Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Gogol's Triple-Bills: The Non-Horrors of Lucio Fulci

Lucio Fulci is a director associated mostly with his work in the horror genre. In his career Fucli made a number of hardcore horrors that favoured rich atmosphere and stomach-testing gore often at the expense of narrative logic. Yet Fulci made a number of films in other genres, quite a substantial number actually. I've already talked about Massacre Time (1966) in my Spaghetti Westerns article, yet Fulci worked in thrillers, action, fantasy and erotica to name a few. Yet regardless of the genre Fulci's aesthetic proclivities always manifested themselves resulting in some interesting, if not entirely unproblematic, results. The following three films are some of my favourite Fulci non-horrors. Though be warned, they do not make for easy viewing.

Conquest (1983)

Fulci made a sword and sorcery picture and before the end of the first act you'll be wondering why he didn't make more. The story follows Ilias, a young traveller charged with an important quest, and Mace, a tough warrior who helps him along the way. Ocron, an evil sorceress who wears nothing but a gold full-head mask and a snake, has a vision that Illias will destroy her and so sets her wolf-man warriors and the mighty sorcerer Zora to kill him.
Like all good fantasy movies we have a young, inexperienced adventurer fulfilling his destiny, a series of trials for our heroes to be put through and a magic weapon which, in this case, is some kind of bow that fires laser-arrows. Yet this is no fairly tale adventure but rather a very adult affair. We are barely out of the credits when we are shown a brain-spilling scalping and a pale, naked girl slowly split in half by the aforementioned wolf-creatures. Although the opportunities for extreme gore are less frequent than in his horror work when they do crop up Fulci leaps on them with gut-gurgling detail. Even the traditionally heroic funeral pyre scene forgoes the noble silhouette set against flames, instead focussing on skin and tissue melting away.

Fulci is not just about gore, however, and the film shows off his ability to create an intoxicating atompshere more than any of his films. Rich colours, mist-choked landscapes and imaginative creatures not only create an exciting fantasy world but one that actually convinces. Everything Fulci attempts to communicate, be it how tough this world is to live in or the corrupting nature of the dark magics that are being meddled with, he does so with utter conviction.
Again, Fulci shoots everything with a dream-like quality and despite some exciting battles the film moves quite slowly. The print I saw was a little milky and if properly remastered would be a sumptuous, atmospheric and tough fantasy movie.

Contraband (1980)

Contraband is essentially Fulci's Poliziotteschi, a tough action-thriller starring euro-crime star Fabio Testi. Testi plays a cigarette smuggler caught in a mob-war and has to endure double-crosses, kidnappings and violent assassination attempts as a result.
Despite the films contemporary setting Fulci still manages to create an evocative atmosphere, a fight in a sulphur pit being a highlight. In addition Fulci shows a real knack for action. The fights and shoot-outs are impressively blocked and captured and his use of slow-motion gives the film a touch of Peckinpah.
What also gives the film that feel is the way woman are treated. In Contraband women are little more than victims or sex-objects and in a couple of cases both at the same time. Yet this is not the only problematic element in this film.

The extreme violence is, for the most part, fitting. Bullet-hits jet red in glorious slow-mo and there are a couple of delightfully elaborate, and splattery, make-up effects. Yet as always Fulci pushes that little bit further. There are moments of real grotesqueness, in particular a scene where a female drug-dealer's face is burnt off, that removed from the horror/fantasy context just play as gruelling and unpleasant. In all of Fucli's films I've scene this is the one that has the most difficult moments to watch.
So why am I recommending it? These moments, as awful as they are, are infrequent and the film around them is actually exciting and gritty. There is a hell of a lot to enjoy with Contraband if you can look past those two or three moments of unnecessary unpleasantness.

Don't Torture a Duckling (1972)

As a Giallo this film could be considered a cheat. Yet it draws on the elements Fulci is most famous for less than most of his horror work and, since Giallos also fit nicely into the thriller genre, I feel happy including it on the list.
Widely regarded as one of his best works the film focusses on a serial killer who is targeting children. The murders cause significant unrest that soon turns to a paranoid frenzy, leading to the lynching of local woman suspected of committing the crimes. Although the subject matter is difficult Fulci handles it with care and restraint. In particular the lynching scene, although graphic, is more memorable for the use of diagetic music and editing.
It is a brave film too, with a fully naked Barbaret Bouche trying to seduce a school-boy and a less than subtle attack on the church yet all of it his handled with a confident grasp on tone and intent.
Fulci does indulge his love of gore on a couple of occasions, in particular a cliff fall sequence being punctuated with the frequent dashing of skull against rock. However this is Fulci in full command of his skills, creating a difficult, yet measured and serious work.

