Archive for May, 2014

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Michael Fassbender, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger, Daniel Bruhl, Til Schweiger

The saying goes that history is written by the victors. Fantasy, on the other hand, is written by those who could care less what the history books say. Quentin Tarantino, the writer/director who created such modern classics such as “Reservoir Dogs,” “Kill Bill” and “Pulp Fiction,” has for years brought us films which represent the kinds of movies he grew up on. But it wasn’t until 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds” that Tarantino’s own “reel affinity” led him to try his hand at a World War II epic. Based on his previous work, one shouldn’t be going in expecting a serious drama. Indeed, “Basterds” is as uproarious as it is “Inglourious.” What might not be anticipated is just how deep into the realm of fantasy this movie travels.

In 1941, Nazi colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), aka “The Jew Hunter,” pressures a Frenchman into revealing that he is hiding a Jewish family underneath the floorboards of his home. All members of the Jewish family is killed, save for their daughter Shoshanna , who escapes the machine gun fire and is spotted by Landa running away from the house. Landa has his gun trained on Shoshanna, but shockingly allows her to continue running.

Three years later, United States Lieutenant Aldo “The Apache” Raine (Brad Pitt) gathers a team of eight Jewish-American soldiers for a behind-enemy-lines mission with a simple purpose: “killin’ Nazis!” The group scalps those they kill, and they leave an identifying mark on those they set free. Specifically, a swastika is carved into the head of anyone they spare, which will effectively let everyone know this person is a Nazi long after he has put away his uniform. Around this same time, a young blonde woman has come into ownership of a movie theater. The name she gives to identify herself is Emmanuelle Mimieux, but we know her better as Shoshanna Dreyfus. It is at this theater where a most bloody, war-changing and history-defying event is set to take place. The Nazis have a propoganda film they wish to premiere there, and in their arrogance, all of the important figures in the Third Reich plan to attend. Members of the British military, the Basterds and Shoshanna herself all have designs on making this the moment when World War II is brought to an abrupt end, but an awful lot of carelessness threatens to doom this mass assassination plot.

While writing my review for “The Fisher King” (1991), I brought up the subject of another Terry Gilliam film called “Brazil,” which I had thought overrated at the time I saw it… yet I feel now that I might have been too harsh. Although I don’t currently have access to that movie in order to prove my theory, it got me thinking about what other movies I might have given a bum rap. With today being Memorial Day, the time seemed right to revisit “Inglourious Basterds,” which I saw theatrically but remember coming out of the screening feeling underwhelmed. There were three distinct reasons for why this happened:

1) Any time Brad Pitt is not on-screen, I kept waiting for him to come back. Aldo is that much fun to watch.

2) I really hate it when any movie or TV show requires a character or characters to act foolishly or otherwise out-of-character for the express purpose of bringing about their death(s).

3) I was completely unprepared for exactly how fast and loose this movie plays around with history. Many things happen in this movie that, had they occurred in real life, would have drastically changed the way World War II ended. At the time, I forgot to simply have fun. Instead, I cast my mind toward how the climax of the movie in particular would seem to undermine the sacrifice of those who died in the remaining months of the war. If it were any other war except for World War II, I honestly don’t know whether that thought would have entered into it.

Perspective, especially several years worth of it, sure does a lot to alter one’s attitude. Of my three main objections from five years ago, only one still sticks around. I have come to appreciate the Oscar-winning performance of Christoph Waltz a hell of a lot more than I did in 2009. He’s very much like Anthony Hopkins in the way he commands attention. He could be narrating the business section of the newspaper and make it sound like something worth listening to. Thus, I am not as bothered when Brad Pitt is not in a given scene. I’m also at peace with the fact that, while this movie may happen to have a WWII setting, it is most definitely a fantasy film first. Where I still have a problem is in one particular scene featuring an easily avoidable death for a major character. That this character’s demise takes place is merely a sign that the script has run out of use for them, and this is simply the point where the story must cast them aside. I still maintain this could have been handled in a way that didn’t make this person look like an idiot. Though this happens during a crucial point in the film, I can’t consider this one flaw by itself to be a dealbreaker.

