Monday, 9 July 2012

Quality exploitation… Vampiros Lesbos (1971)

This film is frankly a bit ridiculous and yet it has sufficient quality to overcome its more exploitative traits and I would guess that’s precisely why Jess Franco is so highly rated by aficionados of the obscure, exotica of cult 70s “horrotica”.

Like daydreaming on a hot Mediterranean summer day, you awake from this film with a dislocated sense of reality, slapped in the face by ludicrous sexual set pieces but also disorientated by the repeated imagery of mediterranean shores, butterflies and scorpions… Soledad Miranda.
Franco cuts up his narrative and you’re never quite sure what is actually happening, to whom and when but that’s a strength in a film of this kind and which attempts a new take on the well-trodden Dracula story. We all know what happens to the vampire in that story but maybe here is something different? And maybe it’s more effective to be less than direct in addressing the subject matter…there’s more mystery.
Soledad Miranda plays Condesa Oskudar a mysterious figure who haunts the dreams of her female prey only to ensnare them in Sapphic submission and then drain their life blood to replenish her own. It’s a saucy take on the Dracula theme that has been re-worked and spoofed many times over. Given the film’s vintage, this feels a little more transgressive and it certainly makes The Vampire Lovers look a little staid in comparison.
The Countess also performs a long drawn out cabaret act in which she seduces a blank-eyed, almost motionless woman… this is watched by the kind of audience you’d expect on the chicken and a basket circuit: passive and distant.

This turns out to be one of many dreams experienced by the Countess’ latest prey,   
Linda Westinghouse (well played by Ewa Strömberg),  a lawyer involved in the inheritance of a certain Transylvanian property.
She travels to discuss this with a mysterious Countess on her island retreat – contracy to accepted form, this turns out to be an ultramodern designer house: just as scary as a dusty old mansion. Here she is seduced by the Countess and left in a confused tstae and minus a pint or two of blood.
 She is take to a sanatorium where her boyfriend Omar (Andrés Monales wearing a standard-issue period ‘tash!) finds her in delirium. The place has its own mysteries and is run by Doctor Alwin Seward (British veteran Dennis Price in one of his last films) who not only wants to understand the vampires he wants to become one.

Here also is another woman, Agra (Heidrun Kussin) who has been feasted on by the Countess and driven mad by the experience. Kussin acts her socks off as she throws herself around in unrestrained fashion – tormented by her lost love, helpless to find her self. Her madness has in turn made her husband (played by Mr Franco himself) into a psychotic killer…an unpleasant aside and one that adds to the shocks of a largely dreamy film.
Linda recovers slowly and learns that the Countess has truly fallen for her – she is to be  a special one who will share the vampires existence. Will she succumb or fight her way back to normality?

Vampiros Lesbos is unsettling in a lysergic way all of which is aided by the groovy experimentalism of the soundtrack by German duo Manfred Hubler and Sigfried Schwab (which I’ve had on CD since the 90’s retro beat boom)!
There are plenty of rough edges but the overall direction and tone is cohesive. The flesh on show adds to the reverie and the action is almost quaintly restrained – the kind of soft porn that was edging itself gradually into the mainstream… I would have liked the film less if it had been more overt. The charm and the horror is in not revealing too much…
The undoubted star is Soledad Miranda who is not only beautiful and willing to show all but is also an actress of control and expression. Her tragic death in a motor accident surely robbed her of a long career in more mainstream films. We’re lucky to have this to show what she could do.

Vampiros Lesbos is now available on DVD but I think it suits the medium of video on all kinds of levels not least as the slight blur of the image heightens the appearance of the dream...

Monday, 2 July 2012

The one after MASH… Brewster McCloud (1970)

I last saw Brewster McCloud late night on the old black and white TV I had in my teenage bedroom. I was no doubt impressed with its anarchic humour and its sense of the absurd: a boy who believes he can fly and liberate himself from the day-to-day restrictions of straight existence…

Watching the video unearthed as part of this project, itself a decade old, these aspects again impressed but the earnestness of the enterprise came over a lot more.

Directed by Robert Altman in the same year as MASH, Brewster doesn’t stand much direct comparison to the former film but there’s enough here to recommend its skewed take on the world.

It has a complex narrative that doesn’t give too much away until well into the film. There are a lot of disparate characters all with varying amounts of a grip on reality and what’s happening…

Events circle around the Houston Astrodome a magnificent modernistic stadium enclosing a huge space and a number of secrets.

The elderly lady who sings the national anthem – badly – berates a large band who would rather play old school RnB, whilst tourists are given guided tours around the stadium by a kooky young woman Suzanne Davis (Shelley Duvall in her debut).

The old man in a wheel chair running a protection racket of local care homes (a heavily made-up Stacy Keach), is driven around by a young man called Brewtser (Bud Cort) who so happens to live in the depths of the dome where he makes his plans.

He is aided by a mysteriously beautiful woman called Louise (Sally Kellerman) who is accompanied by a raven and has what appear to be the scars of surgically-removed wings on her back.

The old lady is murdered and the local chief, (the magnificent William Windom) decides to bring in an homicide expert from LA, Det. Lt. Frank Shaft (cool 79’s ‘tec cliché superbly played by Michael Murphy) who begins to sense an arian connection collecting the bird droppings for analysis.

The local police are not happy – “enough of this bird shit, shit; let’s get on with some real police work!” laments the old hand Det. Capt. Crandall (G. Wood).

As officialdom gets itself into a twisted mess, Brewster carries on his preparations. He is surprisingly undisturbed by the young lady who brings him provisions Hope (Jennifer Salt) and who cannot control her enjoyment of his physical workouts…But Brewster cannot be distracted by love, as Louise tells him, he needs to be  “innocent” to truly fly as “they” (meaning us) lose our potential for such freedom the older we get and once we form earth-binding relationships.

But Brewster falls for Suzanne and drifts off course. There follows some car chases (must have been some kind of quotient in 70s films and Altman obviously knew that!) as the police hunt Brewster and Louise helps him evade them.

But, whilst his escape is secured he has betrayed Louise by being with Suzanne – “she’ll be the death of you” – and the fallen angel departs with her raven.

Yet, Brewster has also been betrayed by Suzanne who really wants the police commissioner’s aide once she is convinced that Brewster is the murderer… She saves him one last time as he gets his chance to fly in the memorable closing sequence.

He spins around inside the dome but after a few minutes either realises he is trapped or simply loses his faith and slowly falls to his death hundreds of feet below.

Altman gives him a rousing send off as the cast all emerge dressed as circus performers in a wilfully upbeat and bizarre conclusion.

So… is it worth saving from the dusty box in the loft? Absolutely, so long as you watch it with an awareness of the tongues firmly in cheek when it was made. It’s not as coherent as MASH or other Altman works but it is energetically made and affecting in its own unqie way.

Bud Court was a tremendous find by Altman and had an almost blank youthful presence – he feels like he’s waiting to be written but also as if there’s something disturbing underneath – fairly appropriately so if he’s the killer (or is it Louise?).

Kellerman makes a superb Angel – quite a leap from Hotlips – but still with the habit of bathing in public (albeit intentionally in this film). She's a marvellously edgy performer and we have no idea who or what she is in the end... it matters not. Definitive answers aren't the way of this film.

Brewster McCloud is now available on DVD from all the usual places. Try and work it out for yourself...