Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Cutty Sark giallo

Don't get me wrong, I like Mario Bava's giallo films, especially Blood and Black Lace, but the way in which other directors are ignored in the genre pre-Argento, you'd think Bava was the only game in town if you wanted to enjoy a lurid Italian mystery prior to 1970. Such is not the case however as some of my favorite gialli were made prior to the genre gaining world-wide popularity. Fulci's One on Top of the Other (Perversion Story), released in 1969, is a nice blend of Hitchcock-style, double identity mystery with a healthy dose of European eroticism courtesy of Marisa Mell. Massimo Dallamano's unique psychological giallo, A Black Veil for Lisa, was released in 1968 and stars John Mills as an obsessively jealous husband with a too hot and too young wife played by Luciana Paluzzi. But one of the earliest non-Bava giallo movies was Ernesto Gastaldi's Libido from 1965. A minor gem filmed in B & W that rarely gets the attention it deserves especially considering it's Giancarlo Giannini's first film and one of the few films Gastaldi participated in as both as writer and director.

The film begins with a young boy wandering into his parent's bedroom only to discover his father has just choked out a tied up, scantily clad lover. His father subsequently leaps off a convenient cliff next to the house and is never found. It doesn't take Freud, who is quoted in the opening, to deduce that the kid is going to have some issues with sex and death due to this experience. Years later, the now grown man, Christian, played by an incredibly young Giancarlo Giannini, returns to his estate for the first time since the murder to claim his inheritance. He is accompanied by his wife Helene (Dominique Boschero), who is sexy, but serious; his lawyer/guardian Paul (Luciano Pigozzi) and Paul's wife, Brigitte (Mara Maryl), who is sexy, and anything but serious. Brigitte is easily my favorite character as she's clearly a trophy wife and doesn't try to pretend she's anything but. In one of the lighter moments of the film, she brazenly whips off her blouse to show her 'Hello Kitty'-type bikini (subtle!)

Far from being just the ditzy comic relief, she also proves intricate to the plot in a believable way. The tension between her and the other wife also provides some humorously catty moments as Brigitte commits numerous faux pas throughout the story. Maryl, who is the real life wife of Gastaldi and wrote the story on which the screenplay is based, clearly snagged the best character for herself and excels in the role far beyond the stereotypical platinum blond.
Being strictly a four actor ensemble piece, Luciano Pigozzi actually had a significant role and his character was a little more subtle and unpredictable than what he usually plays. As Christian's long time friend, guardian and lawyer, the character of Paul is a bit of a dark horse whose motives should be clear, but he seems to be hiding something from the start. I found the pairing of Paul and Brigitte interesting in that Paul's character would typically be a p-whipped, milquetoast which Paul clearly is not. But that doesn't mean he isn't interested in his young wife...

Giannini's character Christian is more than a little uptight, despite his denials, about coming home to where the tragedy occurred. He just wants to claim the estate, sell it, and get on with his life. Of course, it does not turn out that simple for him as strange things begin to occur that apparently only his character is aware. As in Black Belly of the Tarantula, I thought Giannini was a little stiff and uncomfortable. However, his tightness actually works in Libido as his character is supposed to be freaked out but trying to hide it.

Dominique Boschero's Helene character appears to be an intelligent, devoted, worried and overly protective wife. She's almost the perfect flip-side and foil for Brigitte, but gets along with the guardian, Paul and respects how he's taken care of her husband over the years. Helene initially appears to be a stick-in-the-mud buzz-kill, but becomes somewhat more likable as the story progresses. Boschero would go on to do a number of gialli including Who Saw Her Die and All the Colors of the Dark, but I always thought this role was one of her best and most interesting.

The story itself is carefully scripted as to not give out too much information too soon. So much so in fact, the first time I watched the film, I didn't know if I was viewing a horror film, mystery, thriller or some combination. It really doesn't become clear until the last 15 minutes or so, and up to that point, I suspected everybody of everything. The ending turns out very solid, rewarding and worth the wait.

