Sunday, 20 April 2014

Franco Files:
Lorna the Exorcist
(1974)









AKA:

‘Les Possédées du Diable’, ‘Caresses de Chattes’, ‘Les Possédées du Démon’ [all titles used in France?], ‘Exorcism’ [Norway], ‘Sexy Diabolic Story’ [Italy], ‘Linda’ [U.S.A.], ‘Kleine Feeksen Maken Veel Heibel’ [‘Little Vixens Make a Lot of Fuss’(!), Belgium]

Context:

For my money, Jess Franco’s artistic (if not commercial) peak as a filmmaker came in the early ‘70s, around the time he began making extremely low budget movies for French producer Robert deNesle.(1) I can’t pretend to know much about deNesle, or Franco’s working relationship with him, but I can at least state my belief that many of the films that resulted – as highlighted by Mondo Macabro’s recent DVD releases of ‘Sinner’, ‘Countess Perverse’, ‘Plaisir à Trois’ aka ‘How To Seduce A Virgin’, and ‘Lorna the Exorcist’ – are very good indeed.(2)

As such, it is high time we got around to looking at some of them in this review strand. On a personal note, it was my initial viewing of 1974’s ‘Lorna The Exorcist’ that first convinced me that, more than just being some zany Euro-trash guy, Jess Franco at his best is a cinematic artist well worth paying attention to, with no disclaimers and quotation marks needed. So, this is one I’ve been building up to for a while, I guess.

One of Franco’s darkest and most troubling films, ‘Lorna..’ apparently proved just as unapproachable for ‘70s distributors and audiences as it does for 21st century reviewers, leading to what is probably one of the more convoluted and unfortunate release histories in a filmography full of convoluted and unfortunate release histories. Intermittently ignored, shortened, recut, redubbed, retitled and shopped around Europe and the USA in various states of disrepair through the remainder of the ‘70s, it was perhaps most widely seen in a truncated version that cut sections of the original film together with unrelated hardcore sex scenes.

As a result, Mondo Macabro’s heroic restoration of what they claim is the closest possible approximation of Franco’s original cut of the film splices together material taken from a multitude of prints and audio sources, leading to a viewing experience that is sometimes choppy, ragged and damaged… but would we really want it any other way? Looking like a film that's only barely escaped from some lost, night-haunted dungeon of euro-smut dementia, the resurrected ‘Lorna..’ is an absolute masterpiece of crazed, marginal cinema, and I bow before MM for bringing it to us in its (more-or-less) complete form.

Content:

First thing to note, in case you were wondering, is that ‘Lorna the Exorcist’ features no exorcists and no exorcisms (although by god, the characters could certainly do with some by the halfway point). Actually, the film’s most widely used title is a misnomer several times over, given that Lorna is the name of the supernatural presence whose influence a would-be exorcist would be called upon to get rid of, but you know how it is – European cinema was so exorcist-mad in the wake of Friedkin’s original, I’m sure deNesle could probably have just pulled out an old gladiator movie or something, called it “Hey Hey It’s Exorcist Time!” and still made money, so let’s just be glad he got behind this film instead, regardless of what he called it.

In brief then, ‘Lorna The Exorcist’ concerns the Faustian pact made by a weak-willed businessman (Guy Delorme) with the titular Lorna Green (Pamela Stanford), a mysterious woman whom he meets and indulges in a one-night stand with whilst trying to earn some dough in a seafront casino.(3) We don’t learn all this until a flashback sequence midway through the film, but the basic gist of their agreement is that Lorna’s magic will ensure his wealth and success in the coming years… but that his first born daughter belongs to her.(4)

Nineteen years later, the man is living in moneyed splendour with his wife (Jacqueline Laurent), and his daughter Linda, who, conceived around the time of his dalliance with Lorna, has now grown up into the shapely form of Lina Romay. (Hope you’ve got all those L names straight.)

With Lorna long-forgotten, the family are planning a holiday to celebrate Linda’s 18th birthday, when Dad unexpectedly gets a call. The time has come for Lorna to claim what is hers, and she commands that the family return to the site of the father’s original bargain/seduction to make the delivery. Unable to refuse, but limply determined to try to do something to save his daughter once they get there, Dad changes their travel plans accordingly, and the scene is set for a very unhappy holiday indeed.


Kink & Creepitude:

In looking at this particular film, I decided that the only possible option was to combine these two categories, simply because the ‘sex’ and ‘horror’ elements within ‘Lorna..’ are so thoroughly intertwined that attempting to examine them separately would be an impossible task.

Several times in earlier reviews (cf: Macumba Sexual, Doriana Gray), I have touched upon Jess Franco’s unique conception of the ‘sex horror’ film. At the risk of repeating myself, Franco's basic approach is to side-step the more common practice of simply throwing sex into a horror framework (or vice versa), and to instead make films in which the sex *becomes* the horror, and in which horror arises from the sex, pulling the (assumedly hetero-male) viewer’s libido into strange and frightening new places in the process – a goal that I think ‘Lorna..’ realises more powerfully than any other film he ever made.

Before the horror gets underway however, the film does at least begin in conventionally ‘sexy’ fashion. Right from the opening moments (after a rather generic credits sequence that indulges Franco’s love of random foliage footage), we’ve got Pamela Stanford kissing a full length mirror and rubbing herself through diaphanous gown before reclining, legs spread, on a bed as Lina appears, similarly under-clothed, at her French windows. So far, all this is plotless, contextless – for all we know, we could just be watching some old porno loop, but nonetheless, it is somehow completely entrancing, even when stretched across the better part of ten minutes.

The haunting, cyclical electric guitar melody and ‘floating’ camerawork, the eerie slo-mo drift of the women’s movements and Stanford’s frankly mental make-up & wig all contribute to a thoroughly oneiric experience that’s more akin to a Jonas Mekas/Jack Smith style experimental short than yr average softcore bump n’ grind, forcing even the most sceptical of viewers to admit that a skilled filmmaker, fully engaged with the material, is behind the camera here… even as he finally gives in to the urge to hit the zoom and zero in on somebody’s beaver every thirty seconds.(5)

So far then, we’re basically just watching an unusually well-made porn film, but nonetheless, there is a strange ritualistic feel to this opening dream sequence that prefigures the horrible abuses of the sexual urge (both the characters’ and the viewers’) that will follow through the next ninety minutes, as ‘Lorna..’s sexual content gradually drops this conventional/comforting vibe completely and begins more to resemble some kind of transgressive art-porn assault-film, taking jaded Euro-sleaze fans way outside their preferred comfort zone with a fevered intensity and sense of suffocating WRONG-ness that rarely lets up.

Strangely, our first hint that there is something a bit more unsettling than usual going on here comes via an inexplicable sub-plot that features Franco himself playing a doctor in a rather cramped looking lunatic asylum (make of that what you will), treating a writhing mad woman with an aversion to pants. Presented with no overt connection to rest of the story, this character/set-up is of course a reoccurring motif in Franco’s films (see Dracula: Prisoner of Frankenstein, for example).

On one level, the inclusion of a hospitalised mad-woman can be seen as a cheap way to raise an “is it all in her mind..?” type psycho-psychedelic dilemma, or just as a bit of bonus titillation or random space-filling weirdness, but the disturbing significance of this archetype within the endlessly self-referential ebb and flow of Franco’s work was fully uncovered a few years later in ‘Doriana Gray’, and that film’s big reveal is perhaps prefigured here as the actress – whom we might most sensibly assume to be one of Lorna’s prior ‘victims’ - goes about her freaked out writhing in a manner far too fractured and agonised to rouse anything other than deep uneasiness in the viewer in spite of her gratuitous nudity, as her hysteria seems to build in parallel with the film’s main plot - her psychic connection to Lorna or Linda (or both) presumably cueing her in to events as they transpire.

