Category Archives: thriller

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.

That Night’s Wife (1930)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Already 16 films into his career by this point, Ozu had yet to settle into being “Ozu”, as this film demonstrates; if Walk Cheerfully “acted” American, this one goes a step further by deriving from an honest-to-god/dess bit of American pulp fiction by one Oscar Shisgall… whose only film credit this seems to be as well (was he the same as Oscar Schisgall, who apparently had about 4000 short stories to his credit?); surprised this didn’t get discovered and turned into a B-programmer by Hollywood in the 40s or something, cos thar’s effectively what Ozu did with it. Indeed, one IMDB review characterises it as a European-style quota quickie, which might actually be nearer the mark. The story deals with a young husband, his wife, their deathly ill daughter, and daddy’s criminal attempt at getting money; however, in order to tell the story straight (because Ozu disliked using flashbacks, which the original tale’s structure would’ve required), a certain amount of fiddling had to be done that introduced certain narrative problems that the DVD booklet essay observes—most notably the fact that after stealing the money to buy medicine for the child, Shuji never actually then buys the stuff (not to mention the question of why the office he stole it from was still open at that time of night)—and I’m not sure how well it works as a result. While there is certainly some tension in the situation, particularly when a police detective comes knocking, I also felt the story was kind of stretched; even though it’s only just over an hour long, I still got the impression (especially in the last third or so) that Ozu was drawing it out longer than he perhaps should’ve done. The expressionistic stylings are obviously interesting, it certainly feels less “Hollywood” than Walk Cheerfully did and more European, perhaps, but I felt it was lacking something. It’s OK but I liked it rather less than some more recent critics do.

Repeater (1979)

Director: Chris Monger

The BFI Flipside disc of Voice Over includes Monger’s previous feature Repeater as a bonus item. Made for three-quarters the budget of the other film (with that miniscule budget encompassing a quick trip to Paris as well), but also only three-quarters its duration; the DVD slick describes it as a French New Wave-influenced “deconstructed crime thriller”, which sounds ominous but there’s a certain degree of wit to the telling of… whatever the hell’s going on. In the DVD booklet, Monger describes Voice Over as being like a “regular” film, implying that Repeater wasn’t. And, well, it’s not; although Monger also notes that neither he nor his cohorts ever went to film school as such, the film has the overall feeling of some sort of student project, like the work of someone who’s only just heard about Brechtian alienation and is determined to try it out for himself. Accordingly, Repeater kind of revels in its own You-Are-Watching-A-Film artifice; it’s difficult viewing but in a different way to Voice Over‘s grotty naturalism. Simple enough story: a woman walks into a police station and confesses to murdering a man who actually committed suicide; meanwhile, next door another detective (Alexei Sayle in apparently his screen debut) is hassling a suspected hitman. The two leave together, and she hires him for a special job. I can imagine this irritating the hell out of people—you do kind of have to be open to the possibility of experimental cinema being a valid form, which I know many people are not—and even at just 75 minutes it’s still too long, but I think I still liked it better than Voice Over (which, at 108 minutes, was in vastly greater need of tightening up); and unlike that film, which probably did suffer from inadequate resources, it seems kind of right that Repeater should’ve been a seven and a half grand cheapie, it was exactly the right way to do it.

Kill List (2011)

