From the editor and writers of Bright Lights Film Journal
Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran
(Anthem Art and Culture), by Gary Morris (Editor), Bert Cardullo (Introduction), Jonathan Rosenbaum (Foreword). London and New York: Anthem Press, 2009.
"I dare anyone to squeeze between two covers a more varied, useful and flat out entertaining sampling of the personalities that make the seventh art the liveliest."
David Hudson,
Fulci's Gates of Hell
"They Ate His Genitals!"
A Sampling of European Sex and Horror Films
These seminal sleazefests — and a couple of arty classics — will make you twist and shout
It wasn't long ago that the idea of seeing a Lucio Fulci film outside its natural habitat of the urban grindhouse or the obscure home video would have been too ridiculous to believe. But recently goremeisters and mondo artistes like Fulci, Mario Bava, Umberto Lenzi, Jess Franco, and Dario Argento have become almost respectable, lovingly feted in pristine-print retrospectives and samplings at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles and — heaven forefend — New York's Museum of Modern Art.
There's something a little disorienting about seeing legendary sleaze like Gates of Hell or Cannibal Ferox in the plush confines of a quiet screening room, particularly if you've experienced them with a rowdy 42nd street audience of street people and terminally pissed-off 16-year-olds. But maybe it's a sign that the culture is growing up and acknowledging some of the dark impulses that drive such gross creations. Usually considered the exclusive province of sexually frustrated, hormonally confused teenage boys, these films in fact have an equal lure for camp followers, who'll find the inept acting, narrative entropy, and bad dubbing irresistible. Of course, anybody interested in experiencing a personal vision that hasn't been filtered through the kind of committees and focus groups that regularly drain most commercial movies of any life will find something reassuring here.
InfernoSan Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center joined the trash-in-a-plush-venue parade in the summer of 1999 with a revival of some of the most notorious works from these masters of sleaze. Dario Argento kicked it off with Inferno (1980), an alleged sequel to his masterful Suspiria. Like most auteurs toiling in the backwaters, Argento makes movies that are mostly incomprehensible, and the idea of a sequel must have defeated him entirely because there's no clear connection between Suspiria and Inferno beyond atmospherics. But like his confreres in this series, Argento redeems the mindlessness of his plot with a series of startling images. Set in an old New York mansion from which three witches supposedly rule the world, Inferno fascinates with scenes like a brutal close-up attack of a butcher by scores of hungry rats, and a mesmerizing sequence of underwater horror complete with furniture and the grasping hands of the dead. (It’s generally agreed that the legendary Mario Bava actually directed the latter sequence, probably the film’s best.)
Jess Franco has his defenders and even a few web pages devoted to him, but it will take more than a little masochism to experience the dubious pleasures of the next item in the series: Succubus (1967). This film, which in its day was considered the pinnacle of low-budget "European" depravity, opens promisingly, with a convincingly raw s&m performance piece by "Lorna" for a group of jaded moderns. But endless dream sequences, pompous references to Kafka and Hegel, and a lethal air of lassitude kill the drama before it starts, and unlike Argento, Franco lacks the visual chops to transcend the foolishness. Two unintentionally funny sequences include an LSD party that screams 1967 and a group of mannequins on a clumsy rampage; for the latter, you can practically see the crew's hands pushing these blank-faced dolls across the floor. On the same bill is Nikos Nikoladis's Singapore Sling (1990), a pretentious but good-looking patchwork of film noir, softcore sex, and a "We've Always Lived in the Castle" psycho-heroine and her murderous mother.
Legendary gorefests Gates of Hell (1980) and Cannibal Ferox (1981), both distributed by the well-named Medusa Distribuzione, trawl the depths of the genre in their EC comics-inspired imagery. Fulci has said in interviews that in Gates of Hell, he was less interested in a coherent plot than a "succession of images" — these include an ultra-realistic electric drill through a man's head, a maggot windstorm, and an endless stream of bloody guts that pour out of his hapless heroine's mouth. Set in "Dunwich," a town invented by the gore film's patron saint H. P. Lovecraft, Gates of Hell eclipses even Argento in its rejection of the narrative and unabashed wallowing in sheer mindless grue. One of the most powerful scenes in this grim classic is when a newspaper reporter attempts to free a woman trapped in a coffin by splitting it open with an axe, apparently oblivious of the fact that his actions are just as likely to split open the woman. (That’s of course the point in this typically misogynist sleazefest).
