Wednesday, January 30, 2013

El secreto de la momia egipcia (1973)

... aka: Chemins de la violence, Les
... aka: Lips of Blood
... aka: Love Brides of the Blood Mummy
... aka: Perversions sexuelles
... aka: Sang des autres, Les
... aka: Secret of the Egyptian Mummy

Directed by:
Alejandro Martí

James Barton (Frank Braña), who claims to be an Egyptologist interested in studying mummies, is headed to the Dartmoor Castle because it's rumored that the Count ("Jorge" / George Rigaud) has a few in his collection. When James stops to ask for directions, an old farm lady warns him that many young ladies have disappeared inside the castle and others who've returned have lost their minds. Undeterred, James continues on his journey. When he walks in on Count Dartmoor, he's greeted with the stranger sight of him whipping a mummified hand he has nailed to the wall. Dartmoor reveals that he's into the occult, can read minds, knows James isn't who he claims he is and threatens that he'll turn him into a statue if he gives him any trouble. Dartmoor quickly demonstrates his powers by transforming a piece of kindling into a deadly snake and tells James that he'll determine what he's going to do with him at a later time. But first, he wants to share a story about what happened there that will explain the disappearances that have plagued the area.

Two months earlier, Dartmoor had purchased a sarcophagus from the Valley of the Kings. When he and his faithful servant John opened it up, they discovered that the mummy inside wasn't your usual decayed corpse wrapped in dusty bandages, but a perfectly preserved Egyptian man. Dartmoor deciphered some hieroglyphics found on a manuscript alongside the body that revealed the man was the rogue son of a priest who'd had his tongue cut out and was sentenced to death. Using a combination of copper and zinc injected directly into the Egyptian's bloodstream, the Count revived him... but he wasn't interested in his offer of milk to quench his third. This guy wanted fresh human blood... and naturally only the blood from young and attractive women would suffice because that's all monsters in these kind of things are ever interested in. The Egyptian locked Dartmoor up the dungeon, hypnotized John and sent him out to fetch ladies for him to feast on. Dartmoor's daughter Lucy (Catherine Franck) and her friend Anna (Teresa Gimpera) eventually stopped by for more of the same.

The bulk of this movie consists of a succession of boring, repetitive scenes of John acquiring victims and dragging them back to the castle. As was customary with many of these European films, the death scenes were shot two different ways: "clothed" for release in stricter markets and "unclothed" for the "continental" release. The version I watched (a Spanish VHS release on the Video Service, S.A. label) was the "clothed" one, which features the ladies being stripped down to their bloomers and nightgowns before being killed. In the other version they're stripped nude. Interestingly, even in the "clothed" version there's some brief topless shots that make their way in at the very end when a character has a nightmare recalling the events. The whole thing really seems like it's trying to appeal to the bondage crowd. The female victims are kidnapped, shackled, tied up, whipped, branded and slapped around in the dungeon, and there are long takes of the Egyptian wrestling and trying to subdue them that go on forever.


The framework featuring Rigaud (who narrates the flashback footage) and Braña ends with the Egyptian's hand (which had been chopped off with an axe) returning to life and seeking revenge. These scenes (as well as the piece-of-wood-turning-into-a-snake bit) employ some primitive and poorly-executed stop-motion animation.

Aside from any nudity found in the uncut version, the only other thing this has going for it is the shooting locations. It was filmed during the Autumn and the outdoor scenery is lovely. There are lots of colorful trees, fields of tall wheat blowing in the wind and some nice shots along the ocean. The director, who seems obsessed with both shooting reflections of people in water and horse riding, has a nice eye for landscapes. Too bad the rest of this sucks. Despite being shot with sound and in color, it strangely utilizes stylistic choices right out of the silent era. There isn't much dialogue and the scene transitions are done by closing the shutter on the camera!

It was originally released to U.S. theaters (the "clothed" cut, of course!) under the title Love Brides of the Blood Mummy, where it was double-billed with The Secret Love Life of the Invisible Man (which was released on VHS in the U.S. as The Invisible Dead). Since then, it has failed to receive an official DVD or VHS release here. The fact it's not very good coupled with the fact the director is unknown and it doesn't have any 'name' in the cast, probably has a lot to do with that.


Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

... aka: Ab in die Ewigkeit (Off Into Eternity)
... aka: Boldog születésnapom! (Happy Birthday!)
... aka: Compleanno di sangue (Bloody Birthday)
... aka: Cumpleaños mortal (Deadly Birthday)

Directed by:
J. Lee Thompson

Melissa Sue Anderson took a reprieve from the wholesome Little House on the Prairie TV series to star in this poorly-paced and structured slasher. Virginia Wainwright has a very troubled past. She was involved in a tragic car accident that killed her mother, left her seriously injured and put her in a coma. At her father's (Lawrence Dane) behest, doctors used her as some kind of guinea pig in an experimental procedure to restore her brain tissue. While the surgeries have been successful at improving her physical health, her mental health still needs some work, which is where shrink Dr. David Faraday (Glenn Ford) comes in. Though Virginia suffers from frequent black-outs and a mild form of amnesia, memories from her past keep slowing coming back one piece at a time and are triggered by simple everyday occurrences. Despite her troubles, she's still had time to make popular friends and has become the newest inductee into "The Top 10;" an elitist group of rich kid snobs at Crawford Academy. Being part of the club basically means you come from money, wear the same purple-and-gray scarf, do reckless and stupid things and hang out in a closed-off clique.

