Category Archives: Spain

Count Dracula (1970)

Director: Jess Franco

It’s only taken me just short of five years after seeing Pere Portabella’s Cuadecuc vampir to finally watch the film associated with that one… There’s a really interesting comment by Christophe Gans in an interview on the Severin DVD of this film (which handily includes the Portabella film as an extra, evidently he got over his reluctance to let people see it), that Franco’s absurd work rate (especially in the 70s) meant what you got from his films was more of a “trance” than “a worked-out product”. Which, basically, sums this film right up. The idea for it seems to have really come from his producer Harry Alan Towers, who thought it would be a great idea to make an adaptation of Dracula that was actually faithful to the novel. On which level I’m not sure it fully succeeds (though it’s a damn sight more so than the 1931 Tod Browning film, to say nothing of Hammer’s version), but give it points for trying. Actually, what struck me more than anything was what I can only describe as the disorienting feel of the whole thing… I don’t know how else to describe it, there’s just something really strange at work that I can’t quite put into words. I’ve said before about some of Franco’s films that they don’t seem to fully take place in a recognisable world, but it’s not quite that here… It seems to be a mix of things, like the way it’s shot at 1.33 (unusual by 1970), the compositions within that frame, the camera angles, maybe even the camera lenses… things just seem slightly off somehow in a way I find hard to describe, as you can see… In the end Franco’s Dracula is what it is, i.e. a cheap European horror film made at the end of the 60s, and the slow pacing doesn’t help much, but the atmospherics are interesting and performances are actually decent; Christopher Lee in particular attacks his lines with some vigour, knowing Hammer would never give him the chance to speak actual Bram Stoker…

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Mad Foxes (1981)

Director: Paul Grau

I haven’t actually been completely slack in watching things lately, I should say; one of my recent viewings has been the two volumes of Jake West’s Video Nasties documentaries and accompanying trailer collections. For my money, the second of these was more interesting than the first, cos it covers the “Section 3” films—i.e. the ones the DPP chose not to prosecute under the Obscene Publications Act, but which were still liable to being seized by the police—of which there were actually more than the official “nasties”… it interested me, cos I don’t think I’d even heard of the “Section 3” list, and I’d certainly never heard of a number of the films thereon. This was one, and it was Stephen Thrower’s enthusiasm for the film that made me seek it out as soon as possible. Tonight, I watched it… and HOLY FUCK, Thrower’s love for this film is not misplaced. Notwithstanding a bit of mid-film sag, Mad Foxes really is astonishing; I had to keep rewinding bits to convince myself I actually had seen or heard something I thought I couldn’t possibly have seen/heard right.

It is an extraordinarily bad revenge flick; our hero—one of the least likeable film heroes I can remember ever seeing—is… I don’t know, the film never quite clarifies what he does other than drive his Chevy Stingray and pick up girls with it. And piss off bikies with it. For some reason, a gang of hoodlums on choppers take offence to him and his car, which winds up with one of them getting killed in an accident chasing him, which ends in them beating him up and raping the nice young thing with him (who we never hear of again), which culminates in him asking a friend to attack them with his gang of karate students, a battle which ends with the gang leader having his cock cut off and shoved down his throat… at which point we’re only about twenty minutes into the film—whose brief running time (only about 80 minutes) is its chief positive virtue—and there’s more to come… JESUS FUCK. The real star of the film is the staggeringly awful English dubbing, of course, and for once I’m kind of glad I didn’t insist upon hearing it in its native language, but the general feeling of mesmerisingly rank stupidity informing the entire thing would come through even in subtitled Spanish, I daresay. The surprising (and comparatively copious) male nudity certainly gives the film added interest, even if (like me) you’re not particularly into that sort of thing, and the somewhat jaw-dropping ending just left me applauding in a slightly stunned manner at its sheer WTF-ness. Basically, one of the greatest bad films I’ve ever seen.

