Monday, April 22, 2013

Blood and Lace (1971)

In a font that you can almost read....almost...

Just a few weeks ago I sat mesmerized in my car at the Riverside Drive-In as "Blood and Lace" unspooled across the giant screen, and as each scene happened it got progressively more insane. I went into "Blood and Lace" entirely unaware of what it was about, so I was a blank slate.  "Blood and Lace" wrote all over me in crazy, schizophrenic lettering that made no goddamn sense.  If you want to experience that for yourself, stop reading this right now and go watch the movie. Meanwhile, I've got to vent.

Released in 1971 by American International, "Blood and Lace" features a wacky cast of actors you've most likely seen in lots of other things, the most recognizable being Gloria Grahame (her most famous role being that of Violet Bick in "It's A Wonderful Life"). Vic Tayback is here too, several years from becoming Mel Sharples in 1974. The lead is Melody Patterson, who had been seen on television in the series "F Troop". Out of nowhere is also a young Dennis Christopher ("Breaking Away", "Fade to Black", and a zillion other things), and there are several other character actors who worked a lot on TV.

"Blood and Lace" takes us into a cheap, artificial world reminiscent of a Harry Novak picture, populated by characters you think you understand until you realize that all of them are out of their friggin minds, especially the ones you initially think are the most normal. It opens with a murder sequence that is not entirely unlike the opening of John Carpenter's "Halloween", an extended point-of-view shot of a prowler lurking around a dark house, entering a door, removing a hammer out of a drawer, and then wandering through the house to the bedroom of a sleeping couple. The killer hammers the woman in the face until she's dead, and hits the man a few times, too. Before the man is finished off, the killer sets the room on fire, and we see the bludgeoned man roll out of bed and try to escape.

"A girl fight in our underwear? No problem!"

The murdered woman was Edna Masters, a small town prostitute, and the man was her latest customer. Edna's teenage daughter Ellie (Melody Patterson) is placed in the care of a social worker named Mr. Mullins, who has her temporarily placed in a hospital--a nurse runs in after Ellie wakes up screaming from a nightmare and seems more annoyed than concerned, turning angrily to Mullins and saying "You've got to get this girl OUT of here." This was really my first indicator that this movie is not playing with a full deck--a nurse is angry at a teenage girl whose mother was just viciously murdered with a hammer to the head?  Ellie tells Mullins she wants to be on her own and seek out the father she never knew, but all she really knows about her father is that he was the first man who ever made love to her mother. Mullins tells her that since her father is unknown, legally she's an orphan and must be treated as such.After she tries to run away, Mullins reports her to the sheriff, Calvin Carruthers (Vic Tayback), and Carruthers chases her down and returns her to the hospital. Carruthers knows who she is, and his interest in her is already apparent--Ellie is taken aback when Calvin tells her he recognizes her from when she was a child and attended the theater he worked in. He is now the sheriff, and intends to keep an eye on Ellie while handling the investigation of the death of Ellie's mother. Ellie claims she saw a man run out of her mother's bedroom the night of the murder, but she claims she didn't see the hammer in real life, only in her dreams. Calvin warns her that the man who killed her mother might be after her.

But Calvin's intentions for Ellie are not entirely innocent. He meets Mullins for a drink in a bar to discuss Ellie, and Mullins tells him he intends to take Ellie to a private home for children run by a woman named Mrs. Deere. Calvin admits to Mullins that he is interested in Ellie as a potential wife because he considers her good "breeding stock", despite the fact that he is much older than she is.
"Have you gone crazy? Walk in the grass in my bare feet? Why it's ten miles up to Mount Bedford!"
"These young men and women are supposed to be children?"

