Monday, September 28, 2009

Kitten with a Whip

It's time to give a shout out to that sassy, brassy fireball of entertainment known as Ann-Margret. In more than five decades in show business, she's appeared onscreen with legends Jack Nicholson, Steve McQueen and Elvis. She was immortalized in cartoon form as Ann-Margrock in "The Flintstones." She entertained American troops in remote parts of Vietnam. She survived a devastating accident during a rehearsal in Lake Tahoe. And most importantly, she showed the industry that she had some serious acting chops with acclaimed performances in films like Carnal Knowledge, Magic and 52 Pick-Up.

But it's those campy movies that give her an opportunity to cut loose that have earned her an honored spot in Weird Movie Village. Here's a sampling:

Kitten with a Whip (1964). Wow—what were her managers smoking? Enjoying a positive career trajectory after State Fair, Bye Bye Birdie and Viva Las Vegas, A-M went decidedly downmarket in this prime slice of low-budget Universal '60s trash, one of several films she would make for major studios laboring under the mistaken impression that they were providing "hip" product for the youngsters.

What those youngsters got instead was an already hilariously dated melodrama with A-M starring as the titular kitten Jody, who claws her way into senatorial candidate John Forsythe's suburban home while his family is away. Discovering her sleeping in his daughter's bed, he threatens to call the police, but Jody gives him a sob story about running away from home after being sexually abused by her stepfather, so he buys her new clothes and drops her off at the bus station to start off on a new life.

While out with a friend, however, he sees a television bulletin revealing that Jody is in fact a delinquent who made a violent escape from a juvenile facility. And when he gets home, of course, there she is.

Again he moves to the phone, but she threatens to tell the authorities that he raped her. Worried about his political prospects (and his wife), he finds himself playing reluctant host to Jody and her gang of really clean-cut beatnik pals.

A-M is wildly over the top in this juvenile delinquency epic, and that's precisely why it's earned a special place in our hearts. Whether she's purring seductively to Forsythe or holding a broken bottle to someone's throat, she's firing on all cylinders. Forsythe, on the other hand, is so consistently low-key that at times he appears medicated. And the dialogue is priceless. Jody frequently refers to feeling "creamy," and one of her beatnik friends, after being seriously wounded, says, "I'm dyin' in a rush, man."

This would make a great double-feature with another black and white Universal classic of similar vintage, William Castle's I Saw What You Did (1965). In it, two teenage girls having a slumber party prank call a man who's just murdered his wife, whispering to him, "I saw what you did and I know who you are," unaware of what he'd just done. This leads to a night of terror as he hunts them down to silence them permanently.

Two years later, A-M reunited with Birdie and Vegas director George Sidney for a slice of allegedly "with-it" '60s psychedelia, The Swinger. Here, A-M is Kelly Olsson, a wholesome Midwestern girl who lives in a Los Angeles mansion with a bunch of artist types.

While waiting in the lobby of "Girl Lure" magazine, she is mistaken for a model, despite her insistence that she's a writer. When they only show interest in her body, though, she hits upon a plan. She'll write a story so salacious they'll just have to publish it! Now, if you're a wholesome wannabe writer whose ambition is to have your work appear in "Girl Lure" magazine, aren't your priorities a little...well, wait. It gets weirder.

She cobbles her story together by plagiarizing sleazy paperbacks. And did I mention that the creative process involves slinking from room to room with her hair blowing in a nonexistent wind? "Girl Lure" editor and ersatz playboy Ric Colby (Anthony Franciosa) rejects the manuscript, claiming that it's fake, but she insists that it's her story.

The magazine's old letch of a publisher, Sir Hubert Charles (Robert Coote) wants to get a glimpse of her swingin' lifestyle, so he drags Ric to the mansion where Kelly has enlisted the aid of her artist friends to put on a show they'll never forget, which includes becoming a human brush as she writhes around a canvas covered in psychedelic paint, clad in a bikini. Suitably shocked, Ric now wants to save Kelly from herself and —like Pygmalion—turn her into a lady.

A private detective informs Ric that Kelly is a fake with virginity intact, but he's enjoying watching how far she'll go now to prove that she's a tramp. The situations get more outlandish and awkward until she finds herself on a strip club stage performing "That Old Black Magic." Huh?

