Wednesday, April 22, 2009

THE SHE-BEAST (1966) d. Michael Reeves

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Rediscovery can often be one of the most pleasurable experiences in life, especially for those of us whose days feel like they are overflowing with experiences we have already done before and don’t want to repeat. When a chance comes around to do something again and have it feel as fresh and wonderful as the first time, or maybe the moment is even better, it brings one that much closer to sartori. Dark Sky Films has brought out a totally restored transfer of THE SHE-BEAST (aka REVENGE OF THE BLOOD BEAST) that has allowed me the opportunity to fall in love all over again with a film that I have seen several times before but never in as wonderful a format as it is today.

THE SHE-BEAST is the story of a young English couple, Philip (Ian Ogilvy) and Veronica (Barbara Steele), who are traveling through Transylvania on their honeymoon when they encounter a very strange and terrifying phenomenon after a routine traffic accident. The young lovers’ car is forced off the road and lands in a small lake, but when Philip and Veronica are fished out Veronica is no longer herself but is Bardela, a satanic witch of ancient legend whose soul was confined to the depths of the lake after she was tortured to death for crimes unspeakable against the local villagers. Now distraught over the apparent loss of his wife, Philip reluctantly accepts the assistance of Count Von Helsing (Jonathan Karlsen), the modern version of his ancient, vampire-hunting ancestors. Von Helsing informs Philip that Veronica’s body and soul have been possessed by Bardela and that only through an exorcism can Philip’s beloved be returned to him. What ensues is a horrifying and terrifically madcap series of events as Count Von Helsing and Philip race against time to restore Veronica’s soul and body to its rightful place and return Bardela to the Blackness of The Void from whence she came.

Prior to this viewing, I had always enjoyed THE SHE-BEAST for its very eclectic mix of gruesome horror imagery, atmospheric storytelling about possession and witchcraft, brisk pace and thoughtfully constructed mix of exceedingly strange and wonderful doses of humor and silly hilarity and its pointed comedic commentary on communism and Eastern Bloc culture and politics. Beyond these clearly impressive points, THE SHE-BEAST drew me to it because Barbara Steele was the star and I still will see ANY motion picture that has he magnificent Ms. Steele, but there were other cast and crew reasons to like THE SHE-BEAST. A very young Ian Ogilvy began his movie career in this film, while Felini favorite Jonathan Karlsen and Corman colleague Mel Welles give exceptionally eccentric and thoroughly enjoyable performances in this flick. Young, talented and tragic director Michael Reeves made his directorial debut and his script for THE SHE-BEAST was improved upon by Charles B. Griffith, the wunderkind behind so many of Roger Corman’s numerous movies. When taken into account, all of these elements would seem to make THE SHE-BEAST have countless outstanding qualities, but the viewing copies that were available here in the United States on video and later DVD always looked as if they had been projected on a filthy burlap sack, as my friend and comrade Mark Nelson has repeatedly said. In any of its incarnations, THE SHE-BEAST was at all times miserably dark, horrendously smeary, totally lacking in color, absolutely sodden in appearance and totally unwatchable. In addition, there were always rumors and stories that the cut of THE SHE-BEAST was always incomplete and that footage had been removed for a variety of reasons. As a result, any presentation of THE SHE-BEAST was mediocre at best as the horror-wise spectator knew full-well that what they were getting wasn’t really up to snuff. All that has changed as of the re-release of this outstanding edition of THE SHE-BEAST from Dark Sky Films.

The original 35 mm film elements from which the transfer was created is pleasantly crisp, clear, colorful and glorious, making it feel like an entirely new viewing opportunity. In addition, for the first time, the actual widescreen aspect ratio has been restored as well so that we are treated to a spacious and breathtaking look at Michael Reeves film making skills which led me to a much greater respect for his directorial efforts on THE SHE-BEAST. With all the surviving footage replaced, those who have seen this film before get a chance to revel in THE SHE-BEAST really for the first time in an entirely different manner as well. The audio has been restored and is no longer muddy, and so what emerges for those of us who were too young to have seen THE SHE-BEAST when it got its theatrical release, is the best possible chance to recreate such an experience. While there are moments at the heads and tails of reel changes where a tiny amount of film damage can be noted and there are other instances of film imperfections here and there, the fact that a first-rate restoration of this lost “cult-classic” exists and has been brought to public attention must be given the highest commendations. If you have ever been a fan of Michael Reeves’ work, if you enjoy Barbara Steele’s performances, enigmatic glamour and undeniable sex appeal and want to see some surprisingly strong film making that we were never able to appreciate before, you need to pick up a copy of THE SHE-BEAST.

THE SHE-BEAST has a very small but still wonderfully rewarding set of bonus features. There is a stills gallery which is exactly what a stills gallery should be, a mix of lobby card and poster images, promotional and news photos as well as on-set photography. While not enormous, the stills gallery is still an excellent blend of color and black and white historical images. The Crown Jewel of this set of supplements is the audio commentary which features actress Barbara Steele and actor Ian Ogilvy, producer Paul Maslansky and is moderated by David Gregory. I have listened to a lot of commentaries over many years, and this will go down as one of my favorites, not the least of which is for the reason that we get to hear Ms. Steele’s reactions to seeing this film, in essence, for the first time. Not one to do interviews or commentaries much before, Ms. Steele comes into the commentary a few minutes after it begins and despite having no memory of making THE SHE-BEAST, her repartee with the voluble Mr. Ogilvy, the thoroughly reminiscent Mr. Maslansky and the diplomatic and erudite Mr. Gregory makes this a simply delightful listening experience. To FINALLY hear Barbara Steele remark about her film career and to hear it done in the context of two other men who remember well their days with Michael Reeves, Jonathan Karlsen and Mel Welles was utterly gratifying. I fully admit a deep and abiding prejudice when it comes to who talks on commentaries and to hear the utterances of veterans as opposed to younger cast and crew members is something I always prefer. For those horror fans who hunger to be immersed in anecdotes of the past delivered by some film icons of yore, this is another rationale to make certain you get your hands on THE SHE-BEAST.

I have recently rediscovered how much I love photography and am eagerly finding ways to get my eye up to a camera lens and take pictures of people and places for the first time in nearly twenty years. The indescribable joy that I feel when I create an image that I am proud of cannot be fully conveyed. Watching a motion picture that I have never really had the chance to enjoy in the manner that should have been the case may be a “one-shot” moment of pure pleasure, but in some ways it is just as fulfilling. Had Dark Sky Films never gone to the lengths that they did to restore this lost gem to us, I wouldn’t have had this occasion, and as we all know as each year passes, these chances slip beyond our grasp, never to be recalled. If you are a devotee of European horror films from the 1960s and want to immerse yourself in the mood and texture of cinema that has long since ceased to be made, this is another invaluable chance. Don’t let it pass you by.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS (1974) d. John Peyser

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The plight of women in motion pictures has long been a complex and very rocky ride. During the early years of the Silver Screen, actresses often played roles that reflected the socially stultifying climate of the times and helpless Scream Queens like Faye Wray dominated the cinematic landscape. As the middle part of the 20th Century dawned, the so-called New Women birthed in the generation after the Suffrage Movement tended to be somewhat pluckier and a little bit more uninhibited, but women still tended to play very idealized parts and were icons of male fantasy, reaching that height of excess in the 1950s. By the 1960s and 1970s, the portrayal of female characters by young actresses became truly complex. On one hand, mainstream film began depicting women in a somewhat more realistic and less chauvinistic manner as the Women’s Movement began to gain momentum. At the same time, exploitation cinema reached the apex of its gaudy pinnacle during that same era, putting young, attractive “actresses” and starlets into some of the most sexist roles ever penned by sleazy skin merchants and the pioneers of softcore entertainment. To be an actress in the late 1960s, throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s meant you were going to appear nude on screen, there would likely be at least one sex scene in addition to the obligatory “shower” scene or clip where disrobing was necessary. If you were appearing in a genre film, there was also a high probability that young actresses would be appearing unclad amidst scenes of violence, gore, depravity or some other cinematic instance of titillation designed to put men into movie theater seats. From 1965 to the dawn of the Video Age around 1980, scads of naked girls engaging all manner of wayward behavior could be seen in movie houses where exploitation fare was run. This incredibly bizarre dichotomy of mainstream film uplifting the station of women even as B-movies were objectifying women more aggressively than ever is one of the most fascinating components of the modern era of Motion Picture History, and THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS is one of the best examples of seedy, skintastic, scurrilous and sensually scandalous movie-making from those long lost days.

THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS is the three-part story of a small group of beautiful young women from all walks of life who have posed nude in a men’s magazine called Bachelor and are now receiving unwanted and frightening attention from a sexually frustrated and demented serial killer named Clement Dunne, played by Andrew Prine. Dark, dorky and driven, Mr. Dunne hunts down these lovely ladies in a series of vignettes stitched together by the killer’s overarching lust to “help” these young ladies out of their state of fallen grace and into everlasting peace through the use of a lethally sharp straight razor. Jackie (Jamie Lyn Bauer), Charly (Jennifer Ashley) and Vera (Tiffany Bolling) must evade Clement’s foul interest if they are to stay in one piece and not end up sliced to ribbons.

THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS was one of the guiltier pleasures of many exploitation film enthusiasts back in the days when all kinds of wicked flicks made their way to the corner video store and were readily available. The problem was that the joy was moderated by the knowledge of the cost at which it had been purchased, an exceedingly low quality visual experience due to poor film transfers onto muddy-looking video tape. While the story and the content of movies like THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS was enticing and those flicks delivered the goods, the multitudinous moments of cinematic confusion due to the dark and washed out appearance of the vast majority of sequences made many a viewing a mixed bag, and THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS was once no exception. That is no longer the case thanks to Dark Sky Films. While their restoration of THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS is not the near miracle of their other recent release, THE SHE-BEAST, the improvement of the video elements of THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS is a measurable step upwards and for that we should be thankful. The colors are clearly brighter and sharper and that is of great benefit when one considers how stylishly shot and set THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS was for being a low-budget effort. All of the images are crisper and lighter, allowing the knowledgeable viewer to bask in the salacious grandeur of this film. However, there are still problems with the visual aspects of THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS. There is a graininess to the imagery and an aura that feels as if a soft-focus filter had been utilized throughout much of the first half of the picture. The opening credits and initial frames evidence some print damage and the hues are not as blazing as some restorations I have seen. Whether this is due to the restorers not being able to go back to the negative as a source, the source print having some damage or maybe THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS was shot using some inferior technology and materials, is not entirely clear. What is evident is that THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS looks better than it once did, it sounds good and is a strong step up from its former days of faded glory.

The improved condition of the visual elements of THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS allows the exploitation connoisseur to revel in a seemingly incompatible split-personality in this motion picture. On the one hand, from the opening frames until almost the closing credits, THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS is filled to the brim with beautiful, naked young actresses in all manner of disrobed splendor. Whether you are looking for trim and athletic, curvaceous and comely or angular and austere, the fabulous figures of the female cast are fleshed out in miles of coppery-toned swaths of skin. In the case of Jamie Lyn Bauer’s character Jackie, she spends a series of scenes pulling her clothes off and then putting them back on as if the director kept saying out loud, “thank you, that was an excellent take” and then the devil sitting on his shoulder whispered “make her do it again and keep that damn camera rolling every second you sackless weenie!” Back Miss Bauer went for another nude scene and it is the viewer who won that exchange hands down. At the same time that we are treated to scads of scantily-clad sex objects, there is a surprisingly impressive pair of visual strengths to THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS that one might not expect seeing that it is an American exploitation film. European sex-epochs like THE SISTER OF URSULA were well-known for their brazen mix of sin and style, but THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS is nearly able to match the glorious beauty of some of its European cousins. Shot in and around the coast and islands of southern and central California, the exterior settings and the colors of earth, surf and sky are quite impressive and only matched by the modish and seductive beauty of the interior scenery that was so very typical of the free and easy lifestyle of 1970s coastal California. Using compelling camera angles and lighting techniques, the cinematography is competent and even occasionally impressive. There is even more. When added to the sexy, chic and creative fashions that dominated the costume choices for THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS, there is a lot to please the eye beyond the lascivious loveliness of the starlets of this film.

It is hard to imagine that THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS would also work on an intellectual or artistic level, but it does. The tripartite story line held together by Andrew Prine’s character and dark and dastardly performance is both novel in its conception and effective in its execution. By moving from the tale of one girl to the next and shifting setting ever so slightly, a brisk pace is maintained and what could have been a tedious and repetitive slasher film narrative structure was avoided. Liberally mixed with the general account of a sadistic murderer stalking delicious young lovelies are dollops of the “now generation” and their excesses of drinking, sex and the swinging lifestyle so very filled with paltry pleasure, obnoxious ostentation and cynical self-indulgence. What emerges is a startling abstract painting of why the early and mid-70s was, like cotton candy, a lot of fun to experience briefly but a fairly vacuous delight that brought no real benefit and some clearly deleterious after effects. Adding to the depth of this film is a cast of performers that are non-t00-well-known to most young people today, but for those of us who remember the skilled thespians of yesteryear, their presence is one of the many reasons to relish THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS’ dvd release. Andrew Prine steals the show with his somber garb, understated portrayal and yet horrifically threatening and disturbingly efficient dispatch of the sinful sluts he wishes he could despoil. Only a few ticks down on the deplorable meter is the character played by the venerable Aldo Ray, a sneering and ogling Neanderthal wrapped in an all-American father gauze that makes him even more miserably misogynistic. Francine York and Ray Danton give excellent supporting performances as the warring couple whose wealth and influence have lead them to heights of success and are in the path of a slayer who would just as soon send them to oblivion for their calculating and corrupt misuse of their positions. There aren’t a lot of exploitation films worth watching where you can say that an extensive and impressive cast of experienced actors were brought together to create a motion picture that is lurid as well as likable in a manner most people would never dare admit.

THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS has a moderately sized bonus features menu that has some unexpected splendors waiting to be unearthed. In lieu of an audio commentary, there is a 15 minute mini-documentary called “Making the Cut” which is a retrospective of THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS. Including a very short clip with producer Arthur Marks and much more sizable interviews and anecdotes with Andrew Prine, Francine York and Jennifer Ashley, this featurette is thoroughly pleasant for its frank recollections, thoughtfully earnest reminiscences and eclectic blend of film clips, voice-overs and modern footage. It is the brightest jewel in the treasure chest, but the other precious stones are worthy of your attention. There is an exhaustive musical supplement called “Select Music Cues” that is a series of 18 film score tracks, forever documenting the often overlooked strength of THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS, it hypnotic soundtrack, which is very diverse in style and substance. Finally, there are two trailers (red band and green band), two TV spots and a radio spot, all of which are startlingly different from each other, which was rarely typical when it came to 1970s promotional advertising. Overall, the extras section of THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS was like the makeup on a nude model, you don’t often realize how essential it really is since your eyes are drawn elsewhere, but you are very glad that it was included.

THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS is not the finest release of a sordid classic of yore, nor is it the most impressive, but I am exceptionally glad that it exists. Just as when Dark Sky Films brought out SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES last year, this is a splendid little gem that looks back on a vanished time and THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS is a film that is just not being made anymore today. The mix of taboo sleaziness and sophisticated squalor is a guilty pleasure for those of us who watched the hordes of imbeciles who tried to dismember sincerity during the height of political correctness movement of the 1990s. There is nothing diplomatic about THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS, neither is it illuminating or uplifting. It is sheer naughtiness for naughtiness sake.

Monday, April 20, 2009

THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND (1990) d. Patrice Leconte

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

We have many powerful memories of our youthful years, some of which revolve around family, the holidays, special occasions and occasionally frightening experiences. There are few people who aren’t willing to admit that love and passion are certainly some of the strongest of our distant recollections. The first time you fall in love absolutely, surrender yourself to all-consuming passion and realize that you have been changed irrevocably must rank as one of the most deeply-seeded impressions in both the mind and the heart. When the memory of childhood first love and attraction is also exceedingly similar to the adult incident of finding the “love of your life”, even if the two are not the same person, then the reminiscences must then be especially poignant. THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND (LE MARI DE LA COIFFEUSE) is a deeply atypical offering from the fine people at Severin Films that instead of focusing on wildly exotic sex and beautiful naked female forms, it puts erotic attraction in the most appropriate of contexts, that of the beauty of simple but overwhelming passionate love for a person with whom you are best suited to create happiness for as long as God provides the opportunity. A tale that mirrors so many of the quirks, charms, joys and sorrows of life, THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND is the kind of movie that should touch anyone who knows the all-consuming elation of falling in love, the incandescent flame of passion and the briefness of happiness and life here on this Mortal Plane of Existence.

THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND is the story of Antoine, a middle-aged man looking back on a life that has been shaped by a desire to get exactly what he most wants, love and ardent physical pleasure at the hands of a striking female hairdresser. At the tender age of 12, Antoine first experiences intense infatuation for a buxom and redheaded hairdresser, whom Antoine eventually becomes obsessed with and goes to for haircut after haircut, even when there is no need. The incredible delight and emotional satisfaction that Antoine experiences helps to crystallize in his soul the need to have just such a woman when he is a grown man. Many years later, a lovely young woman named Mathilde takes over Isidore’s barbershop and Antoine makes a dedicated but somewhat awkward effort to woo her. Despite his affectionate clumsiness, Antoine succeeds and what follows is ten years of wedded bliss as Mathilde and Antoine’s lives twine about the most beautiful of simplicities, the need of one person for another and the ability of each to fulfill the deepest of those needs, both spiritual and physical.

THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND is that best of French cinema that combines a light-hearted sense of fun, exceedingly simplistic and yet engaging story lines, appealing characters, some moments of serious reflection and societal criticism as well as fine performances and attractive to photography, to end up as an entertaining, thoughtful and surprisingly intricate short tale of romance, friendship and the inescapability of sadness and the ending of joy. What sets THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND apart to some degree from most French films I have seen is its relatively short runtime of 82 minutes, a pace that, while not brisk, is not the curvilinear path that most Gallic cinema takes and its absolutely marvelous mix of charisma, eccentric moments and portrayals mixed with some superbly melancholy punctuations to its overall statement. Much like another French favorite of mine, BETTY BLUE, THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND takes a couple, puts them into situations where we see the growth of their emotional and physical attraction and later commitment to each other, but then that is juxtaposed with the overmastering cruelties of life like aging, tragedy and change. What makes THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND that much better is the untroubled beauty of the love of Antoine and Mathilde for each other, the exquisiteness of their uncomplicated existence as they move through their daily routines and yet make each person the pinnacle of existence and the reason for their continued happiness. Both Antoine and Mathilde are portrayed in a down-to-earth and yet adorably sophisticated manner by Jean Rochefort and Anna Galiena. From their facial expressions to their gentle caresses to the gleam in each others’ eyes, THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND captures the very essence of what the most rewarding love should be like.

Throughout THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND, there is a mix of visual and auditory beauty that also leaves the viewer with the knowledge that they are watching something special. There is a softly modulated sense of color that feels like the entire film is seen through the filter of memory which adds an entire layer of emotional impact. All of the colors are bright and striking, but they do not blaze. It is as if we are seeing this film though a gentle midsummer’s haze that mimics the mistiness of the mind’s eye. In addition, THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND is attractive in many other fashions, like how marvelously wide and patiently photographed each seen is. We linger on images just long enough to allow them to sink into our psyche and be captured by our eyes forever. There is a fascinating dichotomy that I have experienced in European film many times over the years that is thickly strewn over the visual elements of THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND. The women in this film are lovingly shot in such a way as to pay lasting tribute to the glory of the female face and figure, but it is done without licentiousness or frivolity. Just as the Baroque and Rococo painters of long ago created paeans to the rich landscapes of the womanly form, director Patrice Leconte allows us to bask in the heady comeliness of the faces and figures of the actresses of THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND. When coupled with the deeply amorous “sex” scenes and the frank and boldly erotic voice-overs of Antoine as a man, the result is quite potent, especially when one considers there is no nudity in this movie. Typical of so many European films, THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND does not have to have a lot of skin to be incredibly sexy. It is all about playing on our emotions, tugging at the heart strings and making the brow just a bit damp with perspiration after your internal temperature has climbed. THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND takes you on a ride that is just as intense as the first time you rode a bike. Even though that first dash across the street was relatively short, all of the shapes and colors of that day became etched in your brain along with the exhilarating feelings of speed and freedom that have never been equaled since. Like BETTY BLUE, THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND starts one way, develops along some lines that suggest one direction for the film, it goes another way much to our satisfaction and then it ends at a place we really didn’t want to go, but that’s tough because that is life. Even though the romance of these two characters is idealized and straight out of fantasy, the pattern of their days is a mirror for what our existence often is and this is all presented in a visual form and with delightful musical accompaniment that feels like a daydream or a memory turned loose one lazy summer’s afternoon when you are tripping down the avenues of your mind and let one of those recollections free that has been deeply buried for a long time. Those moments don’t happen often, but like a fine film they are deeply intoxicating when they do.

THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND has a small but splendid set of Bonus Features. In addition, to the Theatrical Trailer, there is a 36 minute mini-feature called “Leconte on Leconte-Part 1” (Part 2 is to be found on the Severin dvd PERFUME OF YVONNE) which is a fabulous conversation with the director about his film making past and his remembrances of THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND. After that, there is a 17 minute featurette called “The Hairdresser’s Recollections” which sits down with Italian actress Anna Galiena and explores how she came to be connected with this project and her memories of THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND. Beyond doing a fabulous job bringing this film to us looking outstanding even though it isn’t “that old”, Severin Films did its usual yeoman work of creating compelling and contemplative supplements that a film-lover can just revel in and appreciate greatly. To hear a director and an actress express their deepest feeling about THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND, both of whom were emotionally attached to the making of this movie, is supremely enjoyable. Great praise must once again be given to Severin Films for their impressive efforts.