From here, we’ll bypass a lot of story set-up stuff and another, slightly more sinister, dream (OR IS IT?) coupling between Lorna and Linda, clearly setting the scene for the latter’s psychic domination by the former, and move on to what is probably one of the most shocking and bizarre moments in Franco’s entire filmography – the bit best referred to simply as the “literal case of the crabs” scene, wherein Lorna’s vengeful black magic bestows a terrible fate upon Linda’s biological mother.

A pretty pivotal scene in the movie, this is where the gloves really come off, so to speak. A total WTF by anyone’s standards, it’s just… I mean … crabs?! What? Why, in god’s name, Jess, why? What the hell were you thinking? Ok, so insert shots of some other poor lady’s vagina are clearly used for the close-ups, and there are no shots of the crabs, um, emerging or anything (thank god), but still, JESUS F-ING CHRIST JESS, what are you trying to do to us here..?

Grotesque as it is though, this madness does actually make perfect sense within Franco’s own cosmology. As Stephen Thrower perceptively points out in an interview included on the Mondo Macabro DVD, female genitalia is of course the relentless focus of Franco’s camera - the absolute centre of the sexual impulse that dominates his films. So to show this part of the body visibly contaminated by evil, inhabited by monsters… what more of a completely literal demonstration of the director’s sex = horror nightmare trip could you ask for..?

And after that, well… up to this point, we were simply watching another oddball Franco sex film, but after the crabs, there is a feeling that ANYTHING could happen, and, like any good horror director, Franco ruthlessly tightens the screws (no pun intended). Pre-crabs, the relationships within the family only seemed *slightly* strange, and the Linda/Lina seductions still had the potential to play as easy-going, soft-porn fun, but, post-crabs, all bets are off, and things quickly begin to become almost unbearably uncomfortable and fucked up.

Frankly, the idea of a family trapped in a cramped hotel room under heavy psychic assault from some sort of omniscient witch would be a frightening enough idea even without all the sexual ickyness, but Franco’s real genius in the last half hour of this film is the way he really goes all out on the sex/horror project, filling every moment with horror that is sexy, and sex that is horrific, refusing to allow viewers any kind of either/or get-out clause.

Perhaps on a pure, lizard brain level, the remaining Linda / Lorna scenes, or the sight of Linda writhing naked in front of her father, might be considered as sexy as anything in a more conventional erotic movie, but the way the director rampages fearlessly across usually unbreakable taboos here, pulling notions of familial dysfunction, mental illness and psychic cruelty into these emotionally excruciating sexual encounters is both daring and genuinely frightening. Attraction and repulsion, sex-drive and death-drive, fear and desire, animal lust vs. moral imperitive - these are the dualities at the core of every horror film, surely, and here Jess Franco sets out to explore them with a sledgehammer.

As Lorna begins insisting that she is Linda’s mother as she appears out of nowhere to seduce and/or abuse her ‘daughter’, both suckling and bloodily deflowering her shortly after the poor girl has witnessed the traumatic primal image of her biological mother writhing naked in unspeakable pain, and as we see Linda, utter madness in her eyes, offering herself spread-legged to her doomed father, well…. we’ve gone so far beyond the comfort zone of the kind of ‘raincoat brigade’ audience this film was ostensibly made for by this point, it’s a wonder Europe’s more sensitive perverts weren’t fleeing from the cinemas in tears.

Not in any way a vision of a ‘cool’ or aspirational witch, Pamela Stanford’s Lorna eventually looks flat-out insane as she looms over Linda, waiting to possess her soul. Her strength arising only from the brutality of her attack and the defencelessness of her victims, she is a desperate and twisted creature, looking like a vampire long deprived of blood, or a near-death Warhol circle junkie… kind of rat-like and almost physically falling apart beneath her OTT glam-rock make up as she frantically pushes herself into the fresh mind and body of the poor Linda.

“I am sterile, like all who come from beyond..”, Lorna declares at one point; such a striking and chilling line of dialogue. Despite obsessively pursuing sex, and feeding off the sexual subjugation of her victims, she can gain no satisfaction or relief whatsoever from it, and it is the horror inspired by the resulting emptiness that drives her to madness – a black-hearted judgement on the meaninglessness of abusive/pathological sexual behaviour perhaps, and a similar condition to that which afflicts many of the supernatural denizens of Franco’s sex-horror films, from ‘Female Vampire’ to ‘Doriana Gray’ and beyond.

5/5

Pulp Thrills:

Even with all of the above going on, Franco always had such a great feel for way-out modernist furnishings and peculiar pop-art visuals (see ‘sight-seeing’, below), and in particular, Lorna’s space age bachelor pad is absolutely amazing. It looks like any self-respecting ‘60s Euro-spy protagonist’s dream-home, and when Howard Vernon himself stomps in, playing a cameo as some kind of Morpho-like minion (inexplicably named Maurizius in the script, but fans will know he’s a Morpho really) and wallops Guy Delorme in the face with a spiky sea-shell…. well, that’s some kinda pulp movie heaven, right there.

Regarding the film’s more extreme sexual content, Pete Tombs in the notes accompanying the Mondo Macabro DVD draws a connection with the blood-curdling excesses of the numerous porno-horror fumetti that were popular in Europe at around the time this movie was made – not something that had occurred to me, but I can definitely see where he’s coming from vis-a-vis the constant, gratuitous nudity and surreal, puerile gross-ness often on display here.

3/5

Altered States:

As I hope has been made clear in the preceding sections of this review, ‘Lorna The Exorcist’ conveys a heavy, authentically nightmarish atmosphere at almost all times. Lorna’s ambiguous relationship to reality (is she a witch, an evil spirit, a ghost..?) and her sudden appearances and dreadful acts, together with the otherworldly angles and gleaming glass walls of the looming holiday complex and the “I can’t believe this is happening” disbelief expressed by the trapped and persecuted family all combine to take ‘Lorna The Exorcist’ way-out-there way quickly, as Franco manages to thoroughly trash our sense of reality, even whilst firmly rooted in a budget-conscious world of real-life location-shooting with minimal use of lighting, visual tricks or special effects.

This being a Franco film though, we’ve got to have at least some ‘down time’, and the most significant departure from the oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere that dominates the rest of the films is – hey hey - the disco scene! I mean, you didn’t think Jess Franco was going to make a soul-destroying sex-horror film without one of those did you?

Clearly shot on the fly at a real discothèque with little in the way of pre-planning or staging, this sequence has a brutally drab, realist vibe to it that is completely at odds with the kind of glorious stylisation Franco usually brought to such scenarios. Filmed largely in fixed camera long-shot, this sequence is hideously embarrassing for all concerned, and flat-out hilarious in places, revealing Lin(d)a & co. to be one weird family unit. Despite their uptight demeanour upon entering ‘the club’, the family immediately take a table and order scotch (“bring the bottle, it’s cheaper that way” (!)), before father, mother and daughter immediately get up and hit the dancefloor, nervously frugging to mildly freaky, overdubbed library jazz amid the crowd of teenagers. Damnedest thing I ever saw, and the combination of Lina’s utterly misguided one-piece outfit (I won’t even try to describe it) and the artless, home movie feel of the scene just pushes it over the edge. A portrait of family life, Jess Franco style? I sure hope so.(6)

The stilted awkwardness of this sequence seems to characterise all of the movie’s sporadic attempt to have its characters interact with the ‘real’ world (check out the bit where Guy Delorme phones up the hotel concierge and basically says something like “could you send a doctor please, my wife has died, oh and by the way, I need a gun..” as if that was somehow normal behaviour), and ironically these lapses succeed in making the film feel even weirder, creating a sharp division between those imprisoned by Lorna’s malign influence, and those who are simply oblivious to it.