Director: Ben Wheatley

I can’t remember now why I picked this up, I must’ve seen praise for it somewhere that inspired me to shell out for it; anyway, it’s been sitting on the shelf for a while and the recent news that Ben Wheatley’s been signed to direct the first episodes of the next series of Doctor Who inspired me to take it down and watch it. I am baffled as hell as a result. In fact, I don’t think I’ve been as perplexed by what the fuck is going on in a horror film—albeit one that only really reveals itself as being one in the last 20 minutes or so—since A Tale of Two Sisters… It was quite instructive watching this after going through all the Lewton films, which John Carpenter famously dismissed for being too vague and suggestive and not explicit enough. He’d have no such issues with this film, which is unquestionably blunt when it comes to showing violence; where it stays vague, however, is the not exactly minor consideration of what it’s supposed to mean. I mean, yeah, broadly the narrative is clear: two former soldiers turned hitmen embark upon a job to kill certain people as ordered by a nameless client, which seems straightforward enough, except that as it goes on it starts to become less so… although not until the last third of the film do they (and we) realise just how fucked things actually are. I see many comparisons between this and the “folk horror” films of the late 60s/early 70s, particularly The Wicker Man; what that film has that I never felt this one did is a sense of events in the narrative actually adding up to something. That “what the fuck just happened” aspect to the latter part of the film, what it means and just how (or even if) the business earlier in the film relates to it and all that, seems to be the sticking point with quite a few critics I’ve read online; there are interpretations that make sense, but I don’t think I would’ve drawn them myself, at least not from one viewing, I just didn’t think the film offered me enough to work on. What Kill List does well is the relationship between Jay and Gal, our two dubious “heroes”; Michael Smiley—apparently much better known as a comedian—is particularly good as the latter (he seems to have been a particularly gifted improviser on set). I suspect it might make more sense on a repeat viewing, but otherwise I’m not sure I actually feel inclined to give the film that much attention. Maybe once will do.

Genocide (1968)

Director: Kazui Nihonmatsu

This also seems to have been the last film made by director Nihonmatsu, who at least managed to go out on a pretty overheated note. It’s been interesting to go through the Shochiku horror set—which obviously goes out on the same overheated note—cos it’s clear their interests weren’t really the kaiju fun and games of X, in the other two colour films at least they were looking to Say Something about the then-current world situation; and if the wartime theme in Goke is unsubtly presented, Genocide hammers it home even more heavy-handedly. It’s set in Okinawa, which offers ample room to invoke memories of the war and its aftermath; a US plane carrying a hydrogen bomb is brought down by a gigantic swarm of insects, and obviously the Americans want it back, but there’s a Communist cell operating in the islands that also wants it. Meanwhile, one of the locals is facing trial on suspicion of murdering two of the airmen who escaped the crash; he’s been having an affair in the meantime with this American woman, for whom he’s been collecting insects, which she’s been using to breed her own species of poisonous bugs to wipe out humanity in revenge for her suffering at Auschwitz. (Neither subtle nor tasteful.) But the insects of the world have their own ideas about eradicating humanity before humanity eradicates them. As I said, overheated; Genocide starts on a faintly hysterical note, beginning as it intends to carry on, perhaps trying to do too much in the process (at only 84 minutes, it’s pretty well stuffed with things happening). Something about it is deeply flawed in various ways, but it’s certainly watchable enough; whatever Serious Things it may be trying to say, Nihonmatsu evidently never lost sight of the fact that he was basically making exploitation with a somewhat cartoonish heart. I still think Goke is the best film in the set, but on the whole this is a worthy part of it.

The Ghost Ship (1943)

Director: Mark Robson

Interesting that this is the only one of the Lewton Nine not on that Top 500 Horror list. I wonder if the decades of enforced obscurity in which it languished had anything to do with that, cos it seems a bit strange that this particular one should be the only one not there. I don’t imagine it was the first film to be a box office success and accordingly attract someone trying to claim it ripped off their idea (hardly the last either, of course; James Cameron only just the other day won a plagiarism claim against Avatar), but it certainly was one of those instances where the studio lost… as such, Ghost Ship was pulled from the theatres where it had been doing quite well and spent the next 50 years going almost entirely unseen. I don’t think it was exactly revealed as a lost masterpiece upon its belated revival; a somewhat gothic tale of madness and power being abused on a cargo ship at sea that’s not actually bad by any means, but, not unlike The Leopard Man, it feels a bit “B” in a way that Seventh Victim managed not to do… Young Tom Merriam sets sail on his first voyage as 3rd officer on a ship where there’s been one odd death before he even boards and another just before he sails (I don’t think these are ever actually explained at any point); gradually he comes to realise the captain he looks up to is, well, losing his shit. Reporting him for murder to the company once on land again does no good, and, unwillingly returned to the ship, he finds himself ostracised by the crew—he really is the titular ghost—and in line to be the captain’s next victim. As I said, not bad at all, but lacking something to quite make it hit… the voiceover internal monologue of the mute Finn is kind of overdone, and the scene where the captain meets an old flame on land and talks about his understandable fear of being overtaken by madness, having seen a former captain of his own go the same way, is obviously meant to humanise him somewhat, yet somehow it didn’t work for me. It’s OK, has a few quite effective things going on, but not much more than that…

