Monday, January 23, 2017

The Strange Love Of "The Bat People"


Relationships aren't easy at all. Sure, love is usually great at first, because we're on our best behavior, but eventually the masks we wear start to slip, our significant others finally see the real us, and the tests truly begin. We grow, we change, priorities can be rearranged, and suddenly your love's in jeopardy, baby.

Flapping around American drive-ins circa 1974 was a strange love story called "The Bat People", a horror flick that was distributed by American International Pictures and was frequently paired with other AIP releases like "Frogs", "The Deathmaster", and "Dr. Phibes Rises Again". It was also released with the title "It Lives By Night" and was featured that way on "Mystery Science Theater 3000", a snarky TV show for people who think it's cute when an audience talks during a movie.

It's true that "The Bat People" is not a perfect film, but it's certainly not one of the worst ever made. The budget is painfully low, and although the actors all have good moments, the quality of the performances fluctuates, leading me to believe the director only had a few takes to work with in each scene. The approach to the monster is minimal in a 1950s sort of way, with only a few brief glimpses of some very cool Stan Winston makeup FX. Interestingly enough, it works especially well when the makeup is shown in closeup, as the two main characters share an intimate moment.

The film does have that essential nightmare dread that was so common in the 1970s, but it comes not from the horror elements. This movie is a romance at heart, with a couple who suddenly find their love threatened by something seemingly insurmountable. Many werewolf type films have this as a backdrop, but the fascinating thing about "The Bat People" is how this seems to be where the script's heart is, and it finds a way to give its formerly doomed lovers the strangest happy ending. It also finds a way to join werewolf and vampire iconography into one creature, similar to the 1950s film "Blood of Dracula". Its main characters are a recently married couple named John and Cathy, who are on a tour of a cave when John is bitten by a bat. Blackouts, seizures and hallucinations follow, and John discovers he is transforming into a bloodthirsty man-bat creature that preys of human beings.

Adding to the sense of disorientation and isolation for the couple is the fact that this all occurs while they are away from familiar surroundings, in a strange place where they've come to combine John's research on bats with a late honeymoon. Although we glimpse others in the area, many of the scenes are filmed in a dark, small town that often seems curiously vacant. John's nightmares and hallucinations are filmed in an arty fashion, with bats and people shot on empty black backgrounds. The expanse of the desert and the hollow caves add a lot of bleak atmosphere to the film.

Once John's crimes have caught up to him, he disappears, leaving Cathy alone and unsure what to do, in a motel room in a strange town that she doesn't even consider leaving without her husband. To ramp up the emotional drama, the sleazy local police sergeant who is investigating John's murders attempts to lure Cathy's allegiances away from John, coming on to her and then reacting violently when she rejects his advances. John himself is, in a strange sense, "running out" on Cathy, as most of his victims happen to be sexy young women.

These other potential "relationships", however, are not for John and Cathy, and even the weird supernatural problem they're facing can't break them up (not to mention that John has now become a murderer). At first John abandons Cathy for her best interest, as he tells her his is happy in this new life he has discovered. But both of them are too devastated to lose one another. John shows up in the hotel room and they make love. When she wakes, John is gone again, but there is something different; either because of something John did to her, or as a realization she makes on her own, Cathy begins to hear the eerie rustling sounds that John heard before he was transformed. She realizes she can change also, and in the strange happy ending, Cathy walks into the cave where she knows John is waiting. The meddling cop is killed by a swarm of bats, freeing John and Cathy to being their new existence together.

It shouldn't go unsaid that, given this film's notoriety as a "bad movie", its poor reputation has a lot to do with the way it was marketed when it was retitled from its early conceptual titles "Winged Death" and "Angel of Fear". The poster art for the wide release of "The Bat People" depicts an entire colony of creatures living underneath a spooky graveyard. OK?? That's totally not this movie, and anybody who really expected it to be the movie on the poster must have felt like every kid who ordered Sea Monkeys and discovered they weren't really humanoid sea people who could be trained to do tricks. Even though the title could be seen as evocative of the film's subtle conclusion, when indeed we learn there will now be not one but two bat people, the title promises more than the humble film can deliver. Nobody really expects the movie to care about the doctor and his wife more than it cares about the horror elements.