I can safely say that, in giving this movie another look, I enjoy “Inglourious Basterds” much more now. The problems I had with it should never have clouded my judgment, especially considering all the silly horror, comedy, and action films I watch to my heart’s content. This wasn’t the first time I’ve had to see a Quentin Tarantino film a second time in order to fully appreciate what he was trying to do, and it probably won’t be the last.  But I hope that this experience has finally taught me to not only stay off the proverbial high horse, but put that sucker out to pasture entirely.

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X-Men First Class (2011)

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Oliver Platt

Sometimes, when you’ve completely painted yourself into a corner, the best option is to go back to the beginning. The “X-Men” film series, although it has never felt completely true to the comics, had experienced a decent start before the folly of “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” Though the story goes that it had always been part of the plan (as if I’ve never heard that excuse before), it still happens that “X-Men: First Class” came about at a particularly important time for the franchise. In addition to the need for a certain amount of cleansing, the “X-Men” movies had been a part of our lives for more than a decade, and the original actors were not getting any younger (a subject that will also be addressed by 2014’s “Days of Future Past”). For a younger cast to truly be accepted in these roles, you first need competent actors, and then a story that can help the audience warm up to them. How about incorporating the Cuban Missle Crisis, one of the most frightening and important events of the last half-century?

As this is a story whose focus is primarily an origin tale for frenemies Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), it is only fitting that the story should begin with both of them as children. We return to the scene which opened the original “X-Men,” with little Erik Lensherr being separated from his mother by Nazi soldiers in Auschwitz when his powers manifest themselves for the first time. What we didn’t see back then is that someone else was watching this happen, a Dr. Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), and he is very interested in unlocking the boy’s potential. Bringing Erik into his office, Schmidt places a coin on his desk and instructs Erik to move it the way he bent the bars on the gates outside. When Erik cannot comply, Schmidt brings in his mother, points a gun at her, and gives Erik until the count of three to move the coin. Still nothing, unfortunately for Erik’s mother. Upon seeing her dead body, Erik’s rage is unleashed and the entire room is destroyed, along with two guards. Schmidt is excited, and he tells Erik that this is just the beginning.

In England, at more or less the same time, a young Charles Xavier is disturbed from his sleep by noises in the kitchen downstairs. He is greeted by what appears on the surface to be his mother, but he quickly sees through the charade. Revealing her true, blue-skinned form is the shape-shifting Raven, she who will come to be known as Mystique. Like the Wolverine/Rogue dynamic from “X-Men,” the friendship developed between Charles and Raven is a new angle that I find to be one of the movie’s best ideas, even if it does create a few continuity problems. As the two group up together, Charles charms the ladies as a student of genetics while Raven, who in public now adopts the appearance of a beautiful blonde in her early 20’s (Jennifer Lawrence), chooses not to disguise her jealousy.

The first meeting between Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr comes in 1962 when Xavier has been hired by the CIA, among them Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), to help locate the Hellfire Club, a group of mutants being led by Klaus Schmidt, now going by the name Sebastian Shaw. The group is tracked down to their submarine, where Erik arrives and tries to kill Shaw. He almost drowns in his pursuit, but for the intervention of a concerned Xavier. Together, the two will recruit several other mutants to their cause, and they will need every single one of them for the final confrontation with Shaw, whose ultimate plan is to start World War III by forcing the placement of nuclear missles by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in Turkey and Cuba, respectively. The most important moment in the movie is when Xavier pulls Erik out of the water. What if he hadn’t, or had at least been too late? You’re talking about a much different universe indeed. McAvoy and Fassbender both excel in their roles. Despite the fact that the actors neither look nor sound anything like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, I still believe them.

I have only one real objection about this film: the casting of Zoe Kravitz. Actually, it’s not her so much as it is her fickle, cold-hearted and annoying character. Angel reminds me too much of the characters invented for “The Last Stand,” who possessed little personality and much anonymity. This at least is counterbalanced by Jennifer Lawrence, for whom “X-Men: First Class” served as my introduction. Hers is definitely a different portrayal of Mystique from that of Rebecca Romijn, but that’s because this is Mystique’s uncomfortable crossroads period where she had to decide where her place in the world truly lies, and Lawrence helps bring that out of her.

