Saturday, May 8, 2021

Embrujada (1969)

... aka: Bewitched

Directed by:
Armando Bo

Voluptuous Latin American bombshell Isabel Sarli, who started out as a model and beauty queen (she was Miss Argentina in 1955 and a Miss Universe semi-finalist later the same year) headlines this little exploitation romp from Argentina. A vision of heaving bosom, soft tummy, wide hips, piled-high black hair and thick fake eyelashes, it's easy to see why she became an in-demand sex film star in South America and also acquired a healthy fan following elsewhere. Sarli was discovered by director Bo in 1956 and immediately cast in a starring role in his Thunder in the Grass (1957), where she instantly made a name for herself by becoming the first actress in Argentine film history to appear fully nude on film. The notoriety of her nude swimming scene was such that it turned the otherwise unexceptional drama into a record-setting box office smash in much of South America. Many other controversial and then-critically-panned sexploitation films featuring ample nudity from the star would follow, with the duo perhaps hitting their peak in 1968 with Fuego, which was so racy it became the first film to be banned in its home country.

Many of Sarli's films were also popular in North America and throughout Europe and she reputedly turned down offers to work with major studios just to keep making these low-budget sex flicks with Bo, whom she was romantically involved with for decades. The duo kept on going until his death in 1981, with Sarli (then in her early 50s) deciding to throw in the towel at the same time. Before passing away in 2019 at the age of 89, she was at least able to see the cultural impact of her films and was even awarded the title of "Ambassador of Popular Culture" by Argentinian president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2012.

Unhappy trophy wife Ansise (Sarli), who'd been plucked from her Guarani Indian tribe and "cultured" years earlier, is desperate to have a child. And not just any kind of child will suffice. For some reason that's never explained (Nazi fetish?) she's fixated on having one with blonde hair and blue eyes. That proves an impossible task as she's married to wealthy, much-older lumberyard owner Leandro (Daniel de Alvarado) who may shower her with money, attention and gifts but hasn't yet been able to shower her with a pregnancy. Consults with an old psychic woman and a doctor both confirm her suspicions that it's likely her husband who's infertile (or, "useless" as they deem him), not her. The problem is then compounded when pressure put on the old chap to perform makes him unable to get an erection.

Leandro starts taking his frustrations out on his work crew and has his whip-wielding right hand thug Peralta (Miguel A. Olmos) tie up and lash an under-performer. This kind of brutality only further alienates Ansise, who starts to actively despise ("You are the scum of civilization!") her husband. For revenge, she runs off to a whorehouse and is hired by the madam after agreeing to service thirty to forty men a day during her 8 hour shifts. She doesn't even ask to get paid. She merely wants somebody - anybody - to knock her up. But Leandro gets wind about what she's doing and goes to retrieve her before she can even finish with her very first client. She's brought back home and becomes even wilder.

Leandro hires a young blonde man named Juan (Victor Bo, the director's real-life son) and, almost immediately, he and Ansise are hooking up, taking nude swims together under a waterfall and plotting to run away together. Ansise begins flaunting her infidelities in her husband's face to the point where he attempts to strangle her. After another of Ansise's patented nude swims, she lies down in a field and has visions of Indian rituals as lightning flashes. A horned, clawed, hairy demon then crawls on top of her and rapes her before disappearing. Or does it? Seeing how Ansise was already starting to lose her mind over the whole baby thing, we're not quite sure. Either way, local legend has it that a demon called Pombero is known to lurk in the area...

Ansise is haunted by visions of the demon, accompanied by psychedelic color flashes and a whistling sound as it proceeds to grope her, terrorize her and (seemingly) possess her body. Desperation finally leads her to the backwoods shack of dirty hermit Jacinto (C. Adolpho Chadler). She pleads for him to impregnate her but the demon chops him with a machete before he can. More murders follow. We're also provided with an explanation for why Leandro can't get it up for his sexy young wife. It ends up having nothing to do with his age and everything to do with him screwing his male assistant (!) instead... but only if he wears lipstick and sprays himself with women's perfume (?!?) beforehand.

