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Parky at the Pictures (DVD 12/4/2012)
British cinema is all the poorer for the passing of Ken Russell. He was a wildly inconsistent film-maker, much of whose best work had been done before the end of the 1960s. Yet, while he rarely repeated the ingenuity and audacity of his contributions to the BBC arts programme, Monitor, Russell consistently challenged the viewer to engage with his distinctive and often outrageous vision. Moreover, unlike so many of his contemporaries, he refused to play safe in order to keep in with the establishment, secure funding and ensure multiplex screen time. Much of Russell's latter output, therefore, was only seen by genuine devotees who took the trouble to seek it out. But he retained the support of some influential critics and administrators and it's unfortunate that he didn't live to enjoy the BFI's release of his controversial 1971 drama, The Devils.
Adapted from the 1961 John Whiting play that was itself based on Aldous Huxley's 1952 book, The Devils of Loudun, this is a powerful and provocative treatise on the relationship between church and state and the willingness of the authorities to use suppression and persecution as a means of control. It earned Russell a Best Director prize at the Venice Film Festival, but was outlawed in several countries on account of its graphic depiction of sex, violence and contentious religious material.
Indeed, Warner Bros was so nervous about submitting the film to the BBFC that it removed some potentially troublesome scenes after Russell had made minor cuts of his own. Thus, it was released in the UK with an X certificate, although some 20 local authorities still insisted on imposing bans and several critics vented their spleen in savage reviews that only helped enshrine the picture with more iconoclastic acolytes. Now viewers can finally see what the fuss has been about - or, at least, part of it, as while this may the longest version so far committed to disc, it is not the director's cut (complete with the so-called `rape of Christ' sequence) that was screened at the National Film Theatre in 2004.
In Paris in 1634, Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) seeks to persuade King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) to issue a decree against urban fortification in order to prevent Protestant noblemen from creating strongholds against royal power. Yet, while Louis consents to the strategy, he spares the town of Loudun because of a promise he had once made to its late governor, who had entrusted the running of civic affairs to Fr Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) until his successor can be appointed.
Despite his holy orders, Grandier is a deeply flawed individual. He has impregnated Philippe Trincant (Georgia Hale) and made an implacable enemy of her magistrate father (John Woodvine), as well as the surgeon Adam (Brian Murphy), the alchemist Ibert (Max Adrian) and Baron Jean de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), who arrives in Loudun with orders from Richelieu to ignore the king's wishes and destroy the battlements. With Grandier and his secretly married new bride, Madeline De Brou (Gemma Jones), in the capital, his enemies begin to scheme against him and seize on the confession of hunchbacked Ursuline nun Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) to Fr Mignon (Murray Melvin) that Grandier (with whom she is obsessed) had possessed her and dabbled in witchcraft.
Determined to find damning evidence, Laubardemont summons inquisitor Fr Pierre Barre (Michael Gothard) who holds a public exorcism that threatens to descend into a naked orgy of religious mania. The king comes to Loudun disguised as Duke Henri de Condé and offers Barre a casket containing a phial of Christ's blood that will enable him to drive evil spirits out of the gyrating nuns. However, he delights in revealing that the reliquary was empty and in exposing the fraudulent nature of both the possession and Barre's cure. (It's at this stage that the sisters storm the chapel and break the crucifix in order to desecrate its image of Christ).
Yet Grandier is still arrested on his return and, despite convincing Mignon of his innocence, he is tortured before being convicted by a sham tribunal and sentenced to the stake. He pleads with Mignon to throttle him before the flames consume him, but Barre lights the pyre before he can intervene and Grandier dies in agony, as the onlookers flee in terror at the sound of Laubardemont detonating the town walls. As Barre and Madeline depart, Laubardemont informs Sister Jeanne that Mignon has been committed to an asylum and she is left to abuse herself (in another infamously excised scene) with Grandier's charred femur.
While sticking to the events that had been depicted a decade earlier in inspired Pole Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Mother Joan of the Angels (1961), Russell brings the same sense of gleeful irreverence that had made causes célèbres of his DH Lawrence adaptation Women in Love (1969) and his Tchaikovsky biopic The Music Lovers (1970). Yet, for all the nudity, hallucination and sado-masochism, this offers serious insights into the misuse of power, the corrupting nature of fanaticism and the readiness of the afraid and envious to cast the first stone.