Even with some really great Stan Winston creature designs, the film cannot effectively sustain any real terror, and the horror scenes are better at creeping along in the shadows instead of lunging. There are several murders, but they're almost played for laughs, like one victim we see making out in a truck with a boy and complaining that someone sold her oregano instead of weed. The violence is very PG, but there is one disturbing scene where the sergeant's speeding car is attacked by bats that splatter all over the windshield in gory detail, like rotten fruit dipped in red paint.

The bizarre love triangle between Stewart Moss, Marianne McAndrew and Michael Pataki actually comes off better. Pataki is especially good, finding an intriguing mix of brutish hero, corrupt cop and predatory perv. Stewart Moss's character seems to be a hopeless square who finally finds the nerve to give in to his animal instincts. McAndrew's character is required to constantly rationalize her
husband's antisocial behavior, the ultimate loyal wife who not only defends her man's decision to steal an ambulance and endanger the lives of everyone he nearly flattens with it, but also sacrifices her own humanity and transforms as he did, even if her change is not shown on screen.

What MST3K would never tell you is that "The Bat People" has a strange, dreamlike quality just perfect for a late night drive-in movie. There is a cavernous, artful emptiness to it, an atmosphere of existential dread amid the silliness, and the strangest thing of all could be how the script always keeps its focus on the feelings of its two lovers. For something so derivative, it manages to do the unexpected.
*previously published in "Secret Scroll Digest" and the October 2016 issue of Drive-In Asylum.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Baron Blood (1972)



"Baron Blood" was the first film Mario Bava made after 1971's "Twitch of the Death Nerve", which was a much-needed hit for the filmmaker, who had suffered a series of box office flops.  Finally having regained his ground as a commercial director, he delivered the well received "Baron Blood" in 1972. Coming off of the high impact violence of the previous film, "Baron Blood" seems almost restrained, although it is plenty gruesome, and vibrates with Bava's unique presence. Plus it has an energetic, catlike performance by the beautiful Elke Sommer as the chief damsel in distress.

Peter Kleist (Antonio Cantafora) is returning to Austria to "research his family history".  After landing on a swank 747 while elevator music plays, he meets his uncle at the airport and makes a visit to the castle of an ancestor, Baron Otto von Kleist.  Known as "Baron Blood" to the locals, his name is still feared in these parts, as von Kleist had a man-cave full of torture devices and tools for committing violent murder and dismemberment, not necessarily in that order. A serious Vlad-The-Impaler wannabe, the Baron was into decorating the outside of his castle with the bodies of his victims.  But of course the Baron's been dead for hundreds of years, and the castle is being renovated as a tourist trap/hotel.  The project is headed by a man named Herr Dortmund, who appears to be a European counterpart of the swishy interior decorators in "Blacula".  His assistant Eva (Elke Sommer) seems to be in charge of walking briskly around the place while carrying important-looking documents.  She also shoulders what has to be the bulk of the film's wardrobe expenses--I kept a tally of 11 different costume changes for Elke Sommer, and I may have missed a few.




Whatever things Peter had planned to do in Austria, it all apparently becomes moot when he digs too deeply into the Baron's bloody past.  It seems as if a witch placed a curse on the Baron that would bring him back to life.  Now you might wonder how resurrecting someone from the dead could be considered a curse, and dear friend, I did, too.  The only reason I could think of was this: It was in the script.  This is also the reason Peter conveniently has a long-lost document containing the exact incantation that would bring Baron Blood back to life.  He convinces the excruciatingly fashionable but fun-loving Eva to accompany him in his freaked out scheme to read the incantation in the castle and midnight, and some presence makes itself known to them when they hear footsteps and someone trying to get through a locked door.  They hurriedly read the reverse incantation, and the disturbance stops.  Of course they can't leave well enough alone, and the next night they try it again.  This time though, the parchment gets blown into a fire, and they have no way to send the Baron back.  Evil ensues!





The Baron's resurrection scene is very creepy, and reminiscent of Bava's "Black Sunday" in its corpse-from-the-grave moment. Bava also maximizes the use of his iconic style, with layers of colored lighting, sudden focus pulls, and a brilliant scene where Elke Sommer finds herself pursued through the foggy streets of the village. Nicoletta Elmi appears in this film too, she being the little red haired girl who featured in numerous European horror films as a child ("Flesh For Frankenstein", "A Bay Of Blood", "Who Saw Her Die?", "Night Child") and one as an adult ("Demons").