Once Ellie gets to the Deere Youth Home is when things really go off the deep end. Mrs. Deere is a villain of the lowest caliber, an icy witch queen who hates children more than Miss Hannigan did--and does all the things Miss Hannigan probably did in scenes that were cut from "Annie" for being too batshit crazy. Mrs. Deere's world is seemingly on the brink of falling apart--her husband has been dead for a year, leaving her to run the orphanage with only the help of her skeezy handyman Tom Krege (Len Lesser). Oh, and it doesn't help Mrs. Deere that she is certifiably crazy. She subjects the children to Draconian rules, and when the rules are broken she tortures and abuses them. If they try to run away, she and Krege hunt them down and kill them, but not wanting to lose the income they bring, their bodies are kept in a large walk-in freezer in the basement. Mrs. Deere is hoping she can keep convincing Mullins that the kids are still alive and just "sick" when he visits, and she distracts him with sexual favors. But Krege suddenly blackmails her for more money, and Ellie arrives and starts snooping around to uncover her secrets, and Calvin shows up at the orphanage threatening to conduct a police search of the entire premises. In one of the movie's strangest scenes, she confides to her dead husband about how how her crazy world is imploding--of course she keeps his dead body in the freezer along with the others. Mrs. Deere reveals to Ellie (who still doesn't see the big picture) that modern medicine can work wonders with transplants these days, and that one day people who have died will be restored, so this is her grand plan. There's a great scene where she puts one of the dead frozen kids into an infirmary bed and talks to her while she's doing it: "Lucky I got you to the freezer in time, you could have bled to death!"

The fact that these crazy events occur at all is part of the strange fascination of the movie, and all movies like it. The orphanage is appropriately isolated, to remove the more obvious question of "Why don't the kids just run away?", but an even better question is "Why don't they fight back?" None of the "kids" in the orphanage seem to be under the age of 15, and most of them actually look like they're in their mid to late 20s. The movie itself suggests that the "kids" are wards of the state until they're 21, as if they're prisoners in the orphanage, but they're way too old to be as helpless as the movie portrays them. The psychotic personality of the movie is never more apparent than in one of my favorite sequences: Mrs. Deere cruelly torments a girl she's been keeping locked in the attic as punishment for an attempted escape. As the girl languishes from thirst and begs for water, Mrs. Deere drinks a glass right in front of her and tells her how good it is. Then the scene immediately cuts to Ellie having an idyllic, sunlit walk through a field with the resident stud of the orphanage, while romantic music swells on the soundtrack.

Gloria Grahame and Len Lesser are both great as Deere and Krege. They're two capable actors playing these bizarre roles, and they really play well off one another. Grahame has several scenes where she talks in a babytalk voice to the kids while she's actually tormenting them, and there's a great moment when she reveals to Ellie how jealous she is of anybody who is youthful and beautiful. Obviously her appearance in this kind of film was in the tradition of older movie queens who found work in horror films late in their careers, like Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Veronica Lake, Shelly Winters, and most of all Geraldine Page, whose performance in "What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?" seems to be the one from which Grahame drew the most inspiration.  Her final scene is also one of the ones you'll take away from "Blood and Lace" even if you hate it: after seeming to have all her problems solved when Krege winds up mortally wounded and Ellie takes off running, Mrs. Deere drags Krege's body into the freezer where she tells the dying man "We just have to chill your blood to stop the bleeding." But before she can leave the freezer, the thirsty girl appears in the doorway with revenge in her eyes, and slams the door shut on her, locking her inside. Just as the door closes, Gloria Grahame does this crazy thing where she grimaces in horror, screams like a daffy old bird, and jumps up and down. This was surely more acting range than was required from her when she played Bedford Falls' town hussy, Violet Bick.

The cheap atmosphere in "Blood and Lace" has a lot to do with the music and audio mix, too. Although released in 1971, the soundtrack uses hokey old-fashioned library music similar to "Night of the Living Dead" to an alarming degree. Another thing that I can't go without mentioning is the fact that Ellie's first scene, where she wakes up screaming in the hospital, is entirely and awkwardly dubbed, and Ellie's voice is dubbed by none other than famed voice actress June Foray--yes, the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel. That voice comes out of Ellie her first scene in the movie. The cinematography in the movie is another matter. I found it to be extremely exciting and effective, despite the fact that there wasn't much talent in the special effects department--the opening hammer murder should have been extremely shocking, but is instead unrealistic and laughable. Nonetheless, that lengthy point-of-view opening, the one that reminds me so much of "Halloween", is well constructed, and it's easy to see how Carpenter may have been inspired by this and determined to do it better by editing his scene so that it appeared to one long unbroken take, something "Blood and Lace" has no ambition or inspiration to do. As if a Michael Myers reference wasn't enough, a shadowy figure joins the plot as a disfigured man brandishing a hammer stalks Ellie at the Deere Youth Home, and the character bears a strong resemblance to future horror icon Fred Krueger. The bleakness of the sets is what reminds me of Harry Novak, with not much appearing to have been created just for the film, and there's a certain lurid appeal in watching a cheaply produced movie like this. The lighting is interesting as well, especially the way all the scenes inside the freezer are bathed in a monochromatic blue.

