Saturday, February 22, 2014

#176: Vampyres (Jose Ramon Larraz, 1974)

A 1970s shot-on-location creepy British horror film about a pair of sexy bisexual ghost-vampires who pose as hitchhikers to lure men into a spooky old mansion in the woods to drink their blood? Lots of moody atmosphere, plot incoherence, and gratuitous nudity? My inner teenage boy would like a ticket to this movie, please, and sign me up, too! Yes, most of the sex scenes are unnecessary and included primarily for commercial purposes, but this movie is so much better than it has any right to be. The English countryside has an inherently haunting quality that translates beautifully to film, and the two vampire leads may have been hired for their physical attributes, but they have a lot more to offer than their appearances.
The film doesn't waste any time, opening with a sex scene between our two vampire women, Fran (Marianne Morris) and Miriam (Anulka). A mysterious person enters the bedroom and shoots the two women dead. As origin stories go, this one is pretty confusing. Who shot them? Why did he/she shoot them? Why and how did they become vampires? Are they ghosts, too? These questions are never answered. They won't be the only questions. Throughout the film, characters often say cryptic things to each other like, "I've seen you somewhere before," "You look very familiar to me," "I knew I'd meet you here like this," and "I recognized you by the mark on your forehead" without any narrative payoff. This might be annoying in a political thriller, but my favorite horror movies operate by their own dream logic, and this film has the feel of extended nightmare (plus sexy times), so I have a certain distanced oddball admiration for this narrative incoherence, whether it be intentional or just incompetent oversight.
Next, we meet Ted (Murray Brown), who looks like the product of a Grundle-fly teleportation-pod splice between Marcello Mastroianni and Oliver Reed before the weekend bender. He's a bit of a macho, condescending '70s British gentleman-carouser, enjoying spirits, cigarettes, and the company of amply-cleavaged women as long as he's not too inconvenienced. He picks up Fran, falling for her hitchhiking ruse, and is lured into the spooky old country house with the cemetery in front. Unlike the other unlucky sods who can't resist the lure of beautiful women even in creepy circumstances, Ted is not killed. Fran seems to enjoy her sexual trysts with the man, despite his lovemaking technique that seems to consist entirely of sticking his tongue out and blindly jabbing it at whatever is in front of him, but to each her own. She opens a cut on his arm while he sleeps and sucks a little blood from him every night, and the weaker, paler Ted keeps returning to the house for more erotically baffling tongue-jabbing and blood-sucking.
About the same time we meet Ted, we also meet a young couple on a countryside vacation. They're toting what we Americans call a camper and what the British call a caravan behind their car, and they choose to stop in the isolated woods near the spooky house for several days of fishing (for him) and painting (for her) in the rural idyll. Except the woman, Harriet (Sally Faulkner), has a creepy feeling about the place from the get-go, ever since she saw the vampire women hitchhiking by the side of the road in a wonderfully creepy early scene. Her boyfriend, the unbearably condescending John (Brian Deacon), refuses to take her seriously because she's a woman and John thinks women are weak and childish and full of silly notions. He patronizes her and tousles her hair whenever she expresses her reservations about the vacation spot. Harriet is a lovely, charming, interesting woman who also, like the other women in the film, looks great naked (as we find out in two completely gratuitous scenes), so she could definitely do better than John. It's unclear whether the filmmakers realize John is a wanker or whether they share his attitude, but I had zero sympathy for the guy.
The lives of all these characters soon intersect, and the film maintains a consistently eerie, chilling atmosphere that is only dissipated during the sex scenes and the occasional unintentionally funny line of dialogue. Marianne Morris and Anulka (who was once married to Tony Sales, son of Soupy Sales and bassist for Iggy Pop, David Bowie, and Todd Rundgren) have great, cinematic faces and wonderfully sly delivery of their lines, and they embody these vampires (or ghosts, or ghost-vampires) completely, making it easy to suspend one's disbelief. They're both frightening and seductive, and they turn what could have been a mere sexploitation fest with great locations into a genuinely creepy horror film. The house in the country is an excellent location coup as well, and it became a staple of '70s film, making appearances in several Hammer films and The Rocky Horror Picture Show before turning into a hotel and resort, where you can book a room to this day.
Director Jose Ramon Larraz, who died last year at the age of 84, made several B-movies in England and his native country of Spain, and is in the running for director with the most pseudonyms. He directed Vampyres under the Anglicized Joseph Larraz, and also directed films under the names Joseph Braunstein, Joseph L. Bronstein, Jose L. Gil, J.R. Larrath, and Joseph Larrza, as well as his real name. I haven't seen any of his other films, but with titles like The Violation of the Bitch, Madame Olga's Pupils, The National Mummy, and Rest in Pieces, I'm sure I'm guaranteed some kind of experience (what kind, I can't venture to guess) if I explore his filmography further.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