Take a Hard Ride (1975)

Director: Antonio Margheriti

I was always a little puzzled as to why this title appeared in the blaxploitation section of the Drive-In Delirium series, given that it was a Spanish co-production with an Italian director (and a Dutch production company name in the closing credits?), and so would’ve been better suited to the Eurowestern section. Whatever. Though not a spaghetti western as such, Take a Hard Ride continues the noble spaghetti tradition of using southern European locations—in this case, the Canary Islands—to stand in for the southwest of the US/border of Mexico area. And, as this review rightly notes, “it’s all about the stunt casting” rather than the plot. It really doesn’t do much that other westerns hadn’t done before, except perhaps making two black men the leads, but even then one of those two (Fred Williamson) had already done that in Boss Nigger a year or so before this… Anyway, the plot revolves around Pike (Jim Brown), who works for a cattle baron who rather inconveniently dies at the start of the film, leaving Pike the task of returning $86,000 in payroll money to the boss’ ranch in Mexico. And also leaving him with the problem of not getting killed along the way by the surprisingly large number of people who know what he’s carrying. The real problem, though, might lie in Pike’s own travelling companions, particularly Williamson’s enigmatic gambler. Nothing hugely new in the story department, then, but the story’s fairly well told and the main attraction is indeed the casting; Pike and Williamson make for a solid odd couple; Lee Van Cleef plays the bounty hunter pursuing them who remembers Pike from the latter’s less upright days, and seems to be out for the still standing bounty on him as much as the payroll. On the whole, Take a Hard Ride isn’t exactly the most demanding of high art cinema, and that’s fine; it’s a completely efficient genre picture with some neat lead performances, interesting locations, good stunts and action, and it basically does the sort of things a film of its type should do in a pretty fair manner. And I got it for $7 at Lawson’s. No complaints for that money.

Sadomania (1981)

Director: Jess Franco

If 99 Women was relatively mild, you could never accuse Sadomania of being that; if there’s nothing else you can say for it, it unquestionably delivers in spades on the trailer’s promise of naked flesh. Sadomania is overflowing with tits. Tits everywhere. Maybe not always big enough to keep Russ Meyer happy, but so numerous he still couldn’t complain. Franco spends bugger all time on the narrative set-up—nice young couple on their honeymoon trespass near a women’s penitentiary in a scabby desert location, girl gets retained while man gets sent away by lesbian warden as if she thinks he actually won’t try and rescue his girl—to get straight down to the brass tacks of just being trashy as fuck. I’ve no idea what this film’s Australian censorship history is—Refused Classification have no record for it that I can see—but I imagine the OFLC having… difficulties with it; there’s at least one scene involving an Alsatian and a young girl chained to a chair that would need to be hacked to bits if not hacked out entirely before they’d even think about watching the rest of it. (I said it was trashy as fuck.) As with 99 Women, the warden has an unhealthy relationship with the local governor—Franco regular Antonio Mayans, sporting some of the most ludicrous facial hair since Chaplin’s Mutual two-reelers—and his perverted wife, the latter of whom really wants to bear her impotent husband a child but can only get him up with that aforementioned dog business (trashy as fuck), while Franco himself plays an absurdly gay white slaver and indulges himself in a sex scene with Ajita Wilson, the transsexual performer who plays a man in that scene and the obviously female lesbian warden. (Trashy as fuck.) And don’t forget the tits either (I mean, really, after the man rescues his wife from the prison you’d think he might at least have found a t-shirt or something for her rather than expect her to keep running around naked for the rest of the film).

Of course, just as you can’t accuse Sadomania of being mild, you also can’t really accuse it of being much good; the dubbing is abnormally bad even for this sort of Euro-exploitation—to the point where I can’t tell if the acting on screen is bad or if it’s just the voices (probably both; Franco confesses on the Blue Underground DVD that Wilson wasn’t really mean enough for her role)—plus characters are poorly drawn enough that it’s hard to tell quite a few of them apart, and there’s quite some Idiot Plot going on, as referenced earlier. Let’s not forget the fake alligator. Still, for all that, there’s something about the film that makes it watchable, even if I’m not sure what. Maybe it’s the tits (you must admit, whatever Franco had to do to get quite so many girls game enough to be in a film like this, he got the necessary results). And did I mention that Sadomania is trashy as fuck?

