August 29, 2007

Not on DVD: DEATH WEEKEND (1976) your typical rape/revenge movie

(1976, Canada)

Wanting to review Death Weekend, one of the first X films I ever saw in a cinema, set me to thinking about similar films with the same plotline, and whether to cover the movie at all. Am I a little out of my depth to be recommending a movie about rape?

The film belongs to the ‘rape/revenge’ sub-genre of horror films and psycho-thrillers, where a woman takes revenge on those who assaulted her. These films are not about the effect on her life (like TV movies or soaps do), but driven by more exploitable action – scenes of sex and violence. Obviously there are many other films about rape and revenge, but it's usually the men who dish out the rough justice.

'Rapesploitation' in the seventies

A decade of rape-themed films began with Hannie Caulder (1971). It’s a western, but subverts the genre by having a woman take her own revenge. It’s very seventies, showing a prolonged sexual assault and having several men involved. This also means a prolonged, action-packed revenge, because she then has to track them all down, one by one. Raquel Welch plays the title character, and Christopher Lee (trying to break out of horror film typecasting) plays the gunsmith who teaches her how to use firearms.

Movie vengeance was then returned to the guys, with a string of films that showed graphic rape scenes. Some of these rapesploitation films are of course not without merit, but have obviously had censorship issues and even periods of being completely banned, both in cinemas and on video. They are all on DVD now, unlike Death Weekend.

Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), took the premise of a western, but placed it in modern day rural Britain. It’s a brilliant portrayal of mob mentality and violence in a small town. Susan George plays the beautiful young wife, coveted by the local lads, with weedy husband Dustin Hoffman forced to revenge her.

Also in 1971 (what was going on that year?), A Clockwork Orange hit the screens, and in the UK also left the screens until after the director’s death. Several rape scenes set up Alex (Malcolm McDowell) as a violent problem for the government to try and cure.

Equally controversial, The Last House On the Left appeared in 1972. Two women are graphically violently assaulted, but don’t get to take their revenge. Producer Sean Cunningham (Friday the 13th) and director Wes Craven (Nightmare on Elm Street) both toned down the realism of violence in their films in order to start a long career in horror films.

Even Alfred Hitchcock made an astonishingly seedy thriller in 1972. Though Frenzy focuses more on a man who is wrongly accused of being a serial rapist. Jon Finch's character is more interested in clearing his name than avenging the victims. The villain (Barry Foster) plays a memorably nasty murderer, appearing in scenes which gave censors headaches for decades, (maybe 'I can’t cut that, it’s a Hitchcock film...').

Death Wish (1974) took the premise into crime-drenched Manhattan, and here again it's a man taking revenge. It was a huge hit and far more widely seen than Last House on the Left. Director Michael Winner pulled all the stops out for the multiple gang rape that motivates Charles Bronson's character through five Death Wish films. It’s a prolonged and nasty scene, crassly peppered with nudity (still cut when shown on TV in the UK). The film then unrelentingly justifies the anti-hero, and anyone in the audience living in a big city, to arm themselves and dish out murderous vengeance on muggers and even thieves. I shudder to think what real damage this film has done.

Rape/revenge movies - women fight back

I find the rape/revenge genre to be more balanced, because women get their own revenge. It’s a theme that’s proved popular in the slasher genre too, when the last prospective victim standing is usually a woman.

The first that I can remember in a modern setting, are two films made in 1976, Death Weekend and Lipstick. Perhaps they were inspired by the success of Death Wish, but wanting to revert revenge to the women.

Lipstick even dealt with the legal problems facing women who had been raped. The seriousness of the issue is somewhat undermined by the victim here being a fashion model, played by real-life model Margaux Hemingway. This makes the film almost surreal, especially when she starts running around in high heels, high fashion, wielding a shotgun! Chris Sarandon resigned the rest of his acting career to playing baddies, by playing the serial rapist.