Fulci's career spanned many genres and if you want to get a taste of how he worked outside of horror these three films are a good place to start. This is by no-means a pleasant way to spend an evening but there is some amazing film-making on show throughout this triple-bill. And you never know, you might end up thinking of Fulci as more than just the guy that made a zombie fight a shark.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Gogol's Triple-Bills: Euro-Crime - Three Good Poliziotteschis

Italy during the 1970’s was a volatile place to say the least.  Every issue was violently politicised and extreme groups from both the left and right clashed brutally.  Authority found its grip weakening as public officials and decorated police officers where targeted for assassination.  This orgy of protests, high profile killings and terrorist attacks came to be known as the “Years of Lead”.  With no clear guiding morality Italy was struggling to find an identity.  Likewise, Italian cinema was struggling to find a hero.  The Spaghetti Westerns morally ambiguous gunslingers, suave but diabolical super villains and gun-happy super so-called heroes already proved the clean-cut and chivalrous hero was not something even a mainstream audience found palatable.  So it is no surprise that the gritty crime dramas that came out of Italy, or the Poliziotteschis, muddied the waters even further.

These films often featured gangsters, corrupt cops, violent delinquents, vigilantism, car chases and brutally rendered screen violence all set against backdrop of moral confusion and ambiguity as grey as the DP’s colour palette.  The titles are great too, including The Violent Professionals (Sergio Martino, 1973), Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (Ruggero Deodato, 1976) and Milan Calibre 9 (Fernando Di Leo, 1972).  Although not perhaps the best, the three I have chosen are, in my opinion, some of the most exciting and accessible of the sub-genre.

Revolver (Sergio Sollima, 1973)

Featuring a blistering performance by Oliver Reed as a prison warden whose wife is kidnapped by criminals.  They then threaten to kill her unless he breaks a dangerous criminal, played by the alarmingly handsome Fabio Testi, out of his prison.  He does so, yet to ensure the criminals don’t double-cross him he kidnaps the criminal himself in order to bargain for her return.

It’s a great set-up as both warden and criminal run from police and gangs alike.  As they do an unlikely respect develops as Reed’s warden realises that Testi’s criminal is not quite what he seems. 

Reed was rumoured to have been shit-faced throughout the shoot, yet his performance is intense and electric.  Of the three films here it is the most earnest in its attempt to theorise about the different perspectives of morality but if you think the film is going to preach some moral message to you think again.  The films final moments take the carefully considered moral quandary and tears it to shreds with utterly devastating effects.  It’s tense, brutal and genuinely uncompromising.

Street Law (Enzo G. Castellari,, 1974)

Franco Nero is a victim of a mugging and, sick of the ineffective police, decides to take the law into his own hands.  With the help of a petty criminal Nero takes on the criminals at their own game.

What marks this aside from the normal vigilante movies is that Nero’s inexperience isn’t overlooked.  He is always one step-behind the criminals and makes choices so poor he gets friends horrifically wounded as a result.  So unlike many vigilante heroes he doesn’t suddenly turn into a one-man killing machine but is completely out of his depth for the best part of the film. 

Poliziotteschis often concern themselves with the freedom of criminals to do as they please and the Police being restrained to a point of being rendered redundant.  Like many Euro-crime protagonists Nero’s character occupies that space between savage criminal and impotent official, yet without experience is left to wander this space aimlessly, his struggles to take on these bastards becoming almost painful to watch at times.  Regardless the film never feels bogged down by the weight of this discourse as it is fast paced and full of the sub-genres signature chases and shoot-outs all captured expertly by director Castellari.

The Big Racket (Enzo G. Castellari, 1974)

If you like your b-movie euro-horror there is a good chance you will have at least seen this film sitting on the shelves.  Released by Vipco on DVD in their usual stripped down DVD gold-on-black covers, this film always seemed to get stuck alongside the Zombie Flesh Eaters and Cannibal Feroxs.  While it was disliked by the BBFC (for reasons we’ll get into) it is by no means a horror film.

Again starring Testi as a cop who becomes disillusioned by the Police’s inability to bring criminals to justice.  The criminals have been terrorising local businesses in order to extort protection money from them.  These victims, also let down by Police, band together to form a vigilante group. 

The criminals in question are an awful bunch of human beings and their antics are what landed this film as one of the dreaded video nasties.  Despite the usual murders and robberies there is an unpleasant rape scene that, although fairly tame in its depiction is repellent in its intent, and possibly the most unpleasant humiliation and murder of a person you would expect to see in a crime film.  Yet these awful moments succeed in setting the stakes and motivating the everyday business folk into violent action.  If you can get past those moments you will be treated to an exciting modern day western that culminates in one of the most badass shoot-outs found in a crime film.  The Big Racket can at times be a difficult watch, but it’s the fastest, meanest toughest Poliziotteschi I’ve seen so far.

