Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Diabolical Dr. Z

The Diabolical Dr. Z
Original title: Miss Muerte
Directed by: Jess Franco
Spain/France, 1966
Horror, 84min
Distributed by: Mondo Macabro

Repeated viewing of Jess Franco movies will (or should, if you are paying attention) result in the recognition of certain patterns, threads and themes that reoccur in many of his works. The Diabolical Dr. Z is one such movie where familiarity is found, more specifically the avenging woman theme with the most famous possibly being Sie tötete in Ekstase (She Killed in Ecstasy) 1971. On both movies Franco used a ”woman out for vengeance” plot most likely influenced by Cornell Woolrich’s The Bride Wore Black, a novel that not only inspired Jess Franco, but also the likes of Umberto Lenzi, Hitchcock and Truffaut.

A criminal, Hans Bergen, aka The Sadist Strangler [Guy Mariesse] escapes from death row – the papers report of his breakout and flight warning locals to be on the lookout. Safe inside his mansion, Doctor Zimmer [Antionio Jiménez Escribano who also starred in Franco’s first feature, the comedy Tenemos 18 ãnos (We Are 18 Years Old) 1959] reads of the daring getaway of this sinister criminal for his daughter Irma [Mabel Karr] and their servant Barbara [Lucía Prado]. Before you can say juxtaposition, the doorbell rings and they all freeze… But if you where expecting Bergen to enter the house and hold the Doctor and family hostage you got another thing coming, because here the tables are turned and Bergen becomes one of Dr. Z’s laboratory specimens.

In front of the board at the International Neurologist Congress Dr.Z presents his research and proclaims that he can manipulate the brain and make the most violent animal the most gentle – and vice versa – and that the time has come to take his research to a new level and experiment on humans. Not mentioning that Bergen the Sadist Strangler already has been cured. Obviously the board strike down upon him as Howard Vernon’s Dr. Vicas ridicules and rejects Dr. Z’s request! Crushed by their reaction Dr. Z suffers a fatal heart attack and with his dying breath, he begs Irma to take over his research… the ball is set in motion.

Dr. Philippe Brighthouse [Fernando Montes – who also starred in Gritos en la noche (The Awful Dr. Orlof) 1962] comforts Irma in her grief and also takes the advantage of bedding her in her weak condition - something I’ll get back to later on. The two go to the obligatory Franco nightclub scene and watch an erotically charged act featuring Miss Death [Estella Blain] and a mannequin. Irma takes the first steps towards claiming her revenge, and whilst trading places with a hitchhiker she’s just killed, she is hideously disfigured when the flames of the car she’s trying to torch flare up in her face.

The fancy robotic operating table of Dr.Z comes back into action as Irma and her slave Bergen turn Barbara one of her puppets, They then take to reconstructing Irma’s burned face on which she impressing enough operates on herself. It’s another obvious referent to Franco’s breakthrough feature The Awful Dr. Orlof and there are several others to be found if you are keeping count, and yes Bergen is the Morpho of The Diabolical Dr. Z. With her new identity, Irma kidnaps Nadja – Miss Death’s real name – who has become romantically engaged with Dr. Brighthouse! As Nadja is strapped to the table and has her brain manipulated by Irma she too becomes a mannequin of death and Irma can start to claim her vengeance on the men who ridiculed and drove her father to his grave. It is time to unleash Miss Muerte!

Like many Franco movies The Diabolical Dr. Z is closely related and intertextually linked to The Awful Dr. Orlof. There’s several nods to that important movie, like the operation mentioned above, there also great one when Dr. Zimmer goes to the International Neurologist Congress and declares that he, just like Dr. Orloff and his former research, is also about to take a grand step forward if only… and that’s one of the big brass keys to Franco’s movies set in this niche. The “if only”, if only the board would have accepted his request to expand his research into human subjects then there wouldn’t have been any problems and the world would most likely have ended up a better place. But instead we find a bitter daughter determined to make the men who ridiculed her father pay, pay with their lives. It’s the same with She Killed in Ecstasy, if only they had let Dr. Johnson [Fred Williams] continue his experiments, he wouldn’t have become so depressed, wouldn’t have snuffed himself and Mrs. Johnson [Soledad Miranda] wouldn’t have had to kill them all.

I really like The Diabolical Dr. Z., I find it to be one of the best early Franco works. It's in there among his so called Pop-Art movies and it's easy to understand why. I love discovering small details that find their way into these early movies. Not just intertextual referents, but also small details like the members as the International Neurologist Congress where the American representative has a patch over his eye – just like Europeans had been portrayed in US movies, here the Yanks get a poke with the stick.