Two things I find strange though are that Gastaldi didn't go on to direct more features and why Libido doesn't get more love. The film is rock solid, and though it misses being a classic, it is a strong entry into the genre with excellent B & W cinematography, able direction, decent acting and Gastaldi's own superior screenplay. I can only think of two possible answers to why the film didn't and still doesn't get more attention (including a proper release on DVD). The first explanation is it suffers for having been made so early in the giallo cycle. Had it come out 5 or 6 years later, I think the audience would have been in place for it and could have appreciated it. It's not lurid or sleazy as subsequent gialli, but it it one of the better written and smarter ones. The second reason for the film not becoming successful? They drank the wrong brand of booze:

Score 7.5/10

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Kiwi Smash Dogs

Recently, when I looked up the definition of "eclectic" in Mirriam-Webster, I found the following curious entry -

Definition of ECLECTIC

: selecting what appears to be best in various doctrines, methods, or styles
: composed of elements drawn from various sources; also :

OK, the dictionary didn't really have a picture of Roger Donaldson under the word eclectic, but it should have. The films he makes run the gamut in plot, from non-fiction political thrillers like Marie and Thirteen Days, to crime dramas like The Getaway (1994) and The Bank Job, to a comedy like Cadillac Man, to a horror film like Species, to a disaster film like Dante's Peak, to a children's movie like Nutcase, to a historical epic like The Bounty, to a wanna-be bartender story like Cocktail. One thing Donaldson can never be accused of is repeating himself. And despite the variety, there is a consistency in quality to Donaldson's work due in no small part to the top-notch acting talent he always manages to secure - Cruise, Statham, Hopkins, Spacek, Rourke, Madsen, Gibson, Olivier to name drop just a few of the A-listers that have been in his films. He is obviously an actor's director. Another common denominator among Donaldson's movies is that they never bore. I certainly admire some more than others, but the pacing and characters of his films always keep me involved. Even the best directors drop an unwatchable clunker occasionally, but Donaldson has yet to make a film I wouldn't view again. In fact, if I could take only one director's canon to a desert island, it would be Donaldson's.
Which brings me to The Roger Donaldson Collection on DVD. The bad news is the collection contains only two of Donaldson's 16 releases. The good news is they are two of his best, including one of my all-time favorites. How good are they? Sleeping Dogs (1977) singlehandedly resuscitated the New Zealand film industry which hadn't seen a movie release since 1962. It was also the first kiwi film to ever secure a release in the States. And if Sleeping Dogs jump started the New Zealand movie industry, Smash Palace absolutely turbo-charged it, bringing worldwide critical praise and putting the country on the map in terms of quality cinema forever after.
Sleeping Dogs is a low-key political thriller about about an everyman, named Smith, whose marriage has just ended. At the start of the story, Smith unhappily leaves home but soon finds a secluded island and gets permission to stay there from a local Maori character who appears to be the owner. Smith proceeds to enjoy his idyllic lifestyle until one day when he is drawn unwillingly into the country's political maelstrom which has been engineered by a corrupt regime.

The film speaks quite well on how easy a democratic government can turn totalitarian by bargaining the public's freedom away with the promise of safety and stability. Although the Machiavellian maneuvers employed early by the conservative government are very familiar, they are nevertheless chilling and effective. All the time I was re-watching the film, I couldn't help but think of the American government's manipulations during the last decade and the trade of power for safety that was made with the public. Needless to say it's a prescient film, but doesn't beat one over the head a la 1984 or other politically dystopian classics. The lead character of Smith, who is played brilliantly by Sam Neill in only his third film, wants no part of the political strife in his country, on either side, and is beyond apathetic to the point of hostile. However, he ultimately is left with no choice but to choose sides even though neither is appealing.
Neill is the perfect choice of actor for the lead as he always seems to carry a somewhat innocent and naive quality to the characters he portrays. And despite playing a somewhat selfish, self-centered man, Neill is likable enough to hold interest and care about what becomes of him. Warren Oates effectively plays one of the villains of the piece, an American colonel who has come to New Zealand with his troops to help fight the anti-goverment insurgency. His understated, presumptive, yet seemingly friendly bad guy is all the more frightening. The scenery of New Zealand acts as another character and provides a nice paradise counter-point to all the political friction and violence taking place. Despite it's low budget, the film is quite ambitious and Donaldson really makes his points quite effectively. I was very surprised at how much this film holds up as it still has a raw, edgy and modern-day quality 35 years after its making.
Score 7.5/10

