Saturday, August 30, 2008

#44: I Spit On Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978)

Now that I've seen I Spit On Your Grave twice, which is probably two more and certainly one more time than anybody needs to see it, I have no plans to ever watch it again. While I can't entirely agree with Roger Ebert that the film is a "vile bag of garbage," and I disagree with him entirely when he says the film "lacks even simple craftsmanship," I think he's right on the money when he says that at the film's end he felt "unclean, ashamed, and depressed." I Spit On Your Grave has the most skeletal of stories. A woman from New York City who writes short stories for women's magazines rents a summer home in rural Connecticut to write her first novel. While there, she encounters a group of grotesquely stupid men whose vocabulary largely consists of guttural grunts, whoops, discussions of how women are "sluts," "bitches," and "full of shit," and how women from big cities like "to fuck a lot." One of the men is mildly mentally retarded, but he's a genius compared to the other three, two of whom spend the bulk of the film shirtless. The four men kidnap the woman and rape her repeatedly in an excruciating forty-minute scene. They instruct the mentally retarded man to go back to her house and kill her, but he can't bring himself to do it. She recovers from the assault and murders each man, one by one, in grimly ironic fashion. The movie ends, less than ninety minutes after it began, immediately following the final murder.

Why would someone want to make this movie? Little information can be found online about the writer/director, Meir Zarchi. I could only find a few details. Zarchi is an Israeli immigrant who moved to New York. He directed only one other film, a drama about an Italian family in New York. He got the idea for this film when he, his daughter, and a friend were driving around in New York and saw a battered, nude woman on the street. She had been raped while walking to her boyfriend's apartment. Zarchi drove her to the police station, where he says a moronic policeman interrogated her repeatedly, though the woman's broken jaw kept her from being able to speak. Zarchi insisted the policeman let her go so he could take her to the hospital, which he then did. Why this incident would make someone want to film a forty-minute rape scene in a rape/revenge movie is beyond me. However, Zarchi must have been under the mistaken impression that he was making some kind of feminist protest film, particularly considering the film's original title, the horribly misguided Day of the Woman. When the film flopped under that title, the distributors stole the name of a 1962 horror film and re-released it in 1980 to greater success.

Another baffling bit of oddness involves the casting. Zarchi cast his then-wife, Camille Keaton (the grand-niece of Buster Keaton!), in the lead. Why would you want to film your wife being brutally gang-raped? Sure, it's just a simulation, but why? If Zarchi believes he made an anti-rape film, why does he devote half of the film's running time to a scene in which Keaton is raped vaginally, anally, orally, and with an empty wine bottle, beaten savagely, verbally abused, bloodied, and covered in mud and dirt? Surely, a large majority of the viewing audience doesn't need convincing that rape is wrong. We already knew that before watching the film. For the depraved minority who get off on the violent degradation of women, Zarchi has (unintentionally?) delivered a key text. Ebert gets at this when he describes a middle-aged man in the theater with him who yelled "That's a good one!" and "That'll show her!" at the screen. The film's agenda is totally muddled, implying that Keaton asked for it with her revealing clothes, flirty behavior, and feminine allure, but also portraying men as idiotic sub-humanoids and raging ids. The graphic rape scenes and the revenge killings give everybody what they want while contradicting each other, and the stereotype of small-town folk as inbred hillbilly lunatics is perpetuated and glorified. This is a film that wallows in sleaze, and not the fun kind of sleaze.

