Saturday, June 27, 2009

THE ESCAPEES (1981) d. Jean Rollin

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Quirky character pairings made even more dynamic by the thespians that portray those roles have been a plot device and story vehicle as long as the Big and Small Screens have been around. Whether it was Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon or even Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, pairing two performers for comedic or dramatic effect can be a powerful strategy. When your duo are a pair of young women who are also unstable escapees from a mental institution, the nature of your story and its impact is going to be quite dissimilar from the average acting/performing tandem. Add to that the well-known directorial skills and idiosyncratic tastes of Jean Rollin and you know you’re likely to be viewing something not representative of your average flick. Such is the “lost” motion picture THE ESCAPEES, which is uneven and atypical of Monsieur Rollin, but still an addition to his canon that may delight the more avid of his fans.

THE ESCAPEES is the tale of Marie and Michelle, two very young women who seize a chance at flight from the insane asylum in which they are imprisoned. Marie is a deeply damaged and therefore only partially socially competent person, whose dreamy and fearful outlook on life makes her clingy and timid. Michelle is a spirited and combative tigress wrestling with her own demons, but very much interested in living life to the fullest. After their initial escape, the two ingénues, meet up with a traveling burlesque troupe run by Maurice and board with them briefly in an attempt to set off across France. Later, the girls make the acquaintance of Sophie and her lover Pierrot who promise to smuggle them aboard a freighter heading for exotic locales and a date with destiny. Before Marie and Michelle can stowaway on their ship of fortune, an act of impetuosity lands them in a circle of debauchery and their final lot is cast, leaving them at the end of their road in one of the bleakest endings possible.

THE ESCAPEES is a serious departure in style, content and tone for Jean Rollin, a director best known for his erotic horror films and supernatural skin flicks. THE ESCAPEES is considered to be “lost” for many good reasons, but despite some obvious weaknesses it has some very enjoyable characteristics so very typical of a Jean Rollin film. Like all of his previous movies, THE ESCAPEES is well shot and shows particular attention to careful composition, thoughtful camera angles, a mix of wide shots and close-ups, as well as some compelling examinations of the minutiae of transient life. What keeps M. Rollin’s work from being as strong as it normally can be is the inconsistent quality of the film print, transfer, which is a bit dark and grainy at times and marred with lines at very infrequent intervals. Worse were M. Rollin’s settings in most cases throughout the film. The vast majority of the exteriors were a mix of slate gray and other dull shades mirrored in dreary swatches of sea, sky and street. Most of the “street” scenes were equally lacking in visual vibrancy. The hallmark of most of Jean Rollin’s films was splashes of color, deeply fascinating architectural and landscape elements, but that is missing in THE ESCAPEES. Only the pastoral country exteriors of the opening segments of the film and the interiors of Madame Louise’s nightclub/domicile had any real dynamism to their visual elements. Without his customary aesthetics, one of the great pillars of his film-making prowess was weakened. The real visual strength of THE ESCAPEES can be found in the loving cinematography of the beauty of the three main female character’s faces. Between their long and shining hair, their profound and soulful eyes and their full and sensuous lips, Marie, Michelle and Sophie are a visual delight for anyone who enjoys the feminine glory of Gallic femmes. What is missing from M. Rollin’s usual paean to the exquisiteness of women is his penchant for nudity. It is only in the last acts of the movie that all of the principal and some of the secondary female characters are either partially or totally disrobed. For a Jean Rollin film, this is another immense diversion from the norm.

