Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Out of the Past (1947)

If there's any picture out there that might get you to take up smoking and boozing it's probably this one.  Everyone smokes in this thing and they look pretty good doing it.  We got Mitchum smoking.  We got Kirk Douglas smoking.  We got femme fatales smoking.  We got Mitchum drinking.  A lot.  We got bars.  We got cabanas.  We got smokey night clubs.  We got bourbon.  We got smoking while driving.  Maybe a little drinking while driving.  We got smoking in black and white which looks much better than smoking in color.  Hell, we even got some smoking before and after fishing.  This picture's got everything an addictive personality could want and dread at the same time.  If some kid came up to me with a cigarrette dangling from his lips and said he saw this picture and had to try it for himself I'd probably just nod my head knowingly and ask if I could bum a smoke.  If this picture came out today it would probably be rated X for smoking.  Fucking MPAA. 

What we also got is a pretty god damned labyrinthine story that nearly lost me at about the halfway point which is one of the reasons I just gave up and started paying attention to all the smoking going on.  What is it with these noirs (film term I learned on the internet) that strive for befuddlement as an emotion?  Well, I haven't seen too many noirs to be honest.  Just this and The Big Sleep (off the top of my head).  The Big Sleep makes this one seem like Star Wars in regards to plotular complications.  And yet, despite my confusion, I can honestly say this is a great motion picture.  It's involving (emotionally and intellectually), beautifully shot, has some great performances, and never becomes predictable beyond the fact that we know a lot of these characters are gonna die.  Yeah, half the time I had no idea what was going on, and I'm dreading the part of this write up where I mention the plot, but I was never less than captivated.  Shit man, I'll say it.  Great fucking movie.  Better than The Big Sleep anyway.

The story started off simply enough.  We got a guy coming into a small town called Bridgeport looking for a man named Bailey.  Bailey runs the gas station and is played by Robert Mitchum so we're pretty sure he's not entirely on the up and up.  You might even say the guy looking for him has come out of his past.  Whenever bad men try to turn their lives around their past almost always catches up with them.  Bailey is trying to live a quiet existence now.  He's friends with some deaf and dumb kid that works for him at the gas station. He's got a girl that he plans to marry.  And he loves to fish and smoke.  He's covered up his past for the most part as exemplified by the part where his girl asks him if he's ever been married before and he responds with "not that I can remember".

Well, this guy comes into town thinking Bailey is somebody else.  That somebody would be Jeff Markham, who used to work for a heavy named Whit (Kirk Douglas).  Apparently, he used to be some sort of private dick a while back, had a partner who still works as a bag man for Whit, but whatever shit he used to pull is never made abundantly clear.  His past is mysterious and he did some bad things is the point.  This part of the picture reminded me of Cronenberg's History of Violence except that Bailey/Markham gives up pretty quickly and confesses to his girlfriend, who is surprisingly accepting.  Jeff's gonna go with this man to Lake Tahoe, meet with Whit, see what he wants, and then come back so they can get married.  No complications whatsoever, he promises her.

Complications ensue.  Turns out Whit wants him to find an old flame of his named Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer).  That's what he's good at, apparently.  Finding people.  Whit wants her back.  Kathie's fled to Mexico and Jeff is forced/payed to follow her.  He finds her and, predictably, they have a whirlwind affair.  Some time passes, things are going well, Jeff and Kathie make plans to run, Whit and his cronies show up in Mexico, awkwardness, tension, drinking and smoking, etc.  Jeff has to cover things up, says she's already moved on, here let's have some bourbon and some smokes while Jeff contemplates how to get out of this sticky situation, etc.  Kathie walks into view, Jeff says "hey, look over there", etc.  The story then takes Kathie and Jeff, via steamer, north to San Francisco.  Jeff told Whit she headed down to South America, but he's too smart to buy that shit.  Things get progressively complex as Jeff's former partner, and current Whit employee, Stephanos spots Jeff at the racetrack...and now I just realized I'm regurgitating plot.  Sorry, there's a lot of it.

Here's a quick sum up:  Jeff and Kathie have a falling out involving murder and forty thousand dollars.  Jeff returns to Bridgeport and his bride to be.  His past catches up with him again.  Jeff's hired for another job by Whit.  Kathie is back in the picture.  He does the job Whit hires him for.  There's another murder.   Back to Bridgeport.  More shit comes out of his past, etc.  A lot of shit happens in this one.  Very few characters are innocent.  Even the deaf and dumb kid shows how a simple rod and reel can be a lethal weapon.  I stopped trying to keep up with the goings on and just began focusing on the characters and the thick atmosphere.  Also, the snappy dialogue which was incredible.