One of the few pleasant aspects of aging is the ability to look back over the years and truly understand what you have done right, what decisions were mistakes, how you should have shaped your course and what the impact of your actions has been on the days through which you pass at that moment. THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND is the kind of film that all kinds of movie-goers may enjoy if they are over the age of 18, but that you will truly appreciate if you are much older than that. It is a film that speaks to the timeless allure of romance, the power of desire and the ineffable sorrow of the ending of joy. While most people picking up Severin Films discs might be expecting a Jess Franco film or something along those lines, I am impressed with the people at Severin for distributing something a little out of their usual field of dreams. One can’t always watch horror and exploitation fare and branching out can bring rewards, just as this did for me.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A POLICEWOMAN IN NEW YORK (1981) d. Michele Massimo Tarantini

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Male movie enthusiasts may enjoy watching action, war and/or horror films and delight to the exploits of masculine cinematic icons like John Wayne, Steve McQueen and Lee Marvin, but almost every man will admit a profound appreciation for the mesmeric faces and even more enthralling figures of actresses spanning decades of motion picture history. As a boy, I was transfixed by the loveliness of Susan Hayward and Debra Paget and as I got older I grew to esteem the undeniable appeal of Luciana Paluzzi and Barbara Steele. While these women are still the pinnacle of glamour and beauty in my opinion, as all men should, we allow our tastes to evolve and sharpen as we age. One of the more uncommon and yet just as exciting beauties I have come to appreciate over the past fifteen years has been that of the French actress Edwige Fenech, best known for her seductive and ethereal roles in giallo films like ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH and FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON. Throughout her long and splendid career, Ms. Fenech made a name for herself by becoming a very capable actress able to project otherworldliness and vulnerability in her dramas, fun and frolic in her comedies and wildly engaging sensuality in her sexcapades, while all the while having one of the most beautiful faces and stunning figures in the record of the Silver Screen. A striking brunette with long and luxuriant locks who often affected auburn hair too, Ms. Fenech could wear just about any garment and with that set of dazzling measurements make herself look outrageously desirable. A POLICEWOMAN IN NEW YORK (LA POLIZIOTTA a NEW YORK) was one of Edwige Fenech’s wacky comedies made toward the end of her greatest run of success before she took some time off from movie making in the mid-1980s. While not the wild ride of a Terence Hill and Bud Spencer flick or even as entertaining as her mid-1970s romp GIOVANNA LONG THIGH, A POLICEWOMAN IN NEW YORK is still an Italian slapstick lover’s dream made all the more interesting by one of the world’s most enduring icons of allure.

A POLICEWOMAN IN NEW YORK is the story of Italian detective Gianna and her partner Alvaro, who are recruited for a special mission. New York Mob Boss “Big John” has a girlfriend named “Pupa” and a thug named “Don’t Tread on Me” who look suspiciously like Gianna and Alvaro. The plan is to replace Pupa and her bodyguard with the police operatives in an attempt to infiltrate “Big John’s” house and find incontestable evidence that will incriminate him so that he can be locked up permanently. What ensues is a comedy of errors as warring crime lords and their henchmen stumble over police officers working with Gianna and Alvaro in the attempt to emerge ludicrously supreme. As Gianna and Alvaro snake their way through “Big John’s” daily routine, Gianna comes to learn how to blend her brassy and big-fisted style with hypnotic feminine wiles to get her man. By the end, a series of airplane antics and car chases are needed to bring the criminals to justice and Gianna ends up being the heroine.

Overall, there is a lot to like about A POLICEWOMAN IN NEW YORK. The only true detracting issues that I found was that the dialogue is only accessible in either an English dubbed language track or Italian version WITHOUT English subtitles. While I always prefer to hear that original tongue of a film and read the subtitles, my Italian is rather poor and since I wanted to know what was happening in the story, I suffered through the dubbed language track. In addition, the film print and/or the transfer was generally pretty good, but I did detect a small amount of graininess at the very beginning and the end of the film. Most of the rest of the time, the only reason the picture was not as sharp and crisp as it could have been was the use of somewhat soft focus as a directorial strategy, which was not uncommon in the early 1980s or in dealing with any icon of female beauty throughout cinema’s glorious past. Other than these two problems, A POLICEWOMAN IN NEW YORK was a joy to experience.

Loaded to the brim with silly expressions, dynamic overacting, rapid fire dialogue and piles of physical and sexual humor, A POLICEWOMAN IN NEW YORK is truly a throwback to another time in film making. I saw more faces slapped and other punches or pugilistic comedy in A POLICEWOMAN IN NEW YORK than I have in some time. The absolutely foolish facial contortions of many of the characters was deeply reminiscent of old Vaudeville acts and when blended with the “Big-Band” inspired title music, it made A POLICEWOMAN IN NEW YORK feel older than it really was. That illusion was deepened by the good-natured and light-hearted elements of the sexual humor. As a policewoman undercover, Edwige Fenech’s character Gianna is constantly exposed to the randy and amorous attentions of the competing mob bosses who fall victim to her vibrant female charms and who she must consistently fend off to preserve her professional integrity and personal honor. The antics of the mob bosses themselves and their ridiculous clowning feels like a European version of The Three Stooges at times and when blended with the overblown foley effects, there is a delightfully cartoonish quality to A POLICEWOMAN IN NEW YORK that is reminiscent of an old TerryToons cartoon short. The plot itself is not terribly creative but it doesn’t have to be. A POLICEWOMAN IN NEW YORK is about hi-jinks and is also a vehicle for selling the most desirable commodity there has ever been, a spectacularly beautiful actress.

At the same time that the fantasy of Golden Age Film is being created, there is plenty of modern glamor and sex appeal layered onto this flick. The incidental music has a video game parlor feel to it and when combined with the gaudy, goofy and occasionally tacky early 1980s attire, there is a lot of sprightly silliness to A POLICEWOMAN IN NEW YORK. What adds an entire level of adolescent appeal is that for the duration of the film, Edwige Fenech is paraded about in form fitting fashions that are wonderfully revealing, supremely saucy and are also the best eye candy that a self-respecting gentleman can find. Sprinkled like sesame seeds over rice balls, there are delectable leg shots, deep-breath inducing cleavage peeks and collar stretching derriere doings of the lovely Ms. Fenech that will simply captivate any of her devotees. Known for her legendary proclivity to take her clothes off in the vast majority of her movies, Ms. Fenech is a little more circumspect in A POLICEWOMAN IN NEW YORK. There is only one topless scene where her curvaceous glory is displayed for all to enjoy. In A POLICEWOMAN IN NEW YORK, the rest of the thrills are a little more “old school” and do not need the permission of your parents. Instead, this feels like an Italian version of a Benny Hill sketch and with Edwige Fenech’s vastly underrated acting skills, you actually get a slightly more impressive product. You may not have the consummate talents of Mr. Benny Hill, but you have the enigmatic charm and sex appeal of Ms. Edwige Fenech.

There is a small extras menu on the dvd of A POLICEWOMAN IN NEW YORK, which was a bit of a surprise for this none-too-well-known Italian comedy. There is the original Italian trailer, and like the feature film it does not have subtitles. However, it is in its original condition, which allows the viewer to bask in the yeoman efforts of MYA Communications when it comes to restoring the main feature. There is also a pleasantly stocked image Gallery that contains a series of foreign film poster jpegs and a larger collection of German promotional images. For fans of Edwige Fenech, this small but enjoyable collection of supplements is a boon that was totally unexpected.