99 Women (1969)

Director: Jess Franco

Now, even I am a little baffled, possibly even a bit dismayed, by the number of Jess Franco films I now own, and saying “but they were going for $8 each at Deep Discount, how was I supposed to resist that” really isn’t much of an excuse, even if it is true… However, if there’s one thing I don’t need, it’s a Jess Franco film with 20 minutes of hardcore inserts by Bruno Mattei, so I was content to settle for the unrated rather than the X-rated version of this one. I’m filing it under “thriller” because I’m not really sure how else a women in prison (WIP) film should be categorised… this film indeed being more or less the progenitor of the subgenre, in fact, although it’s kind of subdued, I suppose, compared to certain other examples of the genre. This isn’t Ilsa. Which is not to say that it’s not kind of dodgy; personally I’m kind of loath to say any genre is inherently “bad”, but the WIP film comes closer, probably, than anything outside of Ilsa-style Nazisploitation (which was itself an extension of the WIP film). The slashers of the 80s continue to get a bad rap for misogyny, but the WIP film might be worse, cos misogyny is kind of built into it in a way I don’t think it is with the slasher; the WIP film is really about male fantasies of women being degraded and brutalised, the catfighting, the lesbianism, all of that. To that extent I suppose it is kind of an inherently unpleasant thing, but, as I said, there’s something comparatively subdued about Franco’s first (but hardly last) venture into the form. While it’s obviously exploitation—set in a women’s prison on an unspecified island belonging to an unspecified (but kind of Hispanic?) country, all of which kind of enhances the fantasy aspect of the genre—it’s also played kind of straight; Mercedes McCambridge’s lesbian prison warder goes for ham, mostly through her accent (unsure if that’s actually her or someone dubbing her, though), but Herbert Lom is actually respectable as the island governor. The DVD presentation of 99 Women about as drab as the story—it’s not the handsomest Franco film I’ve seen from this era—and I’m not sure I enjoyed it as such, but I found something interesting about it.

Pieces (1982)

Director: Juan Piquer Simon

Or, The New England Chain Saw Massacre. Why not, since the film’s advertising made such a point of invoking Tobe Hooper’s somewhat better-known film… though it must be said there’s rather more actual chainsaw action in Pieces than in that film. By the same token, of course, TCM also makes a great deal more sense (which is, arguably, saying something). Pieces opens in 1942 with a boy killing his mother after she flips out when she catches him assembling a pornographic jigsaw puzzle. Flash forward 40 years: on a nice New England university campus, a maniac is loose killing female students and cutting them to pieces. But what exactly is he doing with the pieces that go astray? Well, someone’s fondness for jigsaws hasn’t gone away with age… The remarkable thing about Pieces is that it sets a tone of ludicrousness and excess in that pre-credits scene (cos taking an axe to your mum like that is totally rational and sensible, isn’t it), and actually builds on it. The sheer stupidity of the thing is quite breathtaking (is the “bad chop suey” kung fu attack one of the most random things ever?), culminating in an ending that—even if you know about it in advance, as I did—is genuinely astounding; it almost makes Lucio Fulci look like a model of clinical logic. And the gore is pretty plentiful, too, if you like that sort of thing (I’m not sure, though, if it says more about me or the film that the bit where I said “oh for fuck’s sake” out loud was the scene of the girl getting chainsawed in half; not because of that but because she had to be seen pissing her pants in terror beforehand. I thought that was unnecessary, as if the rest of the film’s copious violence weren’t). Actually, the interesting thing about Pieces is how it plays with the “final girl” convention, in that the “final girl” is actually a guy who sleeps around quite a lot. Which is an interesting reversal of the slasher film’s usual supposed sexual conservatism… at least, maybe, until the end, when the real “final girl” appears. A dreadful film in so many ways, probably best appreciated as unintentional comedy; weirdly entertaining either way.

Update 14/10/13: So god/dess help me, I actually paid money for this thing, and now I own the Arrow DVD of it. Bloody hell (as it were). This gave me the option of watching the film again tonight, and this time I watched it with the Spanish audio track (the Youtube video I saw a few months ago was the English dub). This actually proved quite interesting, cos not only did it somehow make the whole thing feel strangely worse, or at least trashier, some of the differences actually proved quite substantial; the “bad chop suey” scene is just a “misunderstanding” in Spanish. I’m not sure if that makes it funnier or not. But the music is completely different too—not just the score, but even that racket played over the tennis court PA—and I’m just wondering what the rationale behind that was. Flashed back and forth between the two language tracks and was surprised by how different the music in each was. Not sure which is better, though I suspect the Spanish version may be a bit less dated (or at least a bit less “early 80s”) than the other one. Amusing to see this again after watching Franco’s Female Vampire just the other day cos Jack Taylor is in both of them; he’s interviewed on the disc and interestingly opens up the possibility that the film actually may have been intended as a spoof (though as he observes, if it was the actors didn’t seem to realise at the time)…

