Sunday, February 26, 2023

Variola vera (1982)

... aka: Вариола вера
... aka: Small Pox Virus

Directed by:
Goran Marković

With the last known case having been reported way back in 1930, smallpox was thought to have been completely eradicated in Yugoslavia for decades. That was, until it reemerged again in 1972. A Muslim pilgrim named Ibrahim Hoti returned to his home in Kosovo after going on a Hajj to the Middle East and brought the disease back with him, which led to another outbreak in the country. While there was some fumbling around by health professionals who misdiagnosed some of the earlier cases and thus enabled the virus to spread (one patient was bounced around to three different hospitals), the government was quick to respond, bringing in experts from the World Health Organization, instituting martial law, quarantine and a mandatory re-vaccination of the populace. The epidemic was soon back under control and life returned to normal a few months later, though there were around 175 infections and 35 confirmed deaths in total. While not an accurate account of these events, Variola Vera ("variola" being the virus that causes smallpox) does infuse many real details from the 1972 outbreak into its story.

It's clear from the get-go that this is hoping, at least in part, to shine a spotlight on systemic failures within society. The hospital where most of the film takes place is a disorganized, chaotic, loud environment filled with impatient or downright confused patients filling hallways and stairwells, gossipy staff, outdated pipes, a busted heating system and worse. The staff are primarily caught up in their own personal dramas and / or hospital politics while going through the motions of their job in a rather disinterested fashion.

Our proposed "hero," Dr. Grujic (Rade Šerbedžija), is an arrogant womanizer who's been sleeping with an emotionally vulnerable nurse named Slavica (Vladislava Milosavljević) and wastes no time hitting on new hire Dr. Danka Uskokovic (Varja Đukić), who's fresh out of medical school and still at the point where she's actually trying to take her job seriously. One of the patients is being treated for gonorrhea that he claims to have caught from sleeping with one of the hospital's female employees (!) and another nurse is a morphine addict who helps herself to the pharmacy. And then there's a scumbag married hospital superintendent named Chole (Rade Marković), who's also having an affair with Slavica. Though she's fallen in love with him, he's just using her for sex and has no interest in leaving his wife nor jeopardizing his reputation / upper crust social circle to be with her.

Considering everyone's preoccupations, it comes as no surprise that Halil Rexhepi (Dzemail Maksut), the Typhoid Mary of the story, is not attended to in the way that he should have been. After having been infected with smallpox while on a trip to the Middle East, Rexhepi shows up at the hospital already extremely ill. A doctor escorts him into the crowded lobby and sits him down, where he's forced to wait for care and eventually just wanders off somewhere else, leaving a trail of contaminated blood in his wake. A nurse later happens upon him lying on the floor in the women's restroom in a semi-conscious state. He's then taken in front of the staff and medical students, where Chole offers his (incorrect) prognosis: an allergic reaction to penicillin. He's treated for that instead of smallpox (which also happened in the 1972 incident) and is placed in a room with another patient to recover.

As the staff joke around in the hallways and go about their various dramas, the parched, increasingly-sicker and neglected Rexhepi has to be tended to by the other patients, including a young boy. The boy even tries to escort him to the bathroom, but he starts puking up blood in the hallway before even making it in there. A repairman gets on his hands as he tries to help. Later, Rexhepi awakens again and again tracks blood all over the hospital corridors before passing away in an elevator. Due to the deceased's religious beliefs, his family take the body home with them and refuse to let the doctor's perform an autopsy. Even at this early stage, the virus has clearly spread around to most of the staff and other patients, some of whom then return home for the night to no doubt then expose their friends and families before returning to work the next day.

When the government gets word about what has occurred and an elderly infectious disease expert who was around during the 1930 smallpox outbreak demands martial law and quarantine as a means to contain it, the military immediately step into action. The hospital is marked as ground zero, armed guards are posted everywhere, windows are boarded up and no one is permitted to leave. The phone line is cut so they're unable to reach the outside and officials are initially forbidden from informing the press about what's going on as not to create a citywide panic. Another high ranking official seems mostly concerned about the plague costing the city tourist season revenue.

Not surprisingly, the government barely has any smallpox vaccine in stock since it's been over 50 years since that's been an issue, which means the hospital staff are left to their own devices to decide who will and who will not get a shot. Dr. Dragutin Kenigsmark (Erland Josephson) insists they "prioritize" what they do have, which means those who were in direct contact with the initial victim are first in line. Exposed or not, those with certain illnesses, like Dr. Markovic (Dušica Žegarac), who suffers from a heart condition, are unable to even take a vaccine. Some get sick and recover while others get sick and die. Some can't handle the stress and either go crazy or commit suicide. Bodies are taken outside, wrapped in cloth, covered in sawdust and then placed in a metal coffin, which is then welded shut.