As we age, one of the most enduring joys is the ability to take pleasure in great beauty. Not only is A POLICEWOMAN IN NEW YORK simply dripping in the loveliness of Edwige Fenech, it is also a wacky comedy that has its heart in the right place and should bring forth some smiles and laughs from most ages and stations in life. If you’ve been hungering for a comedy that has its roots the deeper past and that stars an actress who I would have bought every pinup poster I could have laid hands on had they available, then A POLICEWOMAN IN NEW YORK is what should go into your dvd player next time you have a chance. Make sure you’ve taken your heart medication and have a window open to cool off the room and get some much needed fresh air. Ms. Fenech will cause your internal temperature to rise a few points and simultaneously make you feel like a teenager all over again. 201009 DV

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

STREET WARRIOR (2008) d. David Jackson

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Something doesn’t have to be new or even look all that pretty in appearance to be pleasurable. Not too far from where I grew up was an old, somewhat rundown amusement park that had all kinds of aged, rather battered-looking rides, a lot of tired and used but still enjoyably kitschy games and contests and a venerable and rickety-looking, but still thrilling wooden roller coaster. While Whalom Park may not have been as large and diverse as Riverside or as glamorous as Canobie Lake, I still loved it, for the entertainment value of a day spent there was still high despite the fact that it appeared as if Whalom Park had seen better days, as indeed it had. While I have little but absolute contempt for the way many modern action films are shot and edited, they can still be a thrill ride even when the high-octane scenes don’t deliver on the visual appeal in the fashion that they should. STREET WARRIOR, starring Max Martini, Nick Chinlund and Valerie Cruz does not look like ENTER THE DRAGON, but it doesn’t have to when it provides the joy of a story, some eccentric performances and steady, high intensity pacing that feels like you’ve crossed Jackie Chan’s WHEELS ON MEALS with Hulk Hogan’s NO HOLDS BARRED.

STREET WARRIOR is the story of Jack Campbell (played by Max Martini), a tough and principled war hero whose high ideals landed him in military prison and disgrace. After his release, Jack returns home to find his younger brother in a coma after battling for his life in a squalid and brutal fight club called The Gauntlet. Jack begins a violent and bloody search for the people who maimed his brother, but on each step along his path, Jack is outmaneuvered by Mr. Pope (played by Nick Chinlund) and his lovely assistant, Ms. Lee (Jane Park Smith). Mr. Pope, the showman and manager of The Gauntlet, manipulates Jack into fighting in his gory sideshow using the safety of Jack’s abducted and pregnant sister-in-law Sarah as insurance. With the help of attractive convenience store owner Maggie Kuerner (played by Valerie Cruz) and the sleazy nightclub owner George Bautista (Max Perlich), Jack is able to muster enough strength and guts to take on Mr. Pope and his legion of fighters in an attempt to exact vengeance and get justice for all.

There is absolutely nothing original about STREET WARRIOR when it comes to the plot, the character sketches, the action scenes and all the other components of this film except for the modern methods of cinematography and editing, and in the end it is those original elements that are the one and only failure. STREET WARRIOR borrows ideas from just about every single “good man takes on the corrupt monsters” story that has ever been created and then grafts those narrative ideas to professional wrestling and REVENGE OF THE NINJA-inspired fighter caricatures to create a very cartoon-ish but still wildly entertaining yarn about an archetype of good battling for his life and those of the people he cares for against an archetype of evil who is as crooked and loathsome as he can possibly get. The story is almost perfectly paced for there are long stretches of high testosterone fight sequences in the arena, in bars, in offices and in mini-marts. While those moments of intense fisticuffs dominate the storyline, there are also well-crafted and skillfully sculpted dramatic moments that trade on some of the oldest takes on the “hero saga” that exist like “people being used by a powerful and abusive Money Man”, “the inner strength of the hero is sustained by helping others and the love of a good woman”, “the turns of conscience of The Controlled occur after hearing The Word of Our Hero” and SO MANY others. Throughout this already clich├ęd and yet still smile-inducing lineup are frequent doses of lovely, scantily clad and/or nude and incredibly sexy women as well as trite, witty and wonderful one-liners from each and every character. There are times that STREET FIGHTER feels so very much like all the Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Dudikoff and Jean-Claude Van Damme films I’ve ever seen that I felt like it almost could have been a retrospective, but that is where the acting and character development pieces come in.

The people who cast STREET WARRIOR should be given a medal, only to be surpassed by the screen writers who created the characters who deserve a Loving Cup. The principal actors, Max Martini, Nick Chinlund and Valerie Cruz were perfectly chosen for their roles, their portrayals of their characters who dead-on perfect and it doesn’t hurt to notice that these three are veteran performers with long resumes of TV episodes, small films and other TV Movies in their acting past that helped prepare them for roles that would need some skill to make them work. Mr. Martini plays the part of Jack exactly like every 80s tough guy that ever clenched a fist. Jack is whispery and gravel-voiced, stone faced and implacably tough as well as a man with a silver lining so spotless that he would do ANYTHING to do the right thing. He faces off against Nick Chinlund’s Mr. Pope who is played like an even more sinister Vince McMahon of the WWE, but with so much over over-the-top panache and all kinds of carnival barker glitz and snake oil salesman grotesqueness that he comes close to over doing it, but not quite. There is a fine line between over-acting and putting on a show that is just wonderfully silly and more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Nick Chinlund gives us a man to hate, a sleaze-ball who you half-way cheer for since he is so very amusing. Then there is Valerie Cruz, whose character of Maggie is in some ways the most difficult to play because she can’t steal the thunder of either of the men, but she still has to radiate toughness, exude caring and concern and just ooze sweetness AND sex appeal but without overshadowing Jane Park Smith’s Ms. Lee or all the other luscious beauties paraded about STREET WARRIOR. Somehow, Ms. Cruz hits the gold in the bulls-eye without fail and she completes the triad of main characters brilliantly. When added to the Michael Vick-inspired betting and adrenaline machine of Omar, the skuzzy and yet lovable George and the nefarious tub of lard known as Sheriff Watkins, every character archetype imaginable is dredged up and used flawlessly in STREET WARRIOR. Then, there is the ace in the hole, the fighters themselves, like Roland Kickinger’s “The Showman”, Gary Kaspar’s maniacal neo-Nazi “Baldus”, Danny Arroyo’s high-flying Latino battler known as “Santo” (possibly the closest we’ll ever get to the live-action version of the DC dorky-villain Batroc the Leaper), and a colorful and ridiculous array of others replete with silly and serious fighting techniques, foolish faces and buffoon-ish battle cries, as well as kooky costumes. There is a lot to like about the way this film was scripted, structured and set down for our enjoyment. Even the music was mostly high-energy but not overwhelming, but often interspersed with emotive and soul-stirring strains, all of which were able to add layers of simple “stimulus-response” to this classic brand of cinematic beef stew.

The only problem with STREET WARRIOR was how it was shot during most of the fight sequences, how those fight scenes were edited and occasionally augmented with “effects” and how even here and there those baleful influences could be seen during dramatic stretches of the film, but fortunately not too often. Even then though, there were times when close-ups were too close and stitched together in awkward and ineffective ways. I am sure that the film makers would have said a great deal on a commentary (had there BEEN a commentary) about how “this is the way to do things for the movie lovers of today” and I am sure that they may be right or at least have a point. So many of the younger set have been raised on video games, music television and all kinds of other confusion-inducing visual chicanery that they are thoroughly fooled by these kinds of film-making techniques, but not me. I wanted to really be able to see the action and have it shot like the Hong Kong films of yore or the Thai films of today. Had STREET WARRIOR had maintained its comic-book charming story and looked like CHOCOLATE or ONG-BAK, this could have become an instant classic of the “big, dumb action” film genre and taken its idiotic place alongside COBRA or COMMANDO, even though they are different kinds of films. The spirit of STREET WARRIOR is still the same. Sadly, it was not to be and the poor choices of the director and his photography crew keep this movie from being as much fun as it should have been.