For example.  An exchange between Kathie and Jeff when she thinks he's going to kill her.

Kathie:  I don't want to die.
Jeff:  Neither do I, but if I have to, I'll die last.
puff puff

Jane Greer portrays Kathie as one of those nasty type bitches that you can't help but love even as she's twisting a knife into your back.  Slowly.  She's the definition of a femme fatale.  Mitchum's Jeff Markham is interesting in that he seems pretty slow half the time but he somehow manages to stay ahead of the game, just enough.  Things aren't going to end well for anybody.   People die off screen and then their bodies just show up.   There's no chance Markham can escape his past and have that life he tried to have, but we root for him anyway.  It's not often that Mitchum can make us sympathize with his characters, but he achieves that here.

Someday I'll check out more of these film noir type deals.  The director (Jack Turner?) is probably best known for his Cat People picture (unseen by me) and I guess a couple episodes of "Bonanza".  I can't imagine anything he's done topping this one however.  It's overly complex without becoming boring.  We're not sure why the characters are doing what they're doing or which side they're on half the time.  These are all bad, selfish, people even if some of them are trying to change their ways.  Despite all this, the heartbreak we feel at the end is genuine and deserved.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Blood Sucking Freaks (1976)

So, I followed up Combat Shock with a, much more offensive, little gem of 70s sleaze called Blood Sucking Freaks (aka Sardu; Master of the Screaming Virgins which was then re-titled The Incredible Torture Show).  Apparently, Troma (them again) picked it up for distribution and slapped on the title that eventually stuck, Blood Sucking Freaks.  Whereas Combat Shock was completely lacking in the nudity department, Blood Sucking Freaks, from what I can remember, didn't have a scene without nudity.  Unfortunately, almost all of the nakedness onscreen is of the tied up girls being humiliated and tortured variety.  Beggers can't be choosers. Sorry if I've used this line before.

What we got here is a look into the world of underground S&M shows that took place in the basement theaters of New York City.  One such theater, the one the picture focuses on, is run by Master Sardu (a fu manchu looking mother fucker) and his perverted dwarf assistant, Ralphus.  Ralphus looks, and behaves, similar to that sinful dwarf you may or may not be familiar with, Olaf.  In fact, these two deviants might be related.  Perhaps Olaf faked his death at the end of The Sinful Dwarf and escaped across the pond (Brit term for the Atlantic) where he got a job doing what he really loves.  Hint:  that job involves raping and torturing young women that are tied up against their will.  Anyway, if this is true, Olaf (now calling himself Ralphus) has found the perfect life partner in Master Sardu.  They share laughs, and the occasional cigar, while whipping and mutilating young women.  Good times, am I right?

The picture opens with one such show, set before a captive audience, where a girl is bound to a chair and has her eyeballs gouged out and eaten by Ralphus or something.  Also, the girl is naked.  Master Sardu announces that what they are witnessing is real.  One guy, a critic who somehow was admitted to the show, calls bullshit and says "I've been to the Grand Guignol theaters in Paris and you sir, are no Grand Guignol".  I'm not sure if this guy works for the New York Times or not, but I can imagine that if any form of entertainment would be critic proof then this kind would be it.  Also, guy is a torture snob.  Fuck him.  Anyway, Sardu is offended and plans to kidnap the critic in the hopes of forcing him into writing a good review. He also plans to kidnap the pretty ballerina sitting in the front row whose boyfriend thought a show where young, completely naked, women are being tortured (real or fake) would be a good first date.  Having a ballerina in the show might lend them a little more artistic merit or something. Sardu licks his lips in anticipation. Ralphus licks some girl's lips.

Lots of 70s type nudity in this thing which is to say plenty of bush shots and natural breasts and also welt marks from the constant whipping these poor girls are subjected to in the name of entertainment.  Also, in a sub basement there is a cell where lots of insane hairy naked women are locked away.  Every now and again, Sardu throws them some food (people) and these broads go to town.  If naked women fighting over who gets to eat what part of their screaming, writhing (also naked) victims, well....  

