Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Horror Express (1972)

If you watched scary movies on TV in the 70s and early 80s, "Horror Express" was inescapable--if you don't recognize the title, you probably thought of it the same way I did, as "that movie with the white eyes bleeding from the head". I always caught it late at night, long after I should have been in bed, and it's one of those rare films that is just as good whether you're an adult or a kid. The plot finds two British men of science aboard the Trans Siberian Express fighting a shape shifting evil presence that one of them has freed from a cave during an expedition in Manchuria. The fact that the two leads are none other than Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing immediately gives "Horror Express" all the cred it would ever need, and even though it wasn't made by Hammer Films, the fact that they're in the movie makes it seem that way.
"Dude...I've been sleeping for a couple million years, what time is it?"

Professor Saxton (Christopher Lee) is an anthropologist who discovers what appears to be the fossilized remains of a prehistoric humanoid creature. With the creature's body packed in a crate, he boards the Trans-Siberian Express in China, along with fellow British scientist Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing). The two are rival colleagues, and Saxton is originally intent on keeping his discovery a secret until he can return to England. Before they even leave China, a local thief is found dead on the train platform next to the crate, his eyes bleeding and now completely white. A Polish Count and his wife encounter the scene while boarding, and their spiritual advisor, a crazed monk (Alberto de Mendoza), insists the contents of the crate are evil.  Wells becomes suspicious of Saxton's "fossil", and pays the baggage man to look inside the crate once everyone has boarded. When the man looks into the crate, the creature reanimates and kills him with its glowing red eye, which causes the man's eyes to go white. The creature then picks the lock and escapes, hiding on the train and claiming other passengers as victims, all of them found with white, bleeding eyes. Finally it is gunned down by a police inspector, Mirov (Julio Pena), but before it dies it locks eyes with him, somehow transferring itself to his own body.
"You call THIS vodka?"
Wells and his assistant perform an autopsy on one of the victims, deducing that the creature has drained its victims brains of all memories and knowledge. By extracting fluid from the dead fossil's eye, they are able to see images in the liquid that reveal a prehistoric Earth, as well as the planet as seen from space. The evil presence is an alien form of intelligent energy that is able to jump from body to body, and has survived on the planet for millions of years, transferring hosts until it became trapped in the body of the apelike creature that Saxton discovered. It is intent on absorbing enough knowledge to escape the planet and return to its own galaxy, with only Saxton and Wells in a position to stop it.
"Siberia..!? I thought we were headed for Ibiza!"
Most of the action in the film is contained to the cars of the train, which is pretty amazing when you realize that the filmmakers only had one train set that was redressed several times to simulate different cars. Legend has it that Cushing arrived on the set for this film mourning the recent death of his wife, and he informed the director that he couldn't do the film because he was too distraught. Christopher Lee intervened by simply reminiscing about old times with Cushing, who fortunately forgot all about quitting the picture and did the job after all. Just having the two of them together in the movie would have been enough, but we also get none other than Telly Savalas in a brief but juicy role as a Cossack officer who boards the train with a group of his men and roughs up the passengers in an attempt to find the "murderer"--of course his eyeballs end up like hard boiled eggs like all the other victims in the film. Another familiar face is Helga Line, who had an extensive film career in Spanish movies and appeared in several genre films, including "Vampire's Night Orgy". "Horror Express" doesn't have the budget of a Hammer film, but it's so efficient that you'd never know it. The exterior shots of the train are miniatures, but extremely well done miniatures. The glowing eyeball effects are excellent too, especially since they were probably very difficult to pull off in 1972.