Perhaps my favorite of all the X-Men movies, “First Class” works both from the advantages of being a period piece and in its unashamed determination to challenge what we think we know about the history of these characters. It also raises a lot of questions which I hope will be answered by future sequels (like the one that was just released today, for example). I would have preferred that this movie had meant the start of a whole new X-Men universe, like with the new “Spider-Man” movies. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the plan, as “X-Men: Days of Future Past” directly ties the two casts together. Even with “First Class,” you get cameos from two of the original cast’s actors, cameos which are both welcome and well-played. Ever since 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand” left a bitter taste in my mouth, I’ve been keeping low expectations every time another sequel pops up. I didn’t even see this one theatrically, waiting for the DVD release later that same year. I fear that the creative team, which has always been made up of mostly the same personnel, doesn’t know a good thing when they’ve got it. A+ for this effort. Time to prove me wrong one more time, ladies and gentlemen.

Godzilla (2014)

Director: Gareth Edwards

Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, Juliette Binoche

Coming in as a relative newbie where this franchise is concerned, it is refreshing to be able to keep from holding the latest in a long series of films to a higher standard. 2014’s “Godzilla” is a perfectly ordinary and formulaic monster movie, but that makes it a success. Fans of these films have come to expect a Godzilla feature to play out a certain way. Deviate too strongly from the formula, and you risk causing outrage… I’m talking to you, Roland Emmerich. Familiarity is indeed one of “Godzilla” (2014)’s greatest strengths. One of Godzilla’s most famous features, his nuclear breath, comes highly anticipated and is cheered when the moment finally comes. It’s also the audience’s familiarity with real-world events that works to the film’s advantage. The new edition is not without its own twists and turns, and some may be surprised to find that “Godzilla” is a monster movie that actually cares about its human characters.

In 1954, the Bikini Atoll nuclear bomb test was actually an attempt to kill a giant, dinosaur-like creature. It failed, but the creature did disappear back into the ocean from whence it came. In 1999, a nuclear power plant is taken out by an EMP (electromagnetic pulse), and the resulting radiation that is released kills many of the scientists there, including the wife of plant supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), leading to his pursuit of a cover-up conspiracy theory for the better part of the next fifteen years. In the meantime, his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has grown up, married and had a son of his own. He’s an expert in the field of bomb disposal. His wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), is a nurse at a hospital in San Francisco where they live. Pretty handy skills for either to have if the world as we know it were to suddenly come to an end.

Contrary to what the movie’s advertising might lead one to believe, “Godzilla” does not place its focus on the title monster, nor on Joe Brody, as Bryan Cranston’s dominance of the trailers would lead one to believe. Cranston’s role is merely to point to government conspiracy, do everything he can to prove himself right, and then be there to say “I told you so!” when the monsters rear their ugly heads. That’s right, there’s more for the humans to run screaming from than just Godzilla. In fact, there is a pair of male and female creatures for Godzilla to do battle against, one of them resembling a modernized version of his winged rival, Mothra.

Normally in a “Godzilla” movie you’d only have the rubble of Tokyo or some other city in Japan to sift through, but as Godzilla gives chase to the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), we see Honolulu, Las Vegas and, finally, San Francisco fall prey as well. The more carnage, the better, though I get the sneaking suspicion that Godzilla will be stiffing us with the repair bill. In what I think is a clever move, we are only given bits and pieces of the devastation and of the monsters confrontations throughout the second half of the film before finally being given an up close and personal view of the action in California. This has the same effect that “Jaws” had for its great white shark. Had Steven Spielberg shown too much of the shark before the explosive finish, viewers may have tired of that overgrown fish. Instead, we are kept waiting for more, and the payoff is more than satisfactory. The true nature of “Godzilla” is the time-honored hero’s quest. It’s all about Ford dealing with personal loss and then summing up the courage to do everything in his power to keep his family safe, even if it means sacrificing himself.