The grim, high stress situation brings out both the best and the worst in the characters. Due to her well-connected politico uncle, Dr. Uskokovic is given the opportunity to sneak out of the hospital, but instead passes because she's needed there. Meanwhile, Chole hoards medicine, locks himself away in his office and refuses to leave. A UN epidemiologist (Peter Carsten) who spent two years in Africa trying to contain a similar smallpox outbreak, shows up in his gas mask and hazmat suit to dish out advice and administer care, though he's just one man and unable to do all that much, especially since the majority of the hospital staff refuse to risk their own lives to help.

Bleak, depressing and highly unpleasant, this isn't going to be for all viewers or moods. However, compared to glossy, big budget Hollywood takes on similar material, like Outbreak (1995) and Contagion (2011), this is much grittier and more effective, and feels more realistic. While the expensive blockbusters are busy showing international superstars trotting around the globe like action heroes, this places its focus almost entirely on its one hospital setting, which not only acts as a microcosm of society to illustrate how different people react to stress-inducing crises but also creates a suffocating atmosphere. That, mixed with the grainy photography, low light settings and creepy music score (by Zoran Simjanović), help the material frequently cross into the horror realm, though as a whole it defies easy categorization. Structural corruption, from the highest levels of government right on down to the inner workings of the single hospital, seems to be the most prevalent theme here.

In a brief interview with Dejan Ognjanovic (which can be accessed right here), the director said he was inspired to make the film by the concealment of information by the Yugoslav government during the 1972 epidemic, which he insists is tantamount to "some kind of cover-up." Marković also states he was intending to "place doubt on the validity" of our "sick society." While that all comes across fairly well here, and there's no doubting that governments do indeed hide many things from the general public, I do have mixed feelings about that kind of commentary being applied in this particular case. This is only because of how quickly and efficiently the '72 epidemic was contained by world health officials and the government after it was discovered to be smallpox.

Viewing this also made me realize that we absolutely need another virus / plague film covering similar territory; one that's updated for the times. Recently we've seen the drastically different ways various world leaders, the press, the business world and regular everyday citizens reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic. What they didn't have in 1982 was gov't-sanctioned psyops / online disinformation campaigns and various conspiracy-addled loons, amoral grifters (sadly including several disgraced former members of the scientific community) and, well, just not very bright people, banding together to actually help spread a deadly virus with their social media bullhorn. There's certainly a fascinating movie that could be made taking this new angle into account. Of course, it should be a horror film, because observing some of this shit go down over the past few years has been rather disturbing.

In January 1983, Variola Vera was chosen as the best Yugoslavian film of 1982 by a poll of thirty top Yugoslavian critics and publicists conducted by the Sarajevo-based daily newspaper Oslobođenje. In 2016, the film was also selected by historians as one of the top 100 Serbian films from 1911 to 1999. The director also made Već viđeno / REFLECTIONS (1987) and Sabirni centar / "The Meeting Place" (1989), both of which also made the Top 100 list.

The only official home video releases I was able to find for this title are a Serbian VHS release and a 2003 DVD from the company VANS, which is in Serbian with no subtitles. However, English fan subs are available for this title, which are also used for the various unsanctioned DVD-R releases from grey market dealers.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Knife for the Ladies (1974)

... aka: Cuchillo para damas
... aka: Jack the Ripper Goes West
... aka: Knife in the Dark, A
... aka: Lovløs dom (Outlaw)
... aka: Silent Sentence

Directed by:
Larry G. Spangler

Fusion horror westerns go back to at least the 1930s, but this peculiar cross pollination has never really become a formidable subgenre. While horror movies have almost always maintained a certain level of popularity, there's historically been an ebb-and-flow nature to the western's popularity with moviegoers. Meaning, if westerns only come out in small numbers nowadays, then horror-westerns come out in much smaller numbers than even that. Still, there are quite a few interesting and sometimes excellent films to be found here and the occasional film that hits, such as 2015's Bone Tomahawk, which I wasn't overly enthused about but a lot of other people seem to like. Interestingly, in what is considered a genre that mostly appeals to men, two of the very best horror westerns; Kathryn Bigelow's vampire film Near Dark (1987) and Antonia Bird's cannibal-themed Ravenous (1999), were directed by women. Also interestingly, a number of classic westerns which were never considered anything other than westerns are finally being recognized by film historians for their horror content decades after the fact, like the Clint Eastwood films High Plains Drifter (1973) and Pale Rider (1985).

Nearly every horror western I'm aware of has some kind of supernatural or fantastical bent, whether that be ghosts, vampires or monsters, which makes A Knife for the Ladies an anomaly itself. Set in 1882, this one's an even rarer serial killer film / whodunit / proto-slasher. While that was a cool idea in theory for 1974, the execution here is unfortunately rather ho-hum.