An image harvested from fluid in the creature's eyeball reveals...a child's dinosaur book?
Alberto de Mendoza really steals the show as Pujardov, the mad monk whose character ends up taking center stage by the end of the film. Pujardov starts the movie by ominously warning the others that Saxton's crate contains "pure evil", melodramatically warning the others about the presence of "Satan". After it has migrated to Inspector Mirov's body, Pujardov becomes awed by it and offers to do its bidding. Instead it says to him "Fool, there's nothing worth taking in your brain." But when it is gunned down while using Mirov's body, the creature is forced to migrate into Pujardov anyway. Saxton himself declares earlier in the film that religion is superstition when one of the other characters refers to Darwin's Theory of Evolution as immoral, but at one point the creature confronts him and tempts him like the devil; faced with the fact that Saxton could kill it, it instead offers to teach him the secrets of science that it has absorbed over the millions of years it has survived. Both Saxton and the monk could be right about the creature, as it could both prove and disprove the human concept of Satan and evil in general. I love that this movie has such a great concept behind it, which makes it all the more interesting once the visual shocks are diluted by years of viewing.

"Horror Express" is definitely one of the greatest movies to feature Cushing and Lee, and they deliver a lot of the best lines as well. At one point Mirov (actually the creature) suggests that one of them could actually be the monster, to which a shocked Cushing responds "Monster? We're British, you know!" Telly Savalas is a total anachronism in this film and it's brilliant; he basically shows up, acts like Kojak for a few scenes, then turns into a white-eyed zombie. 

There are obvious parallels to "The Thing", or more specifically "Who Goes There?", the short story that inspired "The Thing", but the script is original enough that it stands on its own. The wackiest scene is when Cushing and Lee examine the liquid contents of the creature's eyeball and find that they can see images of the things the creature has seen in its lifetime, including dinosaurs (which are textbook illustrations). "Horror Express" is completely dubbed and was almost surely shot silent, with the entire audio track created in post-production. The result is a claustrophobic sound design that really enhances the atmosphere of a cramped, moving train. The gory elements are very effective, too, like one scene where Cushing uses a nasty looking saw to cut open the head of the dead porter's corpse during the autopsy. Those bleeding eyes, though...those will stick with you. I remember the sick feeling it used to give me when I watched it as a kid, with a combination of dread, excitement, and mystery.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Flesh For Frankenstein (1973), aka Andy Warhol's Frankenstein

Whenever I think of the most disturbing films I've ever seen, "Flesh For Frankenstein" (1973) has got to be near the top of the list. The concept of Frankenstein and his experiments is something that pop culture tends to gloss over; those cartoonishly square-headed green-skinned monsters we see at Halloween are so far removed from Mary Shelley's original creation that it's easy to forget the "monster" is a corpse, and not even an entire corpse. It's pieced together from numerous dead bodies, as if body parts could be interchangeable and human beings could be little more than elaborate dolls. Filmed in Serbia back to back with "Blood for Dracula" and utilizing many of the same cast members, "Flesh for Frankenstein" was marketed in the United States as "Andy Warhol's Frankenstein", just like its sibling was retitled "Andy Warhol's Dracula". Both films were directed by Paul Morrissey, veteran of the Warhol-produced films "Heat", "Trash", and "Flesh".  Like those films, "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" both feature Warhol personality Joe Dallesandro. While both films are identical in tone and style, only "Frankenstein" ended up being so over the top gory, nihilistic, and absolutely bizarre. It also has the distinction of being the only film of the two that was filmed in 3D. While it is technically a spoof of Frankenstein films, it is played straight and has a serious side that goes right alongside the ridiculous elements. It can be read both ways, often simultaneously.

"Ve vill find ze perfect...nasum."
The one and only Udo Kier stars as Baron Frankenstein, seemingly obsessed not only with the reanimation of dead bodies, but with the creation of a master Serbian race. Frankenstein lives in the family castle with a woman who appears to be his wife and the mother of his two children, who we see in the opening scene prowling Frankenstein's lab and dissecting a doll.  Later we come to realize that the Baroness is not only Frankenstein's wife, but also his sister. Whether or not the two are really the parents of the children is unclear, but incest is the least of the sexual perversions going on in the Frankenstein castle.  The Baroness (Monique van Mooren) suffers from her lack of a sex life with her "husband" and starts to set her sights on local stud peasant Nicholas (Joe Dallesandro), who is constantly found in sexual situations with various young maidens in the village. Aided by the required bizarre assistant Otto (Arno Juerging), the Baron presides over his two monsters in his laboratory. Before bringing them to life, he removes the female zombie from its holding tank and cuts it open, fondling its insides in an orgasmic way, then having sex with it, after which he delivers one of the movie's most unforgettable lines: "To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life in the gall bladder!"