I have to admit, however, that Zarchi's film is highly effective and cinematic. Despite Ebert's critique of shoddy craftsmanship, I think the film is technically well-made except for the sound recording. The dialogue is muddy and hard to hear, but there is so little dialogue in the film that it doesn't matter too much. Zarchi and his cinematographer Nouri Haviv know where to put the camera, how to light the scenes, and how to get compelling images. The location shooting and absence of a score create a consistent tone of realistic dread that convinces the audience everything they're seeing is really happening. Keaton, the only person who worked on the film who managed to sustain a movie career (albeit low-budget horror and exploitation), is a compelling, interesting actress. The way she moves through the woods after being attacked and the look on her face throughout are indelibly cinematic images. There's something both natural and stylized about her and the way she moves through the frame that gives the film some redeeming qualities.
Why did I watch it twice, you might be wondering? This time, I watched it for the Fangoria list, but I first saw it 19 years ago, when I was 12. My hometown is extremely small, with a population of 1,500. If you wanted to go to a mall, find inexpensive household items, see a movie (except for the drive-in in the summer), buy books or CDs, or get some pizza or Chinese food or Mexican food, you had to drive 38 miles to the twin cities of Scottsbluff and Gering, which had a combined population of 30,000 or 34,000, I forget which. On this summer Sunday, my parents and siblings decided to go to Scottsbluff. I opted to stay home and spend the day hanging out with my friends. Like most days when I stayed home from the Scottsbluff trip, I decided to ride my bike to the convenience store and rent a movie that I couldn't get away with renting when my parents were home. My friends and I skimmed the random assortment of convenience store movies and decided on I Spit On Your Grave. The VHS cover showed a half-naked woman holding a knife. We decided it was probably a slasher movie with copious T&A. Perfect for four 12-year-old boys. We had no idea we were about to see a 1970s cinema verite sleazefest with a forty-minute rape scene. We were completely silent for the first 30 minutes of the rape scene. When the last ten minutes dragged on, we embarrassedly looked at each other with obvious visual discomfort and halfheartedly tried to joke about the scene to shake off the palpable unease. We laughed about the retarded man's repeated exhortations of "I can't come!" and joked about his tubesocks. That's all we had. It wasn't enough. After the movie ended, we were silent for a long time. Then some of us said, "That's fucked up." Though we planned to spend the rest of the day hanging out together, one friend decided he just wanted to go home. The other two followed suit. I would have gone home, too, but I was already there. I don't remember what I did after that. For the following school year, we occasionally looked at each other and said "I Spit On Your Grave" while shaking our heads in disbelief and smiling sheepishly.

Two years ago, film blogger Jim Emerson hosted a Contrarian Blog-a-Thon. One brave soul attempted to defend I Spit On Your Grave. Here's a link to his review.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

#43: Humanoids from the Deep (Barbara Peters, 1980)

Reasons why Humanoids from the Deep provides quality B-movie value for money:

1) It was produced by Roger Corman.
2) It stars B-movie legend Vic Morrow, the father of Jennifer Jason Leigh. He was later decapitated on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie in a freak helicopter accident.
3) It also stars another B-movie legend, the late Doug McClure. McClure, along with Troy Donahue, provided the inspiration for the character of Troy McClure on The Simpsons. You may remember the real McClure from such films as Omega Syndrome, Cannonball Run II, Firebird 2015 AD, and Wild and Wooly. In this film, he and the actress who plays his wife have matching sleeveless vests.
4) It contains the only seduction-by-ventriloquism scene I've ever seen. The ventriloquist and his dummy charm all the clothes off a nubile co-ed in a tent on the beach, but their coitus is interrupted by a humanoid! From the deep!
5) Ann Turkel, who plays Dr. Susan Drake, was once married to Richard Harris and helped invent the tan-thru swimsuit. Honestly.

6) Shot on location in northern California, the film includes a seedy small-town atmosphere, sailboats, beer drinking, an epic fistfight, Molotov cocktails, bodies of water, and a musical performance by Jo Williams and Her Whitewater Boys.
7) Amphibious humanoid fish-men, aka actors in partly shitty/completely awesome rubber suits.
8) Brazen rip-offs of scenes from Jaws and Alien.
9) This movie is not afraid to kill children.

Science runs amok with the help of corporate greed in Barbara Peters' film, another ridiculously entertaining installment from the Roger Corman assembly line of high-quality schlock. In a small northern California fishing village, a large corporation plans to build a cannery. Evil jerk-off Hank Slattery (great evil jerk-off name), played by Vic Morrow, is the local bigshot who partners with the corporation. Native American man Johnny Eagle (Anthony Pena) opposes the cannery for its environmental destruction and usurpation of native land. Jim Hill (Doug McClure) stands around in his sleeveless vest and attempts to keep the peace. Dr. Susan Drake, a scientist who works for the corporation, has helped invent a chemical that, when released in the water, increases the size and amount of salmon. However, coelecanths have been eating the salmon, which causes all kinds of freaky hullabaloo. The chemical speeds up the evolution process dramatically in coelecanths, who start to become half amphibian/half human. They want to make the next evolutionary leap, so they naturally come ashore, kill the men and rape the women in an attempt to mate with humans. Unfortunately, the annual salmon festival is underway, and these humanoid monsters are crashing the party.
The rest of the characters spend most of the film's running time drinking beer, fighting, having sex, swimming, fishing, mourning their dogs which have been killed by the mutated coelecanths, and getting smushed and/or sexually assaulted by the monsters. The finale is especially satisfying, in which the humanoids bust up the salmon festival's big carnival.
When Peters turned in her final cut to Corman, he told her he wanted her to add some more nude scenes. She refused. Corman said OK, then hired Jimmy T. Murakami to shoot some scenes of girls getting their bikini tops ripped off by the monsters, a woman lathering herself up in the shower, and the aforementioned ventriloquist seduction (I can't believe they didn't use the line, "Want to see my wood pecker?").
I really have nothing else to say about this film. I enjoyed it immensely, but it hardly invites detailed analysis. I first saw it on the big screen seven years ago, when it was part of the Austin Film Society's Women Directors of the 1970s and 1980s series. On repeat viewing at home, it suffered a little, but not much. I'd hardly call it essential, but it's way better than Atonement.