I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about some of the methods of torture.  I think one such scene involved a rat but that might have been a different movie.  There's a scene where Sardu and Ralphus enjoy a game of darts with the dartboard painted on the backside of one of their slaves.  They enjoy smokes and single malt scotch while throwing.  Not sure who won, but Sardu hitt bullseye at one point.  Couldn't figure out if they were playing cricket rules or not.  One poor girl is put in a guillotine, naked of course, and the rope keeping the blade in position, is placed in her mouth.  Then Ralphus starts whipping her on the backside.  A lot of torture involving backsides in this one.  If she screams.....well, if she screams I can only imagine that Ralphus will do something unsavory with the decapitated head which would be years before High Tension had a similar scene.  If she screams, but I don't know, she looks like a tough girl, so I'll give her a puncher's chance. 

Thankfully, the picture manages to maintain a somewhat campy tone.  Otherwise, it would be unwatchable by most people.  Ralphus and Sardu are simply too ridiculous to take seriously.  The treatment of women, while horrendously exploitative, is not that uncommon for the time period. I can't imagine anyone watching this thing and saying something like "I need to start me a sex slavery ring/torture show".  Also, the villains get what's coming to them (of course, I'm struggling to remember how it happens, was probably tacked on to secure distribution) so there is that.  Oh wait, I think their demise involved the animal-like women locked up below?  Anyone seen this thing? Help me out.

There's a sideplot involving the ballerina's boyfriend and some detectives trying to find her.  There's some hilarity involving the chained up critic.  The picture is gritty looking.  Can't remember the music so I'm assuming it was subtle.  Once again, I'm devolving into a typical boring review.  That's what happens when you can't remember the story.  There's a scene where a poor girl has her brains removed that is downright wrong.  The character of Ralphus shows, once again, why dwarfs, in horror pictures, can fucking go to hell.  So, the picture moves along at a brisk pace, there are lots of naked women, plenty of gore, some funny shit happening for, you know, the kiddies, and a final comeuppance for the devious duo that makes us feel it was somewhat worth our time.  I probably wouldn't display this in my collection (at least not proudly) but I'm not upset I watched it.  I think this is a breed of film they don't make anymore and I feel it's my duty to watch it for, you know, research and stuff. 

Combat Shock (1986)

It's been a while.  Sorry about that.  I probably lost about half my audience in the process, so we're down to four of you.  Thanks for sticking with me.  I'm not really sure what happened.  A part of me just lost interest there for a bit.  Watching movies is easy.  Writing about movies is slightly less easy.  Easier to just watch another movie.  In addition, the quality of my write ups over the last year or so has gone downhill.  I'm not interested in writing proper reviews, but that's exactly what I've been doing.  As if I know shit about directing, and colors, acting, or music, etc.  Well, I know a little but to tell you the truth, I don't really care.  Give me a good story, some breasts, a weird diverging subplot or two, some capable action, and a few funny lines.  That's the kind of stuff I appreciate.  So, again, I'm sorry I haven't been there for you lately. I'm trying to get better.  Well, not really trying that hard.  I am pretty god damned lazy after all.

Anyway, so we're back with this picture called Combat Shock which has been labeled a "Tromasterpiece" by Troma themselves.  I find myself agreeing.  It's the only Troma movie I've seen that actually feels like a real movie.  And, it's depressing as all hell, although that depressed feeling is lightened somewhat by several goofy vintage Troma moments as well as some shitty acting.

The picture opens with some cheap scenes set in Vietnam where this guy Frankie was sent to fight the Cong.  Things didn't go well over there for Frankie but at least he made it home.  Unfortunately, his home was Staten Island which, if you ask this movie, was not much better than Vietnam at the time.  See, Frankie returns home a broken man and also a broke man.  He has a wife but she's an overweight nagger with an annoying New Yawk accent.  He's got an infant son but his son has been mutated due to the agent orange that got into Frankie's sperm.  He's got a job but his job only involves walking around all day, avoiding gangs, waiting in line at the employment office, talking with his best friend whose a junkie, and avoiding underaged hookers and their pimps.  And, his job doesn't pay.

