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.
And so we enter the dire straights of Hammer Films in the final throes of a long, drawn-out death much like those experienced by Dracula himself. As has been detailed elsewhere and will be summarized here, by the 1970s, England’s Hammer Studios — the studio that pretty much defined and dominated the horror market through the 50s and 60s — had fallen on hard times. The old guard had largely retired or died, and the new blood was flailing about, desperately trying to find the direction that would right the once mighty production house. The problem was that everyone felt like they needed to update their image, but no one actually knew how. In retrospect, though they may have seemed painfully antiquated at the time of their release, many of Hammer’s releases during the 70s were quite good and often experimental (by Hammer standards, anyway). This movie isn’t really one of them, but it’s still pretty enjoyable in a completely ludicrous way.
Things in the Japanese film industry were chugging along during the 1960s. The gradual erosion of restrictive post-war regulation of the Japanese film industry by occupying American forces (samurai and yakuza flicks were banned, as was just about anything that would “inspire the Japanese spirit”) meant that writers and directors were coming out of a long creative hibernation and finally getting to flex their brains again. Inoshiro Honda and Toho Studios were cranking out a steady stream of highly enjoyable fantasy, science fiction, and monster movies built on the foundation of the enduring success of Godzilla. Akira Kurosawa was making movies that no one would watch until Americans started discovering them in the 1970s. Takakura Ken and Akira Takarada were burning up screens as Japan’s two biggest matinee idols. Japan had yet to befoul the world by making M.D. Geist. All in all, not a bad time to be a film fan.
As Japan continued to distance itself from the wreckage of World War II and rapidly match the prosperity of the United States, more and more people started buying and watching television sets. As it had done in the United States some years before, this trend sent the movie industry into a panic, and not without good reason. Profits declined, attendance dropped, and back then, they couldn’t blame it on Internet downloading. The solution many film companies came up with was simple enough, and matches in many ways what cable channels like HBO have done: if you need to compete with broadcast television, do so by packing your features with the kind of stuff you can’t put on TV. This means, as you can guess, more sex, violence, and people calling each other “cocksucker.”
Suffice to say that in the 1970s, cinema censorship laws became increasingly lax both as a way to help salvage the industry and simply because the natural trend after severe restriction is usually toward greater leniency, Japanese studios started cramming more violence and tits into their movie. In other words, they started making the sort of films about which Teleport City can get enthusiastic. Shintoho opened the gateway during the late 50s and 60s by continuously pushing the envelope on crime and action films centered around female protagonists and seedy environments. Nikkatsu Studio blazed the trail with a series of films that became known as “Roman Porno” films — though disappointingly, these are not a bunch of Japanese movies about decadent ancient Romans; it was just a shortening of the phrase “Romantic Porno,” because saving yourself the second it takes you to pronounce the one additional syllable in “romantic” adds up to several seconds over a lifetime, or several minutes if you are in the industry and thus more likely to be saying “romantic porno.”
Nikkatsu was one of Japan’s first film studios. During World War II, the consolidation toward the war effort of Japan’s limited resources resulted in Nikkatsu becoming part of Daiei Studios, probably most famous to readers of Teleport City as the eventual home of Gamera. After the war, Nikkatsu returned to its independent status, but Daiei got to keep all the production facilities. Nikkatsu had to start from scratch, and they financed the rebuilding of their studio by relying heavily on distributing foreign films rather than making their own. Audiences that still had to deal with the aftermath of the war looming outside their door (if indeed they still had doors) were ravenous for any form of escape, and American administrators were much happier to see Japanese audiences flocking to American westerns and action films rather than reviving their own films.
When Nikkatsu had built up the capital it needed to finance the establishment of new facilities and begin production again, it opted to look to the foreign films it had been distributing with great success as inspiration for their own films, rather than returning as most studios had to the standard set of pre-war genres (some of which, as mentioned, were banned by Allied administrators). Thus, American and French new wave films became the models Nikkatsu would look to, which meant the resulting films were considerably different from anything else being made in Japan at the time.
The new Nikkatsu was built around a core of stars, and it began attracting the attention of filmmakers who were interested in experimenting with film and making movies that other, more traditional studios, weren’t willing to chance. Thus, Nikkatsu soon became the home of people like the maverick director Seijun Suzuki, whose films were often so inventive and outlandish that even liberal Nikkatsu sought to reel him in by slashing his budgets and forbidding him to use color film stock — a move that resulted in Suzuki making Branded to Kill, the most off-beat and cracked-in-the-head films in his repertoire (at least until he remade it as Pistol Opera).