The Leopard Man (1943)

Director: Jacques Tourneur

The third and last film helmed by Jacques Tourneur for Val Lewton… although does anyone actually think of Tourneur as the “auteur” of those films? Whatever. Something about this one feels oddly different to the other two films; all of Lewton’s were B productions, but something about The Leopard Man feels like one in a way the others so far didn’t… doesn’t have the same sort of sheen somehow. Maybe that’s down to the source material, a novel by Cornell Woolrich, who wasn’t exactly known as a writer of supernatural horror, and indeed this one isn’t; the others we’ve seen so far have generally been a bit ambiguous as to the nature of the goings-on in their stories, but that can’t really be said of The Leopard Man… once one of the characters suspects the film’s second killing was conducted by a human rather than the leopard that did the first one, we kind of know that’s what’s going on; there’s no supernatural agency involved. To be honest, I’d actually completely forgotten what The Leopard Man was about until I watched it again… via Wiki I found this article, which makes an interesting case for the film as one of the first serial killer movies (while giving Woolrich credit as the author of the original novel for its consideration of the killer’s victims as people rather than just Expendable Meat) and noting how out there such a thing would’ve appeared to audiences in 1943. And I suppose, however dubious a reason that might be to accord the film a place in history, it’s worth remembering it for that… but, to be honest, even on rewatching I still didn’t find much actually memorable about it; it seemed kind of nondescript to me in a way the other films haven’t so far… I may have found Curse a bit dull, but I still concede it’s a really nice production, whereas this one actually does just look as cheap as all of Lewton’s films were, strangely obvious studio exteriors, kind of ho-hum acting, all that. Not big on this one.

Coffy (1973)

Director: Jack Hill

There are some actors who you associate so much with a particular role that it becomes hard to see them play another one. Allan Arbus didn’t have this problem in 1973; still fairly new to the acting game, Coffy was actually released before his first appearance on M*A*S*H went to air. Unfortunately, with all these decades of hindsight, I could only look at the film and think “holy shit, that’s Sidney Freedman as a sexually perverted gangster with a kind of wobbly Italian accent”… it’s a little bit headfucking. (Talking of accents, I’m not sure what was up with Sid Haig’s either…) Anyway, he wasn’t the drawcard in Coffy; that was Pam Grier, whose career at American International actually began behind a desk before she became one of their bigger stars. in Coffy she plays the titular nurse, whose family (including a pre-teen sister) have been waylaid by drugs, which inspires her to go vigilante against drug pushers; however, it’s when a former flame on the police force is viciously attacked by thugs for not going on the take like his fellows on the force that she really blossoms. Before that she’s kind of nervy about her task; after it she’s a goddamn vengeance machine, with a lot more than just the pushers to take down (parenthetically, this is the second film I’ve watched just today that’s ended with a woman doing grievous injury to a man’s crotch. As coincidences go, that’s weird and disturbing). As has been noted by others, making the female lead a gun-toting vigilante crime buster was a marked reversal of the blaxploitation norm—not that it was awfully common outside that cinematic sphere, of course—and Grier contributes a great deal to the film’s success. It’s the sort of film that needs someone really good in the lead role to anchor proceedings—some of which are actually remarkably nasty, I can understand why it was rated R here in the 70s—and if there were someone of lesser style or charisma playing Coffy, the film would likely have been a lot less watchable than it is.