It’s odd when you go back to older Franco movies like The Diabolical Dr.Z, because they sometimes - especially this one - make me appreciate what a great director he really was [is] and where he could have gone with his career. Not that the direction his career went was a bad one, but there’s a bitter sense that there was yet more great masterworks in there if only he’d had the funding which it required. Then again this would indefinitely have resulted in us loosing all those low budget masterpieces of sleaze, trash and surreal Franco moments.

Franco fans will know that Jess Franco likes to cast himself in his own movies. The Diabolical Dr. Z is no exception and here he gives a great performance as Inspector Tanner - a police inspector depraved of sleep due to his infant children at home - really brings some classic Franco quirk to the part. The older detective, Inspector Green, is Daniel White who you know as the composer of oh so many Franco scores. There’s like a genuine comedic quality to his reoccurring parts. In many ways it’s like watching a twisted Woody Allen portrayal, where he’s plagued with some neurotic fetish, rambling back and forth through the narrative. Just keep an eye on what he has on his desk in the first police station scene… Looking at the movies Franco shot at the same time period its perhaps no surprise that there’s a comedic element to his performance, both the Sci-Fi flick Cartes sur table (Attack of the Robots) 1966 and the spy action movie Lucky, el intrépido (Lucky the Inscrutable) 1967 as they both feature heavy spoofish and comedic takes on the two genres, and as I mentioned early on, his first feature was a comedy toned movie.

The camerawork & lighting of D.P. Alejandro Ulloa - who also shot stuff like Lucio Fulci’s Una sull’altra (One on Top of the Other) 1969, Sergio Corbucci’s Vamos a matar compañeros (Companeros) 1970 and Luciano Ercoli’s Le foto prohibite di una signora per bene (The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion) 1970 to mention a few – is absolutely outstanding. The entire sequence on the train as Nadja seduces and finally murders Dr. Vicas [Howard Vernon] is textbook stuff. It should be lifted from this movie and shown to aspiring filmmakers for all eternity. The lighting, the tension, the atmosphere, the fragility of him slowly disrobing her as she gently prepares to strike him down with her poison laden fingernails… it’s a magic moment.

The murders are really a treat. Not only the above mentioned train sequence, but also the splendid capture and gassing of Dr. Moroni [Marcelo Arroita-Jáuregui] as Bergen wears a creepy mask and mocks Moroni as he suffocates in the back seat. Then the final one, Dr. Kallman [Cris Huerta] who is lured into trouble as Nadja lies in the middle of the road. He stops, picks her up and then flips the table on both her and Irma when he reveals that he knows all about the brainwashing robot and techniques that go into creating the puppets, because he’s studied Dr. Z’s research… I won’t spoil how it goes, but it is riveting stuff!

Looking at the storytelling angle of The Diabolical Dr. Z, there are several things that stand out. This is Franco using his David Kuhne pseudonym and Jean-Claude Carrière (who went on to become one of the most acknowledged French screenwriters ever) at their finest - well it’s all objective isn’t it, and for me as a Franco fan, this is a fine moment – and here we find storytelling crafts coming into use. After the death of Dr. Z a short amount of time is spent creating empathy for Irma, she doesn’t want to go back to the old house as it will be “lonely in the big house without him”, Dr. Brighthouse backtalk’s the other members of the congress – which helps us take sides with Irma, and then when she pulls back out of her bedroom, startled by the empty wheelchair of her father we can understand her sadness. Instead she takes refuge in the arms of Dr. Brighthouse, which leads right into the next splendid little trick. By having him be a double-dipper being entangled with both Irma and Nadja, it creates a neat little triangle drama and builds a tension that we take with us into the final act, as we know Irma, Nadja and Dr. Brighthouse will have to come head to head before it’s all over. Great stuff and a delight to watch unfold.

Two last comments on the final moments of the movie. It would be fair to say that the quick fix is a trait of Jess Franco; he doesn’t waste time when the end is reached. The Diabolical Dr.Z plays exactly but that trait, the moment after the police settle the score the movie ends, but for one final quirk. The ending where Inspector Tanner, who miraculously after a good nights sleep away from the children who have been depriving him of sleep figures it all out and arrives on the scene of the crime at the exact right moment to set it all straight, certainly rings of a certain humour just like I mentioned previously. The final scene of the film, an open question, a last provocation, a last shock if you wish, as Nadja is consoled by her lover Dr. Brighthouse she raises her hand to his cheek and we will never know if she strokes his cheek lovingly or if those poison claws take one final victim. It’s a fantastic ending to a fantastic movie.