Like the film itself, André Bénichou’s music score takes a simple & cost-effective premise (solo electric guitar) and gradually renders it totally twisted, as the spidery, hypnotic melody that accompanies much of the film is gradually filtered through a woozy swamp of effects units (delay, wah-wah, distortion etc.) until it becomes completely unrecognisable, lending a horrible feeling of dread to the film’s more unwholesome sequences. Definitely one of the most distinctive and experimental scores ever commissioned for a Franco film.

4/5

Sight-seeing:

The scene that introduces us to the family takes place in very grand, palatial interior that I’m SURE I remember seeing elsewhere in the Franco canon (‘Sinner?’, ‘Doriana’?).

After that though, the majority of ‘Lorna..’ takes place in the purpose built ‘new city’ of La Grande-Motte, established in the late 1960s by architect Jean Balladur in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in the South of France.

A jaw-dropping feat of near-fantastical modernist architecture, La Grande-Motte is a weird, package tour utopia, an artificial harbour dominated by ziggurat style pyramid-hotels incorporating towering, geometrically patterned walls of overlapping glass & steel. The perfect setting for a Jess Franco film, in other words, and, inventively used by the director, it’s disorientating shapes and surfaces serve to give the ‘Lorna..’ an almost sci-fi feel a times (very much recalling Godard’s similar use of pre-existing architecture in ‘Alphaville’).

The positioning of ancient gothic horrors within this kind of futurist, post-war European landscape is of course a trait that runs through many of Franco’s films, and here place and theme seem to gel perfectly. More than ever, the location becomes a conscious part of the story, and the mid-film flashback sequence directly ties Lorna’s apparent ‘haunting’ of this holiday complex to the actual construction of the buildings within it. As her Faustian seduction of Linda’s father plays out, we cut away to shots of cranes and building crews, literally constructing the maze within which the characters are later trapped.

Lorna’s laconic voiceover describes the new development as “a doomed attempt to create something from the solitude”, raising the eerie notion that her spirit could have been roaming this uninhabited coastal hinterland since time immemorial, until the weird curves of newly constructed buildings once again allowed her to attain new, equally ‘modern’, physical form, returning once more to terrorise and feed off the living.

4/5

Conclusion:

Lina, Linda, Lorna…. what does it all mean? And then he gives his ex-wife the credit for writing the ‘script’!(7) What was going through Jess Franco’s mind when he made this thing? Probably best not think too hard on the matter, if we want to get out of here alive. As with so many makers of mind-destroying, idiosyncratic art, chances are he didn’t think about it at all. I bet he just scribbled down a few ideas, set out with his cast and camera, did it, sent the reels back to the producer, went off to make the next one.

He’d already been through the same process dozens of times by this point, and who knows what stars were aligned for this one, but what emerged is I think possibly the best film he ever made: a horrifyingly visceral, uncompromising and utterly absorbing outpouring of freakish, Freudian nightmare. ‘Terrible’ in the literal, old fashioned sense of the word, it is a feverish anti-masterpiece in which the director’s usual b-movie fun and games become entirely possessed by the kind of dreadful, inexplicable power that is only hinted at in most of his other films.

Whilst ‘Lorna..’ still offers up all the kitschy good times fans might expect of an early ‘70s Franco production – gratuitous sex, weird architecture, psychedelic Mediterranean holiday vibes, ridiculous disco excursions, Pamela Stafford plastering on her make-up like house-paint, Howard Vernon bashing someone in the face with a seashell – it also captures a moment in which the maestro completely transcended his legend, producing a film whose unglued intensity pushes it more into the realm of Andrzej Zulawski’s ‘Possession’ or Walarian Borowczyk’s ‘Dr Jekyll et les Femmes’.

Aptly summed up by Thrower as “a film of profound unhealthiness”, ‘Lorna..’ is the kind of movie that all those ‘cinema of transgression’ goofballs from the ‘80s and ‘90s WISH they could have made, and it deserves to be seen as a cornerstone of any study of the kind of ‘sex-horror’ films that dare to take that label at face value.


(1) Non-Francophone readers may like to note that deNesle’s name is apparently pronounced DA-NELL, rather than DE-NESEL or somesuch – knowledge that may save you from ridicule the next time you are called upon to publically debate the merits of early ‘70s French soft-porn producers. Working as a producer since 1950, it appears deNesle had occasional brushes with respectability via projects like George Franju’s ‘Judex’ (1963), but his general output prior to hooking up with Franco can probably be more aptly represented by such titles as ‘Girl Merchants’ (1957), ‘The Night They Killed Rasputin’ (1960) and ‘Sadistic Hallucinations’ (1969). Check out his CV on IMDB – it’s a hoot.

(2)In fairness, there are a number of other, as-yet-unseen-by-me Franco / deNesle joints that we might assume to be of somewhat lesser quality - ‘Robinson and his Tempestuous Slaves’, ‘Celestine, an All-Around Maid’ and ‘The Lustful Amazons’ for instance - but I’m not writing any of them off until I’ve actually seen them.

(3) I probably won’t need to remind readers well-versed in Francology that Lorna Green was also the name of Janine Reynaud’s character in Necronomicon. Although their back stories are quite different, I suppose we could maybe *just about* accept the notion that this is a return appearance by the same character… the initial Lorna’s unquiet spirit still roaming about the Mediterranean coast after completing her initial spate of vengeance, sating her appetite with new victims, perhaps..? The idea’s there if you wanna run with it.

(4) Having not seen this film for a while before revisiting it for this review, I could have sworn that Jack Taylor played the role of the father… funny how the mind plays tricks on you (particularly when you keep force-feeding it Jess Franco films). To be honest, I kind of wish it was Jack Taylor. I like Jack Taylor.

(5) At this stage, Franco was still usually shooting softcore, but often pushing things to the very edge of hardcore, and whilst I have no particular desire to see explicit sex on screen, the rather silly close-ups here of the ladies waggling their tongues mere millimetres from each other’s pubes sort of make you wish he’d crossed the line and just got on with it.

(6) Whilst we’re on the subject of crap bits in the film, it’s also worth noting that the flashback sequence illustrating Lorna’s initial meeting with Lorna’s father is undermined by an absolutely interminable casino scene that just goes on and on, to no very clear purpose.

(7) Though I believe the couple were estranged by this point in the wake of Lina, Franco’s wife Nicole Guettard continued to work with him throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, often credited as a co-writer or “script supervisor” (what a job that must have been). So her appearance here isn’t entirely unexpected, but still… picking up the sole writing credit under her rarely used “Nicole Franco” name, on a film that focuses heavily on dysfunctional family relationships..? I can’t speak for the writing talents or proclivities of the former Mrs Franco, but I find it hard to believe anyone other than Jess wrote a word of this movie (assuming anyone ever wrote it down at all), and I can’t help suspecting there’s some kind of weird or cruel joke going on there somewhere, but it’s not my place to speculate. Trying to make sense of the credits on Jess Franco films is often a bit like trying to decode a cold war spy cypher or something, so who knows.