It’s going to require some adjustment next summer when Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen will co-star once again, this time in “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.” The adjustment I speak of will arise from watching them feature as ordinary human husband and wife in “Godzilla” to extraordinary brother and sister superheroes in the sequel to 2012’s #1 box office smash. I came into this film as relatively unfamiliar with their careers as I am the “Godzilla” film series. Johnson I pretty much only know from “Kick-Ass.” Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen will never see Oscar gold (not that they need it with the fortune they’ve accumulated), but I can see their younger sibling as a contender one day soon. The 25-year old Elizabeth, herself not yet a parent, does a convincing job in her first time portraying a mother.

The special effects, while they do not dominate, are still quite impressive. “Godzilla” has evolved much over sixty years, and yet managed to stay quite the same. This story could have been filmed back in the 1960’s and come out just the same. What wouldn’t come with it, however, is the imagery. Any one of the following real-life disasters could be conjured up: 9/11, Fukushima, Hurricane Katrina and the Thailand Tsunami. Possibly all at the same time. Give me more “Godzilla” movies like this. Hollywood made a big mistake back in 1998 when it tried to change what the fans knew Godzilla was supposed to be. Let us never speak of it again. I can only hope the discussion about the 2014 version will linger on and inspire a sequel. I’ll be among the first in line to watch the monsters fight, the people scream, and the national landmarks crumble to dust.

Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956)

Directors: Ishirō Honda (1954 original Japanese) & Terry O. Morse (1956 American additional scenes)

Starring: Raymond Burr, Akira Takarada, Momoko Kōchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura

The history of our world has seen many turning points over the years. One such event of importance fell between the days of August 6th and August 9th of 1945. Those were the dates of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, by the United States, actions which led the Japanese to surrender and finally bring an end to World War II. The debate over the moral and ethical justifications for dropping nuclear weapons on civilian populations will rage on forever. What is not in question is that the aftermath of this was such that several countries around the world all began stockpiling and testing nuclear arsenals in fear that one or another of the others with similar capabilities might attack them first. It makes perfect sense that Japan would begin exploring options with Atomic or Hydrogen bombs, considering that no other nation on Earth has firsthand experience. Still, rash decisions never come without consequence.

The first scene in the movie draws from the absolute horror of nuclear devastation, imagery that still held a certain immediacy for 1954/’56 audiences, showing the city of Japan in utter ruin. Because of the emotions which this opening scene is able to draw upon, it is also the film’s best scene. It clues us in on the fact that much of the film will be told in flashback, with American reporter Steve Martin (Raymond Burr) relating to us how he himself has only barely survived the city’s destruction. The power of this initial sequence is such that the movie hooks you almost immediately. We then flashback to the first warning signs that something was amiss. Several Japanese ships have been sunk without warning or provocation. Only one survivor is picked up, but he too dies soon after. Strange burns on his body are linked to the man’s passing, markings which are later determined to have been caused by radiation. Before he died, the man had spoken of some giant creature being to blame for all that has been happening, a claim which the island’s inhabitants accept as fact. They are soon proven right, and all attempts at harming keeping the monster at bay are fruitless. Godzilla, as the monster is referred to, marches on through Tokyo and threatens to progress even further.

As all of this is going on, there is also a love triangle that is explored. For most monster movies (and most action films in general) this would only be a distraction, but the three actually serve the greatest purpose of all. There is the Naval officer Ogata (Akira Takarada), his arranged bride-to-be Emiko (Momoko Kōchi) and the man to whom her heart truly belongs, the one-eyed scientist Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). Only Dr. Serizawa’s “oxygen destroyer” may be the answer to stopping Godzilla, but he is as reluctant to share this terrible weapon as were those who first conceived of the atomic bomb. He tells Emiko about it, but makes her promise to keep it a secret, a promise which she later breaks by telling Ogata about it when there seems to be no hope left.

Godzilla is one of the best and most popular movie monsters of all-time. I’m told the original Japanese version without the Raymond Burr inserts is much better. This version does give the appearance that it was edited so as not to offend those still harboring ill will towards Japan, and also not to confuse those perceived to be either too poorly educated or too lazy to read subtitles. However, even this version stands up just fine against its counterparts from six decades later. “Godzilla” also marked the first time North American cinemas screened a movie featuring Japanese in lead, heroic roles. That seeing the destruction of Tokyo affected audiences in a positive way only a decade after World War II may be the movie’s best achievement.