Oliver Reed is magnificent as the arrogant, but essentially decent priest who is punished for sins he did not commit, while Vanessa Redgrave chillingly conveys the confusion of the frustratedly fixated nun whose careless talk has such calamitous consequences. Indeed, the entire cast rises to the challenge that Russell throws down in seeking to show the cruelty of which humanity is capable when its core values are threatened. He is superbly aided in this evocation of a time and a place out of kilter by production designer Derek Jarman, whose sets have the same unerring trenchancy as Peter Maxwell Davies's imposing score. The missing sequences may well reinforce the sense of civilisation on the brink, but, until they are finally restored, there is enough here to intrigue and incense.
Cult movies have a bad reputation in this country. The national media is only really interested in the Hollywood mainstream and the higher profile arthouse offerings and critics usually subject low-budget genre fare to supercilious savagings that say more about their prejudices (and their misplaced belief that they have mastered the art of satirical invective) than the actual quality of the films. It's impossible to like everything and as many poor pictures are produced in cinema's bargain basement as in its SFX-laden and subtitle-strewn upper echelons. But overlooking what is often branded Z-grade trash is as foolish as dismissing its audiences as geeks, creeps or worse. This week, therefore, let's sample some nunsploitation and a clutch of other curios from the Shameless DVD label.
Also purporting to be based on historical events, Gianfranco Mingozzi's Flavia the Heretic (1974) clearly bears the influence of The Devils, right down to including its own crucifix seduction sequence. However, this is much more a dissertation on the treatment of women in medieval times and the institutionalised chauvinism of Europe's major religions in the 15th century. Atmospherically photographed by Alfio Contini, smoothly edited by Ruggero Mastroianni and scored by future Oscar winner Nicola Piovani, this is vastly superior to the bulk of Euro erotica released in this period. But, despite its weightier preoccupations, this contains enough calculated exploitation to disavow its vaunted artistic and intellectual pretensions.
In the southern Italian town of Puglia, Flavia (Florinda Balkan) is dispatched to a convent by her father, who wishes to keep hold of her dowry and live in the lap of luxury. Ever since she witnessed her father beheading a man as a girl, Flavia has been troubled by violence and the fact that powerful men have so much say over the fate of those deemed beneath them, including women. She is unhappy at the convent and her prayers are often interrupted by visions of her father's brutality. Indeed, with the exception of Jewish caretaker Abraham (Claudio Cassinelli), she has developed something between a fear and a loathing of men. But her views of her own sex are scarcely improved when the Mother Superior allows the sisters of the Tarantula cult to shelter within their walls and their hedonistic rituals cause Sister Livia (Raika Juri) to rent her garments and go into a frenzied ecstasy.
Order is restored with the expulsion of the guests. But the bishop arrives soon afterwards to take Livia away for a savage punishment involving boiling oil and a sharpened blade and Flavia decides to run away with Abraham to escape the twin evils of patriarchal and ecclesiastical tyranny. However, the pair is captured and Flavia is tossed into a cell, while Abraham is flogged before being imprisoned. Flavia confides her frustrations to Sister Agatha (Maria Casares), who encourages her progressive views about female emancipation and equality and reveals that she has designs on seizing the Throne of St Peter from the unworthy men who discredited it.
Suitably emboldened, Flavia allies herself when a Muslim horde led by Ahmed (Anthony Higgins) attacks the town and she even dons armour to participate in vengeful assaults upon her persecutors. But, despite becoming Ahmed's lover, Flavia soon realises that she is no more free under Islam than under Christianity and recognises that she has been used by the invaders rather than valued for herself or her ideas.
In some ways, this is reminiscent of Michael Anderson's Pope Joan (1972), in which Liv Ullmann took the title role, this is commendable evocation of the pre-Renaissance era and its social and religious attitudes. Mingozzi certainly presents plenty of naked flesh and sets out to shock with the rather coarsely achieved nipple slicing, the more authentic-looking horse castration and the rape of a young peasant girl in a pigsty by the new duke. But there is an intelligence at work behind the more salacious and self-conscious incidents and Balkan imbues her performance with sufficient passion for this to pass for a sincere discussion of gynocentric subjugation, if not for a genuinely feminist tract.
Despite the presence of such respected actresses as Alida Valli and Anita Ekberg, Giulio Berruti's Killer Nun (1978) errs more towards nunsploitation. Based on events that supposedly took place in Belgium, this is solidly made giallo that benefits from Antonio Maccoppi's roving camerawork, Mario Giacco's clipped editing and Alessandro Alessandroni's disconcerting score. Yet, while this was banned by the Vatican and found its way onto the notorious Video Nasty list that was drawn up in the wake of protests by the likes of Mary Whitehouse against the taboo topics being made available on VHS, this is remarkably tame by comparison with some of the torture porn that gets released these days almost without comment.