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

This Week’s Wheatley:
Dennis’s Mates.


 “The Reverend Montague Summers was a most interesting man. He was not only a great authority on witchcraft, werewolves and the rest, but also wrote a number of excellent books on Restoration theatre. He always dressed a clergyman, and, with the silvery locks that curled down on either side of his pale, aristocratic face, he was the very picture of a restoration bishop. But quite a number of people maintained that he had either been defrocked or had never taken holy orders at all.

I remember his telling me one evening of an exorcism he had performed in Ireland. The wife of a cottager was apparently possessed by a devil. When Summers arrived she was foaming at the mouth and had to be held down. With bell and book he performed the ceremony. A small black cloud issued from the woman’s mouth. She became quiet, the black cloud disappeared into a cold leg of mutton that had been put on the table ready for supper. A few minutes later, it was seen to be swarming with maggots.

Summers asked my wife and me to spend the weekend at his house in Arlesford. We motored down on the Friday afternoon. When we were taken round the garden, my wife spotted the most gigantic toad she had ever seen, and in the bedroom we were given there were a dozen enormous spiders.

On the Saturday morning my host took me into a room that was empty except for a pile of books. Picking up a small leather-bound volume, he said, ‘Look, this is just the thing for you. It is worth far more, but I’ll let you have it for fifty pounds.’ I did not want it and, anyhow, could not have afforded it. Much embarrassed, I said so. Never have I seen a man’s expression change so swiftly. From benevolent calm it suddenly became filled with demoniac fury. He threw down the book and flounced out of the room. An hour later I had sent myself a telegram. By Saturday evening my wife and I were home again in London. That was the last I saw of the ‘Reverend’ Montague Summers.”


“Rollo Ahmed was a very different character. He was an Egyptian by birth, and from his father’s family had acquired his initial knowledge of the ‘secret art’. However, his mother was a native of the West Indies and, while Rollo was still in his ‘teens, his parents decided to leave Egypt. For many years he lived with them in devil-ridden islands and the little-explored forests of Yucatan, Guiana and Brazil. In these places he acquired first hand knowledge not only of the primitive magic of the forest Indians, but also of Voodoo and the use of obeahs. Later he explored Europe and Asia for further knowledge of the mysteries and for a while lived in Burma, where he became a practitioner of Raja Yoga.

He was a small, slim man, neither bombastic nor subservient, with a most cheerful personality and a ready laugh, and he spoke English perfectly. Several times he dined with us in Queen’s Gate. On one occasion on a freezing night in mid-winter he arrived without a hat or overcoat, dressed in a thin summer suit. He had walked all the way from Clapham Common; yet his hands were glowing with warmth. This he declared was due to his practicing yoga, and he offered to teach my wife and me yoga breathing. We had a few lessons, but were too heavily engaged with other matters to follow it up.”

[…]

“From him I learned a great deal. Later I was told that he had slipped up in a ceremony and failed to master a demon, who had caused all his teeth to fall out. Soon after the opening of the war, I lost sight of him, as I had other things to think about.”



“I was introduced to Aleister Crowley by a friend of mine who was a very well-known journalist and later, as a Member of Parliament, became one of the leaders of the Socialist Party. I will therefore refer to him as Z. Crowley dined with my wife and me several times. He was a fascinating conversationalist and had an intellect of the first order.”

[…]

“Having had Crowley to dinner several times, I told my friend Z. that, although I found him intensely interesting, I was convinced he could not harm a rabbit.
‘Ah!’ Replied Z. ‘Not now, perhaps. But he was very different before that affair in Paris.’ The affair in Paris was as follows.
Crowley wanted to raise Pan. One of his disciples owned a small hotel on the Left Bank. Crowley, with his twelve disciples, took it over for the weekend and the servants were given a holiday. On Saturday night a big room at the top of the house was emptied of all its furniture, swept and garnished. Crowley and his principle disciple, MacAleister (son of Aleister), were to perform the ceremony there, while the other seven remained downstairs. He told them that, whatever noises they might hear, in no circumstances were they to enter the room before morning.
Down in the little restaurant a cold collation had been prepared. The eleven had supper and waited uneasily. They all had a great deal to drink, but got only stale-tight. By midnight the place had become intensely cold. They heard shouting and banging in the room upstairs, but obeyed orders not to go up. The door was locked and they could get no reply to their anxious calls, so they broke it down.
Crowley had raised Pan all right. MacAleister was dead and Crowley, stripped of his magician’s robes, a naked gibbering idiot crouching in a corner.
Before he was fit to go about again, he spent four months in a lunatic asylum. Z., who told me all this, had been one of the disciples, and an eye-witness to this party.”

----

All text from the chapter ‘Modern Occultists’ in Dennis Wheatley’s ‘The Devil And All his Works’, pp. 256 – 261.

Photographs via the internet.

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Thursday, 10 April 2014

This Month’s Zatoichi:
New Tale of Zatoichi
(Tokuzô Tanaka, 1963)


Hitting Japanese cinemas in March 1963, the third Zatoichi film saw the series moving to colour for the first time, with a suitably heroic new main theme from the legendary Akira Ifubuke pointing the way toward a new identity for the character as the star of a successful, ongoing franchise.

Brighter colours and rousing music haven’t done much to lighten the load of the emotional baggage we left our hero carrying at the end of the previous film however, and only five minutes into this one, he’s already weeping, having been forced to needlessly slay a gang of young warriors out to avenge the boss he killed in the last film, setting the scene for another tragedy-laden instalment, in which Zatoichi’s anguish about his past life choices and the unending cycle of violence in which he is caught up informs the whole of the narrative.

Drinking in an inn with a childhood friend (a poverty-stricken itinerant musician, on the road with his young family) shortly after this initial confrontation, Ichi is already rueing his decision to take up swordsmanship in the first place. “I did things I shouldn’t have done, cut those I shouldn’t have cut”, he muses, establishing a tone that is even more deeply melancholic than his previous adventures, if such a thing is possible.

Before that though, we have at least a few moments of jollity and good cheer to enjoy. Settling into what was already becoming his best-loved role, Shintaro Katsu’s charisma is certainly firing on all cylinders here, in spite of his character’s remorseful mood. Visibly delighted at the chance to catch up with his old buddy, it’s only a matter of minutes before he grabs his friend’s shamisen and knocks out a few verses of what seems to be Zatoichi’s new theme song!

Suitably doleful in tone, the lyrics of this composition largely seem to concern his financial situation, but, somewhat in the manner of a delta blues singer, Katsu’s haunted, world weary delivery imbues the material with a heavy depth of meaning lurking just below the surface, earning Ichi an immediate round of applause from the Inn’s patrons… just before a gang of black-masked bandits burst in, and his cycle of troubles begins again.

Actually though, Ichi’s handling of this particular situation provides a good model for how he might begin to escape his blood-soaked wheel of karma. Mutely submitting to the robbers’ demands so as not to imperil his fellow drinkers, the next morning finds Ichi dragging the ne’erdowells out from their yakuza hideout like naughty school boys, publically shaming them for their conduct in front of their gang boss, who obliges them to return with interest the money they stole from the destitute travellers lodged at the inn. Thus, justice is served, villainy is punished, and Ichi’s credentials as a champion of the people are reasserted, without a drop of blood being spilled. If only it could always be that simple…

‘New Tale..’s main plot-line hoves into view shortly thereafter when another confrontation between Ichi and the would-be revengers on his tail is disrupted by the intervention of none other than Ichi’s *sensei*. Yes, that’s right, the man who taught our invincible hero all he knows about the way of the sword, no less.