Cannibal FeroxCannibal Ferox is one of the stellar works of the super-trashy "jungle cannibal holocaust" genre. Director Umberto Lenzi injects a surprising political element into his story of some anthropology students who go to the Amazon to disprove the idea that human cannibalism exists. The leader of the group lectures her doltish companions that this repugnant act is simply "an invention of racist colonialism which had a vested interest in creating the myth of a ferocious, subhuman savage good only for extermination." Of course, she's quickly proven wrong in a series of gruesome tableaux of meat hooks through the tits, brain-scarfing, penis aperitifs, and other such precivilized pleasures. Viewers who are sensitive to animal torture and death will want to avoid this one; it's not exactly reassuring to hear, as the filmmakers have said, that animals brutally killed before a lingering camera lens were eaten. Lines like "They ate his genitals!" and "Why couldn't we go to Acapulco instead of to this poison paradise?" offer some leavening verbal thrills. The distributors of Cannibal Ferox claim it was banned in 31 countries, but like many such films, this is probably wishful thinking and hype; movies like this snuck in and out of their grindhouse venues with very little fanfare, and are only available today because of a hardcore group of fans who’ve insisted on keeping them alive.
On a happier and certainly less gory note are the two Mario Bava films that end the series. Bava is a true oddity in cinema history — a master pictorialist whose skills were almost uniformly applied to trashy low-budget genre movies, some like Blood and Black Lace misogynist and sadistic, others like Black Sabbath masterpieces of atmospheric horror. Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) is a textbook case of the redemption of a foolish, semi-coherent plot by the kind of stunning visuals more often seen in the work of Cocteau or Dreyer. Bava's broad, beautiful Cinemascope canvas mingles motifs that aren't usually seen together — vampires weren't exactly staples of Greek mythology — but it all works thanks to the extraordinary images. These include a hell — the "haunted world" of the title — that's in a permanent dark orange sunset, a masked sibyl glimpsed through a multicolored beaded crystal curtain, and a bewitched heroine who stands like a statue in one of Bava's disturbingly beautiful dark gardens. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Hercules is played by Reg Park, a knockout hunk bodybuilder who looks like a Tom of Finland drawing come to life.
Danger: DiabolikDanger: Diabolik (1968), based like Modesty Blaise and Barbarella on a sexy adult comic strip of the time, was made at the behest of Dino DeLaurentis. But unlike other bloated projects from that producer, this one has an almost geometric splendor suitable to its comic-strip origins. Barbarella's angel, John Philip Law, plays "Diabolik," a sui generis superhero — or antihero — who dresses in leather body stockings and stages elaborate, supposedly impossible crimes for the sheer amusement of himself and his girlfriend. Again the plot is nothing special, and we learn little about any of the characters, but the period pop atmosphere and Bava's superb staging make this one of the must-sees of the series. Campmeisters will enjoy the preposterous Ennio Morricone theme song, with lyrics like (European accent, please) "You … only you … deep down een my mind … deep down een my blood … deep down een my heart…" But the main pleasures here are visual — an elaborate go-go club drenched in psychedelic colors, Diabolik and Eva making love on a huge revolving bed that's covered with 10 million dollars, and a vast underground hideaway reminiscent of the director's earlier "haunted world." Bava invests even the smallest scenes with panache. For most directors, the huge rock doors that hide Diabolik's cave would have been novelty enough, but Bava shoots them through his trademark multicolored filters. As in so much of his work, he just can't resist adding that extra scintillating layer of life.
April 2001 | Issue 32

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