Although well-respected now, Suzuki’s films weren’t exactly the sort of thing that could save a studio. Quite the opposite, frankly. As the film industry crisis grew more pressing throughout the 60s, Nikkatsu decided that it was time to ramp up the nudity. Thus the birth of Roman Porno. The term was meant to differentiate the Nikkatsu films from straightforward pornos, which have always existed in the underground and, during the 1970s, were really starting to make their mark on society in a much bolder and more mainstream fashion. The Nikkatsu films, by contrast, still boasted a budget, recognizable actors, and even respectable writers and directors. Of course, they were still sleazy melodramas full of gratuitous nudity, too, and that’s what made the m special. The Nikkatsu films tended to explore increasingly bizarre sexual territory, delving frequently into the world of S&M and rape. They were also cheap and easy to make and helped keep the studio afloat when so many other, less daring (or sleazy, or opportunistic, if you prefer) studios were tanking in the great industry collapse that plagued the 70s. A similar crash took out the British film industry around the same time (Hammer Studios being one of the most famous casualties), and the attempt to salvage operations by increasing the levels of sex and violence in the films was pretty much a world-wide phenomenon.
Also badly in need of an injection of life, Toei Studios decided to jump on the sex and violence bandwagon, though they tended to take a decidedly different approach than the Roman Porno movies of the infamous Nikkatsu. Toei was doing well with a variety of action-oriented films, so they decided that they should stick with the action movies, but jam them with more nudity and even greater amounts of violence. Thus was born the pinky violence film. Once Toei established the framework, plenty of other studios followed it. Even Nikkatsu flirted with it when they made their Stray Cat Rock films with Meiko Kaji before committing themselves almost entirely to Roman Porno movies. These pinky violence movies tended to exist within an established number of settings: they were either turn-of-the-century female samurai/gambler movies (Sex and Fury, Female Yakuza Tale, and the Lady Snowblood movies starring Meiko Kaji and based on manga by Kazuo Koike — the man who brought Lone Wolf and Cub to the world) derived from less sexual but scarcely less violent precursors like the Crimson Bat and Red Peony Gambler films; or they were “girl gang” or “juvenile delinquent girl” (sukeban) movies. From time to time, a women-in-prison film would get thrown into the mix, the most famous being the Female Convict Scorpion movies starring Meiko Kaji (if you’re going to watch Japanese exploitation films, you’d best get used to seeing her name).
For the most part, though, girl gangs ruled the roost, because they were easiest to film. They didn’t require period sets or costumes. Directors could shoot guerilla-style at various locations around Japan, usually without worrying about casting extras or getting permits (which is why so many of these films — Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless to Confess included — feature shots of the characters walking down the street surrounded by onlookers gawking directly at them or into the camera). And you could make the same movie over and over with only a few tweaks to keep it interesting (this movie has a gang of girls just out of reform school; that movie has a biker gang; and so on).
What made these exploitation films interesting is…well, no. Tits and violence made them interesting. But what made them intellectually interesting is that they became the playground for a lot of inventive directors who felt the more traditional films hamstrung them and wouldn’t allow them to explore wild new directing styles and story content. So amid the boobs and bloodshed, you often got films with highly creative and ground-breaking direction, as well as plots that tackled all sorts of subjects (violence against women, Japanese racism, war crimes, et cetera) still considered taboo in the Japanese mainstream. Sometimes the messages were there as cheap justification for the exploitation. Sometimes, the exploitation was there to make the message easier to express. Whatever the case, it made for some completely wild films that offer up all sorts of potential for discussion.
For the most part, these films remained unseen by all but a few hardened tape traders in the United States, who would suffer bad VHS dupes and no translation just for a chance to see the psychedelic madness of 1970s Japanese pop exploitation. Luckily, the relative cheapness of DVD over VHS, as well as an increasingly receptive group of Japanese studios (previously, they were notoriously antagonistic toward foreign distribution and charged insane prices to license their titles — something anime companies still like to do), the hitherto untapped reservoirs of Japanese yakuza and pinky violence movies are finally seeing the light of day in the United States. For fans like me, the efforts of companies like HVE, Kino, Diskotec, and Panik House are enough to bring to the eye a sweet, sweet tear of joy. Finally, I have something other than the three-hundred different budget DVD versions of Sonny Chiba’s Street Fighter and Legend of the Eight Samurai.