I haven't revealed the final plot twists in "Blood and Lace", and it's not because I don't want to talk about them. I think I would even be forgiven for doing so, because knowing them doesn't diminish the enjoyment of "Blood and Lace" in the least. Most of them you will see coming, and maybe some of them you will not. But I don't feel right talking about them, simply because the final moments of this movie revealed something so strange I could hardly comprehend it as a plot point, something so far from left field that it truly stunned me, the final blow in a movie during which nothing really seemed to make sense at all and where every single character turned out to be totally nutso.  In fact, "Blood and Lace" reminds me a lot of "Don't Look In The Basement" in the way it's full of insane characters who don't seem to have a firm grasp on reality, and their attempts to keep for themselves a little haven where they can act out their obsessions without being disturbed by the outside world.

Monday, April 8, 2013

First annual April Ghouls is a head-smashing success!

The April Ghouls Monsterrama this weekend at the Riverside Drive-In was a blast, and hopefully this will also be a yearly event like the Super Drive-In Monsterrama that happens in September.  I had to miss the first night, which featured an all-80s lineup of "Friday the 13th", "The Burning", "Day of the Dead", and "Return of the Living Dead", but I was told the turnout was amazing with over 120 cars. I attended the Saturday lineup, and although it looked to be a little less than that, the program was an all-out 70s experience that really blew my mind in a major way. If you weren't there but wish you were, then read on, cause it went something like THIS....
SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM (1973) - This deranged sequel to "Blacula" started things off on a decidedly high note, and set the tone for the evening rather nicely. It was a little less widely seen than "Blacula", at least on TV when my vampire radar was in full force; despite "Blacula" being one of my favorites as a kid, I never managed to see the sequel until home video. Although it has some pretty jive-ass parts to it, like when Blacula flies over sleazy LA in the form of a superimposed bat, "Scream Blacula Scream" is actually a very strong movie in terms of its horror cred and violent, animalistic vampires.  Cult cinema luminary Pam Grier costars as a member of a voodoo sect who succeeds the dying Mama Loa, much to the irritation of fellow cult member Willis, who felt he should have been the successor. Willis vows revenge and acquires the bones of Prince Mamuwalde (aka Blacula) through some kind of magic artifact salesperson--really, how does one find these things for sale?--and pretty soon a resurrection takes place. But Blacula works for nobody, and immediately vampirizes Willis. Soon he becomes infatuated with Lisa, and as the other cult members start to turn into vampires, Mamuwalde tries to get Lisa to perform a voodoo exorcism on him in order to rid him of his vampirism. Although Pam Grier is the lead, a lot of the attention goes to cult members as they're slowly all victimized, and there are a few memorable vampire attacks. One of them has Willis pursuing a terrified, screaming female victim through an enormous dark house, ending when she's so out of her mind with terror that she faints, and there's an extended scene of him biting her neck and drinking her blood. Another great moment has a woman getting cut during a party, and Blacula sneaking up behind her while she looks in a mirror, unable to see him.
SUGAR HILL (1975) - Here's one that was a first for me, and what a freaked out trip it really was. A mixture of the a blaxploitation crime drama and horror movie, the plot concerns voluptuous fashion photographer Diana Hill, aka Sugar Hill. Some shady crooks are after Sugar's boyfriend for his nightclub, and when they kill him over it, Sugar decides to get revenge. After visiting the local ancient voodoo queen (played by Zara Kelly, who you might have seen as George Jefferson's mother on "The Jeffersons"), Sugar is able to summon the Lord of the Dead, who puts his team of murderous zombies at her disposal. One by one, she visits her man's killers until they've all died some sort of horrible death. The plot could have used a little tweaking, because it's a little bit obvious, but--holy shit, is that really Count Yorga in this movie?? YES, it's Robert Quarry as Sugar Hill's creepy white ganglord enemy! How can you not like a movie like that?
BLOOD AND LACE (1971) - Wow, where to begin here? This was definitely the insane highlight of the evening. "Blood and Lace" is one of those movies that takes place in some alternate reality where human beings don't behave the same way as they do in our dimension. The plot was so convoluted, it didn't unfold, it sort of just spread like a spiderweb crack in a windshield until the whole things was shattered and ruined. I have to admit, it really blew my mind. The film opens when a sleeping woman and her male bedmate are murdered with a hammer and then set on fire. The woman's young daughter, Ellie, is sent to an orphanage where she encounters other "unwanted" children who are treated in a sadistic manner by the owner, Mrs. Deere (Gloria Grahame). Mrs. Deere likes the money the kids bring in from the welfare department, she just doesn't like feeding them or caring for them. Or doing anything else except giving them orders, torturing them, or killing them and putting their bodies in the freezer. Aiding her is a skeezy handyman who probably smells like too much Old Spice.  Oh, and Vic Tayback is in the movie too, playing a detective who seems to be the only one interested in Ellie's well being. By the end of the movie, though, the plot has twisted so many times that you realize every character in the movie is a sociopath and is only interested in their own personal gain. Believe me, the plot deserves much more analysis but better yet, just watch the damn thing and marvel at its sheer insanity and nihilistic depravity. 