The Diabolic Dr.Z is a fantastic Franco movie. It’s possible that due to it being shot in black and white or the lack of required nudity and sleaze inhibit it from being recognised for the masterpiece that it is. For it is a masterpiece of a movie. A movie that is more of a Horror Noir with Gothic elements than the stuff we associate with Jess Franco. If anyone asked for a crash course to the movies of Franco, then The Diabolic Dr. Z would definitely be amongst my top five must-see titles for any one boldly entering the world of Jess Franco.

Black & White – Anamorphic Widescreen

Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0, optional English or French dialogue, with English subtitles

Mondo Macabro usually fill up their discs pretty damned well. This one is no exception as the disc contains the Jess Franco episode of Eurotica, an alternative opening sequence, Trailers, Galleries, production notes and stills. Finally there are the mandatory trailers for other Mondo Macabro titles.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

La Sindrome di Stockholmo

I’m having trouble finding time to write about movies for ye’ old blog right now, so I thought I’d share some olden goldies' with you.

First off, here’s an interview I did with Dario Argento way back in the day, fifteen years ago. When I was studying film at Uni, I wrote my bachelor thesis on “The Modern Film Techniques Used in the Films of Dario Argento”. This was in 1994, a lifetime ago, but still then I was pushing my way through the mainstream sewer proclaiming that genre cinema be taken seriously. That book, or rather a semi pretentious, but dead fucking serious 60 page booklet was an important piece of work for me, so important that I even had 20 copies printed and sold them in the video store that I worked in. I managed to sell 17 of them, two I still have, one was given to Argento. I’ve toyed with the idea of bringing it up to date as my texts end on Trauma in 1993. Oh! I just remembered that I know a guy who runs his own publishing company…Anyways, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Argento in person three times, once when I handed him the book and talked very briefly, a second time when I was an assistant on a filmed interview for a movie show I used to edit, and the third time when I again went along with my mate who had the movie show, although this time I wormed my way in and got my own interview for Art Video Club, the video store who's newsletter/fanzine I used to write, edit, layout and fuckinmake come to life once a month after I stopped working there. The way things where looking the movie Argento had with him to the festival was looking like a triumphant return to Giallo form...

Think of it as a time capsule I’ve just opened for your delight, and I've tossed in some pics of a painfully overweight me too - but it's a decade and a half ago and I can laugh at them now! Enjoy or weep - it's up to you!

Parts of the interview below figured in DELIRIUM [The Essential Guide To Bizarre Italian Cinema] Issue 5 1997.

Saturday 16th November 1996

Jason: So here you are again, back at the Stockholm Film Festival. The last time we saw you was in 1993 and the screening of your film Trauma. A lot has happened since then. You have returned to Italy and you have made two new movies. You have collaborated with another great horror director. Your name - and projects - have been featured frequently in the genre magazines, but could you give us a short summary of the last few years in your own words.

Argento: Well after Trauma I return to Italy and begin with the pre-production for this movie La Sindrom di Stendhal which you have seen here today, and then I started a project with [Lucio] Fulci, but as you know he passed away. The film La Maschera di cera which we finished this year with a young man, Sergio Stivaletti as director, who I have worked with many times before. And now I am here in Stockholm with my new film La Sindrome di Stendhal.

Jason: The feeling that I got when I watched La Sindrome di Stendhal this morning was that you have returned back to a more European style, and that La Sindrome di Stendhal actually felt more like an Argento movie than your earlier movie Trauma. This movie felt more like Profondo Rosso or even Opera. Was your return to Italy an artistic improvement or a kind or “recharged batteries” boost on your work.

Argento: Yes, La Sindrome di Stendhal was a better movie because in America the director is, in these type of movies, the director is a very small person. You have lots and lots of people on the set and the director somehow almost disappears. Star actors are very rude, actors assistants are also rude, the people who pay are rude, difficult people to work with who I didn’t know too good.

Jason: Was this rudeness and control difficulties a problem on the movie you made previous to Trauma, Due occhi Diabolici?

Argento: No, No. This movie The Black Cat, which I like, its one of my best I think, I made as part of an episode movie with George Romero and it was a smaller production so I had more control over what was happening.

Jason: On the subject of The Black Cat, most of your films are based on articles or fields of interest that you have furthered with your own interests and ideas into your movies. The Black Cat is originally a novel by Edgar Allan Poe, so was this your homage to Poe or where there other players on the table?