#175: Uzumaki (Akihiro Higuchi aka Higuchinsky, 2000)

Uzumaki is a difficult film to write about. The movie is very strange in most of the ways it's possible for a film to be strange (plot, characters, tone, narrative structure, camera movement), but having to explain why it's such an odd film requires me to reveal too much about what happens. My advice to anyone reading this who loves cult films and Japanese horror and has never seen Uzumaki is to watch it, then come back and read this post. The less you know, the better.
Uzumaki, which means "spiral" in Japanese, takes place in a small mountain town. The main character is Kirie (Eriko Hatsune), a relentlessly upbeat and childlike teenage girl who lives with her pottery-making father. Her mother died when she was young. She has a complicated relationship with a male friend, the deadly serious Shuichi (Korean model Fhi Fan, in his only film role to date), a lifelong friend who has always looked out for her. The androgynous Shuichi asks Kirie to elope with him, and the two have plans to spend their lives together, but the relationship is platonic, not romantic, at least at this point. Shuichi's formerly happy home is starting to come undone. His father has stopped going to work and instead become obsessed with spirals, walking the streets collecting and filming with a camcorder anything with an uzumaki pattern and bringing it back home. Anything that distracts from his obsession with spirals makes him angry, causing him to be cruel to his wife and son.
Soon, the spiral obsession becomes a town problem, not just a difficulty for Shuichi's family. Spiral shapes start appearing all over town, more and more people become obsessed with spirals, some people develop severe spiral phobias, others seem to become possessed by a spiral-shaped supernatural force, warnings of a major typhoon start appearing on the news, a few people turn into giant snails, a girl's hair becomes a huge, flowing mane of spiral shapes, and death, insanity, and surreal spiral lunacy become the normal way of life for this small town. The plot is not the only part of the film that's spiral-obsessed. The filmmakers hide spiral shapes in many shots, and the camera occasionally moves in a spiral shape. This is never obtrusive or discombobulating. It just adds to the atmosphere and the bizarre, unsettling feel.
Uzumaki is an adaptation of a manga by Junji Ito, and director Higuchinsky accomplishes the neat trick of evoking the feel of a manga without making the film too cartoonish. Some of the transitions between scenes have the feel of changing from one panel to the next, and the camera sometimes moves from right to left. Small moments of comic-art surrealism are present throughout, as when a teenage girl puts out her cigarette on the wall of the bathroom and the lit end explodes as it is extinguished or when Kirie and a friend walk through the halls of their high school and the other students stand perfectly still against the walls with their heads bowed down. The film's colors are artificially heightened as well through the use of green filters. All these elements help create a self-contained world operating by its own internal logic.
The actors do a fine job capturing the film's strange tone. Though the characters are one-dimensional, they aren't cliched, and the actors play these heightened, odd people without going over-the-top or winking at the audience. They commit to the strangeness by playing it as normal. They leave the strangeness to the film's plot and formal style, and a tone that manages the neat trick of transitioning from goofy comedy to unsettling weirdness to dark horror without any jarring awkwardness. The ending is extremely dark, but, in the style of recent Japanese horror, the closing credits tune kicks in immediately after with an uplifting, cheesy piece of teen pop. This is a beautifully strange film.
Director Akihiro Higuchi, who works under the single name Higuchinsky, has a remarkably mysterious online presence in this privacy-free era, at least in the English language. Finding information about him is a difficult task. He hasn't made a feature film since 2003, though a few online comments suggest he primarily works in music video and directed some episodic television in the late '90s. Besides Uzumaki, IMDB lists only two other films: a TV movie adaptation of another Ito manga, Long Dream (also released in 2000), and 2003's Tokyo 10+01, a Battle Royale/The Most Dangerous Game-style scenario about humans being hunted for sport. His scant biographical details also show he was born in Ukraine, but he has no Wikipedia page. I'd like to know more about him, but I salute his absence from the 24-7 public display of private life that is the 21st century.

Sunday, February 2, 2014


I already reviewed the next two movies on the list, so here are the links to both older reviews:

Tombs of the Blind Dead (Amando de Ossorio)

Two Thousand Maniacs! (Herschell Gordon Lewis)