In terms of monster movies I am partial to a different film from 1954, an American story centered around abnormally sized ants entitled “Them!” Both “Godzilla” and “Them!” share in common a topical theme that is still relevant today, but was so fresh sixty years ago that they probably scared the hell out of my grandparents’ generation. Both films show, in their own way, how nothing good can come from the use or even the testing of nuclear weapons. I don’t find it all that scary (except for that opening shot, which just outright creepy), but I can forgive the crudeness of the special effects and for two reasons: 1) It’s the 1950’s, so one shouldn’t expect things to look as real as they can today and 2) pretty much any movie not produced by Hollywood is going to look cheap by comparison. So, the obvious toy-sized models being smashed don’t even enter into it.

Products bearing the name of “Godzilla” don’t always get it right. Take the insufferable 1998 American in-name-only release. No, really. Take it away. Far, far away. It’s the poop-filled baby diaper of the franchise. At its core, it’s a remake not of “Godzilla,” but of the U.K.’s 1961 monster flick, “Gorgo.” Playing it that way showed how much those in charge didn’t understand what Godzilla is all about. The best thing to come out of it was the Taco Bell commericals where the chihuahua says, “Here lizard, lizard, lizard!” Best. Commercial. Ever. Sixteen years have passed since that stinker. Some would say that’s not long enough. Still, there’s a new “Godzilla” that has just invaded theaters. The trailer gave me chills. Now that I have officially seen and approved of the original, I’m ready to give the new edition my fullest attention. With any luck, that won’t be a decision I’ll come to regret.

The Fisher King (1991)

Director: Terry Gilliam

Starring: Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges, Amanda Plummer, Mercedes Ruehl

Like fables/fairy tales, movies are a form of escapism. In watching them, we can spend a couple of hours away from the harshness of real life. I, myself, sometimes need to forget that there is greed, murder, bigotry, disease, politics and war shaping the world into something it shouldn’t be. Still, I come back once the story is over, because I can still process the idea that there are good, sometimes beautiful things to look forward to in life that I don’t want to miss out on. I also recognize that I’m lucky in that regard, because it’s not always that simple. The need to avoid some part of who we are or the road we have traveled can lead to some either voluntarily or involuntarily remaining stuck in their fantasy world. To call this weakness would be too easy a diagnosis. Mental illness is a sad, sometimes dangerous subject, and although there is no helping some, others who aren’t as far gone just need you to listen to them. To ignore these people completely is almost as great a tragedy as the trauma they have suffered.

Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), New York radio talk show host, is a particularly mean and self-serving son of a bitch. When his listeners call in to speak their piece, Jack has no hesitation in coming up with the nastiest things to say just to tear them down. One time, he brushes off a lonely man looking for love from a woman who frequents a popular nightclub. He just can’t seem to figure out how to work up the courage to tell her how he feels, and it’s eating away at him. Rather than help this man through his depression, Jack goes through his usual mean-spirited routine. Later that same night, Jack sees a news broadcast detailing how Jack’s caller decided after their conversation to commit mass murder at the nightclub before taking his own life. Realizing his part in this tragedy, Jack is mortified and sinks into depression.

Three years pass, and we find that Jack is no longer the big time radio shock jock. He is instead a pathetic drunk who runs a video store with his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl). At a moment when he is at his most suicidal, Jack is mistaken for a homeless man by a gang of punks, who proceed to beat him up and nearly set him on fire. They would have succeeded if not for the intervention of Parry (Robin Williams), a genuine homeless man who displays an obsession with the legend of King Arthur’s search for the Holy Grail. It seems he believes it would be his duty to find it, but that due to his condition he requires someone else’s help. Jack, he says, is “The One.” Jack initially brushes him off, later becoming interested in Parry’s plight when it is revealed that his psychosis is the result of witnessing his wife’s gruesome murder at the hands of Jack’s disturbed caller. Parry is smitten with Lydia (Amanda Plummer), whom he has never formally met but has nonetheless observed as she goes to work. He is also tormented by the Red Knight, a figure that manifests itself whenever he begins to pull himself out of his psychosis.