Horror Express (1972)

Director: Eugenio Martin

I had quite an adventure finding a good copy of this (there being many shoddy-looking copies out there thanks to the film’s public domain status), but found a nice copy on archive.org supposedly from a restored DVD or blu (maybe the Severin edition)… The film itself apparently began life as an attempt to get value, Corman-style, out of leftover sets (and leftover Telly Savalas) from the director’s previous film about Pancho Villa; Messrs Cushing and Lee lend a bit of that old Hammer feel to what was an evidently pretty cheap production—IMDB says there was actually only one train-car set that required quite a lot of redressing for different scenes—giving it a certain class it might not otherwise have possessed (cos hell knows Savalas doesn’t exactly bring it). Story-wise, we have a fairly interesting mix of horror and SF; Lee is the anthropologist who finds a “missing link” in Siberia in 1906, said missing link being host to an alien life form that’s been on the Earth for, oh, millions of years. Cushing plays a doctor who is something of a rival, and the two find themselves together on the Trans-Siberian Express, on which Lee is transporting his find out of Russia; it’s Cushing’s curiosity about what’s in the big box that inadvertently unleashes a great deal of trouble. The whole thing unfurls at quite some pace, though not fast enough that even I couldn’t pick holes in it (not least the film’s seeming uncertainty over what time of day or night it is outside the train); I’m particularly puzzled by how easily Lee in particular seems to accept that his “fossil” is alive and well after two million years dead in Siberian ice. It’s an OK film, I don’t like it as much as some other reviewers do, but I do agree with them that’s it’s nice to see Cushing and Lee fighting on the same side, and the whole thing does admittedly build up to a pretty good ending.

Written for the Peter Cushing centennial blogathon at Frankensteinia

Two early Bunuel films

Un chien andalou (1929): after 80+ years, that shot doesn’t really lose much, does it? I remember the first time I saw the film at UNSW, razor met eyeball and a room full of beginning film students (who clearly had no idea what they were in for—at least I’d actually read about the film and knew what to expect) screamed. It was glorious, one of my favourite memories of university. The film itself? Hmmmmmmm… I think I used to like it more than I perhaps do now. As I think I’ve said before, I’m not exactly impressed by artists who I feel use “surrealism” essentially as an excuse for refusing to make sense, wilful weirdness that doesn’t have the grace to admit its own emptiness. (I’m looking at YOU here, Jodorowsky.) And, having decided a while ago that I should rewatch the Chien, I found myself wondering if something similar hadn’t been at work in Bunuel and Dali’s film… cos the former famously insisted nothing in the film symbolised anything, and that they’d made a kind of point of jettisoning anything they found “meaningful” (in spite of which, of course, people still insist upon looking for meaning cos that’s what we’ve been trained to do). Was there something more cynical at the heart of this 16-minute marvel than I’d ever previously considered? I wasn’t sure, and upon rewatching tonight I’m still not sure. It is, obviously, notable that André Breton (who pretty much controlled 1920s/30s Surrealism as a movement) pronounced it authentically Surrealist, and apparently Bunuel and Dali were the first filmmakers he inducted into Surrealism… a bit ironic given what the latter would say later about the film actually being opposed to the avant-garde of the period! Maybe “cynical” is an overly harsh judgement, but I do feel that the film was calculated to at least some degree, both Bunuel and Dali knew full well what they were doing and I’ve no doubt they always did. It’s good, I respect its place in film history, but I can’t help but suspect I didn’t like it tonight as much as I once did.

Las Hurdes (1933): Conversely, I don’t think I ever liked this, and what I know now about Bunuel’s treatment of some of the animals in the film frankly makes it about as morally questionable (at least in my opinion) as Cannibal Holocaust… maybe even more so, depending on how you view Bunuel’s intentions, which seem to remain as controversial as the film itself. Las Hurdes still seems to confuse people as to exactly how it should be viewed (this piece interestingly sums up some of the problems of reading it); the 1001 Movies book seems to take it mostly at face value as a documentary, although others have suggested it’s more mock than doc… if the surface of the film is an exaggeration of the reality, it could be viewed as a proto-Herzog exercise, but with a meanness of spirit I don’t get from our German friend. The people of the Las Hurdes region apparently still despise Bunuel for his work all these years later, and I don’t know that I can entirely blame them; as for myself, I obviously look at the thing from a greater distance, and I just find myself puzzled as to the motivations of the film, and unable to entirely respect it.