Frankenstein is determined to find the ideal head for his male monster, one that has the perfect Serbian nose (referred to here as a "nasum"). The Baron and Otto find the right head on local peasant Sacha (Srdjan Zelenovic), a mild mannered man who has aspirations to become a monk.  The bawdy Nicholas is his friend and takes him to a whorehouse, but Sacha isn't interested in sex. The Baron and Otto don't know this, and wait for him to emerge with the now-drunken Nicholas. They knock Nicholas unconscious and decapitate Sacha then and there, the Baron holding his head triumphantly. Whatever Frankenstein's methods are, they're pretty amazing because they don't even pack it in ice. Little does he know that Sacha's disinterest in sex makes him an unlikely candidate as the father of a master race, and when he attaches the head to the male monster, everyone is disappointed when he fails to respond to the beautiful female creature.

Meanwhile, Nicholas seeks shelter at the castle after the locals find him next to Sacha's decapitated body and suspect him of murder. Flustered by his studliness, the icy Baroness takes him in and hires him to...tend to her stables, if you know what I mean. When the Baron decides to bring his two creations to the dinner table that night, Nicholas recognizes his former friend and begins to investigate, uncovering Frankenstein's experiments. The two children also are aware of the experiments, lurking in the hidden passageways of the castle and spying on their mother's and father's perverted sex lives. At one point they sneak into the laboratory and gaze silently at the horrors on display there, including a set of disembodied lungs and a heart, attached to wires and tubes and breathing on their own. Frankenstein  himself spies on the Baroness when she's with Nicholas, yet seems to be completely uninterested in her otherwise.

The Baron eventually loses control of the morbid situation he's set in motion. The dangerously disturbed Otto goes haywire with jealousy and sexual frustration, first by attacking the castle maid and killing her when he attempts to fondle her insides the way Frankenstein does to the female zombie. One of the film's weirdest scenes is when he chases her through the laboratory until he has her cornered. He attacks her in a sexual manner, and there is a loud ripping sound on the soundtrack of the film, then she falls over a grating, her internal organs falling out of her body and dangling in 3D at the camera.

Later, Otto attempts to do the same to the female zombie and destroys her in the process, too, infuriating the Baron to the point where he strangles Otto to death. Nicholas, whom the Baron has tied up and held captive in the laboratory, watches as the Baroness forces herself into the equation by demanding that her brother let her take the male monster back to her bedroom for his sexual services. The Baron reluctantly agrees, but the male creature possesses brute strength and crushes her during the sex act, her ribs and back cracking loudly as he kills her. The monster carries her back to the lab, where the Baron has just killed Otto. The Baron goes berserk at seeing his sister dead, and orders the monster to kill Nicholas. Instead it goes after Frankenstein himself, leading to the Grand Guignol bloodbath finale: the monster shears off Frankenstein's hand with an iron gate door. After the Baron sprays blood all over the lab, the creature impales him with a spiked pole, the Baron's liver dangling off the end of it as it's thrust into the camera. The Baron delivers (de-livers?) a hilariously long dying speech, then expires in a kneeling position. Nicholas asks the creature to free him, but instead it commits suicide by ripping its own guts out, preferring to die rather than go on living. With the rest of the cast dead, the film ends as the children enter the lab and regard Nicholas curiously, then make preparations to re-enact the opening dissection, this time using Nicholas instead of the doll.