Smash Palace is a film that does not sound good on paper. According to the 'making of' doc on the DVD, even Donaldson's friends were trying to deter him from making the film after seeing the script. Then again, no one then knew that the secret kiwi weapon known as Bruno Lawrence would be starring in the film. As much as I like Donaldson, I love Lawrence and will watch him in any film no matter how bad. Yes, even Battletruck

Before his untimely passing in 1995, Lawrence had built up an impressive resume of films set almost exclusively in New Zealand or Australia, several of which are all-time favorites of mine, including The Quiet Earth, an intelligent, post-apocalyptic movie, and Goodbye Pork Pie, a fun and quirky kiwi comedy. However Lawrence's best performance, bar none, is as Al Shaw in Smash Palace.

Al is the owner of the titular auto junkyard and a part-time race car driver. He's involved in a slowly decaying marriage with Jacqui, a former school teacher who is portrayed by Anna Maria Monticelli. They have a young daughter named Georgie, played by Greer Robson. Jacqui longs to get out of the junkyard and begs Al to sell which he stubbornly refuses to do. Al's stubbornness will eventually prove his undoing as he steadfastly refuses to accept the reality of his dissolving marriage. As it becomes ever more apparent that Jacqui is determined to leave Al, Al becomes more desperate and irrational.
It's a story that has been told countless times, but what makes this version so strong is the performances and sheer believability of the characters. Al is kind of a jerk, but not so much that you don't feel sympathy for him. Jacqui is a little unreasonable, but that's easily understandable as she feels trapped in her junkyard life. There really isn't any character at fault initially, but neither spouse is paying attention to the other which causes the situation to escalate to the point that one makes an incredibly bad decision from which there is no returning unscathed.

Bruno Lawrence was said to be Jack Nicholson's favorite actor and it's easy to see why. Lawrence has a no-holds-barred acting approach, but a quiet intensity, that is absolutely captivating. His raspy voice and kiwi accent are utterly disarming. Even when he's playing someone less than likable, like Al Shaw, he still has a magnetic quality that keeps the viewer invested. But that's not to imply Lawrence carries the movie by himself. Anna Maria Monticelli is a solid foil as Jacqui and Greer Robson is excellent as the daughter, whom I never caught doing any stage-y kid type acting. Robson has more than a few critical scenes and she pulls them off beautifully whether alone or acting off the adults.
Besides getting fantastic performances from his actors, Donaldson executes more than a few well-placed directorial flourishes. At the beginning and end of the film, there are two very clever mis-directions (both involving automobiles) that take place which really bumped the film up a notch for me. Also there are some great aerial shots, one involving the junkyard early, one in a ravine, that are superb. The pace of the film is near perfect as I never felt it stall at any given point, even though the story unfolds rather slowly, the characters are never dull and keep it moving briskly.
So in summary, despite the rather conventional story, the setting is unusual, the performances are outstanding, the characters are riveting and the direction is excellent. I must have seen the film a dozen times since its release and it's never grown stale. Highest recommendation.

Score 8.5/10

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Vampire fatigue?