And speaking of depravity, what a great segue to the evening's final flick, the incomparable demented drive-in sicko called THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (1972). This bizarre movie seems to want to be the ultimate in comic relief regarding racial tension in the 70s, as the head of an Archie Bunker type is grafted onto the shoulders of a black dude who is none too happy to have it there.  Disembodied heads are a nightmare scenario as it stands--can you imagine being conscious, and the entirety of your being is simply your head, everything else is gone? Somehow Ray Milland has discovered a surgical process that has eluded the rest of the medical community, and he is able to graft a second head onto a single body, then remove the original head. Milland intends to have the procedure done to himself in order to transplant his own head from his dying body and give him a new chance at life. Unfortunately, a sudden turn for the worst renders him near death, and his cronies find a last minute "body donor" in black death row inmate Rosey Grier. An immediate war erupts on Grier's shoulders, with Milland making racist comments and Grier trying to find a way to remove Milland's head while saving his own.  An extended sequence involves the Thing With Two Heads stealing a motocross bike and taking off with a renegade brain surgeon on the back of the bike, then taking part in the race and evading police cars for a godawfully long period of time. It's kind of like going into a zen state, sitting in your car at 3am watching a bike race involving a man with two heads. I used to see this movie on TV when I was a kid, but I failed to remember lines like when Grier knocks on the door of his girlfriend, only to have her open the door, look at his extra head, and remark in disbelief "You get into more shit....!" Could this movie be the original "Human Centipede" body modification horror concept? The implications are staggering.

The allure of the Monsterama festivals has to do with the way they completely reject the contemporary filmgoing experience. It's a safe haven for horror fans who won't ever have to worry about having to sit through the remake of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre", a chance to relive a time period when truly unusual films got made all the time and we took this kind of thing for granted. It seemed drive-ins and the sleazy movies they often showed would always be there, and of course we know that's not what happened at all. The dubious 'advances' of the modern cineplex have put most places like the Riverside Drive-In out of business, but there's something here that can't ever be replicated in a shopping mall cinema where they remove a few rows of seats and call it "IMAX". The Monsterama gets me back in touch with the reasons I love horror movies in the first place, as well as one of ways I learned to enjoy them as a kid. I sat huddled in my car, wrapped in a sleeping bag, eating popcorn and pizza, and watching some of the craziest shit I'd seen in a long time. Life simply does not get much better than that for me.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Farewell, Roger.

In the late 70s, I was a horror movie obsessed kid. I was getting too old for Dracula and Frankenstein anymore, and there were exploitation movies being advertised on television that I was frothing at the mouth to see. One of them was "Halloween", and while scanning TV channels one day, I stumbled across a PBS program called "Sneak Previews" where Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were discussing the movie and actually showing clips. Being interested in horror movies as a kid at that time was often looked at with suspicion by adults who loved to say that horror movies were a bad influence, but these two critics were praising the film for qualities that went beyond the fact that it was "really scary". They complimented the direction of the film, something I had never even considered before that point, and pointed out things like the lighting and the acting. I started watching the program every week, especially when I noticed their tendency to feature horror films in their trash-talking segment "Dog of the Week". I thought their outrage at some of the films was funny, mostly because on some level I felt that they were taking the movies way too seriously.