These films depict a terrifying reality of a country gripped by violent political action.  With every side painted the bad guy or a victim it is impossible to find a hero.  Yet these films rarely try to, only in some cases are we given any indication of what is actually right.  But make no mistake; these are fast, exciting action thrillers that are tense, brutal and never cop-put.  The soundtracks are awesome too.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Icons of the Overlooked #9: Jim Kelly

There is a big part of me that thinks Jim Kelly wasn't overlooked at all.  He was, like a lot of martial artists of the time, technically great but perhaps not quite as visually exciting as the martial artists to come.  The guy wasn't a great actor either.  So maybe, based on that assessment, a few lead roles in low-budget martial arts movies is a reasonable career to have had?  Yet he is not too dissimilar to Chuck Norris in many respects.  So why has Norris had such longevity while Kelly has slipped into obscurity?

Kelly's first major role was as Williams in Enter the Dragon (Robert Clouse, 1973).  Then relatively unknown Kelly was sharing scenes with more familiar faces such as John Saxon and the tower of charisma that was Bruce Lee.  It would be easy to be ignored, standing next to Lee as he creates iconic moment after iconic moment, yet regardless Kelly holds his own.  Kelly gets all the best lines, gets the best look and comes out, well, coolest.  In fact, if you remember something cool from the film that doesn't involve Lee it probably involved Kelly.  To go up against Lee at his best and still come out being memorable is pretty impressive.  As a result Kelly was given a leading role of his own in Black Belt Jones (Robert Clouse, 1974).

The above clip, the films opening, is pretty awesome and the rest of the film isn't without its fleeting moments of badassery.  Yet the overall tone of the film is comedic, perhaps unintentionally.  The homoerotic bubble fight at the end is very unexpected.  On the other hand Three the Hard Way (Gordon Parks Jr, 1974), where Kelly stars alongside the amazing Fred Williamson and Jim Brown, is as badass as they come.

His fight sequences in this movie, although infrequent, have a raw edge to them while the film as a whole is relentlessly entertaining.  Featuring this amazing cast at their most charismatic, the most powerful shotgun in the world, a trio of topless interrogators and a body count that only Rain Man could calculate it is by far my favourite non-Dragon Kelly film.

The ensemble returned two years later with One Down, Two to Go (Fred Williamson, 1975) and despite adding legend Richard Roundtree to the mix it suffers from an almost unbearably languid pace.  Silly caper Hot Potato (Oscar Williams, 1976) does little to buck the downward spiral and Black Samurai (Al Adamson, 1977), though considerably better, is so nuts it is almost impossible to take seriously.

Take, for example, the moment where Kelly dons a jet-pack in the middle of LA, flies for about ten minutes and lands in a forest where he is attacked by primitive tribal warriors.  I mean proper bone-through-the-nose spear-wielding Zulu stereotypes.  Upon defeating them he walks for a short while and is then lassoed by a dwarf in a cowboy outfit.  Add to this mix devil worship and you've got yourself an extremely entertaining yet immensely daft piece of film making.

Herein lies the problem.  Yes, Kelly got a fair few films under his belt but unfortunately that's also about as high as they were aiming.  Cheap, badly paced and at best absurd, beyond Enter the Dragon and Three the Hard Way only Take a Hard Ride (Antonio Margheriti, 1975), the well-regarded blaxploitation western is worth a look.  The problem was the films Kelly was given were nowhere near as cool, charismatic or as badass as he was.

So it wasn't the fact that Kelly wasn't given mainstream attention that was the problem, but rather that he was never really given the change to capitalise on his explosive debut as Williams.  Kelly had a lot more to offer action cinema and now, with his recent passing, all we'll ever have are the glimpses of brilliance spread across a handful of so-so movies.  It wasn't so much a case of audiences overlooking Jim Kelly, rather filmmakers underestimating him.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Gwendoline (Just Jaeckin, 1984)

Those of you familiar with the image of Tawny Kitaen in a costume that's part thong part Mad Max armour and also familiar with Director Just Jaeckin's previous work, namely Emmanuelle (1974) and Lady Chatterley's Lover (1981), might well expect Gwendoline to be some kind of cheap, exploitative erotic fantasy movie. The truth is that Gwendoline is a film full of pleasant surprises.