Speaking of "Demons", Lamberto Bava is assistant director on this film, and he used Antonio Cantafora in "Demons 2", where he appeared as Asia Argento's father, who gets slaughtered by demons while she watches helplessly.  Joseph Cotten's presence in the film is one thing that seems a little off; although Cotten appears menacing when he has to, what we really want is the scary, rotting ghoul that was chasing Elke Sommer around those dark streets, and instead our protagonists end up confronting the harmless-looking and unscary Cotten, seemingly bound to a wheelchair but of course revealing his true ghastly identity at the film's climax.



Unlike "Twitch of the Death Nerve", "Baron Blood" is more suggestively gruesome than explicitly gory.  One character is placed inside of a coffin lined with spikes and impaled. There's a shocking on-screen death where the Baron breaks a guy's neck. The Baron's ghoulish persona (before his dapper Joseph Cotten makeover) is quite startling, with his decaying face that looks like he was shoved headfirst into a food processor and his wardrobe that seems borrowed from Vincent Price's shadowy killer in "House of Wax".  Elke Sommer is highly memorable in this film. She has a frenetic acting style here that becomes increasingly pronounced the more afraid she is, with lots of sudden, animal-like sounds and guttural screams when she's startled.  She moves so quickly in the film she almost seems like a large feline, especially when she's running down the narrow village corridors to escape the good Baron.  Bava was so pleased with her performance in this film, he gave her the lead role in the subsequent "Lisa and the Devil".  "Baron Blood" is a high point in both of their careers, and it makes great late night viewing.





Monday, April 4, 2016

"Pigs" (aka "The 13th Pig", "Daddy's Deadly Darling", "Daddy's Girl", "Love Exorcist", and many more!) (1972)


I already wrote about this movie back in 2009, but Vinegar Syndrome has just released a fantastic Blu Ray restoration of "Pigs", and the new release returns the film to its director's original cut, minus the alternate footage that was shot later for various re-edits. It's now easier to see how the reshoots cheapened the overall effect, and how well it stands on its own without all the bullshit, so it's worth taking another look.


Directed by veteran character actor Marc Lawrence, "Pigs" was a strange choice for him; although Lawrence admitted he made the film in hopes of turning a quick profit, he set out to cast his daughter Toni in the lead role and wrote a script where she plays a schizophrenic murderess named Lynn who was sexually abused by her father when she was a little girl. The only cut of the film that I had seen up to this point was the one available via home video. Derived from a re-edit of the movie from 1977 called "Daddy's Girl", that version gives a haphazard overview of Lynn's early life before the opening credits. A weird montage shows her father leaving a hospital with baby Lynn in his arms, interacting with her at various times during her childhood and, most disturbingly, touching her inappropriately. A neighbor lady overhears Lynn screaming and witnesses her stabbing her father to death with a very large knife, after which Lynn is committed to an institution. She then escapes when a young nurse sneaks off to have sex with a doctor and leaves her white uniform behind along with her car keys. Lawrence's original cut of the film did not contain any of this, although it's not hard to tell that Toni Lawrence doesn't even appear in these reshoots--she is portrayed by various females wearing wigs, even the baby that stands in for young Lynn has a wig on, and in the scene where she peers out of her cell window waiting to escape, it seems to be a man's eyes. "Daddy's Girl" has been released a few times to home media, with various replacement title cards cut in--Troma released a DVD some years ago that changed the title back to "Pigs", and there have been VHS releases under the names "Daddy's Deadly Darling", "Horror Farm" and "The Killer".