Argento: I actually have a black cat, and he is always disturbing me when I work, so when I was working on Opera, I one day said to him, “ I will put you in my next movie. The next movie you will be the star.” George [Romero] and I had discussed for a long time to make an episode film based on Poe’s novels, and there was the opportunity for me to work with George, make a film in America based on Poe and my cat could be in the film.

Jason: During your time in the states, you also featured in John Landis comedy/horror Innocent Blood, how come you turned up there. It surprised me at least.

Argento: John [Landis] is an old friend of mine, and he asked me if I wanted to do a small part, in his newest film, which I did. I was a nurse at the end of the film. But as we said earlier that I had a very big crew on Trauma, John had almost nobody. So I start to help him. John was setting the camera, directing, shooting, all over all the time. So I decide to get the actors to read their lines to help John. But everybody just says Fuck you!, so I get shocked, and ask the next person to read, they say Fuck You! Everybody saying Fuck You. So yes I did the part to help John but people were so rude.

Jason: If we return to La Sindrome di Stendhal, you have apart from returning to Italy, used an almost complete Italian crew. I am in specific thinking about the choice of Ennio Morricone for the soundtrack and Pepito [Guiseppe Rotunno] as your photographer. It feels almost as a deliberate move to go back to the style of your earlier giallo movies where the photography and the music where very important to your films.

Argento: Ennio is an old friend of mine so it felt natural to ask him to do the music for my film, and we made the film in Italy so I wanted to use an Italian crew. It was fun working with Pepito because he hates steady-cam, and every time we planned a shot I said, and here I want to follow with the camera like this, and Pepito goes “ oh, no, not the steady-cam. I hate the steady-cam”, (laughter). No, it was good.

Jason: Something that has always fascinated me with your movies, is the camera work and how you combine both the visual effects with direct on camera action. Such as the camera crawl over the house in Tenebrae, or the bullet through the head sequence in Opera. But I noticed in La Sindrome di Stendhal that you have a rather frequent use of computer simulated graphics, as in the scenes where Asia [Argento] walks into the surrealistic paintings and the scene where the camera follows some pills being swallowed. How do you feel about these new techniques, now that computer graphics are staring to become a constant part of major pictures?

Argento: I like the possibilities that the computers can give you; you can trick people to see things that aren’t there. I feel that they are a really good tool. You don’t have to be stuck in one setting or one special studio.

Jason: I know that you collaborated with [Lucio] Fulci shortly before his tragic death, and there are loads of rumours circulating about the film, the script, etc. etc. Could you tell me anything about this project?

Argento: First I must tell you, Fulci and I we were not friends for many years. We were friends a long time ago and once, maybe fifteen years ago, I said to him, as a joke that he had copied my movies and he got angry and said that I had copied his. I said no, no, you copied me, and then we said OK, we’re not friends any more. But then for maybe two years ago at the Fanta Festival, I saw this small old man in a wheelchair. Oh he was so old, and grey, and I asked people, “Who is he? Who is this old man?” And people answer me, Why that’s Fulci. You know he was very sick at the time, and poor. He lived outside of Rome in an old house that almost fell down. He was so sick he couldn’t use his legs and couldn’t afford the money for an operation. He was so sad, and bitter. So I didn’t tell him, but we collected some money, without telling him, and helped him pay the operation and a house in Rome. After the operation he could walk with a cane, and he said to me that he was so happy now. Living in Rome he could go out and eat every night he could go to the cinemas, when he earlier only could get old videos and couldn’t go out. So he was very happy, and then we started talking about this dream he had always had. He wanted to film The Mummy. But the script was no good. So he wrote the script to La Maschera di cera and we started the pre-production but just as we are ready to start, he died. It was sad, very sad, because he was so happy at the time, living in Rome, getting out eating, seeing films, very sad. We finished the film with Sergio Stivaletti as director, and it is finished in Rome now. So we will see.

Jason: I must ask about a few rumours that I want checkout with you. First it is said that you directed a TV commercial for the car company Fiat. Is this true? Secondly, the fashion show Trussardi Accion, is supposedly a fashion show based on the opening sequences of Suspiria, you know, the first murder and all, is this true or just a rumour?

Argento: Erhm, yes I did make an advert for Fiat...

Jason: Why? What made you turn to television commercials?

Argento: You see it was before I was gong to make Opera and I had these dreams for some special camera effects, you know the raven attack in side La Scala, many of the steadycam moves, thing like this. Now to try out all these ideas, I made the commercial for Fiat, and they pay (laughter). We shot the film on locations in Australia, terrible place, and in Rome. So all the camera effects you see in this film are made for the Fiat advert, and were all used in the film.