Sister Gertrude (Anita Ekberg) is struggling to recover from the neurosurgery she underwent to remove a brain tumour. She keeps getting debilitating headaches, but her Mother Superior (Alida Valli) chides her for being weak and reminds her that suffering is part of a nun's vocation. Roommate Sister Mathieu (Paola Morra) is more sympathetic and offers Gertrude physical solace whenever she climbs into her bed to ease the pain, while surgeon Dr Poirret (Massimo Serato) prescribes her morphine, even though he believes her symptoms are psychosomatic.
He grows concerned, however, when Gertrude becomes increasingly unreliable while assisting him and starts treating the elderly patients in her care with marked cruelty. A calisthenics session leaves them exhausted, while she dwells on the most gruesome accounts of martyrdom while reading to them from the lives of the saints. At one point, Gertrude even stomps on an old woman's dentures and rumours start to spread that she was responsible for tossing another man out of a window when she caught him having sex with a nurse.
Before Poirret can investigate further, however, Gertrude blackmails the clinical director (Daniele Dublino) into having him removed. But replacement Dr Roland (Joe Dallesandro) quickly begins to suspect that Gertrude is up to no good and we see her stealing valuables from the recently deceased and sneaking into town disguised as a prostitute to sell them in order to feed her now rampaging morphine addiction. She even starts picking up men in bars to satiate her lusts. But is Gertrude really responsible for the spate of murders that sees the hospital population begin to dwindle dramatically or is someone taking advantage of her decreasing moments of lucidity to frame her for their own crimes?
Berutti makes surprisingly little effort to obfuscate the answer to this question, but what this lacks in mystery it more than makes up for in mood. The contrasts between the convent rooms, the hospital wards and the downtown dives are capably achieved, while the killings (with the notable exception of the decidedly unpleasant pin and scalpel torture of one old dear) are leavened with a vein of bleak humour. The 46 year-old Ekberg camps it up like the trouper the passing years had taught her to be, with the shifts between being addled, wanton and insane inviting much pity. Valli, Morra, Serato and Warhol Factory alumnus Dallesandro also play to the hilt. But, while scenes like disabled Lou Castel's excruciating death on the staircase and Ekberg's terrified reaction to the rebellious prayer group show that it's possible to make a body count picture without lashings of gore, Berutti might have come up with some more innovative slayings than suffocation with a pillow or some cotton wool balls.
The nun is more the prey than the predator in Mario Bianchi's Satan's Baby Doll (1982), a remake of Andrea Bianchi's Malabimba (1979) that goes a long way to revealing why Mario (who assumed the moniker Alan W. Cools for this assignment) abandoned thrillers for pornography. Making eerie use of a wonderfully cavernous castle, Bianchi/Cools allows cinematographers Angelo Lannutti and Franco Villa plenty of roaming latitude, while editor Cesare Bianchini cuts slickly to sustain the sensual and dramatic tension. But too many scenes are allowed to drift, while the slayings are more than a little underwhelming.
In a remote castle in the depth of the Italian countryside, Aldo Sambrell consoles daughter Jacqueline Dupré as her mother is laid in the family crypt. Among the other mourners are wheelchair-bound uncle Joe Davers, doctor Alfonso Gaita, nursing nun Mariangela Giordano and faithful retainer Giancarlo del Luca. However, once they return to their rooms, this sombre bunch succumb to their peccadilloes, with Giordano stripping to pleasure herself on the bed while Davers watches on through a gap in the door, Del Luca heading to the cellar to perform unspeakable acts with poultry and Gaita supplying Sambrell with his nightly fix.
However, before anyone starts thinking that Dupré is an innocent among vipers, she is possessed by nymphomaniac mother Marina Hedman's spirit and begins floating along the castle corridors to exact her revenge on the lovers who used her and then let her down. The first to be dispatched is Gaita, who falls victim to his own syringe. More bizarrely, Del Luca is attacked by something resembling a mummy before Davers falls down a flight of stairs after miraculously recovering the strength in his legs following a cleansing encounter with Giordano.
A flashback reveals the real reason for Hedman's fury and a final plunge over a balustrade leaves her free to slip between the sheets with her true love (whose identity will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen a nunsploitation picture before). But, as is so often the case in gialli, the identity of the killer matters much less than the stylised deaths of the victims and the presentation of as much voluptuous female flesh as possible.
This is Dupré's sole screen outing, but she just about holds her own against such veteran scene stealers as Sambrell (who manfully indulges in some open-robed careering) and Giordano. However, it will be Del Luca's chicken clutching antics that will live longest in the memory (despite all attempts at expunging them), although his demise at the hands of a shambling corpse also lingers.
