Friday, January 29, 2016

#224: The Monster (Roland West, 1925)

Here's a delightful oddball obscurity, a horror-comedy with an unpredictable plot, some of the funniest Roaring Twenties intertitles I've seen in a silent film ("Bowman's disappearance was Danburg's biggest thrill since the milkman eloped with the bootlegger's wife" and "Everything was going fine until the neighborhood sheik arrived" are two of my favorites), and some genuinely creepy moments. Based on a then-successful Broadway stage play that has been largely forgotten thanks to the brutal culling of pop-culture memory, The Monster is currently only available in the States as a poor quality stream on Amazon Prime and the Daily Motion site. That Amazon Prime stream has some of the oddest sound effects dubbed over the top, which added to the hilarity and avant-garde weirdness for me, but may irritate the crap out of some viewers. (For example, sounds of ocean waves, a man gargling liquid, a rooster crowing, a fart noise, and children laughing, among many other odd sound choices, have been overdubbed seemingly at random for no apparent reason by the company who currently has the distribution rights to this thing). The film is enjoyable enough to survive both the weirdo dubbing and the less-than-ideal streaming quality.
Set in the small all-American town of Danburg, The Monster begins with a wealthy resident of the town disappearing after a mysterious automobile crash. The insurance company sends its detectives out to investigate, but also putting his unsolicited attention on the case is timid general store clerk Johnny Goodlittle (Johnny Arthur), who ordered his private investigator's license in the mail. Also investigating the case is another clerk at the general store, the far less timid Amos Rugg (Hallam Cooley).
Both clerks are in love with Betty Watson (Gertrude Olmstead), who appears to be the only young woman in town. Through a series of bizarre events, Johnny, Amos, and Betty end up in the now-closed sanitarium. (Or is it?) Trapped in the sanitarium, they encounter the extremely creepy Dr. Ziska (Lon Chaney, who seemingly played every monster, criminal mastermind, and creepy doctor in every 1920s American film), his servant Caliban (Walter James, in brown body and face paint) (token '20s racist character), and a couple of weirdos named Rigo (George Austin) and Daffy Dan (Knute Erickson). Ziska won't let them leave because the night is too "wild" (sounds reasonable), and they soon find out the horrible reasons why.
The tone switches at this halfway juncture from lighthearted and silly to ominous and creepy, and fortunately the weird sound effect overdubs on the Amazon version mostly tread lightly from this point forward. Silent films can be pretty difficult for modern audiences to absorb (and I include myself in this generalization), but they also have a haunting dreaminess and/or a clarity and narrative purity that suits atmospheric horror films and physical comedies.
Director Roland West has a fairly straightforward, perfunctory style that won't awe you with its visual beauty or ingenuity (the latter word also serves as an inside joke if you've seen the movie), but the story and performances combine to create an enjoyable experience. This isn't some buried treasure or lost gem, just a solid piece of entertainment, which is enough in this era of entertainment-starved CGI bloat (yeah, I fit in my twice-monthly CGI slam!). Lon Chaney and Johnny Arthur fans should especially take note of this one. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

#223: Barbarian Queen (Hector Olivera, 1985)

This Roger Corman-distributed, swords-and-sandals T&A-fest is only 72 minutes long, but if one were to edit out the sword fights and bare breasts, the running time would drop to about three minutes of scantily clad women walking through the countryside and celebratory cheering. This is one of those '80s drive-in movies that appears to have been written and directed by 12-year-old boys for an audience of 12-year-old boys, a Joe Bob Briggs-approved, USA Up All Night-style nostalgic bit of immature but relatively innocuous sexist ogling. It's goofy and fun and pretty terrible and not very long.
One of the many sword-and-sorcery cheapies to clog the '80s in the wake of Conan the Barbarian's success, Barbarian Queen also borrows from Star Wars (as my wife noticed way before I did) in its sweeping Hollywood-style film score (lifted mostly from another Corman-distributed Star Wars knock-off, Battle Beyond the Stars) and storyline about a ragtag group of rebels fighting an evil emperor. (The sequel is even called Barbarian Queen II: The Empress Strikes Back.) A U.S.-Argentinean co-production, Barbarian Queen was filmed in Argentina with an Argentinean director and a few Argentinean actors sharing the bill with their peers from the United States.
The film opens with Taramis (Dawn Dunlap) picking flowers near a river. She's accosted and sexually assaulted by a couple of creeps in armored helmets. Meanwhile, her sister Amethea (Lana Clarkson) and the rest of the villagers prepare for Amethea's wedding to Argan (Frank Zagarino) later that day. The preparations barely get under way when a whole army of armor-helmeted creeps on horseback attacks the village, raping and pillaging and sword fighting and burning, under orders from their emperor Strymon (Victor Bo). Though Amethea kills several of the creeps with her sword, most of the villagers are killed or kidnapped, including her sister and her husband-to-be. Amethea hides under her burning hut, and she and fellow survivor Estrild (Katt Shea) grab their swords and get revenge. They form an alliance with an underground group of rebel fighters, including young girl Dariac (Andrea Scriven, in her only film role). Much fighting and breast-baring follows.
This high drama is supposed to be happening during the Roman Empire, but it looks like nothing more and nothing less than cheap '80s fantasy, which is more of a plus than a minus in my book. More garage-sale Red Sonja, less Spartacus. The low-budget look and feel of the film is at least consistent throughout, with artificial sets, wooden acting (though Clarkson and Shea have a relaxed naturalness), dialogue that was clearly dubbed in later, and a visual style that looks like generic '80s television, not cinema. I have a lot of affection for this kind of B-movie cheapness.
There's not a whole lot to say about Barbarian Queen. It delivers exactly what you expect it to in the exact amount of minutes it takes to deliver those expectations. It's a sexist film, but this sexism is sophomoric and adolescent instead of mean-spirited, and the women characters handle their business instead of letting the men swoop in and save them. Granted, they wear barely anything while they do it, but that's what this film is all about. It never pretends to be something it's not.
Some notes of interest (at least, to me) about the cast. The co-composer of the film's score, James Horner, graduated from the Roger Corman school of exploitation to become one of the most successful composers in mainstream Hollywood (several Star Trek movies, Aliens, Glory, Apollo 13, Titanic, Braveheart, Avatar, etc.). He died in a plane crash last year. Star Lana Clarkson, the Barbarian Queen of the title, is sadly more famous today as the woman Phil Spector murdered, but she starred in several B-movies and had a string of small parts in Hollywood movies and TV shows, including Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Scarface, Night Court, The A-Team, The Jeffersons, and The Love Boat. Phil Spector. Jesus, that guy. He produced and engineered some of my favorite songs and records, but as a human being, he's at a Bill Cosby level of terrible. What a horrible human. I have to do a lot of separating in my mind of that man and his work.
Katt Shea, who had a long career as an actor in exploitation films, later became a director. She's probably most famous for the Drew Barrymore film Poison Ivy and the Carrie sequel The Rage: Carrie 2. Dawn Dunlap, who played Clarkson's sister, grew up in my city of residence, Austin, Texas, and appeared in a handful of sexploitation and low-budget horror films and one Hollywood film (Night Shift) before quitting acting for good, returning to Texas, and raising emus. People have interesting lives. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