Jason: And the fashion show...

Argento: I directed a show for my friend Nicola [Trussardi] who worked with me earlier, but it wasn’t Suspiria, no no. It was just a show, we did things like have rain falling on the audience (laughter) and, loud music, flashing lights, but it wasn’t Suspiria.

Jason: Finally I have ask you, I know that you don’t like these questions but what are the future plans, will we be seeing a third instalment to the “Mothers trilogy”?

Argento: Not now, no. Future plans, hum, I have many, we will see, maybe... (laughter)

Jason: Then again that’s probably part of the mysticism surrounding the films, there’s no third part, no explanation to the mothers being there they just are and always have been. Well I know we are running out of time here and I would on behalf of myself and all Art Video Club Members thank you for taking the time out to talk to us, Thank you and I hope that your cold gets better.

Argento: (laughter) Thank you, thank you.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Nosferatu in Venice

Nosferatu in Venice

Original Title: Nosferatu a Venezia

Directed by: Augusto Caminito

Italy, 1988
Vampires/Horror, 97 min

Available from RareCultFilms

In 1979 Werner Herzog quite boldly took to remaking F.W. Murnau’s expressionistic classic Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens 1922. A strange move as Herzog already had made himself a name as a director and perhaps even more considering the importance of the original flick. This however didn’t stop Herzog who in many ways surpass the original and neither did it stop other filmmakers from venturing into Nosferatu territory, perhaps to lesser success.
Almost a decade later screenwriter/producer Augusto Caminito got more than he bargained for when he set about making something of a loosely connected sequel to Herzog’s seventies arthouse success. Although being Klaus Kinski and holding the largest ego in the world, Caminito’s production soon ran into trouble when original director, and veteran on the scene of Italian low budget horror fares, Mario Caiano stormed off the project, or was fired depending on which of the myths you want to believe in, after one of many loud fierce arguments with troublesome superstar Klaus Kinski. As the story goes La vittima designata (The Designated Victim) 1971 director Maurizio Lucidi directed parts of the movie, Star Crash 1978 and Contamination 1980 director Luigi Cozzi helped out and directed sections of the film, and according to his autobiography Kinski too directed a fair amount of the flick, although I wouldn’t know about that. Finally Caminito himself stepped away from his producer/screenwriter desk and took over the role of director himself.