Roger Ebert seemed to like horror movies much more than Gene Siskel did. I remember his four-star rating for "Dawn of the Dead" was featured on the cover of the VHS rental, where bold lettering declared "A savagely Satanic vision of America". Gene Siskel, however, admitted that he left the movie within the first 15 minutes. Over the years, I read Roger Ebert's reviews and learned how to love movies. It wasn't that I shared his affection for movies like "On Golden Pond" or "A Room With A View", but he communicated his love of cinema so well that it changed the way I watched movies.

Eventually I learned to love more about Roger Ebert. He possessed a great intelligence and communicated so effectively, it was hard to not pay attention to his opinions. It was easy to tell from the way he talked about women in films that he loved and respected women, especially the way he was offended by the misogyny he perceived in slasher films. His review of "I Spit On Your Grave" was memorable because of his utter outrage at the film's demoralizing rape scenes and bloody revenge murders. I remember Roger as being one of the first commentators I noticed who seemed to accept all people as equal human beings, regardless of race, gender, class, or sexual identity--the parts of our personalities that people often get hung up on. In more recent years, after his surgery turned him into an avid blogger, I was always interested to read the opinions he shared there. It was a personal side of him that I had always been curious about, and it showed me what a kind, funny, and beautifully rational voice he was. He inspired me in the way he regarded both art and life, and he will continue to inspire me in the various forms of recorded communication he left behind. 

Like many, many others in this world, I will greatly and sincerely miss Roger Ebert.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1971)

The passing of director Jess Franco earlier this week inspired me to revisit his bizarre film that's known in English-speaking countries as "A Virgin Among the Living Dead". Franco made the film in 1971, following the sudden accidental death of actress Soledad Miranda, Franco's gorgeous female star of his "Count Dracula" remake and one of his key films, "Vampyros Lesbos". With a multi-movie deal secured for both himself and Miranda, Franco was dealt a stunning blow when she died in a violent car crash. The themes of "A Virgin Among the Living Dead" seem influenced by this experience for the director, the project being a largely personal production, a disjointed erotic fantasy about the barrier between life and death.

An international production to begin with (partially funded by a French producer), the film is a loosely constructed series of scenes that contains varying footage based on the country of whatever print you happen to be watching. In its original form created by the director, the movie is best described as an erotic supernatural mood piece. Already heavy on the nudity, in some European markets the movie featured addtional nude scenes that emphasized the film's softcore porn aspects, while other footage was deleted. The version most familiar to American audiences is the Wizard Video release that was a staple on video rental shelves throughout the 1980s, featuring an attention-grabbing oversized box with artwork that had nothing to do with the movie itself.  This cut of the film is even more different, now re-edited and padded with new unrelated zombie scenes shot almost ten year after the fact by Jean Rollin. The haphazard editing makes the film even more incomprehensible, and viewers were most likely left annoyed and confused. "A Virgin Among the Living Dead" was eventually released on DVD as part of Image Entertainment's "EuroShock" collection in a version that represents Franco's original version of the film, with the dreadful additional footage isolated as a bonus feature instead of being spliced into the movie itself.

The film in its original form is not so much a horror film as it is an art house experiment, possessing a dreamlike quality that works extremely well. A young woman named Christina (Christina Von Blanc) travels to Monserat, the isolated villa of her estranged family. She's never even met her father, who has recently committed suicide, and the reading of the will is what draws her to the castle. In grand horror movie tradition, the locals are confused and upset when they realize her destination is Monserat, which they tell her is deserted. She finds her freaked out family members living there, including her uncle Howard (Howard Vernon), her aunt Abigail (Rosa Palomar), a sexy young woman named Carmence (Britt Nichols), and a gentle blind woman named Linda (Linda Hastreiter). Also lurking at the mansion is the strange servant Basilio, played by Jess Franco himself. Christina's stepmother, Hermione, is on her deathbed upon Christina's arrival, and she expires just as she tells Christina to run away. Christina seems determined to ignore any signs of anything strange going on, however, and the reading of her father's will makes her the sole heir to the castle. That's the extent of the film's plot, with most of the scenes showing Christina exploring the castle area, meeting locals who tell her nobody lives there, and having a series of dreams that feature an ominous sense of foreboding and disturbing sexual images. The personification of death appears several times in the movie, depicted as a beautiful woman, and Christina has visions of her dead father speaking to her, warning her to leave the castle before it is too late for her. Of course everyone Christina has encountered at the castle is actually dead, and she even seems to understand this eventually. Her attraction to a strange, still pond full of vegetation resolves itself at the eerie conclusion of the film, as the personification of death walks together with her into the water and they disappear underneath the surface while Christina's relatives follow them.