Madhouse (1974)

Director: Jim Clark

If nothing else, Madhouse‘s place in history is sealed by the fact that it’s the only film of its kind in which Michael Parkinson plays himself… his only other acting credit being Love Actually, according to IMDB, which is a different sort of film to this one. Again, this is more of a Vincent Price vehicle, but Peter Cushing’s part in it is a fairly significant one, so I’m counting this towards the blogathon. Price plays a horror movie star best known as “Dr Death”, the character he created with Cushing, who’s got him back into the business after years away from it following a nervous breakdown. It seems the poor fellow has had a history of trouble drawing a line between himself and the good doctor, and it rather looks like he might be involved in a series of Dr Death-inspired killings… Madhouse (whose title otherwise bears no relation to this plot) takes a hint from Targets in using some of Price’s own older films to depict his character’s past work, but it also appears to take some cues from the giallo (not just because of the black-gloved killer), a notion that struck me while watching the film mainly because the copy of the film I got from Youtube has Spanish subtitles. I’ve said before that some films feel to me like they should’ve been made in another language, and that was the impression Madhouse gave me: seeing those subtitles made me think it really should’ve been a continental production, not an Anglo-American one. Dub it into Italian and see how it goes… As it is, the film doesn’t actually make a great deal of sense on various levels, not least the true identity of the killer (i.e. Cushing, who’s felt he should’ve played Dr Death all along); the film barely makes a desultory effort to make us think Price could be the killer, then makes slightly more effort to mislead us as to the real killer’s identity (in another scene that makes no sense; if the killer wants people to think Price did the killings, why then try to kill him?), and finally blows it with a revelation that’s actually impossible since Cushing actually couldn’t have done one of the murders? It’s obviously nice to see Price and Cushing together, I just wish the film served them better. Jim Clark’s limited directorial career ended with this, since when he’s worked as an editor, and I’m sure it’s the film world’s gain…

Written for the Peter Cushing centennial blogathon at Frankensteinia

Night of the Hunted (1980)

Conversely, I think this would be a poor introduction to Jean Rollin, which it nearly was for me… I have dim memories of SBS showing a Rollin film an awfully long time ago—probably late 90s—and I’m now fairly certain this was it. At that time I must’ve knew Rollin’s name at least cos I dimly remember thinking I should watch it… for whatever reason, though, I couldn’t get into it then—just lucky, perhaps, that it made so little impression on me that it wasn’t enough to put me off Rollin in future—and frankly I had trouble getting into it again tonight. Apparently it began with a proposal to make yet another hardcore film, but Rollin (understandably sick of the hardcore ghetto he was still largely stuck in) suggested the producer should let him make a real film (albeit one that would have a certain quantity of sex; the DVD contains two deleted hardcore scenes, though not the ones the producer later added) on a porno budget instead. The end result was even less obviously “Rollin” than Grapes of Death; the usual resonances are harder to find and setting the film mostly in a large tower block deprives us of Rollin’s usual gift for locations (at least until the very end, whose staging on a railway viaduct is certainly kind of startling). But the tower is, to be sure, right for the story; it’s an incarceration point for a group of people affected by a radiation leak that’s somehow made them literally lose their minds, and they’re essentially being kept there to prevent panic breaking out (and to be quietly disposed of). Actually not a bad plot or anything (even if the science perplexes me a bit; can radiation exposure actually affect memory like that?), there’s a certain amount of 70s paranoid thriller vibe behind this one. I don’t know, though, something just doesn’t feel right about the execution and I don’t know what it is… The shoot was not entirely happy (largely thanks to the death before production of a key performer) and Rollin later remembered it as one of his worst films. Which is probably overstating it a bit, but Night of the Hunted certainly didn’t impress me like his other films have. Still, I know it has its defenders (q.v.) and maybe a second viewing later might click better.

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