After a rather out of place rural opening the movie skips to Venice. Vampire hunter Professor Paris Catalano [Christopher Plummer] arrives at the house of Princess [Maria Cumani Quasimodo] who with her friend and priest Don Alvise [Donald Pleasence] has summoned him to help her with a situation… with the bad dreams she has been corresponding with him about. Helietta Canins [Barbara De Rossi] takes Castelano to an underground crypt where they talk about the possible inhabitant of the large coffin that lies there. Catalano is curious about a painting that Princess has had taken down before he arrived and here starts a series of backstory explanatory flashbacks concerning the family and Nosferatu. They all wind up going to visit a medium to help them dig deeper into the family history and low and behold, the vampire awakens and leaves his crypt!
So far it’s all been a wind up and build towards the vampire movie iconic moment – the ascent of the monster! From here on Kinski wanders around Venice searching for Helietta summons him with some chants when the medium releases him. Unsurprisingly Helietta, and her sister Maria [Anne Knecht] turn out to be the descendants of Nosferatu’s long lost love, Letiza, the woman on the painting. After decades of longing for his lost love, Nosferatu seeks out the woman who summoned him and plans to take her as his mate.
No movie moving within the Gothic realm is complete without at least one scene featuring Gypsies – and Nosferatu in Venice features a splendid Gypsy-queen and her band of happy dancers moment. As the carnival in Venice starts, Nosferatu arrives and starts his rampage which leads him right into the arms of Helietta and the awaiting threat of vampire hunter Pars Catalano and the build up towards the final battle and the last act which has some pretty effective twists luring in the shadows to shake the audience around.
It’s a shame that the movie get’s s much slack and there’s some really decent moments in Nosferatu In Venice, and despite reprising a previous role, Kinski does give a pretty good performance – as he mostly did, even on the movies he supposedly hated working on. Nosferatu In Venice really suffers from that somewhat unjust bad reputation because it is a better movie that it’s said to be. Yes, it plays safe within the realm sticking to rules and regulations of the genre, but at the same time it dares to stick it’s neck out and twist formula around, even if it’s in the smallest ways. It could be because of the somewhat slow pacing, but at the same time it has a few neat effects and some nudity towards the ending. It might be because it's perhaps more of an arty horror flick than your regular gorefest. Anyways, I had fond memories of the movie, and they are still there after revisiting it again.
Being a complex actor to work with, there where obviously issues with Kinski on set. One of the most apparent being his refusal to shave his head and completely dedicate himself to mimicking his former portrayal of Nosferatu, hence the full head of tattered hair he sports here. Caminito’s movie does bring a few of Herzog’s traits with him through, such as the rats symbolising plague, a metaphor for death, and also lifted over from the original sources is the ”totes angst” of the vampire. The totes angst of Nosferatu here is rather straightforward. Longing for love, evading death. It’s a romanticised portrayal, which is not to far from the original source as the vampire quite often holds a since long gone passion for a former lover and realises his own mortality when that fire is later relit by a like worthy character… think of Mina Harker who in the original Bram Stoker book reminds the vampire of his long lost love which makes him obsessed that he moves from Transylvania to England to be near her… not saying that Dracula is the original vampire story. I’m pro John Polidori for that one.
Something that caught my attention this time around and perhaps it’s something that is quite under used in the movie is the angst about dying found in the Plummer’s Catalano character. One of the first lines of dialogue he has is when he tells the Princess that he’s going to die soon. It’s a cheap but effective gimmick that hooks the audience as we want to know why he’s going to die, how will he die, and how come he knows he’s going to die? Unfortunately it’s never taken any further than being mentioned a few times. Neither is it brought up in the final battle between Catalano and Nosferatu – instead Catalano packs up and fuck’s off proclaiming that he’s been defeated. This obviously sets up Kinski as the winner in the battle over life and death. Now it may seem strange, but at the same time it’s a fascinating twist as the vampire genre commonly suffers from the problem that the audience end up rooting for the vampire and not the vampire hunter. There’s an effective little symbolic scene to end his arch in the movie, but it’s still a shame that one didn’t use the “I’m going to die” threat more creative.
The somewhat out of place opening sequence where hunters accidentally shoot a bat sets a tone for the movie. Where it’s considered to be bad luck to kill a bat, there’s no love lost on the ones that suckle blood from the farm animals. Vampires are no longer a threat, but more something that one can toss aside and let the dogs mangle. It’s an odd sequence as the rural landside of the title sequence and opening scene then is discarded for the tight corridors of Venice. This may be a metaphorical moment of the movie as they claim to ignore vampire folklore, i.e. rules and regulations, and that’s exactly what happens in the movie, traditional vampire lore is cast aside. The vampire can survive shotgun blasts to the gut even though it leaves a gaping hole in his stomach, he can roam the streets in daylight and has a reflection. In a sense it says that traditional rules are abandoned, and new ones are put in play. This is obviously a trick that most modern vampire flick tries to do, bend the rules and come up with a new variation, although here it's still quite innovative.
Finally something has to be said about the soundtrack. Luigi Ceccarelli performed a lot of the music on the movie, and if it sounds familiar it’s because a large amount of it is renditions of the 1985 Vangelis album Mask. Although it may be something that can scar a movie with the music is very specific for a certain time period – much like the eighties Metal that plagued several Italian genre pieces, it sounded great at the time, but shit today – the electro orchestrated ambience of Ceccarelli work for Nosferatu in Venice.
Perhaps after getting a taste for directing, Kinski would follow Nosferatu in Venice with Kinski Paganini 1989 a movie he directed all on his own, and which would become his last movie. Caminito on the other hand never directed a movie again but did produce a handful of decent pieces including Kinski Paganini, Abel Ferrara’s King of New York 1990, Tinto Brass Paprika 1991, and Marco Ferreri’s House of Smiles 1992.
Widescreen 16x9
Stereo 2.0, English Dialogue, which means the beloved work of Nick Alexander graces the movie.
None, although this is composite of various DVD & VHS resulting in a brilliant version, so that should make up for it.
Here are the Japanese and German trailers.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Mask of Medusa

The Mask of MedusaOriginal Title: Le masque de la Méduse
Directed by: Jean Rollin
2010 (09), France
Fantasy/Horror, 75 min
Distributed by:
Alas, the time has come to finally cast my eyes upon the concluding Jean Rollin movie, the short, shot on HD-video, piece Le masque de la Méduse.