Those who were a bit put out by the second film’s weight of back story will be further disconcerted here, as Ichi accompanies his teacher Banno (Seizaburô Kawazu) back to his training academy in Ichi’s hometown, where a warm welcome awaits him. (1) He even finds him to visit his grandmother, for goodness sake! But, as always, a mass of new trouble and moral dilemmas await him.

By this stage in the series, we know very well the value Zatoichi places on loyalty and friendship, and how fervently he respects those he considers his friends . But, unfortunately for our hero’s sensitive nature, it is gradually made clear to us viewers that the venerable Banno-san is actually a bit of an underhanded fellow on the quiet – a real jerk, you might even say. He is heavily involved with some sinister covert dealings involving large sums of money, a kidnapping scheme and a gang of renegade samurai, and… well in short, things aren’t looking too good at Ichi’s alma mater, to be honest.

Ignorant of these goings-on though, our hero is busy reacquainting himself with the sensei’s beautiful and demure young sister Yayoi (future series regular Mikiko Tsubouchi ), who of course throws herself at the blind man almost immediately, declaring her undying love for him in much the same manner that every pure-hearted woman he has thus far encountered in the series seems to have done. (2)

This time though, perhaps reflecting the longer time they have known each other, Ichi is sincerely moved by Yayoi’s feeling for him and agrees on the spot to marry her and settle down, furthermore vowing upon his life that he will forthwith become an honest and peaceful man, abandoning his ties to the yakuza lifestyle and rejecting the way of the sword. Katsu’s performance here is, as ever, is very affecting, but oh dear, given that there are still twenty-plus blind swordsman adventures yet to come, we can probably see where this is going, can’t we? Shall I start the clock to see how many minutes of screen-time his heartfelt oath of non-violence lasts..?

Well actually, he makes a pretty credible effort over the next half hour, in spite of the heavy odds laid against him. First off, when the mismatched couple announce their wedding plans to Yayoi’s brother, be proves to be a right sod about it, ranting and raving, revoking Ichi’s status as his star pupil and hurling all sorts of insults around re: the masseur’s lowly status, before throwing him out of his house for good and refusing to let him say goodbye to his betrothed.

Ichi’s vow of non-violence also holds firm through what to me is definitely the stand-out scene in this film- the wonderful (and indeed, bloodless) confrontation that ensues when Ichi and his future bride come face to face with the brother of that dead boss from the earlier film, still determined to get his revenge. I won’t bother outlining in words what transpires when, instead of drawing his sword, Ichi merely kneels before his attacker awaiting the death-blow, but it is a beautiful little scene that symbolises the very best of the ‘honour and humanity’ ethos embodied by these ninkyo yakuza films.

The more brutal logic of the martial arts / chanbara film is also very much in play though, and setting Zatoichi up in direct conflict with the guy who taught him his skills is of course a classic move within the genre; a fool-proof way of maintaining dramatic tension after two and a half films in which we’ve basically established that our hero’s near-superhuman abilities allow him to kill any regular opponent in three seconds flat. For all of this story’s more high-minded ideals, I’m sure the folks in the cheap seats were well-aware of what they paid their money for, and a suitably gruelling master vs. pupil showdown between Ichi and Banno is clearly on the cards.

Perhaps on this film’s original release there might have been at least some impressionable viewers still wondering whether Zatoichi would manage to uphold his vow and settle down to live a peaceful life with his young bride, but, fifty years down the line, modern viewers can well assume that they didn’t make another twenty movies about Shintaro Katsu hanging around his homestead growing cabbages, and I’m sure I won’t be spoiling anything by telling you that the film ends exactly as you’d expect it to, with a bereft Yayoi standing alone amid a forest clearing full of slain yakuza, her dead brother in the centre, as Zatoichi marches forlornly into the foggy night. “Miss, I guess I am just that kind of a man” he concludes before turning away in shame, resigned to his fate.

Another handsome looking production from Daiei studios, ‘New Tale..’ brings an earthy, subdued colour palette to the Zatoichi series that seems to emphasise the character’s lowly social standing, conveying a deeper feeling for rural Japanese life than many other period genre films, in spite of a few instances in which studio sets are clearly used as stand-ins for exterior locations.

Director Tanaka proves himself a solid hand on the tiller even if he doesn’t quite match the sense of visual drama that Mizumi and Mori brought to the proceedings, and overall the film is another highly entertaining business, lovely to look upon, always watchable, and well played, with Ifubuke‘s remarkable score adding a pretty epic feel in places.(3) It suffers somewhat in the script department however, with poor pacing and a lot of largely inconsequential toing and froing padding things out and rather diluting the central dramatic arc. Perhaps it could have benefited from a shorter run-time, ala film # 2, but nonetheless - during its best scenes at least, ‘New Tale..’ is a match for anything that came before, following the example of its predecessors in weighing down our poor hero with more emotional turmoil than a normal man could bear.

By the end of this instalment, Ichi has found and lost happiness, regained and destroyed his honour as a respectable citizen, and lost his respect for a friend father figure whom he has subsequent killed with his own hand. With all the grief and regret he has piled up over the past three films, it’s a wonder Ichi hasn’t packed it in and settled down with his cabbages by this point, wife or no wife. But whether he likes it or not, the franchise must roll on, and a mere five months later he was back in cinemas in ‘Zatoichi The Fugitive’, which seems appropriate.

---

(1) A prolific character actor and instantly recognisable ‘face’ for Japanese movie fans, some of Kawazu’s more notable credits include parts in ‘Mothra’, ‘Yojimbo’, Shôhei Imamura’s ‘The Insect Woman’, Seijun Suzuki’s ‘Tattooed Life’, Kinji Fukasaku’s excellent ‘Japanese Criminal Gangs: Boss’ and Norifumi Suzuki’s astounding ‘Sex & Fury’.

(2) It won’t spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the film either way I suppose, but it seems pretty unlikely that the 50-something Banno would have an 18 year old sister, don’t you think? Wouldn’t it have been easier all round for the script to make her his daughter, or is there some sort of culture-specific element here that I’m missing..? If not, maybe we can just put it down to another example of the weird minor inconsistencies that seem to frequently pop up in these Zatoichi scripts…

(3) An extremely busy director of action and chanbara pictures throughout the ‘60s, Tanaka handled two more Zatoichis, a few ‘Sleepy Eyes of Death’ pictures and numerous sequels to Yasuzô Masumura’s 1965 yakuza/war film ‘Hoodlum Soldier’ (also starring Katsu), amongst others. In the ‘70s he moved over to TV, where he picked up a yet more work from Katsu-affiliated franchises, directing numerous episodes of both the ‘Zatoichi ‘and ‘Lone Wolf & Cub’ TV series. He also made a pretty fun-sounding horror film – English title ‘The Haunted Castle’ – in 1969; now added to my “must track down” list.