Every time I hear someone crying "vampire fatigue" concerning the multitude of films that have been released in the past few years involving the creatures of the night, I laugh maniacally whilst moving Stake Land, Thirst and Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl ever further up my rental queue. However, even though I'm a super-fan of vampire movies, I understand the need to see, not only something of quality, but a film that is somehow unique to the genre and breaks the mold or reinvigorates it in some fashion. So instead of a movie that trots out the same old tired goth cliches of bats, castles and crucifixes, I picked three horror films to review that are set in quite unusual places with leads who are quite separate and distinct from the average vampire. The Vampire's Ghost, Blood & Donuts and Tremendo amanecer (Tremendous Sunset) all break traditional genre convention in one way or another and avoid dull predictability in the end. The three films are also wildly different from one another in plot, theme, style and tone. So when it comes to fighting vampire fatigue, just say 'Viva la difference, viva la vampire!'

Lesley Selander's 1945 black & white movie, The Vampire's Ghost, is a modest, low-budget flick from Republic that features the African jungle as the unusual location in which its story is told. In lesser hands, the film could have been a campy disaster, but with a good, character driven script co-written by Leigh Brackett, solid cinematography by Robert Pittack and Bud Thackery and a strong lead performance by John Abbott, the film comes off as almost Lewton-esque.
Abbott, a long time studio contract player with over sixty films to his credit before switching to television, is probably best known for his role as Ayleborne, the spokesman for the Organians in the original Star Trek episode Errand of Mercy. His large expressive eyes, morose hang-dog face and indeterminate accent made him perfect for exotic, foreign heavy roles. In The Vampire's Ghost, Abbott plays Webb Fallon, a local tavern owner in an African coastal town. His character of Fallon initially seems very cool and able to handle himself - much like Rick from Casablanca. At the outset, Fallon seems very much like a good guy. There's no hand-wringing or mustache twisting by his character to tip his hand, although he does put the hypno-whammy on a sore loser sailor by doing the 'big eyes' at him. When Fallon is introduced to newcomers, Roy (Charles Gordon) and Julie (Peggy Stewart) by the local clergyman, Father Gilchrist, he offers to help Roy who is looking into a series of murders that have taken place nearby. They become friends, but as strange things keep occurring, the local tribesman become suspicious of Fallon and he, in turn, starts to show interest of the non-platonic kind in Julie.
The first half of the film was quite interesting with seeming good-guy Fallon saving Roy's life, and Roy saving Fallon's. The latter half becomes more conventional and slows down a bit as Julie becomes the prize in a tug of war between the two men. Still, at 55 minutes, the film doesn't have much time to waste and gets to the point pretty briskly. The atmosphere was great despite being shot entirely on a sound stage. The native drums, which I usually find annoying in most jungle pictures, actually worked quite well here as they were kept low but constant and helped a lot in setting the mood. The acting was OK for the most part with Abbott really doing a fine job with his character in particular. Thankfully, unlike what's portrayed on the film poster, Abbott's character never sprouts fangs or does anything ridiculously vampy that would take the viewer out of the film. It's a good performance by an underrated actor, and along with the jungle setting, makes the film most enjoyable.

Score 7/10

If you ate a handful of 'shrooms and went to see a grown-up version of Twilight, I imagine you'd experience something like Holly Dale's 1995 horror/comedy Blood & Donuts. Gordon Currie stars as Boya, an awkward, shy vampire who has literally been in a bag somewhere in Toronto since 1969. When a golfer's errant tee shot awakens Boya, he stumbles out to a cab driven by an over-friendly, accent-impaired guy named Earl (Louis Ferreira) and they head for the cemetery where Boya has stashed all his possessions. Eventually, Boya comes across a local donut shop where he meets Molly the waitress, played by uber-browed Helene Clarkson and promptly falls for her. Of course complications arise as Boya's old flame shows up, cabbie Earl is pursued by thugs and their boss has to explain "The Bowling Shoe Rule" which delineates the difference between a mark and a smudge. The dialogue in the film is generally smile-inducing, especially David Cronenberg's crime boss, Stephen, who says at one point, "Am I employing retards? I have nothing against retards in general, I just can't afford to employ them." His deadpan delivery is perfect.

