Friday, August 26, 2011

Fat Black Pussycat, The (1963)

Directed by:
Harold Lea

With a sketchy production history, it's no wonder this thing is so damn jumbled and confusing. Originally an ordinary, by-the-numbers detective / crime drama, this made zero impact upon its original release, with poor box office receipts reflecting that. Michael A. Ripps, who had previously turned the 1957 flop BAYOU into the 1960 hit POOR WHITE TRASH via the title change and more exploitative added footage, got ahold of the film and decided to do the exact same thing with it. Around 30 minutes of footage was eliminated from the original cut and new scenes (primarily some bloody slasher murders and people sitting behind desks talking) were added to turn it into a seedier, more violent film. The identity, and motive, of the killer was also changed. At least one of the lead characters completely disappears from the finale, a double (seen only from behind!) fills in for the other and for some reason multiple characters have the same name. Was it really necessary to name three different characters Dave? There's also a Harry and a Harold, as well as an Edward, an Edie and an Ellie.

Things begins with a naked woman crawling into an alleyway and dying. The victim - Edie Eichorn - was a free-spirited beatnik known to get around. Detective Dave Walsh (Frank Jamus) and his partner Edward Bono are called in to investigate. Dave starts by visiting The Fat Black Pussycat Cafe and Theater (the victim had a matchbook from the establishment in her purse), where he meets a girl named Jean who agrees to take him to a party to meet several of Edie's acquaintances. There, the detective meets a slew of bizarre performance artists, struggling actors, musicians and writers and all-around weirdo's. Nope, this film doesn't paint the beatnik crowd in a very charming light. All of the guys are are loud, obnoxious, needlessly violent drunks, pot-heads and/or mental cases. The women are basically just sluts, airheads or bitchy ("I heard she got killed by a sex fiend. Ain't that a laugh?") One couple - the guy decked out in a hilariously fake goatee - head out to the fire escape for some fresh air. A black-gloved killer sneaks up behind them, throws the guy over, stabs the girl and then tosses her over the side, too. A black pussycat, previously seen chillin' next to Edie's body, then cuddles up with both corpses.

Back at the party, Dave gets in a scuffle with two beatniks and is knocked unconscious with a chair. He wakes up to strange music on the couch of a woman he'd bumped into (literally) at the party. The woman turns out to be anthropologist and NYU professor Janet Lynd (Janet Roman) and the bongo drums are a recording of "a ritual puberty chant of the Watusi Tribe" (?) Janet reveals she was at the party because she's working on a paper about the beatnik subculture. Naturally, a romance blossoms between the two, while the newly added scenes depict more women getting their throats cut and some hilariously awkward dialogue scenes of policemen and mental health professionals sitting around and discussing what drives the psycho...

Commissioner Kriegen
"I'm quite certain you've got some eloquent theory prepared on the neurotic drives which compel this poor unfortunate to behave in this paranoid manner. The poor soul, though legally sane, is mentally ill."

Professor Le Blanc
"That was quite an eloquent dissertation, Commissioner. All of which may I humbly submit is not true. This person's m.o. is a paranoid schizophrenic with homosexual tendencies if male, lesbian if female, while in this schizophrenic state."

Sergeant Thomas Frank:
"You mean they can change their sex drive when they're a schizo?"

Professor Le Blanc:
"A true schizophrenic has a complete personality change!"

Commissioner Kiegen:
"You mean if somebody wanted to fake it, they could get their kicks either way? AC / DC?"

I have no idea what Ripps was getting at trying to link up the beatnik / NYC art's culture, homosexuality and psychotic behavior, but it seems like he had more than a little disdain for both artistic types and gays. One of the suspects is a gay artist named Brom (Avital Carme), who's innocent of the previous murders, but slits a woman's throat anyway when the police corner him. He's then shot to a bloody pulp using a machine gun. When the killer is finally revealed, we learn that they too are a gay nutjob. In addition, Mr. Ripps added another absurd concept to this film that involves cats. Apparently, felines always show up at murder scenes because they can pick up on the brainwaves of dying people using their ESP (!!) abilities.

Strangely enough, this sloppy hodgepodge contains no less than five people who'd achieve some level of fame during their lifetime; probably since it was filmed in Greenwich Village where all those real-life unhinged homos artistic types like to hang. The first is Manny Dworman, a former musician who's best known for opening the world famous "Comedy Cellar" in Manhattan (where Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano and many others got their starts). Secondly, there's Hugh Romney (playing an anti-violence ranting beatnik at the party) aka "Wavy Gravy;" a guy who helped to feed the four-hundred-thousand patrons of Woodstock, is well-known for his charity work and has a popular flavor of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream named after him. Actors Leonard Frey (who'd earn a Tony Award nomination for his theater work and an Oscar nomination for FIDDLER ON THE ROOF), Frank Marshall movie regular Hector Elizondo and prolific character actor Geoffrey Lewis (the father of Juliette Lewis) all have small roles. I actually don't recall seeing either Frey or Elizondo in the movie, probably because their scenes were amongst the cut ones. Lewis however is seen twice; one getting punch at the beatnik party and another time harassing Detective Dave in the park before a bomb goes off. Oh yes, the film also has a bomb.

The cinematography isn't bad, and there's a jazz music score (The Don Bader Group appear).