In 2006, Panik House released the only DVD besides Space Thunder Kids that I’ve purchased in the past year (Netflix and the purchase of a new car and thus new car payments have combined to quell my once lusty DVD buying habit): The Pinky Violence Collection. Collecting four notable girl gang movies (and one audio CD) into an eye-blistering hot pink package stuffed with liner notes from author Chris D. (author of Mavericks of Japanese Cinema), it was pretty easy for the set to convince me to part with my cash during one of those Deep Discount DVD sales.
Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless to Confess is the first of these films we will be sampling, although it turns out that while it is certainly a great film, it’s not exactly what you might call indicative of the trend as a whole (neither, for that matter, was Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter). As with the Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter, Worthless to Confess is part of a series of films that, to date, have only seen the one film released (when oh when do I get the rest of my Stray Cat Rock movies? I just can’t get enough Meiko Kaji in a big, floppy hat like those psychedelic trolls used to wear). In the case of the Delinquent Girl Boss films, Worthless to Confess is the final in the series, though it would seem that, at the very least, this film is a self-contained adventure that has very little carried over from the earlier films. I don’t know if the other three were more connected to one another, but the point here is that you really don’t need to go into this film worried that you haven’t seen the previous three, except in the capacity of really wanting to see the first three films because you figure they’re probably pretty cool.
These Zubeko Bancho films were considerably less sleazy than most of the pinky violence films, and the women in them are treated with much greater kindness than you’d see in films like, oh let’s say Terrifying Girl’s High School. Unfortunately it’s hard to make statements about th Zubeko Bancho series as a whole, having not seen the rest. There’s not a lot of information floating around about them. I’m not a casual fan by any stretch of the imagination, but I also fall fairly short of “dedicated scholar.” I guess I’m a lazy scholar. I haven’t put forth the effort to track down and watch all the films in the series (I can’t even find cast and credits list for the other movies. Hell, can’t even find a complete list of titles for the series), so remember that the bold, sweeping statements I make are based pretty much entirely on seeing this one, final film in the series. What can’t be gleaned from it has been cribbed from various liner notes and the scant other resources I managed to turn up.
I don’t want to stray too far into the realm of plot synopsis, but I do want to lay out the opening scene of this film, as it sets a thematic tone for everything that comes after. We open on a group of juvenile delinquent girls at reform school movie night, where they are supposed to be suffering through a documentary about the flora and fauna of the Hokkaido region. However, the projectionist has been convinced by the girls that he should show one of Takakura Ken’s Abashiri Prison films instead. As the girls go nuts over seeing yakuza matinee idol Takakura Ken leaping about in the Hokkaido snow, slicing chumps down with his trusty katana, prison officials try to figure out what kind of nature documentary this is. Once they figure out Hokkaido’s Great Outdoors is actually one of the Abashiri Bangaichi movies, they pull the plug, resulting in a modest riot of shoe and panty flinging.
Opening with a salute to the Abashiri Prison series means rather a lot to this sort of film. The most obvious is the simple act of homage. During the 1960s, Takakura Ken was one of the biggest (perhaps the biggest) stars in Japan, thanks in large part to his frequent appearances as a noble yakuza fighting battles full of honor and humanity. The Abashiri Prison series was his long-running string of films that all seem to start with him as a yakuza freshly released from Abashiri Prison with visions of “going straight” only to get caught up in some sort of gangland turmoil so that the film can end with him going back to Abashiri Prison as some trumpet-heavy closing theme song wails in the background. I believe if you totaled all the films, Takakura Ken served 1,700 years in Abashiri Prison over the course of the series.
Like most movies that become pop culture phenomenon, the first Abashiri Prison film wasn’t meant to be very much more than a quick, cheap yakuza film. But something about the movie and it’s story of a man who proudly clings to the tradition of yakuza nobility and honor even as the world around him descends into cynicism resonated with young Japanese audiences, who perhaps saw it as a metaphor for Japan’s struggle in the wake of World War II. Here, after year of waiting, was a film that grandly celebrated these mythical Japanese qualities. Folks ate it up, and a franchise was born.
Most of the Abashiri Prison films were directed by a guy named Teruo Ishii, who directed a series of sci-fi and crime films during the 50s and 60s. In 1965, he helmed Abashiri Prison, and suddenly he was one of the most successful directors in Japan. But since Japan didn’t really embrace the auteur theory or create cults of personality around directors, you can’t really say Ishii became a superstar. Still, he was successful enough to throw his weight around the studio a bit, and he followed up a successful string of Takakura Ken yakuza films by doing what any good director would do: going completely off the deep end and indulging in a career full of increasingly bizarre, sick, and twisted sex and violence films that include titles like The Joy of Torture, the still-banned Horror of a Deformed Man, Hell’s Tattooers, and a couple Yakuza Punishment films. Ishii’s film’s pushed the envelope for the amount of deviant sex and weirdness a director could cram into his films, and his late 60s work definitely kicked down the door and made Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno films viable.