The legend of the Fisher King, a version of which Parry relays to Jack in the movie, tells of a man whose God-given duty it was to protect the Grail, but that he suffered a wound that incapacitated him and the Grail has since gone missing. The Fisher King sends knight after knight in search of it, to no avail. Expressing thirst, the Fisher King is given water by a boy who had no apparent clue that the cup of water he has given to the King is in fact the Grail. Jack and Parry, both being men who have been deeply affected by the same event, can each be seen as representing the Fisher King. Parry being like the title character is more obvious, trading a physical wound for an equally incapacitating mental one. Though Jack also faced a mental breaking point, the healing he requires is neither physical nor mental (at least, not exactly). For Jack, it is more of a healing of the soul, a redemptive quest. As with the Fisher King, Jack’s sin was his pride. In helping Parry, it is Jack’s hope that he too may be rescued from himself.

Up until recently, I thought I knew what I could call my favorite Robin Williams movie. It had been a tie between his villainous turn in Christopher Nolan’s “Insomnia” and the funny-yet-serious “Good Morning, Vietnam.” His performance as Parry, in this writer’s opinion, is the best of his career. There are moments when Williams is allowed to be funny, although never the running off the rails funny for which he is known and loved. Here he brings to the table a very relatable sadness. I can easily believe that I would react much in the same way to (please forgive the graphic description) being covered in my loved one’s blood and brain matter.

Terry Gilliam has always been a very special director, although not one whose work I have always appreciated as perhaps I should. There remains still one of his movies which I just “didn’t get” the one and only time I saw it. That would be the immensely popular “Brazil.” At the time I thought it overrated, but now I believe my judgment was clouded by having seen it too soon after seeing “1984,” the big-screen adaptation of the George Orwell novel. It has become my own personal “Fisher King” mission to revisit that movie. I expect it’ll show up on Turner Classic Movies one day when I’m not actively looking for it. “The Fisher King” can only ever come in second on my list of “Holy Grail” movies. You won’t find any of the other members of Monty Python in this one. It was also the first movie which Gilliam directed that he didn’t write, needing to recoup after the financial losses suffered from the failure of “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” In that way, this movie is Gilliam’s redemption, having been handed a terrific script with which to craft in his patented style.

Mental health is nothing to fool around with. As demonstrated by this movie, more are made to suffer because of it than just the afflicted person. Whole families’ lives are changed forever because of it. Addressing it requires the most extreme care and patience that one can sum up. Depending upon the extent or root cause of the damage, or the age of the patient, it may not be in any way treatable. Of those for whom there is still a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, it may not take much for them to heal. Sometimes you have to be willing to climb castle walls for them. Other times, all it takes is a kind word.

Female Vampire (1973)

Director: Jesús Franco

Starring: Lina Romay, Jack Taylor, Alice Amo, Monica Swinn, Jean-Pierre Bouyxou

J’adore les films d’horreur Français! In the last few years, when American horror has been depressing the hell out of me by either coming up short or otherwise completely lacking in creativity, France is always there to cheer me up. Granted, not every French film I’ve seen has inspired a “C’est fantastique” reaction. Some have been quite terrible, actually. You have to take the bad with the good, I suppose. Yet, even with the bad… and this is true of any genre from any country… there is that little subset known as the “so-bad-its-good” movie, or the “guilty pleasure.” Coming across “Female Vampire” while browsing for titles on Netflix, I was immediately drawn in by the poster art (the same as above) and the fact that I like most horror movies from the mid-70’s to early 80’s. Still, with such a plain-sounding title, there wasn’t much I could make of it, and I knew that to watch it would be taking a chance. The most I could expect was that I would be in for some cheap B-movie with very little story and actors with grade school-quality talent. “Female Vampire” is all of these things, but there is another layer to it which I was unprepared for… and I don’t mean the French language dialogue with English subtitles.