Do you think Ric and Kelly will end up together? Of course they will. This is the goofy sixties, with a major studio desperately trying to emulate a counterculture it knows absolutely nothing about. But with A-M going full steam ahead, performing the title song twice—once in black leather and then on a swing—you can't lose!

Ann-Margret and beans.
The final selection today is somewhat polarizing. In 1975, A-M starred as Nora Walker in Ken Russell's film of The Who's Tommy. I refer to it as polarizing because people either consider it over-the-top camp trash or a stroke of cinematic brilliance. I think it's a little bit of both.

As Tommy's mother, A-M gets a chance to sing, emote ferociously, get sexy with Jack Nicholson and Oliver Reed and seduce her son. And she also gets another opportunity to roll around in liquid substances—this time soap suds, baked beans and chocolate.

Now if you're familiar with Ken Russell's ouevre, subtlety is not his stock in trade. In The Music Lovers, looney Glenda Jackson gets gangbanged in an insane asylum. In Lair of the White Worm, delicious Amanda Donohoe slithered around topless with really huge fangs. And Kathleen Turner gave her all to the "architect-by-day/whore-by-night" opus Crimes of Passion.

Of course, A-M took full advantage of the freedom Russell encouraged while actually managing to give her character multiple dimensions. She's at varying times earthy, glamorous, maternal, devout and dowdy...all in the same film!

Distraught that Tommy (Roger Daltrey) has become deaf, dumb and blind as a result of seeing her lover, Frank (Oliver Reed), kill her husband (Robert Powell) when he returns home unexpectedly from the war, Nora embarks on a series of crazy cures in the hopes of restoring his faculties. These include visits to a quack specialist (Nicholson), a faith healer (Eric Clapton) at the Church of Marilyn Monroe (whose communion consists of a pill and a swig of booze),  and the Acid Queen (Tina Turner, who gives A-M a run for her money in the freak-out department). Notice how all these solutions involve drugs?

Nothing works, but Tommy reveals a talent for pinball and becomes rich and famous. Nora, still guilt-stricken but enjoying the trappings of success, is drunkenly watching television in her bedroom and singing about her woes when Tommy appears on the screen. Unable to change the channel, she hurls a bottle through the tube and the aforementioned liquids begin to cascade out of the box. Of course, she rolls around until she's completely coated in the mixture. Wouldn't you? Finally, confronting Tommy in the same room (which the servants did a really good job of cleaning up, incidentally), she accidentally throws him through a large mirror on the wall and—surprise—he's healed!

Now Tommy gets all Christlike and makes everyone in his circle renounce their indulgent lifestyles, unaware that hangers-on are cashing in on his fame more than before. And when his flock finally turns on him ("We're not gonna take it") at a retreat for the faithful, Nora and Frank are killed in the ensuing riot. Undeterred, Tommy simply links their dead hands together, strips off his shirt, dives into a lake (which looks really cold), climbs a mountain and becomes one with God. I think.

In preparing my comments about Tommy, I did a lot of Googling and was surprised to see how many people felt the film was a life-changing experience for them. I wouldn't exactly say it changed my life, but I enjoyed watching it and still do. I still remember the groovy "Quintophonic" sound when it played the theaters back in the day.

Since A-M won the Golden Globe and was Oscar nominated for this role, let's give her the last word. Here she is at her unhinged best, singing "Smash the Mirror."

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Horror's dirty word

The world of horror is a big tent—there's room for all kinds of monsters. Vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghouls—all are welcome. However, there's one creature that even the most ardent horror fan finds repulsive–the necrophiliac. There are two main reasons, I think: one, because the idea is so revolting; and two, because said "monster" is a living human being, and such things actually happen in the real world.

Frankly, the subject matter isn't everyone's cup of tea under any circumstances, but daring filmmakers occasionally turn their cameras to this quease-inducing topic with varying results. Drive-in audiences were traumatized by Love Me Deadly, a combination of '70s fashions, shocking sexuality and Lyle Waggoner. Extreme trashhounds adore German filmmaker Jorg Buttgereit's underground films Nekromantik and its sequel, but they're definitely not for everyone. There was even an "art" film made in Canada in 1996, Kissed, about a young woman's attraction to stiffs. I mean real stiffs.

Due to the subject matter, these films are necessarily exploitative, but among the brash shockers are little jewels of perversion, one of which I'm going to discuss in this post.

