Thursday, December 31, 2020

#2,525. Begotten (1989)


Shot in black and white on 16mm, E. Elias Merhige’s dialogue-free, experimental horror movie Begotten is a shocking, violent look at the myth of creation, which, based on what’s presented here, is every bit as terrifying as death itself.

As the film opens, a masked being, seated in a chair, is slicing its abdomen with a straight razor (the credits list this character, played by Brian Salzburg, as “God Killing Himself”). From its bloodied remains springs Mother Earth (Donna Dempsey), who proceeds to ejaculate the God’s corpse, using its semen to impregnate herself.

Soon after, she gives birth to The Son of Earth (Stephen Charles Barry), and together mother and son wander from place to place, a journey that grows more dangerous with every step they take.

Featuring imagery that is simultaneously hypnotic and disgusting, and influences ranging from ancient mythology to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Merhige crafts an unforgettable motion picture experience, a movie that seems to revel in its own ambiguity while, at the same time, challenging the audience’s perceptions of life and death.

Begotten is not an easy film to watch (it’s both bloody and sexually explicit), but if you have the stomach for it, this unique work of art will leave you with plenty to think about.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Thursday, December 24, 2020

#2,524. Byleth: The Demon of Incest (1972)

The following disclaimer appears at the beginning of Severin’s blu-ray release of Byleth: The Demon of Incest, a 1972 Italian horror film:

The following scan of Bylth is taken from the only known negative element of the uncensored German version: Trio Der Lust.

There is discoloration in some scenes due to damage in the element, but hopefully this will not mar your enjoyment of this sensual and perverse filmic experience

And rest assured that Byleth: The Demon of Incest is, indeed, “sensual and perverse”. It’s in the horror department that the film is somewhat lacking.

The setting is 19th century Italy. Duke Lionello (Mark Damon) is thrilled that his beloved sister Barbara (Claudia Gravy), who was traveling abroad the past year, has finally returned home. His happiness is shattered, however, when he learns that, during her absence, Barbara married Giordano (Aldo Bufi Landi), and the two are very much in love. Lionello’s unhealthy “obsession” with his sister soon gets the better of him, and he suffers what appears to be yet another nervous breakdown (the first of which struck him when he was 10 years old). But when several beautiful women turn up dead - with wounds in their neck made by a knife with three blades - the authorities begin to suspect Lionello may have had something to do with the killings. But is Lionello truly guilty, or is something much more sinister to blame?

Byleth: The Demon of Incest lays its cards on the table in the pre-title sequence, clueing us in on exactly what type of movie it’s going to be; in this scene, a prostitute is having sex with one of her clients. When he finally leaves, she’s attacked by someone (or something) bursting into her room, stabbing her in the neck. This opening is soft-core in nature, with plenty of nudity, and throughout the movie we’re treated to several more moments just like this one (including one tryst, seen in flashback, that obviously inspired the film’s title). As for the murder, it’s surprisingly tame, generating zero tension and featuring very little blood. Alas, this also proves to be the case with every subsequent killing, and the film’s demonic elements (hinted at in the 2nd half of the movie) are left painfully underexplored.

Writer / director Leopoldo Savona does manage to sneak a fairly interesting story into the mix, and Damon does a fine job as the tortured Duke, whose frail nature masks a truth about himself that even he is afraid to face. But in the end, Byleth: The Demon of Incest is only partially successful. In short, if it’s nudity and sex you’re after, this movie has plenty to offer. Those seeking thrills of a more horrific nature best look elsewhere.
Rating: 5 out of 10 (watch it, but don’t move it to the top of your queue).

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Capsule Reviews - The 1950s

Three movies from the 1950s

1. The Alligator People (1959)

You hear the title, and it brings to mind a certain kind of film; a low-budget monster flick with bargain-basement make-up and effects. And in a way, The Alligator People is that movie, but it’s not just that movie. While under hypnosis, Joyce (Beverly Garland) recounts her tragic past, and how she searched high and low for her lost husband Paul (Richard Crane), who disappeared on their wedding night. Following the few clues she managed to uncover, Joyce traveled to the swamps of Louisiana, where she met, among others, Dr. Mark Sinclair (George Macready), a well-meaning scientist whose research once saved Paul’s life… but at a terrible price. The first half of The Alligator People, when Joyce is trying to track down Paul, proves an intriguing mystery, and by the time the puzzle of his disappearance is solved, we’re invested in the characters. The cast is exceptional, including Lon Chaney Jr., who plays Manon, a drunken handyman and the film’s eventual heavy. The Alligator People does get a tad goofy towards the end (especially when the “creature” is finally revealed), but for the bulk of its runtime this is a much better movie than its schlocky title would lead you to believe. X Rating: 7 out of 10