Oddly enough when everyone was enjoying the fruits of the tolerance for perversion and sex that Ishii helped sow, Ishii himself opted to shift gears yet again, working primarily on a parade of Sonny Chiba karate films (including Street Fighter’s Last Revenge, the superb Executioner, and Karate Inferno). In 1973, he contributed to the pinky violence trend by directing Female Yakuza Tale, a sequel to director Norifumi Suzuki’s Sex and Fury (both starring Reiko Ike — whose name you’ll be seeing pretty much as often as Meiko Kaji’s). Ishii remained sporadically active throughout the 80s and 90s before dying in August of 2005. While he may not have the name recognition of, say, Akira Kurosawa or Inoshiro Honda, you can’t really fault a guy whose final film was titled Blind Beast vs. the Dwarf.
But during the 60s, the attention all focused on the star, and it was Takakura Ken and his movies that served as the template for yakuza films throughout the 1960s, until Kinji Fukasaku turned the genre upside down in Battles without Honor and Humanity, the film that dared postulate that maybe not all these yakuza guys were noble anti-heroes with swank theme songs; that many of them were, in fact, wretched scumbags and cowards. Curiously, the yakuza seemed as enthusiastic about this portrayal as they’d been by the Takaura Ken films of the previous decade, probably because as weasely and pathetic as most of the characters were, at the end of the day there was still Bunta Sugawara up there on the screen, standing tall and looking cool and letting all the junior yakuza types fancy they were like him rather than like the squealing, flailing goofballs that comprise most of the cast of characters.
Worthless to Confess definitely features more of the latter type of yakuza, though the girls in the movie are considerably more honorable than the gents, but where Kinji Fukasaku’s films are relentless deconstructions of the yakuza myth, Worthless to Confess is more of a “between two worlds” look at yakuza who are undeniably like Fukasaku’s cowardly, backstabbing scumbags but exist in a world that acknowledges the existence of the Takakura Ken yakuza movies that created (or at least helped perpetuate) the myth in the first place — sort of like making a zombie movie set in a world where zombie movies exist. Ken represents the image to which the yakuza strive, while Kenji represents the reality of what they achieve. And somewhere caught in the middle of it all, the women in the movie are more Takakura Ken than the yakuza around them, and like the matinee idol, star Reiko Oshida lives a life that follows the Abashiri Prison pattern of getting out, trying to go straight, getting caught up in turmoil, and ultimately winding up right back in the same place you were at the beginning of the movie.
Oshida (who has very few film credits to her name, unfortunately, but was a member of the cast of Playgirl, a TV show about a cast of swingin’ crime-fightin’ chicks) plays Rika, a small-time delinquent serving a sentence in a women’s reform school where she meets a variety of other inmates, including a woman named Midori (Yumiko Katayama, another Playgirl alumnus), whose boyfriend is a small-time yakuza punk (though like all small-time yakuza punks, he thinks he’s a major player) and whose father, Muraki (yakuza film mainstay Junzaburo Ban, who was also in the Akira Kurosawa film Dodes’ka-den), is a kindly auto mechanic. When Rika gets out, she takes a job in the old man’s garage and discovers that Midori is bleeding her father dry in an attempt to pay off her deadbeat boyfriend’s ever-escalating gambling debts. The local yakuza are keen to see the guy get in so much debt that Midori will pressure her father to sell his garage, and Rika is keen to protect the old man and try to straighten Midori out. Needless to say, in order to do so, she’ll have to reassemble the old gang from reform school.
A lot of the pinky violence films that hit the market during the 1970s weren’t aiming to do much more than cram as much T&A and violence onto the screen as they could get away with. And really, just like there’s nothing wrong with seedy cheerleader sexploitation movies, there’s nothing wrong with Japanese girl gang movies that really don’t want to do more than pack the screen with boobs and bloodshed. However, there were also certain movies that managed to fulfill the basic demands of the genre without indulging in the excesses of their contemporaries and while filling in the sex and violence gaps with better stories and better characters. Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless to Confess is definitely the Swinging Cheerleaders of the pinky violence trend. It has the T, has the A, and has the violence, but not in the doses that other films (including other films in the Panik House collection) boasted. Instead, it boasts a more complex plot, more sincere melodrama, and more likeable characters. It’s a more ambitious movie, and a better one as a result (keeping in mind that greater ambition doesn’t always equate with a greater movie — right, Chronicles of Riddick?).