The great strength of THE ESCAPEES was its focus on characters, their personas and the interaction between them. The great trio of Marie, Michelle and Sophie are deeply engaging for their powerful inner natures and their painful frailties. Marie’s ethereal and haunted affect and her drifting, lost soul behavior make her both sympathetic and unapproachable. Michelle is filled with barely suppressed rage and bitterness making her initially unsympathetic but as the plot meanders forward, she becomes a deeper and more alluring character. Her strange mix of impulsive fury and youthful lack of self-confidence make Michelle a more complex if not as interesting a character as Marie. Then there is Sophie, a fresh-faced and exuberant pickpocket with dreams of freedom and joy as lofty as a philosopher. Her idealism is grounded by the street-wise nature of Michelle and the weighty emotional struggles of Marie, and yet the three seem to work as an amorphous unit that you can’t help but root for despite the knowledge that disaster can’t be far away. What keeps this rather interesting character study from being as gripping as it could be was a plot that wandered at best, crawled slowly through its runtime at worst and came perilously close to being miserably dull. It is only at the end that any violence and gore was to be seen, which is also highly atypical of a Jean Rollin film. Most of the rest of THE ESCAPEES is surprisingly PG-rated and if it weren’t for the deeply somber tone and earnestness of the look at people on the fringes of society, the first two-thirds of this movie would not be something that couldn’t be viewed on TV except for the burlesque routines. This was also another dramatic left-turn for Jean Rollin, for his earlier films always seemed to border on hedonistic, but THE ESCAPEES feels Spartan and solemn, sometimes bordering on dismal. Certainly the last act is a punishingly dark look at the wrong turns life can take. In the end, THE ESCAPEES is a contemplative movie, but one lacking in the necessary punctuation points that relieve the starkness of the poignant panorama that is depicted. Without that colorful dappling, the cinematic palette is not quite as exciting as it could have been.

The extras menu of THE ESCAPEES is a trifle small but still worthwhile. There is a Stills Gallery which evidences the same stylishness that the usual Redemption bonus features typically display. The ubiquitous set of Redemption Trailers can also be viewed, all of which I had seen before. The Great Gemstone of this set of supplements section is the 28 minute “Exclusive Jean Rollin Interview” from 2008, set partly in a Parisian cemetery. While somewhat inconsistently paced, this interview sheds a great deal of light on M. Rollin’s thoughts and recollections of THE ESCAPEES as well as some of his other films. For the Jean Rollin fan, this interview is a “must-have” and helps to spice up what is otherwise a slightly less zesty DVD.

THE ESCAPEES is not a bad film, but it is a cautionary tale of what happens to directors when they change their style as movie-going tastes, mores of a decade and social interests shift. Just as I can never just stop writing and suddenly become a ballet dancer, once a director has carved a path for themselves in the motion picture landscape, they can’t just abandon what made them successful and strike off in the direction of a trail that doesn’t really exist. THE ESCAPEES is praiseworthy for being a brave experiment on the part of a man who was unafraid to tackle some taboo topics, but it is also just as disappointing for not being as good as it should have been.

Friday, June 19, 2009

AN EROTIC WEREWOLF IN LONDON (2001, released in 2008) d.William Hellfire

Reviewed by Tim Hulsizer

Late review, me? Ya crazy!

Let's get right to the goods. Straight from the hallowed vaults of Seduction Cinema and Factory 2000 comes the semi-lost Misty Mundae feature AN EROTIC WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Clocking in at a lean, mean 67 minutes, this Beta SP/MiniDV movie also stars Anoushka, Darian Caine, Julian Wells, Zoe Moonshine, Ruby La Rocca, Linda Murray, Jeff Shields, and John Link. Astoundingly, they actually shot scenes and location shots in the UK and US, a feat not generally achieved in low-budget cinema of the erotic-horror/fetish/softcore genres. Writer/Director William Hellfire admirably oversees the proceedings and manages to ably navigate the convoluted plot, delivering a surprisingly ambitious feature that's packed with vitamins T&A just like grandma used to make. Ewww, scratch that last part...unless your grandma is Kitten Natividad, in which case I salute your bloodline.

The plot goes like this (brace yourself and expect spoilers): First we start with a lesbian scene in Misty's bar with her and Ruby. A strange foreign woman (Anoushka) arrives and wants to call a cab, and Misty takes the opportunity to get a little Euro-loving with the individual in question. Halfway through the deed, Anoushka werewolfizes and kills Misty, then leaves. The filmmakers decided to put Anoushka's wolf fangs on her bottom teeth instead of the top. Interesting choice. Then there's Ruby's dream in the bath of hitting it with Anoushka, and she is awakened by the scream of Misty.