The other major deficiency of STREET WARRRIOR is just that, it is lacking something, BONUS FEATURES! I suppose I should be thankful that I got to see stereotypical fighters battling each other surrounded by a bevy of beauties, many of which were naked throughout their scenes, but I still feel like I have been robbed to a small degree. When you’ve got a director like David Jackson who has worked on TV Shows like “Swamp Thing”, “Lois & Clark”, “Nash Bridges” and “Smallville” as well as many other projects of the television and movie kind, he must have some things to say. There is a veteran cast of actors who would have also been worthwhile to interview or hit up for a commentary. There is a smorgasbord of unsettlingly attractive women who would have been perfect for some kind of wacky extra like “strip cinema-trivial pursuit” or something like that. Make something up folks! I recently watched a disc with a “faux-extra” that was a great way to end my viewing experience. Since my eyes were not fully satisfied with the action scenes in STREET WARRIOR, the best way to “bait and switch” is do something salaciously gratuitous in the supplements. Why RHI-TV still doesn’t get that is totally beyond me. All I got for “extras” on this DVD were three auto-play trailers I had already seen. Not smart guys!

If you can look past the way STREET WARRIOR was shot and you hunger for the action flicks of yesterday that had a “feel good” ending that you can see coming miles away as well as loads of caricatures and comics/cartoon-inspired goodies and baddies, you’ll probably like STREET WARRIOR a lot. I know that I went into this film expecting almost nothing and got a pleasant surprise. However, on reflection, I shouldn’t have been shocked or even startled. There is something about fighting that we can’t give up as a species no matter how hard we try civilizing ourselves. There is something about “the hero tale” that never gets old no matter how many times we’ve seen it. Just like Whalom Park, which changed very little over the nearly thirty years that I went back to it again and again, there is something about a comfortably entertaining option that may not be the most glamorous of thrills, but we’ll take it. If that is the kind of Saturday afternoon viewing experience you want to have, then STREET WARRIOR is probably your cup of tea.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

LAID TO REST (2009) d. Robert Hall

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

One winter, an unusually mild spell of weather warmed the ground and softened the earth causing our tulips to sprout early. I remember well the strange mix of elation and dread that I felt when I saw the tiny green shoots struggle skyward only to know that the suggestion of an early Spring was illusory and that not only were these tulips destined to meet an unfortunate demise but that their frosty death was not likely to be of benefit when they tried to grow in earnest during the real months of seasonal rebirth. My fears were well founded for when the shoots tried to come up again in April, they had been burned by the intense cold they had endured. Sometimes when something starts promisingly it doesn’t mean that it will end that way. LAID TO REST is just such an example. It comes out of the gate like a Brahma Bull and shows an equal amount of thunderous menace, but it does not maintain that kind of energy, much to my disappointment.

LAID TO REST is the story of a nameless girl, suffering from memory loss and frightening flashbacks, who escapes from a brutal serial killer intent upon documenting the ignominious deaths of his victims. With his trusty video camera, complex cell phone, impressive set of wheels and gleaming serrated knife, Chrome Skull stalks our heroine and slashes or chops through nearly every person who tries to get in his way and bring a halt to his swath of destruction. Despite the noble attempts of Tucker and Steven, Chrome Skull time and again catches up with “the girl” in an attempt to trap her in a coffin and complete his nefarious plans. Only “the girl” is able to stand up to Chrome Skull and to piece together the shards of her shattered personality in an attempt to get her life back.

LAID TO REST begins with a great deal of potential. The first one-third of the film is very briskly paced, somewhat atmospheric and certainly a gore and theatrical killing lover’s dream. The violence is intense, the death scenes are bloody and also somewhat inventive without being “over the top” in a humorous fashion. Not that humorous is a bad thing, for those who saw FINAL DESTINATION II and III will know what I am talking about, but in LAID TO REST that kind of “Rube Goldberg” complexity wouldn’t have fit. The visual effects in the murder scenes and the macabre moments are quite good so that the death sequences are both riveting and disturbing. There are even some very enjoyable bloody coffin scenes dappling some ghoulish imagery over this motion picture. One of the reasons for the pleasantly growing sense of doom in this early segment of the film was that we don’t see the villain clearly and the only moments where he is in shot are glancing blows, reflections in glass or shadowy images so that when combined with the opening blood bath sequences, there is a wonderful sense of peril and sinister moodiness that leaves the viewer hoping for more. In this initial stretch, the story is quite thin and the characters are rather one-dimensional, but it doesn’t matter. This is a blood-soaked thrill ride that combines some of the grisly characteristics of movies like HOUSE OF A THOUSAND CORPSES with classic slasher fare like FRIDAY THE 13th. Sadly, this avalanche of mutilated corpses and tsunami of blood does not continue.

Where LAID TO REST begins to fail is when the pace slackens after the introductory phase, during an effort to establish suspense and mystery in the plot. Normally I wouldn’t have a problem with such an effort for a more intricate narrative rife with convolutions and intellect are always welcome additions, but there are reasons why this attempt falls flat. First, there are plot twists and story elements that are dependent on the technology of the video camera and the cell phone, which turn out to be irritating rather than novel. Watching people gazing at video playback is not inherently interesting nor is the sight of them interfacing with a cell phone menu screen. While the premise of a killer manipulating technology in an attempt to further his gruesome designs sounds original, it really isn’t that compelling. Another problem is that there aren’t really any profound and forceful stories involving the characters. One would think that a girl with a lost memory and shattered recollection of her past would be a slam dunk, but her tale is spun exceedingly thin and when we finally do find out more about “the girl”, the information isn’t that gripping. In addition, the characters of Tucker and Steven don’t develop much chemistry with each other, they aren’t terribly deep and we don’t really care about them. Tucker’s effort to protect “the girl” or Princess as he calls her are honorable and we should feel more attached to his travails, but for some inexplicable reason, audience compassion for his character is in short supply. One of the biggest failings of LAID TO REST is that the lead actress Bobbi Sue Luther, who gives a fairly sincere performance and works hard to sell her character’s fear and vulnerability, this lovely young lady doesn’t spend as much time out of her clothes as one would wish to see. There is a very short scene near the beginning when she is nude on the bathroom floor but it is shot to preserve Miss Luther’s modesty and it is a shame. In addition to having a pretty face and a mane of luxuriant hair, Miss Luther has a stunningly curvaceous figure that had it been liberally exposed would have propelled this film to much higher levels of exciting gratuitousness. Since LAID TO REST wasn’t trying to be “patrician” horror, it should have gone the route of all fine exploitation cinema and mined a more plebeian vein. The final weakness evident in LAID TO REST is its lack of adherence to the principles of physics. Newton’s First Law of Motion states that an object in motion will continue moving in a straight line and at a constant speed until an outside force acts on it. The outside force is the writer’s decision to slow the story down and end the head of steam that had been created. When momentum is achieved, the best thing to do is keep it rolling. By starting fast and then putting on the brakes, instead of doing the opposite, the audience’s adrenaline is allowed to dissipate and once the juice is gone it’s tough to get back. In the end it is a real crying shame for this film had me at the beginning and I can’t help but cheer for a flick that has the intestinal fortitude to shear through a character’s face and kill another character with a full impalement through the temple with a sizable knife. That kind of “take no prisoners” gore and violence, done stylishly and with excellent visual effects isn’t too common. Sadly, LAID TO REST had the right idea but it just didn’t have the right kind of screenplay it needed to deliver the goods.

LAID TO REST does have a surprisingly hefty and rewarding Bonus Features section. In addition to a fairly interesting audio commentary with director/writer Robert Hall and actress/producer Bobbi Sue Luther, there is a very comprehensive mini-doc called “Postmortem: Making of Laid to Rest”. Over its 31 minutes, there is a very enjoyable blend of “behind the scenes” with cast/crew anecdotes and interview clips. A shorter but more focused featurette follows called “Torture Porn: The SFX of Laid to Rest” which is an 8 minute look at the visual effects created primarily by Erik Porn. Fear not, LAID TO REST is not a “torture porn” flick. The supplement is evidently humorously named. There is a 4 ½ minute “Deleted Scenes” segment and a 7 minute “Bloopers” reel which are worth a quick look. Finally, there is the film trailer. While not the Kashmir of Extras, this set did leave me with a slightly improved feeling towards LAID TO REST, as I was able to look into the minds of the creators and get a sense of what they were trying to achieve with their project. Once again, it is always a good idea to have some supplements on a disc, and these were worth digging through.