Countess Irina von Karlstein (Lina Romay) is a young, beautiful woman whose favorite wardrobe choice consists of a long black cape, black boots, and a belt that has no real function whatsoever. Seeing her walking in this state of undress towards the camera in the film’s opening shot, my immediate reaction was that this was a perfectly reasonable way to begin any movie as far as I was concerned, but I was sure it was going to be the high-water mark. Boy, was I in for a shock! When the movie gets going, one of the first things Irina does is locate her first victim, a young man whose reaction to her appearance is likely the same as mine would be. Now, one of the very basic elements to any vampire tale is that the creature kills its prey by draining their blood, generally from a bite to the neck. This is not at all what Irina does. She wants your lifeforce, but she doesn’t take it from that red stuff flowing in your veins. Her attention is focused further down south as she performs oral sex on those whom she murders. That’s right: Irina’s victims die at the climax.

Watching the first few moments, I was resolved that the movie would work best if Irina never spoke. Incredibly, actress Lina Romay plays the entire thing as a mute, albeit with a few brief inner monologues. After seeing that first scene, it was clear there wouldn’t be much in the way of horror here. It was going to be one of “those” movies. My suspicions were correct, as the rest of the movie follows a pattern set up by its opening. Each situation she initiates is progressively steamier than the last. Very early on, it also becomes obvious that there is no real story to be found here. Anything resembling a plot is merely an impediment to the more “pleasurable” parts. There’s an out-of-nowhere scene where Irina encounters two women that seems to exist just so that the movie will have a lesbian threesome. The movie’s ending feels so rushed that I’m still not sure I fully understand what happened. Not that I cared by this point, as I had been too busy being slack-jawed with amazement that “Female Vampire” had so entirely fooled me as to the true nature of its content.

Had I been aware that “Female Vampire” is not the film’s original title, or that the version I saw was not the only one in existence, I might have had a better idea of what to expect. There are three distinct cuts of the film, distinguished by the amount of explicit material present. There is the R-rated version, titled “La comtesse noire” (or “The Black Countess”) in which Irina has more clothes on and acts as a traditional vampire in sucking the blood of her victims. The Unrated cut is “La Comtesse aux seis nus,” or “The Bare-Breasted Countess,” a more appropriate and descriptive title than “Female Vampire,” which is what it was later changed to. This one can best be described as softcore porn. Somewhere out there, a hardcore version also exists, called “Les avaleuses,” or “The Swallowers.” That would help explain why, in the softcore version, much of what goes on looks as though it has a certain authenticity to it. I have read that the director, Jesús “Jess” Franco, is considered by some to be France’s answer to Ed Wood. Like Ed Wood, Franco made a lot of movies which were universally considered to be “awful,” produced these films on the cheap, and had a cast and crew of regulars that he worked with often. Also like Ed Wood, Franco’s films retain a certain cult following despite their bad word-of-mouth from critics. I believe that my experience with “Female Vampire” was enhanced by my ignorance of these facts. For that reason, I apologize if my being so open about this movie leads to anyone, now having been spoiled, finding it difficult to enjoy what they see.

Of course, there will be those for whom “Female Vampire” simply was not intended, who consider it and movies like it to be trash. Some folks require a bit more substance to their cinematic experience. Hey, it’s okay. I need a healthy portion of that, myself. I also like the occasional schlock, especially when it takes me places I wasn’t expecting to go. To that end, “Female Vampire” may well be my favorite of its ilk. In a world where most horror films go overboard with the buckets of blood they throw at the screen, it’s nice to find one that takes a path to a much more pleasant extreme. I don’t feel sorry for any of the dead male AND female characters in this movie. Honestly, I think that has to be one of the more preferable ways to check out! As for this movie’s status as a “guilty pleasure,” I’m not sure it really qualifies because I don’t feel the least bit guilty about enjoying it. I just wouldn’t entertain the idea of watching it together with a group. Praise be to France for the creation of this exploitative, cotton candy gem, and here’s to hoping that I find more like it. Vive la France!