So, like most movies that deal with Vietnam War veterans life is not good.  It's downright terrible.  You might say that you can take Frankie out of the war but you can't take the war out of Frankie to regurgitate some oft used cliche about war veterans.  Combat Shock does something no Troma film (at least ones I've seen) has ever been able to do.  It manages to achieve a gritty realism.  The acting is shoddy, almost across the board, but it's not self referential.  It's not cutesy.  Strangely, it feels genuine.   Basically, this is Troma's Taxi Driver.  We got the Vietnam veteran that hates what his city has become.  A vile cesspool of filth and smut.  At one point, Frankie even talks to a fifteen year old prostitute but that conversation is abruptly cut off by her pimp and we never see her again.  Unlike Travis Bickle, Frankie isn't really interested in cleaning up the streets.  He just wants to "save" his family.  If you're wondering why I put save in quotes you can probably guess that it means he wants to save them in the wakco sense of the word and not the literal sense.

The entire picture takes place over the course of one day.  Frankie walks around.  A lot.  Every now and then we're treated to a flashback from the war of Frankie in "the box" or some shit like that to illustrate what he went through and kind of give us a sense of why he is where he is.  He calls his father, who had a lot of money, from a payphone and begs for his help.  His father doesn't recognize him at first, thought he died in the war, and is dying himself.  Also, he lost all his money so thanks anyway pops.  Frankie is in debt to some loan sharks who hound him throughout the picture.  Eventually, they catch up to him and beat the shit out of him in some abandoned warehouse.  During the course of his travels that day, Frankie came across a gun.  He blows his assailants away in the first truly visceral moment of the entire picture.  Unfortunately, it took nearly an hour for us to get to this point.  Everything else before was just about the slow build to what is ultimately a brutally shocking, and strangely humorous, climax.

Spoilers to follow so beware. Frankie finally makes it home where his wife has spent the day scrounging around their filthy apartment looking for food to feed the baby (she settled on stale bread crumbs and water).  She immediately starts in with the nagging to which Frankie responds with a pull of the ol' trigger of love....meaning he shoots her.  Ok, none of this is really "strangely humorous".  I'm not sure where I got that from now that I think about it.  He blows away his wife and then walks into his kids room and blows away his baby (which by the way, resembles the love child of E.T. and Belial).  As the sirens close in, he grabs the baby and drops the thing in the oven (and turns it on) before putting the pistol to his own head and pulling the trigger in a shot that is an obvious nod to the climactic blood bath of Taxi Driver.  So, the part with the baby in the oven elicited a bit of a chuckle from this guy probably because the thing was a mutant but also because of now why the hell would he put the baby in the oven?  It's just so absurd.  Maybe he thought the starving baby could eat itself when it was done?  I have no clue.

So, this is one of the better Troma movies.  It's a bit of a smolder, has some ridiculous parts, but, other than the finale, never really turns offensive which is why it might throw some people off a bit.   I mean, it's weird watching a picture like this and not being subjected to even just a little bit of nudity.  And, not much happens until the last twenty minutes.  It's probably not well made enough to be taken seriously by most film critics or film snobs but if you're looking for something a little different that might end up punching you in the balls while also tickling them a little bit (not in a sexual way, more in a I'm laughing and this is sort of uncomfortable kind of way) this picture might be what you're looking for.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Alligator People (1959)

Roy Del Ruth's The Alligator People is an interesting picture.  What we got here is a monster movie almost completely devoid of actual monsters.  By that I mean, there are no creatures out to get us.  Only encroaching nature and a drunken one handed lunatic.  I don't mean that as a negative.  This picture is actually pretty impressive.  It's the story of what happens when you inject reptile hormones into mutilated accident victims and also the unfortunate bastards that are cursed with loving them.  

Also, this controversial treatment involves being zapped with gamma rays.

Anyway, we got that all-to-common framing device where a couple of doctors inject their nurse with sodium pentathol (truth serum) and the nurse recalls a series of astounding events.  In her hypnotic state, she flashbacks to a time when she went by a different name (Joyce Webster) and she's a newlywed on a train travelling to an unidentified location.  She's just been married to a guy named Paul Webster.  He seems like a good guy.  No skeletons in his closet would be a good assumption.  Assumption blown as soon as a train attendant delivers them some mail including one letter that causes Paul to quickly get off the train at the next possible stop and, presumably, disappear from Joyce's life forever.  Joyce spends the next few years tracking him down.  Her investigation leads her to the Louisiana bayou.  Paul once listed some plantation (The Cypresses) down there as his address.  At the train station in the bayou, she manages to hitch a ride with a hook handed Lon Chaney Jr (playing a character named Manon), the Cypresses drunken caretaker.  