Riccardo Freda's The Terror of Dr. Hichcock (1962) has quite an agenda for a film of its vintage. Made during Italian horror cinema's gothic golden era, it's the story of a Victorian-era doctor whose double life, if exposed, would make him the scandal of London.

In a foggy cemetery, a gravedigger is clubbed senseless by a mysterious figure that opens the unburied coffin and fondles the female cadaver inside. We soon learn that the figure is Dr. Bernard Hichcock (Robert Flemyng), a distinguished surgeon whose development of a new anesthetic has taken him to the top of his field. His personal life is another matter, however. Not only is he drawn to the cadavers in the hospital morgue, he also uses his anesthetic for sex games with his willing wife, Margaretha (Maria Teresa Vianello). The drug puts her into a cataleptic state, allowing Hichcock to have his way with—for all intents and purposes—a corpse. One night he goes too far, injecting her with a lethal dose, and can only watch helplessly as she succumbs.

Twelve years later, he returns from Italy with his new wife, Cynthia (genre icon Barbara Steele). Here is where the "Hichcock" in the title comes into play. We're in Rebecca territory now, complete with a foreboding mansion, a sinister housekeeper (Harriet Medin) and the spectre of Margaretha that seems to cast a shadow over everything. Matters grow more complicated when it is revealed that Margaretha, who is not dead after all but recovered from the overdose, is now an insane hag roaming the dark halls—and she doesn't want that "other woman" with her husband!

What's remarkable about Terror, besides its matter-of-fact treatment of the subject matter, is its approach to Hichcock himself. Far from passing a moral judgment, the filmmakers depict Hichcock as something of a sexual pioneer, a man who has not only accepted but embraced his inner necrophile. The contrast between the wives is interesting, too. Margaretha's excited expression as Hichcock approaches her with the needle parallels the excitement of a junkie. She seems to represent Hichcock's "liberated" side while Cynthia, cold and withdrawn, is the "safe" wife who will help him repress his urges...but it doesn't work out that way.

The film is very dreamlike in tone, which some have attributed to a tight shooting schedule that forced some expository scenes to remain unfilmed. Both Steele and Medin acknowledged that Freda would throw away pages of the script to stay on schedule. Nevertheless, it works, and some critics embraced it as a surrealist masterpiece. Loaded with gothic atmosphere and complemented by a lush score, The Terror of Dr. Hichcock is a lyrical examination of one of society's biggest taboos.

Freda made a sequel of sorts, The Ghost, also with Steele. Hichcock appeared in name only as the feeble husband Steele plots to kill with the aid of her lover.

Here's a trailer I put together using material from Sinister Cinema's source print. Rather than take a modern approach, I cut it in the style of old school television spots.

Although it's commendable that Sinister makes it available in any form, this is a film that deserves rediscovery and restoration.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Funny Fulci

When I wrote about Zombie, I threatened to do another post on the films of Lucio Fulci, and here it is. Today we're focusing on one of his lesser works, part of his "death" trilogy, along with City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, and before he went off the rails with such limp entries as Manhattan Baby and Murder Rock. There are goofy incidents and slashed throats a-plenty in 1982's House by the Cemetery. What's missing, however, is a coherent plot, which makes the movie so much fun to watch.

Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco), a researcher of old houses, is asked by his professor boss (Fulci himself in one of his numerous Hitchcock-style cameos) to go to a small town in Massachusetts, New Whitby, and live in the house his colleague had just committed suicide in. Yes, you read it right. He packs up wife Lucy (Fulci regular Catriona MacCall) and little son Bob (Giovanni Frezza) and off they go to New Whitby to experience small-town life and small-town weirdness. There, Bob meets Mae (Silvia Collatina), a little red-headed girl who'd been communicating with him telepathically and warning him not to come. She seems to have second sight and can foretell the awful events in store for Bob and his parents.

Mae disappears whenever his parents are around, so I guess she's a ghost or something. And Lucy, who's already teetering on the edge of sanity, is freaked out by the house, which she insists is the same one shown in an ancient photograph they had in their apartment in Manhattan. Norman scoffs, asking if she's been taking her pills, to which she retorts, "I read somewhere that they provoke hallucinations." What? Her psychiatrist prescribed pills that cause hallucinations?