We cut to London, where the offices of the Daily Limey are situated. A terrifying man with half his teeth missing (John Link) sends a brunette reporter with an unknown accent (Southern US meets British) to interview Anoushka about being a werewolf. When she arrives, Anoushka is wearing a tasteful ensemble consisting of shirt & panties that say "fuck" all over them. Cut to NYC: Misty's alive! Dr. Douchebag tells Nurse Jaded to watch her but not to put her finger in the pudding, if you catch my drift. Then it's back to the Anoushka interview, and I found myself wishing the disc had subtitles so I could understand Anoushka's broken English.

Back in NYC, Nurse Jaded needs some Misty Pudding after all. Next morning Nurse Blonde arrives to find Nurse Jaded missing. Misty promptly seduces Nurse Blonde. Speaking of blondes, back in London miss Anoushka has tracked one to her home and gets it on with her in the shower. No Teeth Man sends the reporter brunette to NYC to "finish the story." I don't think the NY Times has that kind of budget, much less a back alley rag like the Daily Limey. Ruby has a dream of doing Anoushka and is woken up by the reporter, who warns Ruby about Misty's lycanthropic transformation.

That night Ruby finds Misty in bed, horny as heck and fully healed from her original injuries. Misty gets chained to the bed for safety, but can mere chains hold her? I dare not ruin the shocking ending. See for yourself.

Also included on this enjoyable disc is the 12-minute feature "Reminiscing With Ruby," in which the comely lass talks about filmmaking and how she came to join Misty in the studio's stable of muff. The film itself boasts a very entertaining commentary with Billy H. himself as well as producer Michael Raso and Media Funhouse host Ed Grant. They provide information on how the studio got started, how they met the girls, how everyone acts on set, and more. They're smart, funny fellas and I enjoyed it more than a lot of big-budget Hollywood feature commentaries I've heard. While I can't say I'm a collector of this particular type of film, I dug the viewing experience and I think there's plenty here that will appeal to erotic-horror and Misty Mundae fans. The menus, packaging and extras are all put together very well, right down to the nifty painting on the cover.

The second disc is devoted to an entire bonus feature entitled NIGHT OF THE GROPING DEAD. On the EROTIC WEREWOLF commentary the guys talked about how they make private fetish films for paying clients, and I believe this client must be into dead people groping live ladies, because that's precisely what you get in this 48 minute flick. It seems like a pretty small group of folks who would be into something like this, even at a brisk 48 minutes, so it makes sense that they would include it as a bonus with another feature. And hey, what better to team it with than another erotic horror movie like AN EROTIC WEREWOLF IN LONDON.

NIGHT OF THE GROPING DEAD, shot sans tripod on low-grade video, stars Misty and Ruby again, and they're looking lovely as usual. Here we begin the story with a young lady doing laundry, diddling her skittle on a laundry table, then falling into a sleep so deep that she doesn't notice the zombie janitor who arrives and starts fondling her goodies. She finally awakens when he attempts a bit of the ol' mop handle rape, and she flees to her car which is clearly empty in the shots outside of it. Once inside the car, an undead dude from a 1970s prom materializes in the backseat somehow, causing her to flee into an alley and get caught by 3 undead gentlemen.

Milady finds herself trussed up in the unfurnished apartment of Marcus DeSade who commands an army of "S&M zombies" who strip, grope, and softcore rape her. They "tenderize" (read: spank) and "eat" (read: cunnilingate) her, making her a zombie in Marcus' army. He berates her and demands a zombie S&M BJ but she bites his member off and attacks his neck in an unconvincing manner (you can actually see the Tupperware container of fake blood behind them). She stands over his dead body and masturbates, then he somehow wakes up and screams his final scream.

Out on the street, Misty Mundae gets an amulet from a street corner dude in zebra pants. It turns out Zombie Queen Esmerelda wants the "Crack of Dawn" amulet for herself, so she sends undead folks out to get Misty. "Soon the whole world will be a zombie!" she cries. She gropes and chews on Misty, then we cut to sometime later. The Queen and Misty are now goth-zombie-lesbians making plans to get an army of zombies together. Misty observes, "You still have the power to make a dead woman cum. Not just anyone can do that." Indeed. They discuss their plans a bit more and the question is asked: "Don't you want to be queen?" The reply is given: "I just want to get fucked by her majesty." And so they make the bold decision to move to a trailer park instead.

"What about world domination?"

"Fuck it."

Erotic Werewolf info at Alternative Cinema