Chaney Jr is brilliant in the role, a sort of cajun Captain Hook.  The drive to the plantation reveals him to be a man full of grudges.  And all those grudges are held against alligators.  He badmouths the things the entire ride.  Joyce finds herself in the somewhat awkward spot of having to defend them.  Manon points out she wouldn't survive ten minutes in the swamp.  She relents.  He then spots a gator up the road and guns his truck towards it, running it over in one of the pictures more visceral, and convincing, scenes.  He's Ahab of the bayou.  Gator took his hand.  He wants it back.  Also, no gators were harmed during the making of this picture.  They used real gators and those wrasslers were professionals.  And that gun Manon fired wildly at them was full of blanks.  Also, he was drunk and kept missing.  

On the plantation lives a strange off putting woman named Lavinia and her staff.  Lavinia takes an immediate dislike to Joyce.  Wants her to leave.  Train won't come until morning.   She'll stay until then under the condition that she doesn't leave her room which is pretty much an open invitation to leave the room and go snooping.  Lavinia is hiding something.  When Joyce asked her about Paul, Lavinia proved herself a bad liar.  Eventually, we and Joyce learn the truth.  We get there first.

Turns out there's a clinic down in the bayou easily accessible by river boat.  The clinic is run by Doctor Mark Sinclair.  We see patients, with strange masks concealing their faces, manhandled by beefy orderlies.  Later, one of the patients sneaks onto the plantation and into the house so he can play a few keys on the piano.  We see his scaly face in shadow.  Joyce follows the music in an homage to Frankenstein (or maybe Mel Brook's homaged this scene in Young Frankenstein.  Who can remember?).  The shadowy stranger turns out to be (spoiler) her husband.  An accident victim from years back.  Apparently, the procedure was a success.  At first.  Then the doctor telegraphed Paul (somehow knowing exactly where he was and on what train, etc) to let him know that, not only were the results temporary, Paul would eventually turn into some kind of weird reptile man-thing...alligator people.  Understandably, Paul took off before Joyce was subjected to some kind of bizarre reptile-man coitus.  He was protecting her, still loves her, wants to get it on with her, but doesn't she find him hideous? 

What's truly unusual about this picture is just how tragic it all is.  Sure, plenty of monster movies attempt to emphasize the tragic elements of their creatures, but in the end it's just a misunderstood creature stomping all over civilization.  We can almost buy the science here.  Reptiles are known for regenerating limbs so why not isolate what causes this regrowth and apply that shit to humans?  Ok, so it's 3rd grade science.  Still, works for me.   What's really tragic is the real monster in this picture is Manon whose hatred of alligators extends even to alligator people.  Why is this tragic?  Once again, a drunk is the villain.  

Things are not going to end rosey.  How could they, in a swamp?  Turns out Lavinia is Paul's mother.  She wants to embrace Joyce but tries to turn her away to protect Paul.  Circumstances are keeping these people apart and will likely end up destroying their lives.  Joyce will probably be left so traumatized that she'll block everything from her memory, change her name, and become a nurse or some shit.  The fact that she did this leads us to believe that Paul stayed in the bayou and that everyone else was probably killed in a radioactive explosion or something (only a spoiler if true).

I don't know man, I really dug the picture.  The atmosphere was thick, the music strung us along, and the makeup more than did the job.  At 74 minutes this thing flew right by.  I liked how it wasn't routine.  The "mad scientist" wasn't mad at all.  He was just an aging doctor who has dedicated his life to helping people.  The character is full of traits that make him human; empathy, love, humor, kindness, stupidity, god complexes, etc.  We also got the interesting flashback framing device, the monsters that want to be human, the human that wants his hand back and is figuratively a monster, and also the hero who, in a last ditch effort to make himself normal, gets zapped with gamma rays that may or may not leave him with a ridiculous looking gator mask for a face.  The alligator people are more human than most humans and especially that drunken biggot Manon who tries to kill Paul after attempting to have his way, sexually, with his wife, which is a pretty monster-ish course of action, even by bayou standards.  So, if you ever want to see a movie like Swamp Thing crossed with Frankenstein and maybe a dash of Moby Dick, then look no further.