"A Virgin Among the Living Dead" shares thematic similarities with a number of other films, chiefly Mario Bava's "Lisa and the Devil". Franco's film isn't quite as visually flamboyant as that movie, but he does have some interesting camerawork, as well as a Bava-esque habit of overusing the zoom lens. There are also similarities to Herk Harvey's "Carnival of Souls", but the most derivative elements of the film are the unrelated zombie scenes that were spliced into some of the prints ten years after the fact, when zombies became marketable and the movie was being repackaged for home video. The footage never really fit into the movie in any form, although attempts were made to make the actress in the scenes resemble Christina Von Blanc, but the biggest offense is that they just plain suck. The same scene repeats several times throughout the movie, to varying degrees of completion: a young woman (who is clearly not Christina Von Blanc) rises from bed and wanders out into the woods in her nightgown, where zombies rise from piles of leaves and follow her. She runs back to the house and finds more zombies congregating there. They slowly--and I do mean slowly--make their way into her bedroom, stand around her in a circle, make faces at her and pull her hair, and that's about all. Try not to have nightmares after watching that scene, just try. Considering that this movie was actually retitled again on home video as "Zombie 4: A Virgin Among the Living Dead", you start to get the idea that anybody who might have hoped to see some gory zombie action in this movie was sorely disappointed.
"Do I really have to listen to that English dub track again??"
"Yes. You smashed the ebony phallus."

The more bizarre elements of the film stand on their own, though, and they unfold with the kind of contempt for coherence that a David Lynch film has been known to have. When Hermione dies, the family holds a funeral for her by seating her upright in a chair in the living room while singing hymns, all while Carmence ignores everything going on and gives herself a pedicure. Christina has a conversation with her dead father, who sits across a desk from her with a noose around his neck. It's tough to criticize a movie like this for its acting or script when you're talking about an exploitation film that's been dubbed by questionable voice actors, but suffice to say, some of the scenes are simply excruciating to listen to. I have no idea if there is a foreign language version that actually contains any decent vocal performances, but I can definitely say the English track is awful. No matter, though, the script throws us some juicy bad-movie dialog like "Poor soul, you shattered the big ebony phallus! Poor soul! Misery is now your lot!" There's also a brilliant moment when Christina goes traipsing through the woods, is harassed by two old coots when she tries to have a peaceful nude swim in the pond, and is rescued by a young man with a Brooklyn accent. Franco chews some scenery himself as Basilio, and a few memorable moments in the film find him casually handling severed body parts from both people and chickens.

The strange atmosphere of the film is the best thing it has going for it, and I can't imagine what anybody thought of this when they rented it in the 80s. Judging from the comments I've read on IMDB, it was reviled for its utter lack of decent zombies or zombie attacks, but maybe those people were just understandably miffed that they had been rooked into watching a slow-moving ghost story when they'd been promised a zombie movie. While it seems like it could have been a decent slow burn horror film, there really aren't any satisfying horror sequences at all in the movie, and the more superficial elements seem to be more concerned with sexual titillation instead of horror movie thrills. While it doesn't ever turn into outright pornography, it seems more like a lightweight trial version of the actual porn/horror hybrids that Franco made later in his career. The main actresses are nude frequently on camera, all sorts of full frontal, and there are a number of sexual moments that are either disturbing or just plain ridiculous, such as Britt Nichols writhing around on the floor in ecstasy while the family sits around mostly ignoring her.
"Play it, Uncle."
A few images from the brief zombie rant, filmed by Jean Rollin and bearing no relation to the original story.