Three mysterious murders have rocked the once-peaceful and now-dying small town of Mescal, Arizona, which was once home to a thriving copper mine that is no more. As a result, the town has drastically reduced in population, opportunity and financial stability. The murders themselves may or may not be tied into this, especially seeing how the first victim was Travis Mescal (former NFL cornerback Peter Athas), a descendant of the town's founders who was found viciously stabbed to death. Two saloon gals, employed by the aptly named "Hooker's Saloon", soon followed. Alarmed by the recent slayings, bank president Simeon Hollyfield (John Kellogg) takes a trip to the city to recruit Detective Edward R. Burns (Jeff Cooper) to help. Burns is offered a 500 dollar reward, a recommendation and paid accommodations while in town. Measly compensation, but as Burns notes, "It's poor pay... but a rich challenge." He accepts.

Slovenly Sheriff Jarrod Colcord (Jack Elam), a "two-fisted bear of a man", isn't too happy that Hollyfield is about to bring a "fancy" detective in from the big city to do his job, so he starts slamming back whiskey shots and then organizes a torch-carrying posse of locals to go after Ramon (Phillip Avenetti), who's wrongly blamed for death #4 after a child places him at the scene of the crime earlier in the day. Saloon owner Virgil Hooker (Gene Evans) and a pair of no-good gunslingers; Lute (former Boston Bruins center Derek Sanderson) and Horace (former Oakland Raiders wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff), track Ramon down and then lynch him.

Burns arrives to a hostile reception from both Jarrod and many of the locals. He assigns Jarrod the task of finding Ramon's killers while he starts interviewing locals and snooping around. He pays a visit to the menacing Orville Ainslie (Richard Schaal), who runs the barbershop / mortuary and says things like "Dead is dead, I reckon" and "I suppose anyone's death is bad for business... except for mine." And then there's the widowed Elizabeth Mescal (Ruth Roman), mother of the first victim and now sole heir of the Mescal family dynasty. She believes the townsfolk blame her for the failure of the local mine, which has caused many to relocate elsewhere, and refuses to acknowledge the fact that her murdered son was anything less than pristine, even though he was well known around town for drinking, gambling and paying for the company of prostitutes.

All of the usual trappings of the western are here, right down to the stagecoaches, dusty town, gunfights and a heavy-handed moral getting shoved down our throats in unsubtle fashion (how they soft pedal lecture the little boy after his lies lead to a vigilante killing is more than just a little nauseating!), as are all of the usual trappings of the whodunit, most especially in the way this attempts to establish most of the central cast as suspects.

The end result is watchable, though middling. The murder scenes lack punch (and suspenseful build-up), the mid-section is a slog to get through and the film is visually flat and unimaginatively directed, but the shock finale may be worth waiting for. It's downright jarring and surprisingly perverse considering how tame the film had been up until that point! The performances here are extremely uneven, ranging from pretty good to terrible. Schaal and Roman fare best here, though the relationship that develops between Cooper and Elam's characters has its minor charms, as well. The cast also includes Diana Ewing (known to Trekkies as the memorably-attired Droxine in the 1969 Star Trek episode "The Cloud Minders") in an underdeveloped role as Elam's niece and Henry Kendrick (who also appeared in the 1988 horror western Ghost Town) as a doctor.

Settings are convincing as this was filmed at the Old Tucson movie studio and theme park, which was built in 1939, slowly added to over the years and also served as the setting for a load of other western films and TV shows like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Rio Bravo, Three Amigos, Tombstone and Little House on the Prairie. Knife was one of over 400 productions shot there over the years. Many of the buildings and much of the movie memorabilia housed at Old Tucson was lost in a 1995 fire, which was rumored to have been started by a disgruntled former employee out for revenge. Attempts to rebuild what was lost were unsuccessful and it finally closed down for good in 2020.

Director Spangler also made The Soul of Nigger Charlie, a blaxploitation western starring Fred Williamson that was also filmed at Old Tucson, The Last Rebel, yet another western and a vehicle for football star Joe Namath (Spangler must have had a thing for pro athletes or something) and, for a change of pace, the hardcore porn film The Life and Times of the Happy Hooker. Co-writer Seton I. Miller had won an Oscar for co-scripting Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).

This received VHS releases in Australia (Video Classics), Spain (Continental Home Video), Sweden (Svenska Walthers Video) and the UK (Iver Film Services), though I'm not aware of any U.S. home video releases until a TV edit (reduced down to just 51 minutes and re-titled Jack the Ripper Goes West) popped up on some of those cheap budget DVD packs in the early 2000s. In 2018, this finally received an uncut (87 minute) Blu-ray release from Code Red.

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