Stranger still was a different re-edit of the movie that was known under the titles "Love Exorcist" and "Blood Pen"; it was Lawrence's original cut of the movie, but with a bizarre three-minute scene tacked onto the beginning featuring two men attempting to perform an exorcism on Lynn, who is possessed by a pig demon. She briefly follows the business model laid out by "The Exorcist" by screaming "Fuck me! Fuck me!", opening her mouth while dubbed pig squeals emerge, and then attacking one guy's crotch while muttering "I want your prick! I want your cock! Prick! Cock! Prick!" If this scene did not include Jim Antonio, it would have no connection to the rest of the film at all, since the actress playing Lynn here is not Toni Lawrence...at least it doesn't seem to be...and the priest character doesn't appear again. These were all superfluous scenes that Lawrence didn't conceive for his original project; both fake intros are too shrill and sensational to fit comfortably with the brooding stillness of Lawrence's creepy movie.
Is this Toni Lawrence?? It doesn't look like her to me.
The title on this director's cut of the film is "The 13th Pig". It opens showing us the character Marc Lawrence plays in his own film, the demented former circus performer Zambrini, as he unloads a fresh corpse from his truck and prepares to feed it to the pigs he has penned up behind his rundown roadside cafe. Lynn's entrance to the story is unannounced; she's a stranger to us when we first see her, although clearly on the run. We glimpse her ditching a nurses uniform in the bushes, but the fact that we don't know anything about her in this original cut gives her character a sense of mystery. Lawrence achieves an impressive tracking shot right off the bat; as the credits begin, a close up of a flowing creek pulls way back to reveal a rural roadway with Lynn's Volkswagen careening along, then zooms in again and follows it for a bit as it draws nearer, all in a single unbroken shot. She arrives at Zambrini's isolated corner of the world after following a desolate series of roads that appear to be mostly unpopulated, ending with the dirt road that leads her to Zambrini's. She is greeted by startling squeals from the the pen of pigs behind the cafe, as if they are calling to her. 

  

The fact that there is a roadside cafe at the ass end of a dirt road is just one of the amusingly off-kilter things about this flick; Lynn sees a sign that says "Waitress Wanted", but not only are we wondering how such an isolated location could support a diner, we're also wondering why the hell Zambrini would want to encourage people to come to a location where he's feeding human corpses to a sounder of swine. Oh well, a man's gotta eat.


The film introduces Miss Macy and Annette, two spinster siblings who live nearby, in a series of dreamlike sequences; upon Lynn's first arrival, we see the two women inside their house with no previous introduction and no dialogue, reacting fearfully to the squealing of the pigs. Later, we learn they've got a history of complaining about Zambrini and his pigs to the local Sheriff, Dan Cole (Jesse Vint), claiming they hear the pigs grunting and snuffling right outside their windows, as if the pigs are coming right up to the house. They tell the sheriff that they believe the old man feeds people to the pigs, after which the victim becomes a new pig for the pen, which is then eaten by Zambrini. After Dan confronts Zambrini about the latest complaint, a weird incident occurs where we see Zambrini in his bizarre circus attire barging right into the house of the sisters and threatening them while they cower helplessly together in fright. The scene is a fragment and we're not entirely sure whether it is real or fantasy, as it leads immediately into a separate dream sequence where Lynn imagines Zambrini murdering her. Before we recognize Lynn as an insane killer, "Pigs" plays her as if she might be a damsel in distress. Early in the game, it seems like Zambrini himself will be the main heavy, and Lynn learns not to approach the hog pen after he grabs her violently and tells her over and over again "There's nothing back here."



Miss Macy and Annette suggest that Zambrini has been feeding a steady stream of victims to the pigs, including the diner's previous waitresses, but Zambrini learns that Lynn is even more dangerous than himself; a sleazy oil worker named Ben finds Lynn's discarded nurse uniform and demands a date with her in exchange for keeping quiet about what he has found. When he tries to force himself on her, Lynn freaks and cuts their date short, riding back to the diner with the Sheriff. But Ben is not so easily put off, and Lynn invites him to her bedroom, putting on a sexy strip show for him first and then violently slashing him to death with Zambrini's strait razor. After the murder, Zambrini finds Lynn cowering in a daze, cleans her up, puts her to bed and...well, feeds the pigs. A beautiful relationship has begun.




Lynn's daddy issues come to the forefront in a series of scenes where she makes one-sided phone calls to her unseen (and unheard) father, begging him to understand why she disappeared and promising to come see him once she gets it together. The day after Ben's murder, Lynn awakens and finds her bedroom now neat and tidy as if nothing really happened, but she hears his disembodied screams and cries for help in her head; after running down a road to a payphone to call her father again, there's a weird scene where she is haunted by Ben's screams and the squeals of pigs, which seem to be coming from nowhere as she tries to outrun them.


This scene really highlights what is great about Toni Lawrence's performance as Lynn. Her father wrote the script with her in mind, but her part still doesn't feature a whole lot of back story or extensive dialogue. Fortunately for the film, Toni is very good at communicating Lynn's confusion and desperation in nonverbal ways. A woman running down the road screaming and swinging her arms at nothing is absurd, but it's also not too hard to imagine her character doing this, and the rapid fire editing is disorienting. She does get a few scenes where she really gets to shine, and one in particular is disturbing in its sadness: a man comes to the diner who already knows Lynn's name; this is where the film reveals that Lynn is an escaped mental patient. Considering that she hears voices and stabs people, it's not shocking to learn that she ran away from an institution, but the revelation provides an important emotional moment for the character. The man, Jess Winter (Jim Antonio), tells her that she's missed by the people from the hospital, and she suddenly warms and actually becomes happy for the first time in the movie. Smiling broadly, she asks about a male doctor she left behind when she "left", obviously the last father figure she was attached to, and she seems overjoyed to know that she can return to the hospital.





