too much fun reveling in the filth alongside it to worry about the many faults.
“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 1870 and 1932 is markedly less than the difference between 1870 and 1970, and so for our purposes here, Devils of Darkness is more substantial to our little foray 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 (its first home video release) in 2007.
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.