Caligula (1979)

Principal Photography by: Tinto Brass

Additional Scenes Directed and Photographed by: Giancarlo Lui & Bob Guccione

Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Teresa Ann Savoy, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud

I just want to preface this whole thing by saying that the era of the Roman Empire is for me one of the more fascinating periods of history. At a time when the map of the Earth was much smaller than it is today, it was easy for one person to believe himself to be the ruler of the world. That much power will get to a man’s head, no matter how sincere or devious he was when he started. Easily my favorite of all the Roman Emperors is Caligula. This man was quite certifiably batshit insane, but that makes him all the more interesting an historical figure in my eyes. I can watch whole documentaries devoted to this one man’s four year reign of power. Ask any expert on the subject and they’ll tell you that was four years too long. The level of debauchery and violence that went on during this time really helps “Little Boots” (as was his nickname) stand out. No work of fiction could ever showcase all of Caligula’s cruelty and sexual exploits. No movie studio would ever allow it. Bob Guccione of Penthouse Magazine wasn’t about to let that stop him from taking things to a most controversial and extreme level.

As the film begins, Caligula (Malcolm McDowell) is first in line to the title of Holy Roman Emperor, with Tiberius (Peter O’Toole) sitting as the current ruler but wasting away due to illness. Eventually, as was often the method of succession, Caligula assassinates Tiberius (or rather, has someone else do it for him). It is customary for those in power to marry and produce an heir. Caligula is more than willing to participate in this ritual, taking the promiscuous Caesonia (Helen Mirren) as his wife and mother to his child. But Caligula’s heart belongs to his sister Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy). He insists that both women be hailed along with the usual “Hail Caesar!” that he is to receive, much to the chagrin of the members of the Senate in particular. Caligula delights in tormenting these sanctimonious lawmakers, even appointing his horse as a member of the Senate. Perhaps he forgot what happened to Julius Caesar, who also fell out of favor with the Roman Senate, on that fateful March 15th of 44 BC. When an illness spreads throughout Rome, eventually taking the life of Drusilla, Caligula goes mad. I know… as opposed to the very calm and reasonable man he’d been up to that point? Eventually, history does repeat itself, and members of the Senate conspire to kill Caligula, Caesonia, and their daughter. Caligula’s uncle Claudius is then quickly appointed the new Caesar.

After seeing the film I had a hard time deciding whether or not it would be worth it to write a review. The intrigue surrounding the movie “Caligula” has nothing to do with its plot, a mere Cliff’s Notes account of Caligula’s reign, and everything to do with the scenes of violence and especially the sex scenes which are quite clearly not simulated. I am very interested in tracking down any movie that carries with it a reputation like the one this movie has. Multiple versions of “Caligula” exist. The two most readily available are the 102-minute R-rated cut and the 157-minute Unrated cut. The Unrated version is the one that gets everyone’s panties in a bunch. As I said, there are sex scenes in this cut which are not simulated. Those scenes were added in post production without the knowledge or approval of the lead actors, screenwriter Gore Vidal or the original director, Tinto Brass, leading them all to distance themselves from the film.

So, where was my problem? My problem was in the fact that the version I watched was the tamer, R-rated cut. This version plays more like a real movie, except that its story suffers from atrocious editing… and that’s before Bob Guccione stepped in and made his “improvements”, turning the movie into the most expensive porno ever filmed! Malcolm McDowell is a fine actor even when presented with dreck material to work with. I can even forgive the fact that, more than half of the time, I feel as though I am watching him play his “Clockwork Orange” character while wearing a toga. That’s not much of a criticism, mind you. I’m certain that Alex DeLarge would have been right at home in ancient Rome. In rating McDowell’s performance as Caligula, I can say that I prefer him to Jay Robinson’s stagy, over-the-top and somewhat foppish turn as the character in 1953’s “The Robe.” However, I still consider the definitive representation of Gaius Julius Caesar to be that of John Hurt in the 1976 mini-series “I, Claudius.”

There is an awful lot of ugliness to “Caligula,” more than I care to see for myself. I have no idea why anyone thought it a good idea to make the movie the way it exists in any of its various forms. I’m a fan of another Penthouse production, the 1971 adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” however I credit director Roman Polanski for that. No matter which version of “Caligula” you watch, you’re either going to be subject to a nice try of a movie, or a bewildering, exploitative mess that will leave you feeling like taking a shower afterwards. It’s one of those movies that, because it has this built-up image as a movie not for the faint of heart, curiosity demands that you risk wasting your time in seeking it out. Like the unsound decisions made in the movie’s production process, just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.