Saturday, September 15, 2018

Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (Ted V. Mikels, 1973)

Blood Orgy of the She-Devils. What a title. Who among us could live up to it? Still, I expected a little more from handlebar-mustachioed B-movie filmmaker Ted V. Mikels, judging solely by the titles of Blood Orgy and some of his other films, including Dr. Sex, The Black Klansman (52 years before Spike Lee), The Astro-Zombies, The Corpse Grinders, The Doll Squad, Ten Violent Women, Mission: Killfast, and his penultimate film Paranormal Extremes: Text Messages from the Dead.
The film is a little light on blood, orgies, and she-devils, but we do get witches, warlocks, black cats, interpretive dance, bongos, cringe-inducing racism, and lots of goofy theological discussion. It's no great shakes visually or narratively, but it has its moments, and I always appreciate the time capsule quality in B-movies of this era, especially since rapacious late capitalism and years of too much po-mo self-awareness have prevented movies like this from existing since the late '80s/very early '90s. So, consider this a very mild recommendation.
Blood Orgy of the She-Devils opens with what the film considers a blood orgy, which is the black magic equivalent of a church service followed by an interpretive dance piece followed by a single murder. In the mansion of Mara (Lila Zaborin), a witch and medium adept at both black and white magic (she makes a fortune selling warnings and predictions of the future, dark curses on enemies, and visions of past lives and deaths), a ceremony is being conducted. Mara is sacrificing a shirtless dude to Lucifer with the help of another shirtless dude playing bongos, her hulking assistant Toruque (William Bagdad), and her coterie of sexy, hypnotized acolytes. Mara speaks some incantatory nonsense and holds her arms out, the sexy ladies get their interpretive dance on, and when the time is right, Toruque instructs the women to stab the shirtless guy.
The rest of the film goes in several weird directions. We get lots of flashbacks to the old days of witch burning and stoning thanks to Mara's ability to reveal past lives (though there are always a couple guys in each flashback with '70s jeans, slacks, and belts). We get a complicated side plot about a couple nefarious dudes who pay for Mara's black magic to assassinate the Rhodesian ambassador, and who then pull some shady business in lieu of paying, becoming the targets of further black magic. We get a full medium reading, as Mara channels both an ancestral relative and a Native American spirit guide (this part is super racist and embarrassing for everyone involved, including the audience). We get the murder and reincarnation of two main characters, one briefly returning as a black cat before resuming her human form. None of these things have much to do with each other, except for Mara being at the center. The film is basically a week or two in the life of a powerful witch.
Another major story strand involves a regular customer of Mara's. Lorraine (played by '60s pageant queen, Miss Hawaii, and runner-up for Miss USA and Miss Universe turned '70s B-movie and horror star turned born-again Christian and producer, writer, and director of religious documentaries Leslie McRay, spelled McRae in the credits) finds Mara's medium and past life powers a great help, but she's having trouble convincing her skeptical, nerdy boyfriend Mark (Tom Pace) to give Mara a try. Mark is a theology student, and he wants to consult his favorite professor Dr. Helsford (Victor Izay) before checking out the dark arts. Lorraine and Mark seem to spend every minute of their free time hanging with Dr. Helsford (with the exception of a picnic where Lorraine appears to be wearing a bathing suit/leotard combo with white ribbons tied over her legs -- the '70s!), who, besides teaching theology, is a master of "psychometrizing objects." He doesn't let on to Lorraine and Mark, but he's pretty worried about Mara's powers, and he assembles a super-team of theology profs and Christian magicians to stop the next blood orgy/interpretive dance-a-thon.
There you have it. This movie would probably be more entertaining if it was 20% smarter or 20% dumber, and there's a weird educational vibe to this thing, like Mikels is trying to teach us about the power of witchcraft and the human reaction to it, which is not what anyone should get from a movie called Blood Orgy of the She-Devils, but this thing is so damn weird and only 73 minutes long and you know you're the kind of person who takes that as an invitation if you read this blog with any regularity. Especially recommended if you want to see the two tamest blood orgies ever filmed.     

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)

The lyrical, haunting images in James Whale's films reveal him as a visual poet of loneliness, longing, and desire. He achieved this beauty in genre films that are sometimes seen as less reputable than other classics just for being genre films, a narrow opinion I've never shared. Whale made war movies, musicals, melodramas, romantic comedies, and four of the greatest horror films (Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, and The Invisible Man). Whale made great movies, full stop.
Frankenstein is one of those movies that just clicks. Great sets, great shots, great cinematography, great camera movement, great makeup, great performances, great lines, great source material (though my wife delivered a well-deserved "fuck you" when the film credited the novel to Mrs. Percy B. Shelley), even the comic relief works. Producer and studio exec Carl Laemmle Jr., whose demands and interference made Tod Browning's Dracula a lesser film than it should have been (though it's still pretty damn good), appears to have given Whale more freedom with Frankenstein, though he's personally mentioned in an introductory scene warning fainthearted patrons to leave the theater. He also made the characters of Victor Frankenstein and Henry Moritz swap first names because he didn't think American audiences would enjoy a leading character named Victor. Strange man.
You all know the story, so I'll skip the synopsis. This film is so iconic. Colin Clive shouting, "It's alive!" The burning windmill. The grave-digging scene in the amazing cemetery. The little girl throwing flowers in the pond. The villagers with torches. Every Frankenstein's monster that followed owes a debt to Boris Karloff's monster. (John Carradine and Bela Lugosi turned down the part before Whale saw Karloff.) Our childhood ideas of what Frankenstein's monster looks like come from this movie, whether we saw it or not. (Whale based his visual concept of the monster on a Goya drawing, Los Chinchillas.)
The pleasures of this film are many. I remembered liking it, but I'd forgotten just how good it is and how beautiful it is to look at. My classic horror needs were satisfied, but I also felt the loneliness and isolation of the monster and admired the shots Whale orchestrated to show this loneliness. I'd also forgotten how much fun Frederick Kerr is as Baron Frankenstein. He's a classic Hollywood grumpy old man, deliverer of comedic insults, lover of a good drink, and master of a wide array of verbal tics and non-word sounds, including the short half-laugh, irritated grunt, and skeptical hum.
Of course Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein, Boris Karloff as the monster, and Dwight Frye (Dracula's Renfield) as the humpbacked assistant Fritz all deliver the goods, and the film moves along at a brisk but never rushed clip while also taking the time to show off the set design, take in Whale's great shot compositions, and let the actors do what they need to do. Frankenstein is a great movie.