The "Top 10" are a pretty obnoxious and thoroughly unlikable group of 20-something-looking "teenagers" who hang out at a pub all the time drinking, put a rat in someone's beer and engage in dangerous chicken races over a draw bridge. Because this is a slasher mystery in need of multiple suspects to attempt to throw us for a loop, every single one of the guys behaves like a weirdo or a pervert. They lurk around in the woods late at night, brandish knives, act psycho for no good reason and break into women's bedrooms to steal their panties after trying to get a cheap peak into what's going on in the bathroom. The strangest among them is Alfred (Jack Blum). You know he's strange because he wears glasses. Being a sculptor, mask-maker and taxidermist doesn't help matters either. Someone starts killing select members of this annoying little clique off one-by-one, but the bodies never seem to actually turn up.

Even by this early stage in the slasher cycle, the formula for making a profitable film in this subgenre was already firmly established. It was less about actual quality and more about gimmicks, advertising materials and snappy titles threatening to turn a nostalgic season or event in someone's life into a bloodbath. This one promised "six of the most bizarre murders you'll ever see;" when in fact there are only a couple of inventive murder sequences; the most memorable of which (a shish-ka-bob spear shoved through a head) was plastered all over the poster and subsequent VHS and DVD boxes. The only other death scene that's even remotely strange is when a guy drops weights onto his chest after another weight is dropped on his crotch. Actually sitting through the movie, you're mostly treated to the same old, same old: several neck slashings (bizarre?), a drowning in a bathtub (bizarre?) and a knife stabbing a stomach (bizarre?). Expectations dashed can be truly annoying, but misleading advertising is the name of the game and I'm used to it by now. It's no reason to say this is a bad movie. The awful screenplay however is a good reason to say this is a bad movie.

With borderline insufferable characters you could care less about, a shrill, screeching heroine and several absurd plot twists thrown out there at the last minute after lots and lots of confusing tedium, the inexplicably popular Happy Birthday to Me didn't do much for me personally. Director Thompson is perhaps one of the most respectable filmmakers to take on a slasher flick during this time. Usually these things were made by inexperienced directors with perhaps just a handful of minor credits to their name. In contrast, Thompson was already very well-established and had some solid films under his belt such as the original Cape Fear (1962). Taking that and the relatively high production values into consideration, it's surprising just how poorly this one turned out. The film fails to generate much suspense, it's too ham-fisted to work as a mystery and too dreary and serious to ever be "fun." Supposedly, the original script's ending was altered while the film was already well into production.

It's been said that respected, award-winning actor Ford only agreed to appear in this because of Thompson's involvement. He shouldn't have bothered. Neither should have Sharon Acker, as Virginia's drunken social climber mother (who's seen in several flashbacks), or Frances Hyland, as the school principal.

Some of the "Top 10" are played by future soap opera actress Tracey Bregman and Matt Craven (who's since moved on to big budget Hollywood films) as well as genre regulars Lisa Langlois (who'd previously acted in several superior Claude Chabrol films), Lenore Zann (from the slashers American Nightmare and VISITING HOURS) and Lesleh Donaldson (from Funeral Home and CURTAINS). Vlasta Vrana (from several early Cronenberg films) also has a small role as a bartender.


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Litan (1982)

... aka: Cité des spectres verts, La
... aka: Litan: La cité des spectres verts
... aka: Litan ou les messagers de l'au-delà
... aka: Voleur de visages, Le

Directed by:
Jean-Pierre Mocky

I've always had a difficult time watching full blown surrealistic films because, to be blunt, I don't like feeling like a complete idiot. I also don't typically care much for films so out-there that they require hours of research to decipher. I'm the type of guy who likes happy mediums met. Surrealism is fine as long as there's ultimately some tangible sense and purpose behind the strange and seemingly random events included in the actual film. I like my surrealism not so fully personalized that only the director has a clue what their movie is about. You know, you'll watch their film, scratch your head and then have to seek out interviews with the person who made it where they sanctimoniously spoon feed all of us dummies out there their intentions. Sometimes I get the impression many surrealists don't even really have much to say, and what they do have to say isn't necessarily made any more profound because they've chosen to present the material in a more confusing, heavily-symbolic way. In fact, needlessly mucking things up often can have the opposite effect: it detracts from what they have to say. Thankfully, Litan finds that delicate balance between art and entertainment; abstraction and sensible, meaningful storytelling, and it does so in an intelligent, thought-provoking and welcoming way. It's invitingly, accessibly surreal. The perplexing aspects engage and intrigue instead of frustrate and alienate. The images have meaning, the dialogue enhances that meaning and the film has both focus and a perspective; a point that's well-delivered but not blatantly, obviously so.