2. Oklahoma! (1955)

Set in the waning days of the old west, Oklahoma features a number of cowboys, farmers, and young ladies, all preparing for the big box social later that evening. Curly (Gordon MacRae) is a happy-go-lucky cowboy who has set his sights on Laurey (Shirley Jones, in her big-screen debut), niece of the kindly Aunt Eller (Charlotte Greenwood). But Laurey, tired of waiting for Curly’s invitation, has agreed to let hired hand Jud (Rod Steiger) accompany her to the social. Laurie’s friend, Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame), is also caught in a love triangle: her longtime beau Will Parker (Gene Nelson) has just returned from Kansas City, and is going to ask for Annie’s hand in marriage. But traveling salesman Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert) may have beaten him to the punch! Based on the popular stage musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Oklahoma is high-spirited and funny, with some great songs (including “Oh What a Beautiful Morning’” and “Kansas City”) and well-choreographed dance routines. That’s not to imply the entire movie is harmless family fare; Steiger’s Jud is a spooky fella, peering into Laurey’s bedroom as she changes clothes and threatening bodily harm on Curly if he tries to take Laurey away from him. In addition, there’s an extended dream sequence that treads into dark territory, and the final showdown between Curly and Jud is as tense as they come. Still, even with its occasional forays into the dramatic, Oklahoma is as feel-good a musical as you’re ever going to find.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

3. Solomon and Sheba (1959)

Fresh on the heels of such biblical epics as King of Kings and The Ten Commandments, director King Vidor’s Solomon and Sheba takes the Old Testament story of the wise King Solomon and his heathen lover Queen Sheba and transforms it into a sporadically thrilling but mostly humdrum big-screen extravaganza. On his deathbed, King David (Finlay Currie) names his younger son Solomon (Yul Brynner) as his successor, angering Adonijah (George Sanders), the elder son and Israel’s most able warrior. With God’s grace, Solomon proves a wise leader, choosing peace over war with Egypt. But will the king’s faith be strong enough to resist the feminine guiles of Queen Sheba (Gina Lollabrigida), who was sent by the Pharoah (David Farrar) to seduce Solomon and turn his people against him? There are sequences in Solomon and Sheba that are, indeed, spectacular, including the opening battle and, especially, the final confrontation between Solomon’s troops and the Egyptian army. But there are far too many long-winded scenes, most centering on the title characters’ romance, to maintain the energy of the film’s grander moments. More often than not, you’ll find yourself staring at the clock, wondering how long it will be before something interesting happens.
Rating: 5 out of 10

Thursday, December 10, 2020

#2,523. Snuff (1976)

The title alone is enough to grab your attention, which is exactly what New York-based distributor Allan Shackleton had in mind when he released Snuff in 1976. The brainchild of husband / wife team Michael and Roberta Findley, who shot the movie - originally titled Slaughter - in Argentina in 1971, Shackleton purchased its rights, added a scene at the end (which made it appear as if a woman was actually murdered on-screen), and changed the title to Snuff.

For those who don't know, snuff films are a type of underground movie that the FBI and most local authorities classify as “pornographic”, for depicting actual killings or suicides (though at the time Snuff was released, the FBI insisted there was no hard evidence that these films were anything more than an urban legend). And while Shackleton’s “bonus” scene certainly drummed up its share of  controversy (most of it generated by the distributor himself), it added nothing to the overall movie. In fact, the finale undermined all of the style and energy that the Findleys managed to squeeze out of what was already a tough, unflinching motion picture.

The story centers on actress Terry London (Mirta Massa), who has flown to Argentina with longtime producer (and boyfriend) Max Marsh (Aldo Mayo) to appear in a movie. While there, Terry rekindles her romance with millionaire playboy Horst Frank (Clao Villanueva), whose father (Alfredo Iglesias) sells arms to Arab militants.

Little does Terry know that she has become the focus of a Manson-like cult, led by Satan (pronounced “Seh-Tahn”, and portrayed by Enrique Larratelli). Arming his bevy of female followers, including Angelica (Margarita Amuchástegui), Ana (Ana Carro), and Susanna (Liliana Fernández Blanco), with knives and sending them out to kill in his name, Satan is convinced that Terry’s and Horst’s unborn child will serve as the supreme sacrifice, the one that will finally transform Satan into an all-powerful God.

Made for approximately $30,000, Slaughter (aka Snuff) is a disturbing, violent, misogynistic bit of sleaze. When they’re not killing people, Satan’s disciples serve as his private harem, and there are numerous scenes in which he tells one girl to inflict violence on another (a “cleansing” by pain) , orders that are carried out without hesitation. Even Terry, a famous actress, isn’t above the control of the men around her; while talking to reporters, Max Marsh says that if he tells Terry to “stand on her head” for a role, that’s exactly what she’s going to do. In addition to its theme of women being dominated by men, Snuff is quite often shockingly violent (while we never actually see any knives plunge into their victims, the Findleys provide enough blood in the aftermath to make you squirm a little in your seat).

Still, despite the limitations of its budget and the troubling nature of its story, Slaughter has a style that makes it, at the very least, an occasionally engaging exploitation flick, with well-executed hand-held camerawork (a chase towards the start of the film, where several of Satan’s followers are pursuing one of their own, is fairly exciting) and a few dynamic shots of women on motorcycles (the rock music that accompanies these sequences sounds like the first few chords of Steppenwolf’s "Born to Be Wild", which immediately calls to mind similar moments in Easy Rider).