Well, we must have all taken those pills, too, because the story just gets wackier as it goes along. The realtor sends them a babysitter (?), Ann (Ania Pieroni), whose eyebrows are so huge and black it's really distracting. There's a goofy bat attack, a tombstone in the floor of the dining room, a bunch of people are killed and Norman discovers that the culprit is Dr. Freudstein, a rotten-faced ghoul who dwells in the basement of the house and has been collecting body parts to keep himself alive. Ann, the realtor, Norman and Lucy all die at Freudstein's maggoty hands, but Bob is rescued by Mae.

Child actor Frezza, whose eyes and nostrils adorn the top of this page, had a brief career in horror and exploitation films (also in Manhattan Baby). He's just so extreme-looking: too blonde, too blue-eyed and too red-lipped. Add to that the petulant voice the filmmakers gave him for the English-language prints, and you've got a character whose every appearance is over the top. And the reason you only see his eyes and nostrils is due to Fulci's love of the smash zoom. To indicate terror, he hurls the lens at an actor's face to get a close-up of his or her eyes and the bridge of the nose. And that's in widescreen. In old TV aspect ratio VHS videos of Fulci films, the effect is even more hilarious. It looks like Fulci is zooming in tight to just the nose!

Imagine the script direction: Freudstein approaches. Zoom in on Lucy's nose to indicate her level of terror.

Pieroni, who was also in Dario Argento's Inferno, is certainly striking-looking. I don't know why her eyebrows are so huge in this film, but early on, Mae sees an extremely strange-looking mannequin in a store window lose its head, and it's supposed be a foreshadowing of Ann's death, so I guess they had to beef up her eyebrows to make her match the decapitated dummy. And Ann serves as a red herring. There's lots of shots of her looking sinister and not speaking, indicating that she's somehow involved in the murders. But Lucy's so high she's oblivious to Ann's mysterious countenance. When she comes into the kitchen and finds Ann on hands and knees scrubbing at a huge bloodstain on the floor (the aftermath of a murder), she merely yawns and asks what she's doing. Ann gives her the side-eye and replies that the coffee is ready. Hmm. Q: How are you feeling? A: The garbage disposal is broken. Ooooookay.

But Lucy has a way of reacting strangely to things in general. At the beginning of the film, she tells Bob to wait in the car while she and Norman pick up the house keys from the realtor's office. This is when Bob first meets Mae, so when they come back out of the office, the car is empty. Rather than frantically looking up and down the street for her son, Lucy simply turns ever-so-slowly to Norman with an expression of slight concern. Maybe she's kind of glad she won't have to hear that voice and see those huge red lips anymore, but—damn!—there's Bob across the street, playing with a giant antique doll that Mae has given him. Back home, Lucy stares at the doll with disgust before hurling it to the floor and bitching about the trash Bob is always bringing home.

The deaths in House are few but memorable. In the pre-credits sequence (Fulci loves those), a post-coital couple are Freudsteined in the basement. The boy gets the top of his skull removed and the girl gets a huge butcher knife through the back of the head, causing the tip to protrude from her mouth! Ann has her throat slashed over and over in graphic close-up while helpfully holding still and not raising her arms to defend herself. And the tombstone in the dining room comes into service when the realtor steps on it, only to have it crack open and wedge her foot painfully in the fissure so that Freudstein can very slo-o-o-w-w-w-ly creep up to kill her.

Now here are a couple of clips for you to enjoy. First up is the goofy bat attack with the whole crazy clan:

Now please enjoy the cleaning of the bloodstain, featuring some nice shots of Ann's huge eyebrows and Fulci's trademark "The eyes (and nose) are the windows to the soul" framing:

I'm telling you, House by the Cemetery doesn't need a laugh track; it needs a "huh?" track.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Amityville II: Electric Boogaloo

In 1979, American International released The Amityville Horror, starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder and Rod Steiger. It was a big hit but also a big snooze in my opinion. The 2005 remake with Ryan Reynolds wasn't a whole lot better. But in 1982, a very strange sequel actually got a theatrical release in the U.S. It's a film that is so packed with hilarity and unbelievably sick situations that it becomes a genre unto itself. I refer to the Dino De Laurentiis-produced epic Amityville II: The Possession.