Friday, 4 April 2014

This Week’s Wheatley:
The Devil And All His Works
(Book Club Associates, 1977 / first published 1971)


My history with Dennis Wheatley’s coffee-table opus ‘The Devil And All His Works’ goes back a long way. During my childhood, a copy used to sit on the ‘expensive hardbacks’ shelf behind the counter at a second hand bookshop I’d occasionally visit with my parents, and naturally I coveted it. Even then, the book’s appeal to me was based more on humour than an earnest desire to learn about the occult – I remember thinking how funny it would look on the shelf, and what a perfect volume it would be to be caught idly flicking through when the vicar called ‘round unexpectedly. But still, I knew I must have it.

My parents however disagreed, and decreed that I had better things to spend my pocket money on than big books about the devil. Fast forward to the present day, and when I saw a copy being sold for pennies recently in a charity book fair, I couldn’t help picking it up, just to celebrate the fact that I’m all grown up now and can buy whatever books I damn well please, ha ha ha. Of course, I won’t be laughing so hard when another one of my living room shelves collapses under the sheer weight of stupid books I’ll never read, but for the moment, let’s all enjoy a furtive tour through ‘The Devil And All His Works’.



Upon first glance, Dennis’s characteristically trenchant take on the scope of diabolism in the world history and culture is as grim as you’d fear, with “..All His Works” apparently incorporating such varied phenomena as hypnotism, pyramids, Aubrey Beardsley, “Mohammedanism”, yoga and Victorian fairy photography. But to give Wheatley his due, the book is actually fairly readable once you get stuck in, veering randomly from one subject to another in the best head-spinning ‘70s occult paperback tradition, and adopting an amiable and anecdotal “rambling old gent in a rural pub” kind of tone that’s actually quite enjoyable.

You could say Wheatley’s decision to summarise the entire history of human spiritual belief within the pages of a book entitled ‘The Devil And All His Works’, placing potted summaries of the world’s major religions in between loads of guff about table-tapping and the Salem witch trials, is questionable at best, horribly irresponsible at worst, but if you’re prepared to put such concerns aside and just go with the flow, he does at least manage to approach *most* subjects with a certain amount of surface level knowledge and respect.



P.66 - ‘Revelation of the black art to a neophyte by the fiend Asomvel’



Of course, the downside of listening to rambling old blokes in pubs is that it’s usually only a matter of time before they start busting out the racism and barmy OAP conspiracy theories, and such is the case here too, I'm afraid.

Even taking into account his age and era, the delight Wheatley appears to take in using the terms “Negroes” and “Asiatics” every few pages begins to grate after a while, and despite his general tone of curious acceptance of those foreigners and their funny ways, there are occasional lapses into outright offensiveness, the most deplorable and unpleasant of which is perhaps the chapter in which Wheatley gives us his views on ‘voodoo’, apparently whilst channelling Andre Morell in ‘The Plague of the Zombies’:

“This is one of the vilest, cruellest and most debased forms of worship ever devised by man. Its origins lay in darkest Africa, and the Negro has carried its foul practices with him to every part of the world which he inhabits; and now even, I am told on good authority, to several cities in England.”
[…]
“The Caribbean islands, Brazil and the Southern United States are all riddled with voodoo, but its heartland is the black Republic of Haiti. In 1908 Celestina, the daughter of the President, and a powerful mambo, was married to a goat. When it died it was buried with the rites of the Christian Church.”
[…]
“A Voodoo altar looks like a cheap jumble sale. One that I saw in Brazil had heaped on it pictures of the Virgin Mary and several saints, bottles of Coca-Cola, little pots of wilted flowers, shredded palm fronds, a dagger, a fly-whisk and flasks of rum. But so primitive still are some of these people that Voodoo ceremonies are held to appease spirits that they believe to live at the sources of rivers”
- pp. 261-262

Such views may be more or less what you’d expect of a staunchly conservative servant of the crown born in 1897, I suppose, but that still doesn’t make his sub-horror movie demonisation of pan-African belief systems any more palatable, especially given the Daily Mail-like note of panic about these “cruel and bestial practices” finding a home in “several cities in England”.




P.220 – ‘A witches’ altar high on the Yorkshire moors’

Subsequent to this, ‘The Devil And All His Works’ also finds time to give us a mammoth dose of Wheatley’s strident ‘good vs. evil’ cosmology and imperialist rhetoric, with some melodramatic tabloid scare-mongering thrown in for good measure.

Concluding his section on ‘The Black Art Today’, the author turns his attention to the emergence of the ‘permissive society’, and as you’d imagine, the results aren’t pretty. Likening young people’s apparent enthusiasm for “..the spilling of semen in lust without affection” to “..ringing a bell for The Devil”, he leaves us with some rather startling assertions on where “the practice of such perversions” may lead us;

“Assuming that I am right, and that such genuine black magicians as there are concern themselves very little with romps, but a great deal with bringing about disruption through causing conditions that lead to widespread labour unrest and (wherever possible) wars, this does not mean that covens run by frauds are harmless. Far from it. One does not have to know the secret rituals to attract the powers of darkness.”
[…]
“All these thousands of young people who have become initiates of covens are liable to become pawns of the Power of Darkness in its eternal war with the Power of Light. If this continues on an ever-increasing scale, the inevitable result will be a return to the brutal lawlessness, insecurity and poverty of the Dark Ages.”
- p. 272

In his concluding chapter, Wheatley hits us with The Way It Is:

“The lesson the great empires left us was that rulers should rule, and for the past two decades the governments of the Western World have failed to do so. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly are a part of our inheritance; but not the right to destroy property, gun down the police and attack peaceful citizens, nor the right to form covens that call upon occult forces and send their members out to rob, rape and murder.”
[…]
“In every city in Europe and the United States malcontents create riots in which they smash the windows of embassies, ruin sports grounds, set fire to buildings and create outrages which no proper government would tolerate. Is it possible that riots, wildcat strikes, anti-apartheid demonstrations and the appalling increase in crime have any connection with magic and Satanism?”
- p.276

No. Not really. But please, do go on…

“To stamp out Satanism entirely is, I believe, impossible. But the Roman Emperors kept it in check by forbidding sorcery, and in Britain, until 1951, the practicing of witchcraft was a crime. No civilised person would dream of initiating witch hunts such as those that took place in the seventeenth century. But I am most strongly of the opinion that to fight this evil, which is now a principal breeding ground for dope-addicts, anarchists and lawlessness, new legislation should be introduced.
Psychic investigation should be encouraged, but only under license; and persons participating in occult ceremonies other than those approved by a responsible body should be liable to prosecution.”
[…]
“What is the solution? Some argue for corporal punishment. Others believe in various methods of re-education. In recent times, in Britain, a vociferous minority of do-gooders have turned prisons into clubs where inmates enjoy excellent food, games, libraries, television and concerts. Surely, to be effective, prisons should not be merely houses of detention but correction. This might soon lead to their no longer being overcrowded.”

And so it goes on; you get the picture, I’m sure. Trying to end things on a more positive note, Wheatley spends his last few pages holding forth about reincarnation and the wheel of karma, the internal calm that comes from dedication to the powers of goodness, and other such hippy-friendly notions, but it all rings a bit hollow after the red-faced frothing that has preceded it.

So, in conclusion, I think my parents were probably quite wise to not let me buy this book. I mean, I’m sure I would have coped just fine with the etchings of the Spanish Inquisition and pictures of Maxine Sanders running around in the nude and so on, but the author’s editorial content on the other hand is the kind of thing that could have given a growing lad some right funny ideas.