As a movie movie, this is cheap, not very well made or shot and has some truly bizarre and off-putting editing choices, with lots of quick cuts and flashes of reused footage we've either already seen or are about to see along with grainy, sepia tinted archive footage from the director's earlier film India (1959) wedged in from time to time. As a horror movie, it has a few fun schlocky moments but it's never very exciting nor very interesting plot-wise. And if you're a feminist you might want to steer clear unless you're looking to laugh at a depiction of a woman with no discernible personality or driving force in her life outside of becoming a brood mare who'll screw any man in sight.

However, as a showcase for the female star's figure this is a resounding success. She has near-nonstop topless scenes, a full frontal nude scene, a few minor sex scenes (one featuring the director in an uncredited cameo as a brothel client) and, during those few times when she isn't naked, is showing maximum cleavage in short dresses or walking around in see-through nightgowns. If you're a fan of large breasted, curvy women, what Sarli brings to the table will certainly bewitch you even if the rest of the film doesn't.

To my knowledge, this Argentinian / Brazilian co-production has never been officially released to home video in any country. The only current outlets who carry it are bootleggers offering a video-sourced print on DVD-R, which comes with English subs and a fucked-up aspect ratio. While most film resources agree that this was made in 1969, they don't always agree on the release year. I've seen some go with 1969 and others claim it didn't make it to theaters until 1976.


Warp Speed (1981)

... aka: Warpspeed

Directed by:
Allan Sandler

After making it through the not-as-good-as-it-sounds bloodsucking volcano rock monsters tale THE KILLINGS AT OUTPOST ZETA (1980), I decided to dive right into another of the ten Sandler / Robert Emenegger sci-fi productions released in either 1980 or 1981. And, surprisingly enough, I don't regret that decision. Like most of the other films in this series, this was produced cheaply, shot quickly, utilizes much of the same crew and features a few “names” (usually washed-up former stars or familiar TV actors) in the cast to help with distribution. Unlike most of the others, which found the men sharing directorial duties, Sandler receives sole credit here. Again, Emenegger did the synthesizer score (which is not bad) and Anne Spielberg (sister of Steven) was involved, this time as the executive in charge of production.

One of the known actors the duo had previously worked with was Cameron Mitchell, who narrated their documentary Death: The Ultimate Mystery (1975) and then starred in their aliens-take-farm-family-hostage thriller Captive (1980). It appears they then returned the favor by giving roles to both of his budding actor offspring. His daughter, Camille Mitchell, gets to play the lead role (and also receives top billing for the first - and I think only - time in her career) while son Channing Mitchell (who later started going by the name Cameron Mitchell Jr.) also gets a major role. Seeing how neither was a bankable commodity when this was released (both would eventually become better known for their stage work), Adam West has been tapped for "special guest star" duties this time.

The spaceship Atlas, which was once slated for a five-and-a-half-year journey to Saturn, is found adrift in space. The entire eight-person crew has mysteriously vanished without a trace and the flight log has disappeared. Perplexed as to what may have happened, the grumpy Commander Nivens (David Wiley) of Starfleet Command puts together an exploratory crew and heads out to the eyeball-shaped craft to investigate. He's brought along a secret weapon in the form of powerful, proven psychic Dr. Janet Trask (Camille). In preparation, she's had some kind of electrode censor installed on her neck so her psychic experiences can be monitored and recorded and the crew, led by project director Paul (John Stinson) and "psychic evaluator" Henson (Jerry Prell), can keep tabs on her vitals, stress levels, brainwaves and "index of fear" from the mother ship while she's exploring the Atlas all on her own.