Zambrini interferes though, when he tells Lynn he will miss her and wants her to stay. Perhaps feeling loyalty toward this father figure who nurtured her even after she committed murder, Lynn's stability shifts yet again and she stabs Winter to death, setting into motion the film's restrained but bizarre climax: when the hospital calls the sheriff asking about their missing investigator, they tell him that Lynn is an escaped mental patient. Dan calls Zambrini to warn him and tells him not to say anything to Lynn until he arrives to take her into custody. Instead, Zambrini immediately tells Lynn and tries to take her away to hide, but she panics and starts to become confused again. When Zambrini tells her that her father is dead, she reacts violently and stabs him to death. Before Dan can arrive, Lynn makes one last phone call to her "father"--this time we hear the operator's voice saying "The number you have dialed is not in service, this is a recording"--when suddenly the diner is invaded by the squealing pigs, presumably to consume Lynn. Although we never see the aftermath, from Dan's reaction we assume that he went into the diner and found Lynn's pig-eaten body along with Zambrini's. But in the movie's final scene, Dan is surprised to learn that there are now 13 pigs instead of only 12. The farmer who takes them away also gives Dan the Egyptian ankh necklace that Lynn used to wear, saying he fished it out of the pen.

"Pigs" is cut from the same cloth as many other independent low budget films of the era, filmed in rural locations and populated with strange characters. It reminds me a lot of the movies directed by Texan filmmaker S.F. Brownrigg, with two main characters who have found a refuge to carry out their antisocial compulsions. The isolated atmosphere that's so important for a movie like this is here in spades, with some fantastic locations for Lawrence to work with. Desert landscapes with mountains in the background, wide open fields, and meandering dirt roads all create a feeling of smallness and exposure, while the dark clusters of trees and the dimness of the diner itself suggest a secret place Lynn has found where she can hide from the world. 



The injection of actual mysticism and the supernatural into the story sets this apart from some other similar films, like the Brownrigg films, "3 On A Meathook", or Tobe Hooper's "Eaten Alive!". The Macy sisters have their outlandish theory that Zambrini is murdering people and turning them into pigs, but there is a scene where Sheriff Cole talks to a doctor who is making a house call at Miss Macy's. The doctor tells Dan that the Egyptians believed people turned into pigs before turning into gods or goddesses, which clicks into place when Lynn's Egyptian pendant, which she never removes in the film, appears discarded in the pig pen and there is an extra pig in there. The fact that "Pigs" never shows us what the Sheriff discovers inside the diner after we last see Lynn makes her fate even more ambiguous; we assume he saw her body, but did he? Or did she escape? Was everyone just counting wrong, or was there really a new pig that used to be Lynn? The re-edited version titled "Daddy's Girl", the one with the bad footage of Lynn played by various people wearing a wig, isn't satisfied to leave anything to the imagination and removes this supernatural element by tacking on more new scenes at the conclusion: Lynn fakes her death in the pig pen and escapes again, picking up a guy hitchhiking along the side of the road.

Cute, but not worthy of sacrificing the otherworldly uncertainty of Lawrence's movie. Fortunately this original cut of "Pigs" is now available from Vinegar Syndrome, and the transfer is phenomenal. A disclaimer before the movie explains that the cut was pieced together from different prints, but it's hard to spot any significant problems with the image at any point during the film, and anybody who is familiar with "Pigs" because of the previous home video incarnations will be stunned at the difference.


Oh, and just try and get away from watching this movie without having the Charles Bernstein theme song "Keep On Driving" stuck in your head for days. In one of my favorite 70s traditions, Lynn has a catchy theme song that follows her on her odyssey to self-actualization, which in her case is achieved by murdering a few people and then turning into a pig.



The above two images are parts of a painting appearing in the film that was painted by Marc Lawrence's son Michael as a gift for Fellini. Instead, it ended up going to Charles Bernstein as payment for composing the film's music.