Saturday, August 22, 2020

Exit (1990)

Directed by:
Stig Bergqvist
Martti Ekstrand
Jonas Odell
Lars Ohlson

Is there any such thing as too much fun? How about too much entertainment? Too much excitement? No? Well then, how about too much stimulation? Åke, two of his friends and one of their hyperactive young sons have saved up for an entire year to take a dream vacation to an amazing amusement park called "Get Happy." Whatever brings you joy, they've got it! After you enter through the inviting golden gates and exchange your cash for a sack of happy face tokens, you have access to roller coasters, bumper cars, old school carnival games, 3-D movies, circuses, casinos, disco dance clubs, chocolate fountains, video games, live music, endless delicious junk food and much, much more. For, shall we say, more adult tastes there are all manner of drugs, booze and male and female sex workers to indulge yourself in. A sadist with a craving for violence? Then try their gun-down-cute-woodland-animals shooting range!

Feeling overwhelmed by all of the "fun," Åke lets his friends (who are - unlike him - having a blast) go on their way and decides to sit down on a bench for a minute to take a breather. Unfortunately, a whale security guard shows up to push him into rejoining the festivities. The guard is so dead set on making everyone have a good time that he'll force you to smile and laugh... even if it takes pointing a gun to your head! Åke plays a carnival game and wins a giant stuffed panda bear that comes to insanely codependent life. All it wants is a hug. Make that many hugs. Endless hugs you could say. And if you're not hugging it, it will stalk you down until it can find you and hug you some more. There's no escape!

Åke tries to make a mad dash for the exit but has a hard time actually finding it. He's also neglected a park rule that states you can't leave until you use every one of your tokens. He's still got a bag full. Every time he tries to throw them away or give them away, the whale shows up to inform him that he's breaking the rules. And there's an especially strict rule about panhandling. Do it and you get executed. Åke rejoins his friends, has an encounter with a depressed old pig with a laundry list of diseases he's survived and a woman doing a live reading of Shakespeare in an abandoned theater that no one's interested in viewing before he decides to splurge on games, drink and sex. Anything to spend most of his tokens and get the hell outta there. He must however save one token back, which is needed to open the real exit door, but there's even a catch there!

This great, highly imaginative and surrealistic 20 minute animated short from Sweden is amusing and nightmarish in equal measure, so packed with small, clever details that it requires more then one viewing to soak it all in and makes a lot of interesting observations about excess and need for instant gratification in our consumerist, capitalist culture. Åke is far more pensive, generous and empathetic than his friends and, interestingly, the one moment that seems to bring him true joy, giving to the poor and needy, is quickly extinguished by the guard, who's sometimes shown dressed up like a fascist dictator. Not surprisingly, most of the directors have successfully continued on in animation through the years. Especially prominent are Bergqvist, who later worked on the Duckman and Stressed Eric TV shows and made the feature Rugrats in Paris, and Odell, who ended up working on numerous shorts, commercials and music videos for the likes of Franz Ferdinand (which earned him a Grammy nomination), Goldfrapp, Madonna and U2.

Thirty years after its initial release, this is still regularly screened at film festivals around the world. It's available on DVD on several Swedish animation compilation releases, including Livet Från den Mörka Sidan: Animerade Filmer För orädda Vuxna ("Life from the Dark Side: Animated Movies for Fearless Adults") and Alla talar svenska! ("Everyone Speaks Swedish!") English subtitles are available.


Blood of the Vampire (1958)

... aka: Der Dämon mit den blutigen Händen (The Demon with the Bloody Hands)
... aka: El venganza del vampiro (Vengeance of the Vampire)
... aka: In de macht van de vampier (In the Power of the Vampire)

Directed by:
Henry Cass

You ever wondered what the very first horror film made commercially available on home video was? Apparently it was this one, which was issued on both Betamax and VHS all the way back in 1978 by an early label called Magnetic Video. That makes this of some historical significance and also probably explains why the Magnetic release is a big collector's item now that sells for about 100 bucks on Ebay. Blood was made by the short-lived production company Artistes Alliance Ltd., who were also responsible for The Cosmic Monsters (1958) and The Giant Behemoth (1959), and clearly green lit due to the massive theatrical success of Hammer's THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957). This was actually in production at around the same time as Hammer's inaugural vampire film HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), though it wouldn't make it to theaters until three months later. Due to the fact it's a British Gothic horror film shot in color, written by Jimmy Sangster and has a period setting, good production values and several actors the studio would later use, this has often been mistaken for a Hammer film.