No mad scientist's lab is complete without one of these.
The movie has a strong atmosphere of doom and horror, even without the fantastic gore, but the gore is a large part of the movie's experience. Never has the true horror of Frankenstein's bodily invasions been so explicitly portrayed in a movie. Although the Hammer "Frankenstein" films came close, none of them paired their gore with such a strong sense of sexuality, and none of them would have dared tackle such pervasive themes of both necrophilia and incest. The actual sex scenes in the film are not pornographic, although the overall tone is way stronger than a typical R rated film. They're also a little unusual, shall we say, and more than a little ridiculous, like when the Baroness ecstatically licks Nicholas's armpit. While there is a lot of female nudity, Dallesandro also appears full frontal in the film, which even in 2013 still seems to push the envelope of what is and isn't acceptable in onscreen sex scenes. Indeed, "Andy Warhol's Frankenstein" was shown in the US with an "X" rating upon its release, and I'd advise against watching the edited R-rated version that circulates (the version on Netflix is listed as unrated, but is actually the R rated cut that removes most of the gore and sex scenes by either cutting them out entirely or destroying the film composition by zooming awkwardly onto less-offensive parts of the frame). The nudity and graphic violence are very much essential to the movie's effect.

Something seems to be wrong down there...
Although the movie is clearly not meant to be taken seriously, it's also hard not to get drawn into its strange world, which has a lot to do with the quality of the production. The sets are truly amazing, especially Frankenstein's lab, a nightmarish space containing antiquated tile, stone, and of course the essential mad scientist tubes and gadgets. The cinematography is engrossing and always artful, capturing the visual details of the sets and outlining their depth and character. The presence of Joe Dallesandro seems completely nonsensical, since everything about the movie is European except for him and his displaced New York personality, complete with a strong Brooklyn accent. Udo Kier's overwrought performance as the Baron is both absurd and strangely compelling, such as the scene where he desperately tries to get the male zombie to become sexually aroused by the female, shrieking over and over to the female zombie "Kiss him! What are you waiting for, KISS HIM!" Kier plays Baron Frankenstein much like a caricature of Hitler, which seems logical considering he is a sociopath obsessed with creating a 'master race'.

Although Dallesandro's performance is typically wooden, he does have a presence that's hard to deny. Monique van Mooren hits all the right notes as the snobby Baroness, and she even has one of the film's best lines when Dallesandro tries to warn her she's in danger and she shouts at him "How dare you wake me up in the middle of the day when you know I have insomnia!"  The children are especially creepy, as they are silent throughout the entire film and have no lines of dialogue. We see them learning the decadent ways of their parents, even spying on them from the secret passageways when they're having sex, and after the Shakespearean climax of the film they silently approach Nicholas with scalpels, suggesting that Frankenstein's bizarre experiments will continue. While on one hand "Flesh for Frankenstein" is completely absurd and even laughable (and the filmmakers do want you to laugh), its nightmarish world of bodily degradation and sexual excess starts to take on a life of its own.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973)

Welcome to the wacky world of "Invasion of the Bee Girls", where certain honeys are more than they seem to bee, and even the very act of sexual intercourse can result in your death at the...hands?...of a woman mutated with the genetic material of bees. Hear me, true bee-lievers, it could happen to you just like it did in Peckham, California. Let me tell you all about it.

"Don't look right away, but that woman behind us....why does she have her sunglasses on inside?"
Neil Agar (William Smith, "Grave of the Vampire", "Maniac Cop") is a state agent investigating the death of a bacteriologist who was found dead in a cheap motel room. The scientist was associated with the Brandt Research center, a government-sponsored lab in the small town of Peckham, and his death seems to have been caused by a heart attack that occurred during a moment of sexual intercourse. His female partner is unknown. Before Agar can decide the death isn't suspicious after all, more bodies start turning up that look a lot like this:

It seems that Peckham has a strange epidemic on its hands, and the exclusively male victims all suffer the same symptoms: fatal thrombosis during sexual intercourse. Neil meets the Brandt center's chief librarian Julie Zorn (Victora Vetri, "Rosemary's Baby"), who tips him off about the important scientists working at Brandt. The sudden rash of deaths has the locals panicked, and by "locals" I should say stereotypically piggish semi-thugs who do things like sexually assault women in alleys, attend rabble-rousing union meetings and drink a lot of beer. The local sheriff holds a town meeting to warn everyone to be celibate, although the men are not about to put on any purity rings, and more of them wind up dead after coming into contact with several suspiciously beautiful women who like to wear large dark sunglasses. At night. Brandt's sex expert, Henry Murger, announces that he has a bizarre theory to explain the deaths, but he is conveniently run over by a car with a mysterious (and we presume beautiful) driver before he can meet with Neil and Julie to discuss his theory.
They also have this suspect honeycomb-vision, accompanied by a buzzing sound.
Your showcase contains this beautifully complicated instrument panel, essential for any world domination plot!
The figure who keeps appearing in the background at all these points of interest is Dr. Susan Harris (Anitra Ford), a lovely entomologist whom the horny male scientists describe as an 'iceberg'. It's not long into the movie where we start to realize women are deliberately and literally screwing these men to death, usually after they reveal that their eyes have turned completely black. This naturally never deters any of the men from screwing them, leading to this epidemic of sexually exhausted male corpses. Neil discovers that Murger, the one man not to succumb to this strange phenomenon, was gay and had a secret male lover. Could this bee the reason someone had to resort to the more patently boring method of vehicular homicide?
"Would you like some coffee with that sugar, Dr. Harris?"
Ha! Now my sunglasses are actually ON my EYEBALLS.
Another scientist named Herb Kline falls victim when Susan Harris suddenly warms up to him and invites him to her house for dinner, where she seduces him and then kills him with sex, her eyes turning black. SHOCK-she's ONE of them! Well, not only is she one of them, she's the creator of them! Harris has developed a way to transform ordinary women through a process of controlled mutation. After Kline is dead, she phones Mrs. Kline and lures her to her laboratory, where she has this strange hive-like dome equipped with what appear to be giant ray guns. Harris and the other "bee girls" force Mrs. Kline into their bee-o-dome (har har) and bombard her nude body with gamma rays, a gooey substance that looks suspiciously like marshmallow topping, and the final key ingredient: a swarm of irradiated bees. After her transformation is complete, her eyes are black too, and we presume she is now equipped with a killer bee-vagina like the others. Hvvvvvvvvvvvv....

So that's how it is in their hive....
Stay calm, sheriff...don't bother her and she won't bother you.
After Mrs. Kline becomes part of this insidious insect plot, the sheriff goes to inform her of her husband's death, at which point she attempts to seduce him right then and there while he's telling her about it. Perhaps only her bizarre sense of timing foils the plan by spooking the sheriff, who bolts. Proving that a bee girl is not invulnerable is another incident where Brandt geneticist Stan Williams is attacked by his recently transformed wife, but he manages to strangle her with her own stocking before he dies, resulting in one of the most bizarre crime scenes that any investigator has ever stumbled upon:
It's all about to come to an abrupt end for Dr. Harris and her bee girls, however, bee-cause super agent Neil is hot on their trail, assisted by the lovely librarian Julie. Neil connects all the dots in the nick of time and races back to Harris's lab, where Harris and her deadly women have kidnapped Julie and are attempting to turn her into one of them. Neil rescues Julie and fires a bullet into Harris's bee-machine, breaking it and saving the day. The bee girls die, and the mating process in Peckham can finally go back to normal.

Although it doesn't really work as a horror movie or even a science fiction film, "Invasion of the Bee Girls" is a true gem, a wild time capsule full of 1970s decor, politics, and attitudes. Like "The Stepford Wives" which came a few years after, this movie makes a dark satire about the power struggle between men and women of this era, seemingly stoking men's fears that women were gaining the upper hand and had malicious intent once they gained power. Anitra Ford is great as the film's female villain, although the script doesn't really bog down with too many details, ensuring that her character remains a cipher. The film is lacking a scene where she explains her motivation for doing what she's doing, leaving us to draw our own conclusions. The movie plays it safe by making both sides of the issue into caricatures; although the obligatory romance blossoms between Neil and Julie, when they first meet she gives him an unsmiling, hostile greeting. Dr. Harris herself is the very definition of a frigid bitch, warming up only when it's time to seduce a man and kill him. The men in the movie are almost all foolish boors--the local townspeople are even depicted as sexually aggressive and violent, and there's a scene where no less than four of them attempt to gang rape Julie. The Brandt scientists are not much better, despite being stuffy brainiac types. Even when men are dropping dead after having sex, they are rendered powerless by any woman who wears provocative clothes. I found it hilarious that the bee girls had to run over Murger with a car because he was gay and therefore immune to their seductive charms, but did the movie have to tell us this via a scene where Neil finds a secret sex room in Murger's house, full of whips, chains, crossdressing items, greek statues, caged birds, an aquarium, and...lava lamps? Who knew a blue lava lamp meant you were gay? Hey, I love lava lamps, so maybe it's true. Hmm!