During one of the supplements, director Robert Hall is heard to say that “he loves the general idea of a killer in a mask chasing a girl around”. I couldn’t agree more that having such a concept for a scene or two, maybe three, is a good idea for a slasher film, but to base an entire movie on such a premise is possibly the reason why LAID TO REST disappoints. There needed to be a lot more depth and a great deal more meat to LAID TO REST. Without that kind of screenplay complexity, compelling motivations of the characters and even more fascinating underlying issues of the killer, LAID TO REST turns out to be too much like the frosting on a dry cake. The frosting looks great and tastes even better at the start, but if what is underneath the frosting isn’t that appetizing then the end result is a bite of confection that just doesn’t leave you satisfied.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE (1971) d. Jean Rollin

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Sex and vampires are story threads that for many years have been delicately and exotically twined together to create an enthralling combination. The sight of long, curved fangs impaling a person’s neck is so very like the sensual act of kissing the hollow of a lover’s throat that it is easy to see how the two fit so seamlessly together. Take that basic story concept of sexuality and vampirism and add a great deal of lavish, lush and lovely imagery to the sensuous elements of the tale, and the resultant rush of sumptuous stimuli can be nearly overwhelming. That is usually the effect of watching any Jean Rollin film. The French director who brought the world films like THE NUDE VAMPIRE, LIPS OF BLOOD and SHIVER OF THE VAMPIRES and crammed each and every one of his erotic horror films with loads of distinctive scenery did an equally impressive job of delighting the senses and challenging the subconscious in REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE, a motion picture that revels in visual hedonism and atmospheric orgiastic excess. What makes all of the Jean Rollin films special is that they are stylish, attractive, charmingly indulgent and splendidly decadent in all of the best ways.

REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE is the story of two young women, Marie and Michelle, who are on the run from the diabolical pursuers and during a car chase their male driver is killed in an exchange of gunfire. Dressed as harlequins, the two young lovelies evade their tormentors and take cover in a cemetery, but their superstitious fear in the presence of bats haunting the graveyard forces them to flee. After finding what appears to be a deserted and ruined castle, the girls think they can quietly sate their attraction for each other within the cozy walls of the strangely opulent and gaudily adorned manor, but they are stalked and then captured by a devilish vampiress named Erica and her henchmen. Eventually, the girls are brought before Erica’s master, an ancient vampire of fabulous power. The girls are forced to bear witness to soul-smashing debauchery and after fruitless attempts to escape the chateau by paths that only circle back to its gate, the girls are compelled to do the vampires’ bidding. While one accepts her fate and embraces the bloodthirsty life of the undead, her companion rebels and tries desperately to resist, even enduring torture meant to break her spirit. Finally, it is self-sacrifice and love that brings this tragic tale of lust and desire to its end.

Like so many other Jean Rollin films, REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE is more about what you can see and feel rather than what you are meant to understand and intellectually experience. The story is not terribly complex or intricately crafted, but there is a story and the pace moves patiently and inexorably in the direction of dealing with the resolution of the simple conflict. What is far more satisfying than the premise or construction of the narrative is the subtle but steady shifts in its tone. REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE starts out with a playfully mischievous and even violently unapologetic mood that gently changes into a feel of atmospheric spookiness and subtly “scary” splendor. The remaining balance of REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE is surrealistically erotic and unabashed in its sexual frankness, but done with panache and artistic verve. One of the hallmarks of REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE is its very sparse dialogue but in its place is a liberally used, diverse and quirky but often mod and emotive musical score. Much of the sensation of each and every scene is driven by the music, occasional lack thereof and the obvious lack of verbal character interaction, which connotes the feel that it is not words that matter but deeds and the actions of these characters are those that have their origins in passion.

The great strength of REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE is its visual impact and stunning photography. The exterior scenes were shot amidst the verdant glory of the French countryside, blending timeless pastoral beauty with vibrantly desirable modern young women who ooze a sense of salacious sexuality that helps to create one of the many stark contrasts that fuel the symbolic intensity of Mr. Rollin’s movie. The camera work is often spectacular, utilizing provocative low, high or canted angles, focusing on compelling eyes and facial expressions in dramatic close-ups, engaging the viewer with panoramic images with characters carefully placed in geometric patterns blending with the natural lines of the outdoors. The interior segments are no less stunning in their use of crumbling castle fortifications, ancient stonework throughout the rooms, halls, and passageways, archaic and yet phenomenally intricate cemetery architecture with iron grillwork and bars as well as dark dungeons filled with rusty or gleaming chains that are juxtaposed against soft and satiny skin. No matter what the scenes, indoor or outdoor, color dominates the composition of this motion picture. There is the striking contrast of brilliantly lit day scenes replete with heartbreaking blues, greens and yellows set against the darkness of deep night and the eerie and moody use of accent lights that establish splashes of baleful green and violet, but often there are entire sequences shot monochromatically and the entirety is drenched in reds or blues. Add to this already rich palette the dappling of sharp hues found in the daily garb or the garish costumes of the characters, and there is little chance for the eye to become bored. Instead, the viewer’s gaze is manipulated in such a way that we are constantly trying to focus on what is happening yet alternately making every effort not to miss the magnificent visual repast set before us.

One of the most dominant characteristics of any Jean Rollin film and REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE is no exception is the copious quantities of nude women and incredibly unselfconscious sexual imagery of this flick. Whether it is nudity for nudity sake, consensual sex, compelled sex, bondage and other sado-masochistic behaviors as well as acts that are playful or punishing, loathsome or libidinous, sexual content is stitched into REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE so as to be as much a part of the tapestry as the “story” or the general photography. There is a plethora of attractive young women of every body type and even when they are not unclothed, their choice of costume is meant to draw attention to their fresh, youthful figures and the celebration of their heady interest in being a part of their regular and rapacious ravishment. The only distracting visual component of REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE is the male master of the vampires whose countenance does not convey a sense of aged power and profundity. Rather, he looks like a haggard and withered accountant whose days at his adding machine have been so arduous that his energy has been spent, never to be renewed. After watching REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE, I see why he might have been chosen for the very purpose of symbolizing decay and decline, but I like my vampires to have a commanding presence and a charisma that communicates menace and threat. The Master of the Undead in REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE looked like the only thing he could convey would be tax advice on property laws or entrepreneurial code.

REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE has a small but still rewarding bonus features menu. There are both the English and French language trailers. There is a small stills gallery which appears to be nothing more than screen captures put together in a superimposed and stylized composition meant to heighten the “artsy” feel of this dvd. There are three short “extra scenes” which really should be titled alternate scenes, for they are non-nude takes of erotically charged film sequences. There are two Redemption promos as well. The real gem of the supplement section is the 10 minute interview with Louise Dhour, who plays “Louise” in REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE, the piano playing succubus and follower of the Master Vampire and his assistant Erica. Subtitled in English, just as the feature film is, this interview is a very interesting set of reminiscences and responses that Ms. Dhour gives to her questioner that help to lay bare the heart of Jean Rollin, his craft and the sexy art flick that is REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE.