The first surprise is that the film isn't cheap, or at least doesn't look it. An opening tracking shot through the streets of an unidentified Asian port reveals some exquisite set-design and ambitious blocking. The set that has been created is dense, layered and theatrical making it an evocative backdrop rather than a pantomime one.  The film drips production throughout with vast sets and amazing locations from golden deserts and steamy rain forests to rusted junks and a bizarre underground sex-palace... no, wait... we'll get to that later.

My second surprise was that this is not a sleazy Barberella knock-off, but rather a two-fisted adventure story not unlike an Indiana Jones movie. Our heroine, Gwendoline, and her friend Beth have left their convent to search for her father who has gone missing while pursuing a rare butterfly. After getting into some trouble with local mobsters the pair are rescued by Willard, an unshaven smuggler with no time for women. Eventually convincing him to help they go in search of her Father on an adventure that takes them to the uncharted land of the Yik Yak.

Surprised by the level of production value I immediately looked for other faults. Director Jaekin, famous primarily for being a fashion photographer, had hired a principle cast of fashion models. Willard, Gwendoline and Beth are all played by young attractive models turned actors and again my expectations were low. Yet, each holds their own in their role and are charismatic and likeable. None of them act exactly, but for this kind of adventure they do enough to convince and even go as far as to exude considerable charm.

The action works well too, from an early Bruce Lee gag with Willard fighting off a nun-chuck wielding bodyguard to Gwendoline battling blade-covered half naked warriors in a sex palace... no, I said we'd get to that later.

Jaeckin would have to work hard to photograph the amazing locations badly, but his skill with a lens is evident in every shot. He also knows how to make people look good and actually knows how to generate some genuine sexual tension. The film was based on a french comic book and featured the kind of girl-in-eroticised-peril escapades that also featured in strips such as The Perils of Pauline.  The idea of sexualised peril and innocent convent girls slowly becoming aware of a whole world of sexuality (basically sleazy characters and their half naked concubines, or the dribbley learings of grubby men) lead me to think this was going to be a prolonged male fantasy about what a female sexual awakening might entail.  In other words, one woman's journey to become a sex object.  

My worries increased when at the first sight of an attractive man Gwendoline goes all weak-kneed and soppy. Yet, despite her first attraction to Willard and her initial fascination with this grotty world she is exposed to she ultimately rejects it all and toughens up.  She quickly learns how this world works and out-cons Willard, barters with criminals and takes control of her expedition into perilous lands.   It's not long before the sardonic Willard is following her around, trying to maintain his tough and emotionally stunted exterior while watching helplessly as his hard exterior is slowly melted by Gwendoline's charm. This de-masculinisation culminates when he is forced to dress in the Mad Max thong number and pretend to be a woman.  Bastard kind of pulls it off too. Yes there is sex, yes there is nudity (mostly female) but it is all fairly tame and ends being sauce, not sleaze.  A film that should be cheap, badly acted and sexually problematic actually turns out to expensive, likeable and, well, just a bit naughty.

And just when you think you've got the film all worked out we arrive at the sex palace and the film goes mental.

They find the butterfly alright, but it is in an underground base run by weirdly alien-voiced half-naked half-armoured amazons. They operate crude machinery (some involving the aforementioned amazons as moving parts) that mine an underground diamond volcano for an evil queen. There are factories, training grounds, torture chambers and science labs all built into the white walls of this weird place and operated by barely-dressed, and occasionally bald, women. It's like being Lois Lane and discovering a door in the fortress of solitude that Clark really hoped had stayed hidden, or if Jean-Paul Gaultier had remade Metropolis.

Willard's disguise doesn't last long and he is captured and prepared to be, how should I say this, harvested for the all-female population. This is where Gwendoline really gets her shit together, suiting up and fighting off amazonian warriors to save him from certain sexy doom.

This is where things threaten to get problematic. The level of violence throughout the film has been a  little on the nasty side, with hooks in necks, machetes through the chest and ears ripped off. But in the final act all of the violence is against scantily-clad women. Yet these women hold their own. The fights are brutal and convincing and the stunt women, bearing in mind there are not wearing much to protect themselves, pull off some pretty dangerous stuff. Yet there are only so many times you can see a partially dressed woman fall onto spikes in a bloody heap before it sours the atmosphere a little. 

The BBFC certainly thought so as the film suffered a number of cuts on its initial video release, most of which were from the third act. The music doesn't quite work either as a comedy synth score has been favoured over a bold orchestral one.

Yet the film mostly stays light, funny, silly and bonkers. It is a film that I'll always have a soft spot for as it consistently exceeded my low expectations and took me to places I didn't even know existed, let alone expected.