Any high-tech laboratory is not complete without an ice cream cooler.
It's best not to think about these things too much though when you're watching a B movie (get it?), and my only real complaint with "Invasion of the Bee Girls" is the abrupt, lifeless conclusion. Despite being completely outnumbered by about 10 to 1, Neil is able to easily infiltrate Dr. Harris's lab--she doesn't even lock the door--when Julie is in danger of being transformed. Not only that, all he has to do is fire a single shot into the giant instrument panel and the ENTIRE HIVE is conveniently killed. Dr. Harris is one of the most fascinating characters in the movie, but we know so little about her. It's disappointing that when she's faced with the complete undoing of her evil scheme, she can't even muster up the strength to fight back. Considering she's a mad scientist, she could have at least had a scene where she proclaims her manifesto. Since her vendetta is against men, it would have been interesting to hear her views firsthand. But the worst indignity the movie heaps on her is her death scene. OK, I get it...she's a mad scientist. She wants to take over the world (or at least Peckham) by murdering all the men. She must be stopped, which in horror movies means she must die. But couldn't they have at least given her a spectacular death scene? Did she die when someone threw her into a bubbling cauldron of molten beeswax? Did she get accidentally sealed inside a honeycomb and asphyxiate? Was she burned alive while being embraced by the spirit of Joan of Arc? No, actually this happens:

She just sort of stands there in a daze while her bee-o-dome goes up on a flurry of sparks, and then she is engulfed by a bloom of white light (radiation?), after which she scratches her own face and collapses.

Not very fitting for a mad genius, I say. I liked Dr. Harris, even if she was a little more Valerie Solanis than Naomi Wolfe. 

"Invasion of the Bee Girls" doesn't have much in the way of horror, with the exception of the murder of Henry Murger, during which an unseen Harris drives a car into him and crushes his midsection, then while he is lying on the ground dying, violently crushes his entire body by running right over him. There are a lot of beautiful naked women of varying ages and body types, and if this movie had been made in 2013, there wouldn't be a bee girl over the age of 23 in the film. One of the sexiest women in the movie is Beverly Powers, who appeared as Beverly Hills in "Brides of Blood". Beverly was in her mid 30s when she made "Invasion of the Bee Girls", and her character is made to appear slightly older than that, but her seduction scene is one of the best in the film: earlier in the film we see her putting cold cream on her face while snapping at her husband before bedtime, and after being transformed she performs an erotic strip tease for him. Anitra Ford is an interesting lead as well, she has an exotic quality to her and her limited dialogue in the film makes her seem even more mysterious.

I really must have that mirror for my own. My life may depend on it.
Technically, "Invasion of the Bee Girls" is about what you'd expect for a cheap exploitation film from the 1970s. The film stock is often grainy, the editing sometimes rough, and there's nothing in the way of special effects that will make you say "Wow, man!" But the cinematography is endearingly 70s, with a lot of zooms and focus pulls. The decor is even more outrageously, wonderfully dated, as are the clothing and hairstyles of the male characters. The soundtrack is a lot of wakka-wakka funk, especially one piece that features frantic ethereal "bee girl" vocals that sound like a nightmarish B-side (bee side?) to the Three Degrees "When Will I See You Again".

Furthering my love for "Invasion of the Bee Girls" is the fact that it was re-released in the early 1980s as a double-bill second feature under the title "Graveyard Tramps". I can't imagine where the hell anybody came up with that title, as only one scene in the movie takes place in a graveyard and that's during a funeral--but I love it.