Having made his name as a cinematographer on Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965), Massimo Dallamano turned to direction and achieved a level of notoriety with his 1969 adaptation of Austrian Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1869 novel, Venus in Furs. While this may not have worn as well as the imperilled schoolgirl trilogy of What Have You Done to Solange? (1972), What Have They Done to Your Daughters? (1974) and Rings of Fear (1979) or even his 1970 take on Dorian Gray, this still shows Dallamano to have had a fine compositional eye and a knack of filming female flesh without fetishising it.
Holidaying author Régis Vallée is used to getting what he wants. Thus, when he spots stripper-turned-model Laura Antonelli showering and cavorting with a hunky gardener, he vows to have her - if only because the thrill of spying on her reminds him of the childhood occasion when he was caught peeping by the maid, who consoled him in her ample bosom after striking him for his perversion.
Vallée and Antonelli hit it off (literally) from the get-go, with her accidental flick of a whip during a saucy striptease convincing Vallée that they should marry and give themselves over to their passion. However, while he enjoys watching his wife cuckold him - even to the point of becoming her chauffeur in a throwback to the voyeurism of his youth - Vallée becomes so jealous of musclebound Loren Ewing that he realises he will have to look elsewhere to satisfy his dubious lusts.
Allowing himself to be distracted by a subplot involving lesbian housemaid Renate Kasché and Ewing's macho posturing, Dallamano lets slip the intensity of the initial encounters between Vallée and Antonelli, which gave cinematographer Sergio D'Offizi licence to explore the textures and contours of desire with forensic sensuality. He also handles the flashbacks and fantasies with a sure insight into Vallée's psyche. But once the action gets raunchier and Gian Franco Reverberi's score starts to sound more like something from a skin flick, this ceases to be an effective adaptation of a controversial erotic classic and comes to seem more like a tame exercise in softcore for liberated bourgeois couples.
A variation on the theme is presented in Piero Schivazappa's The Frightened Woman (1969), whose protagonists were enticed into their adult deviancy by juvenile encounters with a ravenous scorpion and an affectionate cat. Boasting rich colour imagery by Carlo and Sante Achilli, modish costumes by Enrici Sabbatini and an achingly hip score by Stelvio Cipriani, this looks like the most self-consciously chic art smut ever made. But, once again, there's a teasing intelligence behind the scenes of torture, enslavement, humiliation and revenge that prevents this from being just another dose of Euro trash.
Keen to make a good impression on joining the press office of doctor-cum-philanthropist Philippe Leroy's cutting-edge company, ambitious journalist Dagmar Lassander asks if she can call at her boss's house that evening to pick up some materials that she needs for an article on male sterilisation. Leroy is only too happy to oblige and Lassander is shown into his vast deco office by wheelchair-bound factotum Maria Cumani Quasimodo.
On the surface, Leroy seems helpful and charming. But prostitute Mirella Pamphili has just cancelled her weekend booking and a drugged drink ensures that Lassander wakes up tied to a frame in torn clothes while Leroy stands over her with a Medici dagger. Obsessed with control and male domination ever since he saw a female scorpion consume its mate after coitus, Leroy intends making Lassander suffer both for being a woman and for daring to research an item that challenged male hegemony. However, having confronted her with a lifesize replica of himself and forced her into several degrading situations, he underestimates his opponent. Thus, when Lassander attempts to harm herself, Leroy weakens momentarily and the balance of power shifts.
Having performed a dance wearing a peeling costume of transparent gauze, Lassander convinces Leroy to take her to a castle restaurant, where their date is interrupted by a disapproving dwarf and a suit of armour. But Leroy will have to endure further unexpected ordeals before his fate is sealed.
Piero Schivazappa was more at home in television than cinema, but he makes a fascinating debut with this underrated study of the impact that shifting social attitudes had on the ways in which the sexes viewed themselves and each other at the end of the 1960s. Leroy and Lassander deliver bold performances that deny the audience the comfort of making easy gendercentric assumptions. This may lack psychological complexity and rigour or the eloquence of a similarly sinister two-hander such as Joseph L. Mankiewicz's adaptation of Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth (1972). But it's audaciously provocative for its time, particularly in its denunciation of misogyny and clarion call for women to stand up to their oppressors and seize their day. Indeed, it could even be claimed as a prime example of the `last girl' kind of horror movie. Moreover, few subsequent pictures claiming more legitimate credentials have included more heinous items within the mise-en-scéne than the vagina dentata entrance that chimes in with the juxtaposition of rigid lines and soft contours employed by production designer Francesco Cuppini (in homage to Claude Joubert, Plexus and Giuseppe Capogrossi) highlight Leroy's unflinching chauvinism and Lassander's yielding adaptability.