Something Weird Video, who try to spin this film's disjointedness into a positive on their website (can't say I blame 'em since they have to find some way to unload this turkey), paired it with 1966's THE BLACK CAT for the DVD release. As per their usual, the disc is loaded with lots of great (mostly cat-themed) extras. They also released the original version of the film (minus Ripps' scenes) on VHS. The cut scenes are also included on the DVD.


Nu ji zhong ying (1973)

... aka: Bamboo House of Dolls, The
... aka: Bamboo Women's Prison

Directed by:
Chih-Hung Kuei

In 1971, producer Roger Corman and director Jack Hill had a big hit on their hands with the women-in-prison exploiter THE BIG DOLL HOUSE. The film was shot in the Philippines on a modest budget and its mix of sex, violence and sadism packed drive-ins and grindhouse cinemas around the world and ended up turning a huge profit. Corman would go on to produce a number of similar films immediately afterward; WOMEN IN CAGES (1971), THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972) and THE HOT BOX (1972) being the first few out of the chute. The pinnacle of the craze usually considered Jonathan Demme's CAGED HEAT (1974), which would go on to become a cult classic. As the decade wore on, other filmmakers from around the world followed suit to try to cash in, and the films themselves became increasingly more tasteless. In Canada, there was the notorious ILSA series, which began in 1974 and starred Dyanne Thorne as a sadistic Nazi commandant who delights is sexually torturing her female inmates. These films led to a boom in Nazi prison camp torture movies, which were especially popular in Italy. Another chief contributor to the subgenre was director Jesus Franco, who made around ten women-in-prison films produced in both Spain and Switzerland. And then there's Bamboo House of Dolls from Hong Kong; a Shaw Brothers Production heavily influenced by the Corman films.

Bamboo is pretty interesting in many different ways; it actually predates (and thus possibly influenced) the first Ilsa film in its concentration camp setting by a year, it's a bit more sadistic than what Corman was churning out at the time, it's set during World War II and it features three Caucasian actresses in lead roles (something not too common in Hong Kong cinema at the time). It's also very entertaining if you like these kind of things.

As the film opens, Japanese soldiers invade a Chinese hospital and start shooting the place up. After gunning down several dozen people (including women and children), the soldiers are instructed to round up the remaining women and take them to "The 13th Women's Concentration Camp." Amongst the women are three American Red Cross nurses; blonde-haired, blue-eyed tough cookie Jennifer (Birte Tove, a Danish soft-corn actress), the more demure and innocent Mary (Roska Rozen) and large-breasted nympho Elizabeth (Niki Wane). The soldiers also manage to snuff out a rebel and drag his wife, Yu-Lan (Hoi-Suk Lee), off to the camp as well. Immediately upon arriving, the women are given ripped t-shirts and panties to wear and are subjected to various tortures at the hands of sadistic Commander Inoue (Hsieh Wang), his equally evil lesbian head guard Mako (Terry Liu) and the dozens of guards and soldiers that populate the place. The prisoners are frequently slapped, kicked and pushed down, have their hair pulled and get killed at any sign of disobedience. During their first day there, the ladies get to see a woman whipped to death and another get fried when she tries to escape over the electrified barbed wire fence surrounding the place.

If things couldn't get any worse, the women are also forced into becoming sex slaves to entertain the troops. During a long rape montage, we get to see each of the ladies manhandled. An innocent blind girl named Hu Lizhu has her legs sliced up with a sword and is forced to walk on broken glass before getting thrown down on the glass and raped. Mary - who has been singled out by the alpha lesbian of the place - is pinned down by two guards and raped by Mako (who has a special strap-on for such occasions). Jennifer (who the commander has a thing for) and Yu-Lan are also slapped around and raped. As for Elizabeth... Well, she just get enough of it. And therein lies a major problem with this film, and that's tone. It's virtually impossible to laugh at Elizabeth tossing off her unsatisfactory lovers after we've just seen dead-serious scenes of women being abused and viciously killed. Yes, there's so much pain, screaming, crying and all-around misery to go around this place that even an out-of-nowhere food fight couldn't even make me smile.

The film also abruptly switches gears at around the mid-way point. After a first half dedicated almost entirely to death, torture and wall-to-wall T&A, the second half mostly lays off the sexploitation and goes the action movie route. Yu-Lan (suffering from a case of temporary amnesia after being struck in the head one too many times) was told the whereabouts of some hidden gold bars before being apprehended. There are two male alliances in the camp (both posing as guards) willing to risk their lives to help Yu-Lan escape and locate the treasure. Yu-Lan insists five of her friends; the three nurses, the blind girl and a student named Wang Xia (Hsia-ying Lo), come along. Their first escape is botched and they find themselves tied down to stakes in the heat and denied water for days. Their second attempt, with help from a man named Cui Guodong (Lo Lieh) is more successful and the rest of the film follows him and the ladies as they brave the wild to reach the gold while a bunch of soldiers try to track them down. Amongst the women there's also a spy working for the bad guys.

Despite the tonal issues, the fact this never strays very far from the standard W-I-P template and the fact several of our lead characters face a rather anti-climactic fate, this is still a watchable, highly entertaining and healthily-budget trash flick. It's nicely shot, has good sets, a decent music score from Wang Fu Liang (including a great credits theme) and nice location work during the second half, which takes place around waterfalls and the mountains. The acting really isn't too bad, either. It's also packed with action. There's cat fights, sword fights, gun fights, karate fights, bayonet stabbings, impalements, explosions, electrocutions, car chases, foot chases, snake attacks, forced boot licking and much, much more.

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