Fiona Reid as Boya's ex is also entertaining and a rather poignantly pathetic character as she has kept on aging during their 25 year separation and is more than a little resentful of the fact. 
The pace of the film is somewhat slow, but this does allow time to admire the surprisingly sharp and colorful camera work from Atom Egoyan's regular cinematographer, Paul Sarossy. Holly Dale adds to the stylishness with some slow understated moves and the occasional dutch angle. The music is vampire-themed, but eclectic with artists like Concrete Blonde, who perform Bloodletting, to The Platters who do Twilight Time. Also, the original music by Nash the Slash is quite good.
Horror and comedy is a doubly tricky combination, but I thought Dale succeeded very nicely in pulling it off while keeping a steady, even tone throughout the duration of the film. The movie skates right up to the surreal and silly, but rarely crosses over to ridiculous. It's definitely not for everyone, especially the impatient, but it's a quality, one-of-a-kind work out of Canada.

Additional note: There's a throwaway scene at the end of the credits that's worth waiting around for.

Score 7.5/10

The DVD cover to Gustavo Postiglione's Tremendo amanecer is more than a bit misleading as the film is very much a modern day story set in Buenos Aires. There aren't a lot of bats, bell towers or other gothic imagery to speak of in the movie. The one (possible) vampire is a club owner named Dante (Coki Debernardi). As the film opens, we see Dante soliciting a prostitute to cut her and drink her blood. Much like Romero's Martin, it is unclear if this character is nuts or an actual vampire. I really like when this kind of ambiguity is employed in a vampire flick as it adds a whole other dimension to the film and character. Right after Dante's dealing with the prostitute, we meet Ramirez (Gustavo Guirado), a corrupt detective who is strong arming the streetwalkers for a cut of their earnings. When vampire-style murders begin occurring, Ramirez is pressured to break the case. Far from responding positively, Ramirez resents the pressure and mocks his boss. Both Dante and Ramirez are quite interesting characters and hold the film together. Dante's character is far from the vampiric norm as he likes to perform music at his club at night and watch videos of people frolicking in the daylight while at home. He often dreams of an old black and white film that features himself and a beautiful young woman. We eventually learn that this is Dante's long lost love who has vowed to return to him someday. One day, while watching the home videos, Dante sees a woman who is identical to the one in his dreams. He becomes determined to win her love again.
One of the more clever aspects to the story is that the bartender at Dante's club is an old friend of Ramirez. At several points in the story, Dante will be coming or going from the club while the barman talks to Ramirez, and even introduces the two to each other. A darkly comic element is subsequently introduced into the story with the appearance of Homero (Gabriel Goity), a church sponsored vampire hunter who is assigned to help Ramirez who is non-plussed, bemused and a little annoyed by his new partner.

Writer/director Gustavo Postiglione weaves these elements together seamlessly with an ending that is somewhat circuitous and completely satisfying. The story is the strongest element of the film followed closely by the tortured character of Dante who early on, and to his credit, seeks psychiatric help for the "curse" he believes he's been placed under. Like Boya in Blood and Donuts, Dante doesn't really want to hurt anyone unless it's out of sense of self-preservation but is feeling an ever deepening depression. His days spent watching other people's home movies really adds to the pathos created. I loved the fact that the detective was a corrupt douche who really didn't care that much about catching the killer. It was so refreshing after seeing so many goody-good, Van Helsing types wear the white hat.

The big downside to the film, and it could be a deal-breaker to some, is the cheap shot on video look that the director tried to compensate for with even cheaper digital effects like blurring, adding color and moving the camera around needlessly. I rode the video storm out and was glad I did, but the film would have approached excellent territory without the gimmicks. Everything else was solid considering what was no doubt a tiny budget. The acting was decent and the music was surprisingly good and effective.

Score 7.5/10

If I had to recommend just one of these three films, I'd have to reluctantly go with Tremendo amanecer even though Blood and Donuts buries it in the visual esthetics department. The story is just so strong and the characters so unusual, I know I'll be revisiting Tremendo amanecer long before the other two films.