Although the screenplay was written by American Tommy Lee Wallace (Fright Night Part II, It), the director Damiano Damiani, who never made an English-language film before or since, gives it a distinctively Italian flavor, similar to one of Lucio Fulci's epics but with more coherence. Alternating between twisted family drama and supernatural thriller, it ladles on the child abuse, incest and religious trauma for the first hour or so before the troubled son, Sonny (Jack Magner) takes matters into hand and offs his family. It's literally a prequel, fictionalizing the story of the real-life DeFeo family, whose killings at the hand of their son, Ronald, formed the basis for the Amityville story. Now called the Montelli family, it is headed by father Burt Young (from the Rocky movies), the greasiest, meanest, most awful patriarch in screen history, making you wonder why his long-suffering and super-religious wife (Rutanya Alda) can stand living with him, let alone give birth to his four kids.

When they move into the Amityville house, Mom is hoping that a new, bright future can begin for them, but this is a far too screwed-up family unit. Even before they've finished moving in, blood is pouring out of the taps in the kitchen and Mom discovers a mysterious trap door in the basement covering a small, dark and wet space that serves no other purpose except to be nasty. She sends one of the movers in to check it out, and soon he's covered with flies and shit. Helpfully, she calls out, "Are you all right?" Later—again in the basement—she's doing laundry, and first encounters the Malevolent Force™ in the form of a weird wind. Sonny happens to come downstairs at just that moment and Alda, eyes bulging and Method acting like crazy, says "Somebody... touched... MEHHHHHHH!!!"

At dinner, before Mom leads everyone in prayer, she says, "I think we're a very lucky family," a moment which manages to be both pathetic and funny at once. The mirror above the sideboard suddenly comes off the wall and falls, an event which infuriates Pop, who blames Sonny. That night, the Malevolent Force™ bangs on the front door and Pop, furious at having his beauty sleep disturbed, wheezily runs outside with a shotgun and snarls at the unseen intruders: "There's a 12-gauge shotgun waiting for anyone tres-PASS-in'." Yes, he pronounces it oddly, with the emphasis on the second syllable.

Next, the two youngest children watch in horror as the Malevolent Force™ causes paintbrushes in their bedroom to rise into the air and cover the walls with violent and offensive graffiti. Though the kids protest their innocence, Pop starts whomping on them, motivating Sonny to seize the gun and stick it into his now repulsively sweating father's throat. His finger reaches for the trigger, but Mom, clad in a nightgown that gives her a strangely saintlike appearance, appears to glide across the floor, serenely take away the weapon and whisper, without a trace of irony, "What's happening to us?"

Soon the Malevolent Force™ is telling Sonny (through his Sony Walkman, no less): "Why didn't you shoot that pig?" Mom brings Father Adamski (James Olson) in to bless the house. Pop is hostile, Sonny is reclusive, and Adamski's holy water sprinkler starts squirting blood. This makes Alda go into the zone again, popping her eyes and kind of...well...grunting in horror. Incidentally, I was watching the film on cable one afternoon and decided to walk across the street to the grocery store to buy some snacks. There—and I'm not kidding you—was Rutanya Alda in the flesh, asking the cashier about soup. No, I didn't hiss "Somebody... touched... MEHHHH!!!" although I really, really wanted to. I don't mean to give her such a bad time. She's in one of my favorite misfires of all time, Mommie Dearest.

Sonny gets creepier and creepier. He initiates a sexual relationship with his sister, Patricia (Diane Franklin, from Better Off Dead and Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure). Then he's more or less raped by the Malevolent Force™, which takes control of him from then on. Feeling guilty but also kind of stylishly slutty, Patricia goes to Father Adamski to confess her sins, but it's too late. In a surprisingly tense and upsetting sequence, Sonny roams the house with the shotgun. As he blasts away, family members cower in terror, knowing they're next on the hitlist. And in a sick coda, after he shoots his kid sister, he runs the barrel of the gun over her foot and it twitches! He's hauled off to jail, and Father Adamski, who's been alarmed by a mysterious phone call from the dead Patricia, decides that Sonny is possessed by the devil. He needs an exorcism, but it can't be done in jail. He must be taken back to the Amityville house. Why? Because that's the name of the movie!

To meet the requirements of the exploitation audience who came to see possession hijinks, the film becomes an Exorcist clone for its final act, including much pumping of inflatable bladders under the skin, but it doesn't really spoil what has gone before. MGM has very kindly released a lovely widescreen DVD and occasionally airs the film on its cable network. MGM HD. Catch it...but you may want to take a shower afterwards.


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