With a name like that you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the movie is going to be a take on the Gorgon, a character from Greek mythology that anyone who knows the slightest thing about horror will be familiar with. The Gorgon, or Medusa if you like with her snake hair and “turn-to-stone-gaze” have been portrayed in everything from kids cartoons and cheesy TV sci-fi shows, to the classic Ray Harryhausen stop motion flicks and Hammer horror classics. Supposedly Terrence Fisher’s 1964 Hammer Horror, The Gorgon serves as the main inspiration for this final movie which bookends Jean Rollin’s spellbinding career.

A while back I went off on a rant about how Perdues dans New York (Lost in New York) 1989 should have been the final Jean Rollin movie as it brought themes, emotions and traits to a full circle. It was as if Rollin finally came to peace with the defining traits and found what he was looking for - A return to childhood. Because that’s how I read a lot of Jean Rollin movies, as a metaphorical return to safety, a sense of belonging, a comforting return to sanctuary after a long and wide journey – a tabula rasa, setting things back to their right. Which is very much what Le masque de la Méduse is about too.

Le masque de la Méduse opens with Méduse [Simone Rollin] walking through an aquarium. A young woman [Gabrielle Rollin] plays the cello amidst huge constrictors and buzzards. Méduse gazes at the young woman who then turns to stone. Méduse takes to the streets of Paris and walks straight to the Grand Guignol where she enters the stage and holds a lengthy monologue regarding her former victims. The Janitor [Jean-Pierre Bouyoux] listens on and sympathises with her remorse.

Méduse moves again and comes upon two younger gorgons – her sisters. Steno [Marlène Delcambre] and Euryale [Sabine Lenoël] perform a ritual where pulverised human skulls are mixed with blood and devoured by Steno. In a scene which atmospherically feels very typical Jean Rollin, Méduse’s hair turns into snakes and she blinds Euryale before Steno struts out a little dance, not to unlike those previously seen performed in his movies. Returning to the Grand Gugniol Euryale confronts Méduse and pays the ultimate price, you won’t get away with threatening Méduse twice and in a rather shocking moment Méduse does away with her sister. Finally she comes to face the Collector [Bernard Charnacé], a man who in his possession has the statues of her earlier victims. Méduse’s guilt – yes our old friend guilt - drives her right back to the stage of the Grand Guignol where the Janitor is awaiting to willingly aid her decision to end her being. The first act comes to a violent climax and a customary cameo from Jean Rollin who buries the head of the Medusa in the sand…

Act two starts where the head of Medusa is dug up and we are taken to that familiar Rollin location, the Peré-Lachaise cemetery. Steno, now guardian of her sisters’ head lives in an underground crypt with the statue of Euryale. Steno lures Cornelius [Delphine Montoban] into her lair where she draws blood from Cornelius buttock… preparing the ritual we saw in the first act. Steno proclaims herself and Cornelius the vampires of Peré-Lachaise and they dance together as Philippe d’Aram’s La Valse Fascinante from Fascination 1979 plays on the soundtrack. Steno tells the tragic tale of her sisters’ fates and together they leave the crypt. With someone to tell the story of the three sisters to the world, Steno disappears.

My French really blows and I’m a long way from fully comprehending the language much of the above is my interpretation of what’s going on., and I’m quite content with that interpretation as it still feels very much what I’d expect from a Jean Rollin films. Also within the movie I can see several themes that I’ve come to recognise in his work. The theme of the search can be found in Méduse’s guilt, she is searching for redemption, and when she comes to the insight that she can’t avoid turning victims to stone – and a sinister collector who has her previous victims as trophies, hence wanting to keep her alive – she decides to take her own life, even if it’s with the assistance of the Janitor. This moment of insight and execution takes place on the Grand Guignol stage and is sliced into a splendid juxtaposition by editor Janette Kronegger. The Janitor later wanders the passages of Peré-Lachaise wondering if his actions had any effect on Steno. The guilt is passed on.

Then there’s the ultimate trait of Jean Rollin, which is the philosophical line of thought. It’s one magnificent trait that differs Rollin from other EuroGoth or EuroTrash directors. It’s almost like the judicious mindfucks of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Think about it, almost all Jean Rollin movies have leading characters who , at least for a genre movie, have some really profound thoughts about their being, their actions, the situations that they are in. That’s why you frequently find those poetic, lengthy pieces of monologue posing questions and philosophising within the Rollin universe.