Litan is the name of a small French village, and it's unlike any other village you'll see in any other film. Usually drenched in a haze of thick fog, Litan is in the midst of a region-specific holiday called "Litan's Day;" a festival celebrating and honoring the dead similar to Mexico's "Dia de los muertos." The streets are decorated with banners, streamers and paper lanterns, an orchestra decked out in silver masks and red jackets continue to play the same dreary tune and children run around laughing and throwing firecrackers. The streets are littered with people decked out in masks; either skeletal or corpse-like to bring to mind the deceased... and there's something seriously off with the majority of them. Most are emotionless, some are downright zombie-like, some walk around with eyes bulging out and wide smiles for no good reason and others start speaking in strange dialects or suffer from amnesia. And many suddenly start becoming violent. Quite casually violent. Not everyone has been inflicted by whatever it is that's going on in Litan, but it seems to be spreading rapidly and overtaking the entire village.

Things center around Nora (Marie-José Nat), who believes a nightmare she's had is actually a premonition, and her lover Jock (director Mocky), a rational-thinking geologist doing some work near a large set of caves called the Black Rocks. After her dream, which spelled doom for Jock, Nora frantically heads out to locate her boyfriend, and immediately notices the strange and unexplainable things occurring in Litan, such as a man in car crushing another against a wall while people continue to walk on completely un-phased by the event. At the caves, a bunch of Boy Scouts are looking for a monster when one of them - Eric (Terence Montagne) - falls through the ground into some water in the underground catacombs below. He's retrieved, but he's not quite the same and is in some kind of catatonic state.

Jock, Nora and the boy's father (Georges Wod) rush him to the hospital, where even stranger events unfold. The place is filled with a combination of injured, bandaged, bloody, mindless people (some of whom are shackled down to their beds) and people completely out of their minds locked away in a separate wing. The hospital staff isn't very cooperative and seem to be hiding something. Rooms are filled with bloody sheets, another has a doctor removing the vocal chords from dogs and yet another is an off-limits experimental chamber with a strange piece of machinery. The chief physician there - Dr. Steve Julien (Nino Ferrer) - is somehow reviving the dead and using the machine to communicate with them. Jock and Nora attempt to go to the police, but then find themselves under suspicion and on the run from hefty Commissioner Bolek (Roger Lumont), who isn't apt to believe their story and is pretty much looking for a patsy to blame for the sudden and unexplainable outbreaks of violence and death. Faces appear inside pupils like fingerprints left on the soul and there's some kind of blue glowworm (which may have been accidentally unleashed from below by Jock and his colleagues) infesting the waters that possess people and can completely dissolve corpses in a matter of seconds. The latter turns out to be an almost symbolic way to say, "When in Litan, don't drink the water."

Peculiar as many of the events are, Litan is ultimately - and quite simply - a celebration of life that just so happens to be taking place in the midst of a celebration of death. More specifically, it's about how death can intrude upon, control and cripple the living. It questions why we as existing, living, breathing beings who have happiness and joy and love and passion and all kinds of other positive things to discover and indulge in allow ourselves to instead obsess over death and the already dead.

Death itself looms over nearly every single frame of this film. The skull-and-corpse-masked people are always silently standing in the backdrop, like an ever-present, nagging feeling in the back of your mind that just won't go away. There's a pronounced "live for today" mantra in here, which several ruminations about the afterlife allude to. During one scene, scientist Jock asks the not-quite-completely-sold Nora, "If God exists, what difference does it make if you're alive or dead?" Religious artifacts, statues and crosses are as ever-present as the 'dead,' and the film draws the apt conclusion that religious beliefs are to blame for creating a death-obsessed society. After all, religion is centered entirely around death and what becomes of us when we die. It's as much a preoccupation as an answer; an escape. Our protagonists, a pair of unmarried (in the eyes of the Lord) lovers, are not only trying to flee the city because of the obvious physical threats there, they're also hoping to leave behind a superstitious culture that revere the dead more than the living; death more than life itself; the possibility of an afterlife more than the life they're currently living. They're hoping to get away from all of that, hopefully with their optimism and sanity intact.

Litan is such a wonderfully-made movie it can be enjoyed on a multitude of fronts; for its ability to provoke thought, for its audaciousness, for its visuals, or a combination of all three. There's a bizarre surprise around every corner, it's well-acted by the entire cast and has the added bonus of being a great-looking, superbly-crafted film that can be marveled at for presentation alone. The art direction, shooting locations and photography are all excellent. Like many other surreal films, Litan defies easy categorization. It's currently labeled as just "Horror" on most movie sites, including IMDb, who have a habit of stripping the horror label away from anything that isn't a slasher flick. That's fine by me. We'll take this one. I've always believed the horror genre was one of the most expansive genres, anyway. Fans always welcome all manner of unusual, challenging, out-of-the-mainstream films under its umbrella. Litan has an extremely creepy vibe, fantastic themes, suspense, horror, black humor and is quite violent and bloody at times, so it fits. If this film were more popular and widely-viewed (it currently has fewer than 100 votes), IMDb would undoubtedly slap it with their generic dreaded "Thriller" label on it.

Never officially released in the U.S., this won awards at several European film festivals and - like so many other excellent foreign-language films - is still waiting to receive its due.

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