Saturday, 29 March 2014

Franco Files:
The Blood of Fu Manchu
(1968)




AKA:

‘Fu Manchú y el Beso de la Muerte’ [Spain], ‘Der Todeskuss des Dr. Fu Manchu’ [“Dr. Fu Manchu’s Kiss of Death”, Germany], ‘Kiss & Kill’ [U.S.A.], ‘Against All Odds’, ‘Kiss of Death’ [U.S. video titles, according to IMDB?].

Context:

Having recently looked at one of the highlights of Jess Franco’s tenure with Harry Alan Towers, it seems only fitting that we should turn our attention to one of the flat-out stinkers… or at least, that’s how Franco’s two Fu Manchu movies usually seem to be viewed. Personally I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for this one, as we shall see below.

The Fu Manchu series was of course the flagship of Towers’ modest production empire through the mid/late 60s. He wrote the scripts for all of them under his ‘Peter Welbeck’ pseudonym, and whilst they’re certainly no classics, I think the earlier entries certainly stand up well as entertaining rainy afternoon type fare.(1) As the decade progressed though, the audience for these kind of old fashioned adventure movies was beginning to drift away, and I can only imagine that interest in the series (which was already pretty outmoded when it began, let’s face it) was fading fast.

So, enter Jess Franco! Put to work on the next Fu Manchu picture by his new paymaster, and lumbered with a characteristically daft ‘Welbeck’ script, Franco fans will recognise that such circumstances usually spell kryptonite for the director’s creativity, but hey, at least he got to shoot in Brazil and hang out with Christopher Lee, and… well, I think he probably made the best of a bad job, all things considered.

Content:

Rich with the kind of dazzling invention and realism that if the hallmark of Mr. Welbeck, the plot here concerns – what else? - Dr. Fu Manchu’s latest devious plan for world domination, which this time consists of hypnotising kidnapped slave girls and dispatching them to the homes of world leaders and sundry other important men, whereupon – get this – they will kiss them with their Cobra venom covered lips, resulting in blindness, coma and (eventually) death! Quite what advantages this plan has over, say, sending them letter bombs or something, I’m unsure, but y’know, it was the ‘60s - gotta make an effort.(2)

One of the first victims of this characteristically half-baked diabolical scheme is Fu Manchu’s dogged arch-nemesis, Nayland-Smith of Scotland Yard, who as a result is blinded and thus spends much of the film off-screen, wrestling with cobra-induced fever. Presumably this turn of events was written into the script after actor Douglas Wilmer, who played Nayland-Smith in the three earlier films, bailed on the series shortly before shooting began, leaving insufficient time for his replacement (Richard Greene) to step into the breach.

Nayland-Smith’s absence from proceedings is unfortunate, not least because it temporarily shifts the burden of heroism across to his ersatz-Watson sidekick Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion-Crawford), who sadly is portrayed here as an utter buffoon, with practically every line of his dialogue reduced a weak joke about how much he misses rainy old blighty and wants to have a nice cup of tea – a fixation that seems to obsess him to such an extent that he should probably seek whatever equivalent of addiction counselling is available to one-dimensional movie characters (he’s even moaning about not being able to reach his Thermos whilst he’s chained up in Fu Manchu’s dungeons!). (3)

As Petrie blunders into the Amazon rainforest following rumours of Fu Manchu’s last known whereabouts, the hero vacuum is somewhat eased by the introduction of rugged jungle adventurer type Götz George (German production money ahoy!) and wandering medic Maria Rohm (producer’s girlfriend ahoy!), who have also stumbled onto the trail of the villainous mastermind for… well, I forget the reasons to be honest, but they are around, anyway.

Much faffing about and several long digressions follow, and during its middle half hour, the film takes everyone by surprise by suddenly turning into a kind of South American jungle-western! Here, veteran Spanish actor Ricardo Palacios spits out scenery and cackles with gusto as a quasi-revolutionary bandit chief named Sancho Lopez. Together with his gang of sombrero-wearing cut-throats (must have been a long ride down from old Mexico?), Lopez takes command of the remote village where Rohm’s character is based, staging bloody massacres and raucous, whore-filled parties with equal enthusiasm.

Just a hunch here, but do you get the feeling maybe Franco or Towers or somebody came back all fired up from an early screening of ‘The Wild Bunch’ just before they started making this one..? It’s all pretty good fun anyway, so if you like the idea of Jess Franco knocking out about thirty minutes of a pulpy south-of-the-border western, dig in.

For the final half hour we’re back in more familiar Fu Manchu territory, but to be honest nobody really seems to have their heart in it anymore, as Franco’s camera starts wondering off to look at foliage and the film’s shaky adventure movie syntax frays to breaking point, with only a nice waterfall, a few sloppily choreographed fight scenes and Christopher Lee’s patented “stand up straight / say the lines / collect the cheque” methodology saving things from collapse.


Kink:

Watching these Fu Manchu movies, I always find myself wondering who the hell they were aimed at, and who actually bought tickets to see them back when they were in cinemas. I mean, on the surface they’re pretty much just old-fashioned, kiddie-friendly adventure movies, very much in the spirit of the b-movie swashbucklers that Hammer used to knock out for the half-term holidays, but as the series progressed, they seemed to start throwing in all these vaguely kinky, Sadean sorta elements that seem squarely aimed at a more adult, horror/sexploitation audience – a stylistic disjuncture that leads to a pretty schizophrenic feel at times.(4)

I probably don’t need to tell you what effect hiring Jess Franco had vis-à-vis this trend, and right from the opening shots, things are amped up considerably here. The movie opens with scantily-clad slave girls being marched through the jungle in chains by whip-wielding henchmen, and before we know it, they’re being man-handled by a leather-masked torturer and suggestively mocked by Fu Manchu’s daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin). This kind of BDSM slave fantasy stuff was already bubbling under the surface in earlier instalments, but it’s pretty full-on here, becoming almost as sleazy as one of Franco’s Women In Prison films.

The implicitly erotic figure of Lin Tang plays a bigger role than usual here too, basically taking on the bulk of day-to-day evil-doing business from her father, as he largely scales back his involvement to just the all-important “standing around talking about the plans” element. In numerous scenes, she can be seen bossing around the female captives and behaving to all intent and purposes like one of the sapphic wardresses in Franco’s later WIP epics, whilst towards the end of the film, she’s even seen cackling to herself on her father’s throne, suggesting the possibility of a fun ‘Lin Tang takes over’ plot-line that I don’t think was ever fully realised in these films(?). Anyway, I like her a lot in this one - she’s pretty cool, and Chin seems to actually be having fun in the role for once too.

Elsewhere, this film’s stand-in for the obligatory Franco night-club scene arrives via a sequence in which one of Fu Manchu’s hypnotised slave-girls walks out of the darkness to perform a libidinous dance for Sancho Lopez during his gang’s victory celebration. Going on for far longer than it reasonably should in this sort of movie, this sequence proves to be surprisingly strong stuff, with only the thinnest of diaphanous gowns hiding her boobs from the full glare of whatever kind of mixed up crowd did actually go and see this movie as she rubs and writhes with abandon… before Lopez prematurely ends her performance by bloodily shooting her, which must have further delighted parents and moral guardians, I’m sure. (And yeah, they were definitely goofing on ‘The Wild Bunch’ here, weren’t they?)

For those still keeping score after that point, there are fully bared breasts to be seen on several other occasions, along with assorted whipping and dungeon bondage bits, as any remaining illusions about these movies being made for a juvenile audience go completely out of the window.