Things open in 1874 as a group of men haul a shrouded corpse high up the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania. One of the men drives a stake through the corpse's heart and all but the gravedigger tasked to bury the body leave. A mysterious figure watching the proceedings from the brush then kills the gravedigger and steals the corpse. The killer turns out to be Carl (Victor Maddern), the crippled, mute, droopy-eyed and facially disfigured henchman of a scientist rumored by villagers to be a vampire. Carl enlists the aid of a scuzzy alcoholic doctor (Cameron Hall) to perform a heart transplant (!) on the vamp. After he's done with that and demands more money for the operation, Carl simply stabs him to death.

We then jump ahead six years to Carlstadt. In a courtroom, brilliant young surgeon John Pierre (Vincent Ball) is being tried on malpractice / murder before the medical board for attempting a blood transfusion as a last ditch attempt to save a dying patient's life. Despite being innocent, a letter from a colleague (which he strongly suspects has been forged) incriminates him and he's found guilty by a judge (John Le Mesurier) and sentenced to an island prison for life. Before being transported to the island, however, he's taken out of his holding cell, thrown into a carriage and whisked away far into the woods to a mountaintop castle doubling as a prison / asylum for the criminally insane. There, he's roughed up by sadistic, snarling main guard Wetzler (Andrew Faulds) and thrown into a rat-infested cell, where his new cellmate Kurt Urach (William Devlin) informs him that the guard is "the least of the evils you have to contend with here" and that the asylum itself is "the bottomless pit of hell." Sounds reassuring.

Lashings, beatings and mysterious disappearances are the order of the day at the asylum. Prisoners are threatened by vicious dogs in spiked collars and are forced to do manual labor, which involves digging holes in a graveyard that's already so full that bodies have to be buried on top of bodies. Everyone seems in fear of Dr. Callistratus (the amazingly-eyebrowed Donald Wolfit), who is deemed "absolute lord and master" As it turns out, Callistratus has arranged for John Pierre to be sent there after hearing of his crime. The blood transfusion part especially interests him. He immediately puts John to work identifying and classifying the various blood groups in his lab, using fellow prisoners as blood donors, with the end goal being finding a cure for a rare and peculiar blood disorder that he suffers from. For cooperating, Dr. Pierre is given special privileges (having his manacles removed so he can walk around freely) and better accommodations (his own vermin-free bedroom).

Meanwhile, Dr. Pierre's lovely fiancee, Madeleine Duvaal (Barbara Shelley), manages to prove the letter that put her love away is a forgery and demands he be released. Not so easy considering prison commissioner / inspector Monsieur Auron (Bryan Coleman) is being paid off by Callistratus and is actually the one who intercepted and forged the fake letter to begin with. After Pierre and Kurt attempt to break out, Kurt is killed by the dogs and Callistratus falsely sends back word that Pierre has also been killed. Not believing it, Madeleine gets a job there to replace the former housekeeper (Barbara Burke), who was found snooping around in the cellar where most of the grislier experiments have been taking place.

Despite the title, this is a very non-traditional "vampire" tale. There are no fangs here nor any blood drinking nor supernatural powers nor any of your usual vampire mythology. The villain is simply a mad scientist who's been resurrected from the dead with a heart transplant but now suffers from a disorder that requires him to receive blood transfusions. While the lack of traditional vampire movie tropes has been known to disappoint certain viewers, if you know what you're getting yourself into here, this really isn't bad at all. There's a lot of gloomy, gray, oppressive atmosphere within the grimy stone-and-steel prison, it's briskly paced, fairly well-plotted and all of the technical aspects, from the make-up to the photography to the art direction, are professionally handled. In addition, the cast all do a good job, particularly Wolfit and Maddern in the showier roles. I almost gave this three stars except the finale was too predictable and thus a little underwhelming.

Faulds, who also appeared in small supporting parts in The Crawling Eye (1958), The Flesh and the Fiends (1960) and Ken Russell's The Devils (1971), would later go into politics and, as a member of the Labour Party, served in Britain's House of Commons from 1966 to 1997. He passed away in 2000. This was also an early genre role for Shelley, who'd go on to earn the title "First Lady of British Horror" for her various appearances in horror films, including a number for Hammer. Director Cass also made the ghost comedy Castle in the Air (1952) and The Hand (1960). Promotional materials for the film show several other scantily-clad ladies chained up in the cellar, though none are actually in the film.

Unlike many other genre releases of the time, this received fairly good reviews upon release with a number of critics appreciating its offbeat plotting and production values. Contemporary viewers, I've noticed, haven't been quite as kind for some reason. After its initial VHS release, Vampire seemed to all but disappear for decades. Later prints of this Eastmancolor film that were circulated around were severely washed out and had a drab, reddish hue to them, though that issue has since been fixed with subsequent releases. In the U.S. this was released to theaters on a double bill with Monster on the Campus (1958). The first DVD release through Dark Sky in 2006 paired it with the swashbuckling adventure The Hellfire Club (1961), which was co-directed by Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman; the producers of Blood of the Vampire. Berman also shot this.

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