Cuadecuc vampir (1970)

I’ve finished with the ICM Top 500 Horror list for now, and am going to spend the next few days ticking off some titles from the Jonathan Rosenbaum list. To ease us from one to the other, let’s begin with this fascinating bit of work… The Museum of Modern Art calls it “a delirious reflection on the codes and conventions of the horror film through the language of structural materialist cinema”, but I daresay they would call it that. In plainer terms, it’s a film shot during the making of Jess Franco’s Count Dracula, which the opening credits oddly ascribe to Hammer, who would surely never have let Franco near them; and yet it’s not really a “making of”, or if it is, it’s one of the strangest examples of the form ever made. Directed by Pere Portabella, we do get some views of the behind-the-scenes stuff (I particularly liked the fan device that blows cobwebs onto things), but other scenes are of a less obvious nature. What’s actually going on in some of them? We see Franco’s camera crew filming certain scenes, but if that’s what they’re really doing then wouldn’t they have also got Portabella and his crew in the picture they were shooting? Are we looking at re-enactments of the scenes acted for Franco, rehearsal footage, even bits of Franco’s own film? The absence of speech (except at the very end) only makes things more ambiguous… But if you’re broadly familiar with the story of Dracula, it’s not hard to follow, and it never looks anything less than astounding thanks to Portabella’s decision to shoot in very high-contrast monochrome. It’s a decidedly abstract retelling of Dracula, and of Franco’s film, but a fascinating one. Alas, Portabella’s never let it be released on video or DVD (I scammed my copy from Youtube, no idea of its provenance but it’s remarkably good quality), but a restored print’s been doing the repertory rounds for a while, so maybe one day…

Chimes at Midnight (1965)

Needless to say, finding THIS recently was a surprise, to say the least; I was under the impression the UK DVD of the film released by Cornerstone was exclusive to HMV there, so it was interesting to find it on import here (not too unreasonably priced)… even more so cos the film remains locked in posthumous legal limbo (in this case it seems to be mostly on the late Harry Saltzman’s side), so technically it probably shouldn’t be available at all. From what I read, apart from the long-vanished Spanish DVD, French and Italian issues have also come and hastily gone, so maybe I did well to at least get my hands on this one in case it eventually does the same… Anyway, I bought it without, admittedly, having done any research into the quality (I mean, it’s not like I was expecting to actually own the bloody thing), and, well, that post facto research was not heartening, and yeah, aurally I didn’t find it as problematic as most reviews of the film claim it is (maybe I just don’t notice sync problems like others do?) but visually, eh. Non-anamorphic and interlaced dreadfully thanks to a clearly ho-hum NTSC>PAL conversion, too bright as well… how sad that seemingly no one can pull theirs heads out of their arses to give this the release it deserves. Cos the film itself is terrific; I know you read all the time that it’s one of Welles’ best films, one of the best Shakespeare adaptations ever, all that, and it’s true, this really is an amazing piece of filmmaking. Welles finds an emotional devastation in the new King Henry V’s rejection of his old carousing partner that I don’t think I ever got from actually reading the end of 2 Henry IV, and the whole Battle of Shrewsbury business (shot by none other than JESS FRANCO of all people) really is astounding. In short, a film that should never have been allowed to slip into the abyss it seems to be stuck in unless you can access the grey market…

EDIT (15/10/14): About a year after I wrote the above, the Mr Bongo label issued their own disc of Chimes, which fact I only discovered today when I actually found it at Title in Surry Hills, where I also found the Cornerstone abomination. Not wanting to get burned again, I asked the man behind the counter to do an online check for me to make sure it was OK, and, happily, it proves to do so, anamorphic, native PAL transfer, and with actual contrast (indeed, I’d actually found a Youtube copy that was superior to the Cornerstone DVD, which I now suspect probably came from this one). However, I know from my own previous reading that Mr Bongo’s business practices leave something to be desired at times, and one review I later found myself suggests this particular edition is, in fact, a clone of doubtful legality of the French edition by Studio Canal that was available very briefly a long time ago before Beatrice Welles urged them at lawyer-point to withdraw it. So still (probably) no good legit copy of Chimes out there. Still, legally dodgy though it may still be, I’ll still settle for the Bongo disc as being markedly less technically dodgy than the other one…