Just like his debut feature La Viol de vampire (The Rape of the Vampire) 1968, La masque de la Méduse is a movie shot in two parts and then combined to make a longer feature. Screened at the Cinemateque de Tolouse in late 2009, Rollin was still uncertain if this would be the complete version of the movie. The version shown there was a 60-minute cut, and Rollin is known to have said [in interviews posted on] that he’d like to make a full feature length film out of the project. It was also said that he had another movie planned to shoot, La Fiancée du crocodile (The Bride of the Crocodile), a movie which now never will come to be, at least not as a Jean Rollin movie.

Location wise Rollin makes the most of what he has – just like he always did - apart from the simplistic stage representing the Grand Guignol, and what is left of the original location, the Palace of Golden Gate Aquariums is beautiful and really sets a great tone to the opening of the movie, and then there’s the final return to Peré-Lachaise which as always is pure magic.

Looking at the cast, it’s almost something of a family movie, Jean’s wife Marie-Simone holds the part of Méduse and their grandchild Gabrielle has a small part as the young musician seen in the opening attack at the aquarium. Actors who held small parts in previous works pop up, like Bernard Charnacé who you may recognise as Dr. Dennary from Les deux orphelines vampires (Two Orphan Vampires) 1997, Sabine Lenoël (Sister Martha), and Tomas Smith (Thibault) from La fiancée de Dracula (The Fiancee of Dracula) 2002. But I do miss some of the iconic Rollin actors and actresses, because even small walk on parts or cameos by Nathalie Perrey, Brigitte Lahaie, Françoise Blanchard, or Françoise Pascal or even one of the Castel twins would have had an impact, especially in that last act in Peré-Lachaise where they easily could have walked by or simply been cemetery inhabitants.

Still though, familiar names like long time friend and frequent collaborator Jean-Pierre Bouyoux, composer Philippe d’Aram and editor Janette Kronegger - who edited the majority of Rollin’s movies from La morte vivante (The Living Dead Girl) 1982 and forth - are all part of the film which helps tie it all in to the bookend which it in more than one way becomes.
Compared to something like Jess Franco’s Paula–Paula 2010, this is a more fitting final movie - although I sincerely hope Paula-Paula doesn’t become Franco’s last flick – La masque de la Méduse is a much better final film. This one has a story and it has a forward movement, it opens a door to possible new ways, it suggests new characters to the universe of Jean Rollin. Despite being shot on HD-video, it looks fantastic. I'm have a huge fetish for celluloid grain, but there's something here that I like, and the flat crisp digital look passes me by for a change. Lighting is very much Jean Rollin and in spite of the low budget of something like €150.000 there’s really nowhere that the movie feels cheap and rushed. There are no filler belly dances in front of a silver tarp here matey - this is all for real.

La masque de la Méduse is a beautiful looking movie and surprisingly one where special effects come to the most effective and elaborate use. Sure there’s been effects and gore in Rollin movies before, but this is hard stuff in the realm of Rollin, there’s a decapitation, decomposed corpses hung from nooses, the degeneration of Medusa makeup, snake hair, and an incredibly impressive throat slit that is really grim lingering on the sharp cut and pouring blood.

The recurrent meta referents at previous work can be found in La masque de la Méduse; an iron rose is used in an attempt to poke out an eye, there’s a nod at Two Orphan Vampires when parts of dialogue are recited, certain images of Steno definitely ring of Blanchard in The Living Dead Girl, Bouyoux recites passages of poems read in La nuit des horloges (Night of the Hourglas) 2007, Rollin’s almost obligatory cameo where he once again more or less taunts the camera with his mischievous face, certain parts of the soundtrack are d’Aram tracks from older movies, the remorseful monologues of Méduse certainly remind me of Nathalie Perry’s reoccurring character, mourning her losses, and you really can’t look at images of Père-Lachaise without thinking of movies like La rose de fer (Iron Rose) 1973, Two Orphan Vampires and Rape of the Vampire. In my book Pére-Lachaise is more Jean Rollin than anything else.
Hopefully there will be an official wider release of this last Jean Rollin movie as La masque de le Méduse is an beautiful, intriguing, powerful and poetic movie, an important movie that shows where if allowed Rollin might have ventured to with projects to come and perhaps where he would have gone earlier if he’d been able too.

16x9 Colour

Stereo 2.0. French Dialogue, no subtitles.

A five minute Making of feature, although the main extra is the movie itself as it isn’t available anywhere outside of a limited edition of Ècrits COmpletes -1. Complete Writings Vol1 compiles six of Jean Rollin’s fantasy horror stories and a second volume is planned. This first edition though was available in a limited edition of 150 pieces (signed and numbered by Rollin) and included the movie, which would become his final piece, La masque de la Méduse.

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