As for the scene that Shackleton added at the end (made to look as if it was shot on the set of Slaughter), it certainly ups the ante on the movie’s blood and gore, but lacks the energy present in everything that came before it (not to mention the fact that this “real-life killing” features some pretty shoddy, though admittedly graphic, practical effects). Whereas Slaughter was at least watchable, Snuff is a hard one to recommend even to die-hard exploitation fans.
Rating: 5 out of 10 (proceed with caution)

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Capsule Reviews - Best Picture Nominees

Three movies that were nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but didn't win

1. All The President’s Men (1976)

With an intelligent script (penned by William Goldman) and the steady hand of director Alan J. Pakula at the helm, All the President’s Men takes what is essentially an investigation conducted by two journalists and makes it feel like a political thriller. What started as a botched break-in at the Watergate building - headquarters of the Democratic National Committee - in June of 1972 eventually becomes one the biggest stories of the 20th century. Following leads and piecing together the various clues, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) connect the Watergate burglars with top White House officials, sparking a controversy that would soon force Richard Nixon to resign as President of the United States. Redford and Hoffman are pitch-perfect as the newspapermen hot on the trail of a big story, and the supporting cast, including Jason Robards as Post editor Ben Bradlee and Jane Alexander as one of the duo’s key sources, are equally solid (Robards won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, and Alexander was nominated for Best Supporting Actress). Under Pakula’s watchful eye, not a moment is wasted; every scene in All the President’s Men feels absolutely necessary, and his taut pacing brings a sense of excitement to the proceedings, keeping us poised on the edge of our seats for every second of the film’s two-plus hour runtime.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

2. Gosford Park (2001)

Robert Altman’s unique take on an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, Gosford Park is as much a study of the British class system as it is a whodunit. Members of the upper crust, as well as their servants, gather at the country estate of Lord and Lady McCardle (William Gambon and Kristen Scott Thomas) for a hunting weekend. Among the guests are Lady Trentham (Maggie Smith) and her maid, Mary (Kelly Macdonald); Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance) and his valet Parks (Clive Owen), and actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), who invited along Hollywood producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban) and Weissman’s “Scottish” valet, Denton (Ryan Phillippe). Before the weekend is over, someone will be murdered, and it falls to Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) to track down the killer. Like many of Altman’s films (Nashville, Short Cuts, etc), the cast he assembled for Gosford Park is beyond impressive; Along with those already mentioned, there’s Helen Mirren, Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi, Emily Watson, and Richard Grant, all of whom play members of the McCardle’s household staff. As for the murder, it’s nothing more than a vehicle to shine a light on the differences between the “upstairs” guests and their “downstairs” servants, and how each had their place in “proper” society. The movie is often quite funny (the pheasant hunt had me laughing out loud, as did Stephen Fry’s hilarious turn as the incompetent Inspector Thompson), but it’s the presentation of high society in Pre-WWII England, fueled by Julian Fellowes’ Oscar-winning script, that has ensured Gosford Park a place of honor in Altman’s filmography.
Rating: 10 out of 10

3. The King and I (1956)

The King and I is a difficult movie to review. On one hand, it’s a grand, entertaining musical featuring two performers at the top of their game. On the other, it’s culturally insensitive, relating the tale of a genteel British woman who clashes time and again with her employer. an “uncivilized” Asian king. The year is 1862. Anna (Deborah Kerr), a schoolteacher, has been hired by the King of Siam (Yul Brynner) to teach his many children the ways of the west, including how to speak English. The arrangement gets off to a bad start, however, when the King refuses to build Anna the house he promised her, insisting that she reside in the palace. To further complicate matters, Anna takes it upon herself to help Tuptim (Rita Moreno), a young Burmese woman who was recently “gifted” to the King (Tuptim is in love with another man, and has no desire to become one of the King’s many wives). Over time, Anna grows to love the children in her care, yet continues to insist that the King honor his word and build her a house. As for the King, he is struggling with a potential threat from the West, and turns to Anna for advice. Brynner is intensely charismatic as the stubborn, strong-willed King, and he deservedly won an Oscar for his performance. Equally as good is the always-reliable Kerr, playing the lone person in Siam courageous enough to stand up to the King. The musical numbers are also enjoyable, highlighted by the tunes “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance?” Yet as fun as the movie is at times, it also made me cringe occasionally; several Caucasians were cast in key Asian roles (British character actor Martin Benson portrayed the King’s trusted advisor Kralahome, while American Carlos Rivas played Lun Tha, Tuptim’s love interest) and the scenes in which Anna teaches the King how to act when British Ambassador Sir John Hay (Alan Mowbray) pays them a visit came across as condescending. Yet I’d still recommend The King and I; even with its flaws, it’s a damn fine musical!
Rating: 7 out of 10