For starters there’s Reiko Oshida. Meiko Kaji and Reiko Ike were the queens of Japanese exploitation cinema during the 1970s (populating a lofty dais alongside Pam Grier from the United States and Chen Ping in Hong Kong), but you’d be hard-pressed to find a cuter, more personable, and more charismatic leading lady than Reiko Oshida. Meiko Kaji looked dangerous, mysterious, and alluring. Reiko looks like the cute girl next door who just took a few wrong turns here and there, but is basically sweet and likeable even if her wrong turns means she also affects a take-no-crap toughness. The character Rika is instantly likeable and, unlike many of the anti-heroines in these films, never really does much that make her the least bit unlikeable. She gets out of prison, smiles, and helps people out. It’s a shame Oshida didn’t make more movies, girl gang or otherwise, because she emanates an immediate and undeniable warmth. Plus, she’s just as engaging once she’s “pushed over the edge” and breaks out the red overcoat and katana for the film’s outrageous finale as she is as the sweet girl who just wants to build a decent life for herself.
The film perpetuates this impression by steadfastly refusing to make Reiko Oshida drop her drawers — something practically unheard of for the lead in a pinky violence girl gang movie. But the director (who was also the scriptwriter) was adamant that her lack of nudity was essential to the overall success of the story, and he fought tooth and nail to keep his vision intact. What nudity there is in the film is handled by co-stars Yumiko Katayama (who plays Midori) and Yukie Kagawa (who plays Rika’s pal Mari). While Rika’s lack of nudity is used as one more way to make her seem different and more innocent than the rest of the cast, it should be noted that none of the girls who lead sexy and promiscuous lifestyles are looked down upon because of their choices. Mari ends up working in a scummy nude modeling club, but the scumminess is seen as entirely belonging to the assholes who go there and treat her poorly. For the most part, sexual liberation and freedom is treated as being OK.
Oshida is buoyed by a spectacular supporting cast. Yukmiko Katayama, who also didn’t have much of a career in film before or after this movie (she appeared in one other pinky violence film, Criminal Woman: Killing Medley, which also appears in the Panik House collection), is wonderful as Midori, the most complicated of all the women. She’s the more classical pinky violence anti-heroine in that she does a lot of questionable things before finally being redeemed in time for the big showdown. Her boyfriend and the yakuza are suitably slimy, and you spend most of the movie in eager anticipation of the comeuppance you know is going to be delivered unto them.
The rest of the cast performs with solid skill. Pinky violence regular Tsunehiko Watase plays a truck driver who falls for Rika and gets to be the only really decent or dependable guy in the whole movie. Mari’s husband is a sickly yakuza who also happens to be the truck driver’s brother. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s a load on his brother and wife, and although he dreams of taking Mari away and starting a clean life, he also can’t divorce himself from the delusions associated with being a yakuza. He just has to prove himself, just one time, then he can go. Unfortunately, he ends up being told to prove himself by killing Midori’s father (unaware, however, that he is her father). There’s also a Lou Costello-type assistant mechanic who is there for comic relief that is neither especially funny nor especially painful — which is about the best you can hope for when it comes to comic relief. And finally, Nobuo Kaneko hams it up royally as the fey yakuza Boss Ohyu. Nobuo is probably best known for playing the even more cowardly and spineless Boss Yomimori in Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles without Honor and Humanity series. He also shows up in some Seijun Suzuki films.
Anchored by a quality cast and a sparkling leading lady, screenwriter/director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi is able to delve into deeper territory than is visited by the average pinky violence film — in much the same way as Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter. Themes of “female empowerment” and liberation are often grafted onto these films as an easy way to deflect some of the criticism and charges of misogyny that dog such exploitation fare. Usually, these feminist messages are disingenuous and no more meaningful or sincere than when a male scriptwriter uses a female penname to write a porno film, so that the producer can go, “How can it be degrading to women? It was written by a woman?” Now, you know me, and you can probably guess that the honesty of intention in a feminist message isn’t exactly something that plays a big factor in helping me decide whether or not I like a movie. However, it is nice to come across the occasional movie that does indeed manage to be both exploitive and pro-woman. The women in Worthless to Confess are all basically good people. They’re treated with respect from beginning to end, and the movie doesn’t indulge in any of the leering rape nudity that show sup in so many other pinky violence movies. Rika and Midori both find themselves on the receiving end of some yakuza torture and sneering, but it is relatively restrained by pinky violence standards, and cut short before anything really nasty happens.