Beyond being delightfully naughty and deeply erotic in nearly every fiber of its cinematic being, REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE is more than just a licentious and skintastic vampire movie. It is also a look back at a time when sex and genre film-making were fast approaching the zenith of their excess and success. It is also a fabulous exploration of a culture that has long had a much more comfortable and mature attitude and approach to sex in the cinema and for a long time French films were right up there with their Italian neighbors for being the apex of creative and yet completely corrupt pursuit of decadent artistry. REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE has so many qualities about it that should satisfy the lover of stylish and sensual European fare of the 1960s and 1970s. It may not be terribly deep or thoughtfully convoluted, but it doesn’t have to be or want to be. It is like an orchid, dazzling in its subtle and yet striking colors and exhilarating in its intoxicating aroma, unnecessary and yet undeniably pleasurable.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

MASK OF THE NINJA (2008) d. Bradford May

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

When preparing a classic meal that you hope will go over well with your guests, one way to insure its success is to spice up the old favorite and add in some exotic flair. For example, macaroni & cheese may not seem so “hum-drum” if you add delectable meats like lamb or dapple the serving with a variety of colored and scrumptious peppers. What was once “run of the mill” is now a very unique and flavorful take on an old favorite. Films can be a lot like this example, especially crime dramas. By adding in some action elements, the tired old story of rival gangs can be made a little fresher and by making the gangs of the Asian variety, another brand of spice has been introduced. However, even this zesty combination has been used before so another dose of zing needs to be sprinkled over the surface and that pertains to what the adversaries are fighting for. At this point, one might worry that too many elements have been blended into the original recipe, but that is not the case. Like the time-honored mac & cheese, the bones of the bake are still the same, it is just the fringes and frills that have been altered. The problem lies in the final presentation. If you sprinkle green and blue food coloring over the top of your casserole to give it that much more jazz, it will probably look rather bizarre and be thoroughly unappealing even if it tastes terrific. Such is the case with MASK OF THE NINJA. It is has a completely unoriginal plot concept but enough interesting additions are grafted onto the general premise that it might have worked if it wasn’t for the fact that specific components look terrible.

MASK OF THE NINJA is the story of Jack Barrett (played by Caspar Van Dien), an LA detective who happens to stumble into an ancient feud between rival Japanese families. On a night of bloody vengeance, Jack arrives at the Takeo family’s mansion in time to save the daughter Miko (played by Kristy Wu) from a cadre of assassins, but is not able to save Miko’s father from being executed in the classic Ninja fashion of a blade thrust to the heart. As Jack digs deeper into the Takeo case, he incurs the ire of the Kokushibyu family, who is trying to locate a vital microchip that would provide for them the power and influence necessary to redress injuries done to them in the past. Jack must find a way to keep Miko alive, dodge the viper-fast blows of Ninjas rallying to the assault and take down The “Black Death” family before he becomes just another dead body.

On the surface, it would seem like MASK OF THE NINJA has a lot going for it, which is actually the case. Stories about warring Japanese families battling over some lengthy grievance rarely get old and to make this tale a little more fun, the issue is control over technology, not some mystical sword or the ashes of a sorcerous samurai ancestor. The narrative is well-paced and is a surprisingly heady blend of action, violence, sex and some reasonably good character melodrama. The story moves along briskly and we are treated to some very attractive female actresses, a little bit of nudity, some very bloody battle scenes, a mix of gunplay and sword work, as well as some gangland torture and execution. The roots of the plot are grounded in some wonderful human frailties of loyalties divided, betrayal, revenge and murder. While the acting isn’t always up to snuff, the cast is carefully selected to look the part. There is a nice mix of Asian and Caucasian actors, older and younger performers, handsome and less appealing countenances and they are thoughtfully costumed in trendy and fashionably elegant styles that fit the West Coast scene. In addition, the scenes are well lit, whether they are during the day or at night and there are some occasional splashes of color or dynamic backgrounds, especially when it comes to exterior sets. However there are even a few interior sets that catch the eye too. There is some striking architecture, a few panoramic California vistas and even a lovely Japanese garden. How can a motion picture have all of these positive qualities and still be lacking you might ask? Let us remember the eclectically colored macaroni and cheese and the answer is plain to see.

An action film has to have action sequences that look really good and just as importantly, the dramatic sequences need to look equally as impressive. MASK OF THE NINJA suffers from some very uneven camera work but even worse it is badly hampered by “creative” use of photographic effects and “inventive” editing. When it is an establishing shot of the background or supporting scenery, the imagery looks great. There are even some reasonably good character shots, although a few too many close-ups that are too close do occur. When it comes to the fight scenes the slippery slope is so steep as to be stupidly unsafe. Obnoxious hand-held camera techniques are employed causing a shakiness of the images that is irritating to say the least. Add to that some very rapid editing work and shots that are too tight and you’ve got a mess on your hands. It gets worse. All kinds of “special effects” are laid over the initial bad camera work like multiple images, superimposed images, shakiness sped up, blurring, overexposure and all manner of other misery so that I looked forward to the end of the actions scenes in hopes that we could get back to what seemed to be “calmer” dramatic moments. Even that was stolen from me. Any scene where “ingenuity” could be splashed into the visual sequences over the last two-thirds of the film experienced this blight in spades. There were times that MASK OF THE NINJA looked attractive but they became scarcer as the movie progressed and in the end, the camera-work ruined what was a potentially entertaining flick.

It also didn’t help to have Caspar Van Dien in the starring role. Mr. Van Dien is one of those true Hollywood paradoxes for it is evident why he is cast in the roles he gets. With that rugged chin and granite countenance, blazing eyes and the look of a handsome tough guy, he is a visually appealing commodity. Like a cigar store Indian that looks imposing and compelling but isn’t much in the way of company, Mr. Van Dien is a tad wooden and his performance is one-dimensional at best, not that the rest of the cast of MASK OF THE NINJA is much better. The performances are workman-like at best and most are flat and undeveloped as a rule. At least the writers and the rest of the directing crew had the foresight to make Caspar’s character a likable punching bag for the Ninjas. Instead of making Jack Barrett the all-knowing and unstoppable whitey, he gets his ass kicked consistently in MASK OF THE NINJA and while he gets a few licks in here and there, Jack Barrett is totally outmatched by trained fighters, has his gun kicked out of his hands repeatedly, gets stabbed and slashed fairly often and lands on his back out cold a couple of times. For that I am thankful. Such was the tragedy of MASK OF THE NINJA, it had a fairly believable story. If I could have seen what was going on and enjoyed the action sequences, I might have really praised this film highly.

When I watched KILLER MOVIE, one of the aspects of the Bonus Features I enjoyed the most was that the interview segment with the lovely and shapely Adriana Demeo was done with her sitting in a micro mini-skirt. MASK OF THE NINJA needed to have something like that in ANY kind of Extras Menu, but there was NOTHING. Hello RHI-TV! You’ve got a cast of very attractive Asian women and you can’t sit them down for a quick talk, preferably wearing some kind of revealing outfit that provides for the viewer the sense that they are getting their money’s worth. After an experience that leaves me with that bitter taste of disappointment, just a little tidbit in some kind of set of supplements would have been a good idea, but of course there was nothing. I don’t like feeling cheated and that is exactly how I felt after the feature film was over and there was nothing to cleanse the palette.

It was sad to see that MASK OF THE NINJA was not typical of the many RHI-TV movies I have viewed. Normally, their fare is a wonderful mix of old-style writing and filming techniques that hearken back to a vanished time. Certainly one can’t stand pat forever and while the writing efforts were a pleasant mix of old-school and new ideas, the camera work and special effects were that bane of modern cinema that I absolutely loathe. I hope that other viewers have the same reaction that I did for it is only by voicing our displeasure that such dreadful techniques will be abandoned and real film making and cinematography will return to its rightful place.