#222: Axe (Frederick R. Friedel, 1974)

Axe is a very odd low-budget slasher indie from the early '70s, made even odder by the difficulty in parsing out the origins of that oddness. Is the film strange by design or by accident? Does it stumble into its oddball detached artiness by virtue of its makers' lack of filmmaking experience or was this approach a conscious stylistic, formal choice? Either way, Axe is a fascinatingly strange film even though it's not particularly good and even though not much actually happens.
The following plot description makes Axe sound much more conventional than it is, but movies live in the how, not the what. Axe uses a shop-worn '70s horror template -- a degenerate group of criminals on the run who find the wrong place to hide out -- but it bends this template into strange, distorted shapes through genuinely weird editing decisions, character motivations, and omissions of clarity, exposition, and back story. We don't know why any of these people got where they are now or why they make these particular choices.
Filmed in North Carolina, the movie opens with a trio of snappily attired criminals breaking into an apartment and impatiently awaiting the occupant's return home. We know the man they are waiting for is named Aubrey, that he has a closet full of women's clothes even though he lives alone, and that he unexpectedly arrives with another man, but we don't know the connection between these men or why Aubrey is on their bad side. He is not surprised to see them, but he's not happy about it. Two of the three criminals torture and kill Aubrey, and the man Aubrey brought home jumps out the window to his death to avoid the even worse fate he just witnessed. 
Our trio of creeps continues on to a rural convenience store. One of the men, Billy (director Friedel), has a pang of conscience even though he was the one who sat out the killing. He stays in the car while the other two go inside. They bully and terrorize the woman behind the counter, which is a pretty dumb move for guys who are trying to avoid the police. After they tire of their own shittiness, they continue on to an isolated farmhouse. The farm is occupied by a young woman, Lisa (Leslie Lee), and her paralyzed and catatonic grandfather (Douglas Powers). The creeps decide the farm is a great place to hide out for a while. They obviously get more than they bargained for, and the movie's title starts to make sense.
This all sounds like a typical '70s exploitation slasher movie, but writer/director/star Friedel has a highly unconventional take on continuity, narrative, and structure. The whole thing proceeds like a hazy, weird dream. Lisa sometimes seems practical, sometimes deranged, sometimes as catatonic as her grandfather (who is really only old enough to be her father), but we never learn what happened to her parents or how her grandfather became paralyzed and trapped in his own body. Things happen faster than you expect but also at an odder pace, and the whole thing is over in 68 minutes, which includes the five-minute credit sequence and the roughly four to six minutes of shots of Lisa's feet. (Like a surprising amount of filmmakers, Friedel is most likely a foot fetishist.)
I don't know if I like the film, but I wasn't bored. I found this strange thing fairly hypnotic and fascinating, a low-budget artifact that could only exist in the 1970s. I know very little about writer/director/actor Friedel, but he has managed to write and direct two more low-budget exploitation films, Kidnapped Coed in 1976 and My Next Funeral in 2000. I see he's being compared to David Lynch and Terrence Malick online, which is an insane and inaccurate leap, although it shows how hard he is to categorize as a filmmaker. Oddly enough, a Blu-Ray of Axe was released this week, if you want to get weird in high-def. Happy new year, weirdos.