There is also no weird sex in the movie. One character is alluded to as being a lesbian, but for the most part the characters who do have sex, have pretty normal sex — which is distinctly abnormal in a pinky violence film. Worthless to Confess is also unique in its portrayal of the family. In most pinky violence films, families are ridiculously dysfunctional; full of shrieking psychotic mothers, incestuous fathers, or parents who simply don’t give a damn about anything. Worthless to Confess gives us a kindly and respectable father figure, though, and Rika and her gang really don’t want much more out of life than to find a place they can call home and a group of people to whome they can refer to as family. For once, the family and father figure is OK rather than all twisted and weird.
At the same time, most of the men besides Midori’s dad and the truck driver are scheming, backstabbing scumbags. The only men who can be trusted are the hard-working, regular Joes — the truck drivers and the auto mechanics of the world (though Midori’s dad has a great twist in his story that reveals him to be a little more than just a simple, hard-working auto mechanic). Most can’t be trusted or, at the very least, can’t be depended upon. If they aren’t slimeball yakuza tripping over pachinko machines and getting their asses handed to them in fights by Rika, then the men are asexual girlie men. Gang girl Choko, for instance, is married to a nice but ineffectual goofball who cowers behind her at the club when yakuza start throwing their weight around. He spends much of the film in an apron and head scarf, making food and drinks for Choko and her pals.
There’s really not much action in this movie, but you don’t even notice since the characters are so engaging. The first fight scene doesn’t come until the forty-five minute mark, which is very different from, say, Girl Boss Guerilla, which can’t go more than five minutes without some chick pulling off her shirt and starting a knife fight. Variety is nice, of course, so while I certainly appreciate a movie like Girl Boss Guerilla, I can also appreciate the more reserved approach of Worthless to Confess. Of course that reserve goes out the window the second Rika and her girls throw on hot pants and go-go boots, break out their swords, and slice their way through a pop art club full of whimpering, worthless yakuza assholes. If Worthless to Confess lacks the nonstop insanity of many of the zanier entries in the world of pinky violence, it makes up for it with a finale that is off-the-charts awesome, doubly so since the movie has spent the last eighty minutes or so making you actually care about what happens to these women. The sight of Reiko Oshida and her crew walking down the street in formation wearing blood red trenchcoats, which they throw off to reveal their battle outfits and katanas as they explain their intention to slaughter every goddamn yakuza in the club, is an absolutely fantastic procession of images.
Yamaguchi’s handling of bad-ass female characters manifested itself elsewhere in his career as well. He directed Etsuko Shiomi’s Sister Street Fighter trilogy, which is all about a tough gal sticking it to The Man. He also directed a few Sonny Chiba karate films and something called Wolfman vs. the Supernatural, which I feel like I really need to see. It’s obvious that Yamaguchi favored action and plot over sex and titillation, and while I have no problem with any mix of those three elements, his focus on developing characters and telling a more complete and complicated story means that, while Worthless to Confess is not the most outrageous or the most typical pinky violence film, it is one of the very best and most enjoyable.
When it comes to humorous material, For Your Height Only pretty much writes itself. I wrote in the review of Nigahen about what I call the Something Weird Phenomenon — when a movie’s basic description turns out to be far more entertaining sounding than the movie itself. The Filipino action film For Your Height Only can be summed up as, “A three-foot tall midget superspy in a leisure suit uses a boomerang fishing hat, jet pack, and kungfu to tear a bloody path through the criminal underworld.” One would think, with a description that fabulous, that surely For Your Height Only would be another example of the Something Weird Phenomenon. It is a monumental feat, accompanied by angels blowing mightily upon trumpets of gold, that For Your Height Only manages to live up to and perhaps even surpass the expectations instilled in the viewed by so striking a summary.
It’s no secret that since the tail-end of the 1990s the Hong Kong film industry has had a rough time. After being gutted by gangsters for decades and plagued by the most rampant video piracy in the world resulting in films being available on bootleg VCD before they even opened in theaters, Hong Kong’s once illustrious cinematic juggernaut found itself on thin financial ice. Big stars were either getting to old to perform as they once had or were simply packing up and heading for the greener pastures of America. The new generation of stars, culled primarily from the ranks of teen models and pop idols, did little to spark interest in the new generation of films.