3/5

Creepitude:

Mildly gruesome tortures and a few bits Kensington gore keep things on a Hammer-esque “good ol’ blood-thirsty stuff for the kids” sort of level, whilst smoke and dungeons and skulls and cobras and so forth during the Fu Manchu hideout scenes all perpetuate that particular kind of pulpy horror-not-horror atmosphere that defines these kinda films, whilst mixed up bits of DNA from jungle adventure movies, euro-spy flicks and westerns further dilute the brew elsewhere.

2/5

Pulp Thrills:

“The moon is full… the moon of life. Let her taste the kiss… of DEATH!”

So, just to recap, we’re talking here about a motion picture in which Dr. Fu Manchu, as played by Christopher Lee, hangs around in a hidden citadel in the heart of the Amazon, hypnotising kidnapped girls and using ancient Inca rituals to impregnate them with deadly cobra venom, for the eventual purpose of wiping out world leaders and thus conquering the planet. Those trekking through the treacherous, unmapped jungle to oppose him include a dysfunctional Holmes and Watson-esque duo, a proto-Indiana Jones two-fisted archaeologist and an obese Mexican bandit chief who appears to be getting paid by the guffaw. If that ain’t pulp enough for you, I’d suggest a trip to the saw-mill.

5/5

Altered States:

This is far from the most far-out film Jess Franco made, but if you were approach it from the opposite direction, as an example of a low budget matinee adventure film gradually going off the rails, I think it would emerge as being at least moderately weird.

In between the aforementioned hi-jinks, there is much ‘down-time’, much wondering-camera foliage footage and many focus-blurring scene transitions. Much like a more regular Franco film, things soon settle down into a familiar pattern, mixing exciting / kinky set-pieces with segments of plodding, procedural drag that could soon have the casual viewer (and with a movie like this, is there gonna be any other kind?) snoring in vain.

A brief montage demonstrating the progress of Fu Manchu’s schemes around the world does briefly highlight a few bits of absolutely eye-popping, pop art production design – very much in the style of the same year’s astonishing ‘The Girl From Rio’ and, more than likely, probably spliced straight in from unused footage shot for that film.

Music by Franco’s favoured composer Daniel White meanwhile is sadly not much to shout about, dominated as it is by assorted variations on an insipid tune that sounds like a slight variation on ‘Que Sera Sera’, which seems to play incessantly through the film’s middle half hour.

2/5

Sight-seeing:

Most of the jungle footage here appears to have actually filmed in some corner of the Amazon rainforest, insofar as I can tell, and indeed, the locations used are very interesting and impressive, including some genuine stalactite filled caves, and a monolithic waterfall that adds greatly to the scope of the film’s otherwise rather uneventful conclusion.

Usually with these things, one tends to assume that all the locations used were probably just a quick bus ride from Rio, where Franco and Towers were based for the simultaneously shot ‘The Girl From Rio’, but, given that the Southern-most part of the Amazon basin is right over on the other side of Brazil, maybe they actually relcoated completely? Or, maybe there IS sufficiently Amazon-like terrain to be found within spitting distance of Rio? I dunno. If anyone can identify the surely-that-must-be-quite-famous dam/waterfall that appears in the film, maybe we can pinpoint it on our sadly non-existent Jess Franco Locations Map? (Obviously it would be a transparent map on a Perspex wall with flashing lights, like the one Fu Manchu always has knocking about in his hideouts..)

Meanwhile, all the scenes in the town besieged by the bandits and the colonial governor’s mansion where Götz George is kept prisoner look to have been filmed back in Spain, with distinctly familiar-looking grand interiors, and a few exterior shots that I *think* might match up with the complex of buildings memorably used a few years later in ‘A Virgin Among The Living Dead’ and numerous of Franco’s other early ‘70s productions.

I’d have to run some of the films again to be sure, and I can’t be bothered to do that right now, but… someone should do a book about this stuff, y’know? Big coffee table hardback thing – “In The Footsteps of Franco” – combining the middle class travelogue market with the cult movie freaks, it should be a good seller. I’m game, if any publishers out there want to pay for the plane tickets.

Oh, and the Fu Manchu hideout stuff is largely done on sets that I’m guessing are redressed versions of the ones seen in ‘Brides..’, and god knows what else besides. (Hey, you need a dungeon? Give Harry a call.)

4/5

Conclusion:

‘The Blood of Fu Manchu’ is not film that really gets much love, but I must say, I quite enjoyed it. Sure, it’s sloppy, tedious, cynical and practically the dictionary definition of “a load of old rubbish”, but the sheer amount of stuff going on gives it a strangely epic flavour that few other Franco productions can really match, and, whilst fans of the director will have to accept that it explores his favoured themes and obsessions only in passing, taken as an example of a rainy Sunday pulp adventure movie that’s completely lost the plot and wondered off into unknown realms, I think it has a lot to recommend it. I’d definitely place it toward the top end of Franco’s catalogue of work-for-hire genre exercises.

‘The Castle of Fu Manchu’ followed later the same year from Franco & Towers, and even commentators who hated ‘Blood..’ admit that it looks like Citizen Kane compared to that one, so…. that’s something to look forward to I suppose?

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(1)‘The Face of Fu Manchu’ (’65) and ‘Brides of Fu Manchu’ (’66), both directed by Don Sharp, are quite a bit of fun (I reviewed ‘Brides..’ here). I’ve not seen the third instalment, ‘The Vengeance of Fu Manchu’ directed by Jeremy Summers, but I think I’m gonna walk not run on that one given that Summers also made the unspeakably bad ‘House of 1,000 Dolls’ for Towers.

(2) Which is more than Christopher Lee and the film’s make-up team are doing here incidentally – aside from the floppy moustache, Lee isn’t even trying to appear Asian by this point in the franchise… which, though a let-down for fans of casual movie racism, is probably for the best, all things considered.

(3) My favourite thing about Marion-Crawford’s performances in these movies is his habit of yelling “FU MANCHU!?” in moustache-ruffling, outraged surprise at least once per film.

(4)If you think about it, I guess Hammer were actually doing much the same thing too, as ‘The Swords of Sherwood Forest’ gave way to ‘Prehistoric Women’ and ‘The Viking Queen’, although these Towers films, being considerably closer to the margins, tended to get more sleazy more quickly. As I mentioned in my earlier review, ‘Brides of Fu Manchu’ has to be the most erotically charged movie ever to be granted a ‘U’ certificate by the BBFC, and I’ve subsequently seen evidence that they even shot some alternate nude sequences for it (“for the Japanese market”, no doubt).

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Contest Winners!

Well, the results are in from our fifth anniversary competition bonanza, and first off I feel I must apologise for making the questions so damn difficult. (I suppose it's quite hard to judge these things when you already know the answers?)

Nonetheless though, we have a winner, and Christopher Trowell of London came through just before the deadline with a frankly astonishing 6 out of 8 screen-grabs correctly identified! A veritable cornucopia of prizes are on their way to him. Volker C. Steiber of Winston-Salem, NC took second place with 2/8, which gives you some idea of the spread of scores received (sorry again). Some nice stuff is in the post to him too.

Thanks to both of them and to everyone who took part, and, to end the frustrations of anyone still racking their brains trying to place these mysterious images, answers are as follows;




03: Privilege (1967)

04: Devils of Darkness (1965)


06: Nightbirds (1968)


08:Wild Guitar (1962)