Monday, August 4, 2008

#42: Horror Express (Eugenio Martin, 1973)

They don't make movies like this anymore. They should. The late 1960s and early 1970s were stuffed with Eurotrash gems like Horror Express. Ridiculous B-movie international co-productions filled with major character actors and featuring budgets large enough to make things work but not large enough to smother everything with professionalism.
Horror Express, a Spanish/British co-production that existed solely as a reason for a wealthy movie producer to re-use an expensive full-size model train set he built for a previous film, stars the great British character actors (and good friends in real life) Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The two men made many films together until Cushing's retirement in the 1980s. Usually, Lee played a deranged psychopath, lascivious man of the world, suave villain, or comic foil, while Cushing portrayed the uptight British gentleman. They switch roles here, with Lee as an uptight, humorless anthropologist and Cushing as a goodtimes-loving doctor with a very dry British wit.
The film opens in Szechuan, China in 1906. Lee finds an apeman frozen in a cave that just may be the Missing Link. He decides to box it up and take it back with him. He meets fellow Brit Cushing at the train station in Shanghai, if you trust the dialogue, and Peking, if you trust a title card on the screen. At the train station, a pickpocket who tries to open Lee's crate mysteriously winds up dead, his eyeballs completely white. A Rasputin lookalike and priest traveling with a Russian count and countess declares the crate Satanic. Lee thinks the holy man is a doofus. In most horror movies, the scientists are always wrong. Horror Express plays both sides up the middle. Lee should have left the apeman alone and not meddled with the darker side of science, but Rasputin Jr. is later revealed to be an opportunistic charlatan. So far, science and the supernatural are even. The film also takes a decidedly pro-evolution stance. I particularly enjoyed Christopher Lee's retort to the Countess when she declares evolution immoral. "It's a fact. And there's no morality in a fact." He says this with withering disdain.
Once our Trans-Siberian express train gets rolling, things progress as you might expect, and then get really weird. I'm going to give away some spoilers, so if you want to watch this movie with an unmolested brain, jump ship here (I'm mixing my transportation metaphors). The apeman thaws, gets out of the crate, and starts messing people up. I'm sure you expected that to happen. Otherwise the movie would have been called The Express Train that Carried its Cargo Safely to its Destination. Unlike most apemen, however, this beast's eyes turn red, and he kills people just by looking at them. When Cushing performs his autopsies, he discovers that the victims' brains are as smooth as the music of Michael McDonald, that is, completely free of gyri and sulci. The cortex is wrinkle-free. Turns out, the apeman is absorbing the contents of his victims' brains through their eyeballs. With each victim, he gains a fresh brainful of knowledge. Cushing and Lee soon reach the conclusion that the apeman is just a host body for the actual creature doing the brain-sucking. They speculate that the creature can jump from host to host when the host body wears out. They are correct in their speculations. Plot developments then become extremely strange. The Rasputin lookalike starts whining about Satan a lot and glowering ominously. The Russian count has invented a steel that can never be destroyed, and another female passenger is an international spy who intends to steal the secrets of the steel. Steal/steel? Get it? Soon, the Missing Link has been gunned down, and Cushing and Lee are able to snag one of his eyeballs before the host jumps into another body. They take a tissue sample from the eye and look at it under a microscope. The tissue shows actual moving images of the last person the Link de-brained. They take more samples and see images from pre-history, including dinosaurs. Then, the final tissue sample reveals an image of Earth from outer space. So our killer is a parasitic alien who is possibly Satanic and was last seen in the body of the Missing Link. Got it?
When you think it can't get any weirder, Telly freakin' Savalas shows up as the leader of a group of Cossack rebels who attempt to hijack the train! Savalas hams it up big-time. He answers a question from one of the train's passengers by removing a shot glass of liquor from his coat, gargling with the booze, and then tossing the glass away violently. Then, he speaks. Like most Cossacks, he has a heavy New York accent. "Who? Whooooo are da trouble-makahs?" he says.
Then, the victims of the parasitic alien thing come back to life as zombies. You can't make this stuff up!

Savalas fact: Telly Savalas lived most of his adult life in the Sheraton in downtown Los Angeles. Seriously. They named the hotel bar Telly's. He claimed he enjoyed living in a hotel because he was often out of town making movies, and when he was back in town, he wanted a hotel maid to clean up his mess while he drank in a hotel bar. He admitted that his children eventually grew tired of living in a hotel.