Immediately upon setting foot on the Atlas, Janet starts hearing voices and seeing images of the previous crew. These visions are a bizarre mix of flashback, hallucination and fantasy and often done in a pseudo-surreal fashion, with "ghosts" of the doomed characters having their own abstract visions and sometimes even interacting with Janet. During one of the fantasies, a woman in some kind of Japanese setting is attacked by a man who's then killed with a samurai sword. In another, a man wins a track race only to stab another man to death. There are other little vignettes sprinkled throughout, including a childhood one with giant toys and a wedding ceremony. Each start out being positive but devolve into something more dark and sinister.

As we later learn, these visions were created by something called "The Pleasure Center;" a chamber where the space travelers sit in a special chair that causes euphoric hallucinations by tapping into happy memories. It was installed as a way to keep them from becoming too depressed, stressed out and bored from the monotonous, long journey. The ship also has an arcade, movie and TV screenings, games, a gym and other amenities meant for same but none of it ends up keeping tragedy at bay. A bleak story of tension, paranoia, insanity and death soon unfolds as Janet wanders the dark, creaky ship bearing witness to the events that led to their downfall.

Leading the ill-fated Atlas crew is West as Commander Lofton, who proves to be more interested in his reputation than his crew and is more than willing to risk their lives at the sacrificial altar of his own career. Lofton is opposed by pilot Jack Quantell (Channing), a cocky pilot with anger management / psychological issues, who eventually proposes mutiny and engages in a power struggle with Lofton. Also on board are Joanne Nail (from Switchblade Sisters and THE VISITOR) as communications expert Tanya Fletcher, David Chandler as psychiatrist Dr. Tim Weston, Gela Jacobson as exercise physiologist Marsha Osborne, Ghanese actress Akosua Busia (who'd soon move on to a lead role in the critically acclaimed The Color Purple) as computer expert Shirley Kelly, Barry Gordon (who voiced Donatello on the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series) as computer expert David Ingalls and Stanley Wojno as engineer Harvey Collins.

Things start to unravel when an explosion damages the ship so it can't fully function to get them where they need to go... at least not with the current weight on board. They begin jettisoning everything they can, starting with personal belongings and then all means of entertainment and then excess food and supplies (which eventually causes a food and fuel shortage) and then the landers and then their backup emergency equipment. Eventually they're forced to start eliminating one another and use poker games to determine who'll be the next to sacrifice their life. Of course all of this begs the question: If you're weightless in space and essentially in a constant state of free fall, would you really need to reduce your ship's weight to conserve fuel? And why are they forcing people to kill themselves when metal shelving, card tables, chairs and other things are just sitting around?

Reception for this one has been mostly terrible so I was surprised that I actually enjoyed much of this. Though the mixed-up chronology takes some getting used to and there are some really dumb story elements, the plot is interesting, ambitious and, dare I say, even somewhat innovative. While it can't fully realize its vision due to the lack of budget, I still appreciate genuine effort being put into the plot when this could have just been another generic monster movie. It actually reminded me a LOT of the later 60-million-budgeted Event Horizon (1997), which also features a rescue team investigating an abandoned ship and mixes its space horror with psychological elements, hallucinations and flashbacks. This one is also serious and grim and, though the ending is abrupt and raises a few questions this film probably isn't prepared to answer, it's also not as terrible as Horizon's "It was all a nightmare..." cop out.

Of course, you have to be able to overlook highly-variable acting and writing, and ultra low production values, to get much enjoyment out of something like this. Though this still has subpar effects and cardboard sets (many of which have been recycled over from other Emenegger / Sandler flicks), comparing it to the two others I've seen from the same team, they have at least made some improvements in regards to costumes, props, sound design and art direction. To be honest, keeping the sets shrouded in darkness much of the time probably didn't hurt matters.

Lee Harry, who'd go on to direct the notoriously awful SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT 2 (1987), was the editor, though another man is also credited for "editorial revision." IMDb claims this was made for television but I've found no real proof that's the case. I've also found no theatrical poster nor any proof there was ever any American VHS release. In fact, the only early home video version I'm aware of was in the UK on the Videoform label. In 2007, VCI Entertainment released it on a double feature DVD with the same team's Time Warp (1981), which also starred West.

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