The sexploitation is rather more blatant in Joe D'Amato's The Love Goddess of the Cannibals (1978), which goes under several alternative titles, including Caribbean Papaya. Filmed in the Dominican Republic on the back of the Black Emmanuelle series with which D'Amato made his name, this could be viewed as an erotic eco parable or a sleazy treatise on economic imperialism. But it's real raison d'être is to flash as much flesh and spurt as much gore as possible and, given this limited brief, it has to be considered an unqualified success.
Maurice Poli is a geologist leading an expedition to an unnamed Caribbean island to find a suitable site for the construction of a nuclear reactor. Journalist Sirpa Lane has followed him to get a scoop, but seems content to spend much of her time lazing on the beach or sampling the local delicacies. She has a history with Poli and succumbs easily to his patter. But their tryst is interrupted by the discovery of a charred corpse and they are more than a little disturbed by the fact that the local police seem reluctant to investigate.
While driving around the island, Poli and Lane offer a lift to Melissa Chimenti, unaware that she was the perpetrator of the crime (which involved an act of oral castration). She invites them to a ceremony in her village and the pair are swept up by the crowd as naked dancing girls presage the disembowelling of a pig and the ritual slaughter of a sacrificial male. Desperate to leave, but somehow powerless, Poli and Lane wake up in bed together next morning. But they are now Chimenti's prisoners and Lane will have to use all her resources to free Poli from the murderous maiden's spell.
Anyone with any experience of cult cinema will know that Chimenti (in her only major movie role) will make a move on Lane before she can save the day and that much fondling and gyrating will have to occur before the final credits. Yet, for all its softcore brazenness, this isn't all that different from the Technicolor South Sea fantasies that starred Maria Montez and Jon Hall in the 1940s. Indeed, the ritual sequence bears echo of the one in Cobra Woman (1944), while the Chimenti's control over Poli clearly recalls Montez's more chaste, but still sensual power over Hall throughout the Universal series. Thus, while this may not be particularly enthralling in itself, it's interesting to see how it fits into the canon of screen exotica.
This was Chimenti's only major movie role, but Lane was already a celebrated figure on the Euro exploitation scene following her performance in Walerian Borowczyk's immoral tale, The Beast (1975). She was a shoe-in, therefore, for Alfonso Brescia's The Beast in Space (1980), which is a must-see for trash aficionados, if only for the wonderfully kitschy production design and costumes fashioned by Mimmo Scavia and Elena De Cupis respectively, and for the fact that the hero's favourite tipple is called Uranus Milk.
Space captain Vassili Karis has been trolling round the universe in search of a rare mineral called Antalium. Relaxing in a bar, he gets into a fight with mercenary rival Venantino Venantini, but leaves on the arm of Sirpa Lane, a flight lieutenant who not only winds up in his bed, but also in his crew for a mission to the planet Lorigon. On landing on the mysterious orb, the voyagers are confronted by a bellicose robot and have to be rescued by Claudio Undari, the ruler of a castle-enclosed community whose destiny is controlled by a super-computer.
While her fellow travellers unwind (some by watching horses copulate in footage clearly imported from another film altogether), Lane allows herself to be escorted into a wooded glade by Undari, who reveals himself to be half beast below his robes and he subjects Lane to the kind of pitiless assault that had long been haunting her nightmares. Clearly, Karis has to get his crew to safety. But, with Venantini compounding the problem, this proves trickier than he had envisaged.
There's no point trying to dress this up as anything other than a smutty interstellar romp. The production values look as cheap as those in a 1930s serial and the approach to science is no more sophisticated. Indeed, in the age of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this has more in common with the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon chapterplays or B movies like William Marshall's The Phantom Planet (1961) and Antonio Marheritis Wild, Wild Planet (1965). On the genre count, t most obviously rips off Fred Wilcox's Forbidden Planet (1956) and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but Undari's bestial antics are lifted directly from Borowczyk and not even Carlo Broglio's demented cutting or a jaunty score by Marcello Giombini (who wisely adopted the pseudonym Pluto Kennedy) can distract from the fact that Undari's nether regions have been constructed from a pair of tights, clumps of hair and a plastic phallus.
On a sad note, Sirpa Lane, who had been hailed as `the new Bardot' by Roger Vadim when he starred her in La Jeune fille assassinée (1974), would only make three more films before her career closed in the mid-1980s. She died of AIDS in 1999.
In this section
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 16/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 16/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 9/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 9/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 2/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 2/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 25/4/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 25/4/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 18/4/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 18/4/2013)