The most famous movie in the genre is also the worst, I Spit on Your Grave (1978). I falsely remembered this as the one that it started rape/revenge as a cycle. After all the films had had limited runs in theatres, even under-achieving titles were suddenly hot property when released on home video in the early eighties, uncut! I Spit On Your Grave had the sleaziest video cover, the rudest name, the lowest budget. The plot is no more than rape and revenge, literally. The rape ordeal takes up the entire first half of the movie, then the second half is a serial revenge. It’s the only title in this article that I wouldn’t recommend at all.

Incidentally, the movie title, the posters and the video covers are often potent in the arguments for and against controversial movies. More people see the videos and poster art than see the movies themselves. The blue UK poster for Death Weekend certainly makes it look more lurid. Taglines like "It began with a rape. It ended with a massacre." further distort perceptions of the film.

Abel Ferrara later made an intriguing and intelligent low-budget riff on Death Wish with the actress Zoe Tamerlis as an Angel of Vengeance in Ms 45 (1981). But now we’ve strayed into the eighties, which had it’s own more responsible take on the genre, with the likes of the stodgy and overlong The Accused and the far more interesting Australian movie Shame

Death Weekend

But here I’m trying to focus on the seventies, when the rape/revenge genre seemed to go into overdrive, and one of the earliest and cleverest films in the genre…

Death Weekend was made in Canada (note that Ivan Reitman was the producer, in between early David Cronenberg films Shivers and Rabid) and sold as a horror film in the UK, and as The House by the Lake in the US. Watching it again, it’s more intelligent and thought-provoking than I remembered.

Brenda Vaccaro plays Diane, a fashion model from the big city. She’s being taken for a ride by rich young Harry (Chuck Shamata) to his remote house in the country. But she’s not stupid and certainly no pushover. The character and situations are carefully written – she’s sexy but not sexily dressed, unless you like flared jeans and baggy rollneck sweaters (contrasted with Margeaux Hemingway’s outfits, also as a model in Lipstick). When Chuck gets amorous, she says no and fully expects it to work. She handles difficult situations confidently and firmly and Harry, though extremely angry, gives up.

Besides being a model, she’s an accomplished car mechanic, and can handle Harry’s car at high speed. Unfortunately, they run into a local gang of joy-riders, lead by Don Stroud, who takes personal exception to being outrun by a woman driver. This simple prejudice triggers the whole story off, as the gang track down Harry’s country house, and terrorizes the two of them for kicks.

But we’re not sure where trouble will first occur. Diane is in trouble from all sides, not realising that she’s not going to a party, but being set up on a romantic weekend for just two. Worse still, Harry’s got some hidden two-way mirrors in her guest bedroom and always takes a different girl to his house every weekend.

Like Straw Dogs and Corruption, there is an extended ‘home invasion’ where the freaky gang terrorize them both, and slowly destroy Harry’s material possessions, even his speedboat! (In a scene that seems to have inspired one of the killings in I Spit on your Grave).

The scenes of sexual assault are at least plot-driven, unlike Death Wish, which needn’t have been shown at all. Although there is brief nudity, it certainly doesn’t go as far as many others in this list, but it does introduce the use of a cut-throat razor for foreplay. As I remember it on its UK release, only the gore and the swearing was removed from the film. I was shocked at this early example of the c-word being used in a movie. The two utterances of the word are still intact on the pre-cert UK release VHS, and the US release (though some violence has been removed).

For a film in this genre, Death Weekend is far more consistent than Last House On the Left (that leavens extremely realistic and prolonged sexual assault with scenes of comic relief cops). Her ordeal is violent, but she doesn’t lose her cool, unlike the characters who ‘crack’ in the old The Hills Have Eyes or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where people descend to almost animal behaviour to defend themselves.

The film seems so confident that it has handled the issue even-handedly, that it dares to suggest that she might have been attracted to one her attackers. This is indicated by the ambiguous ending scene, sending out a dubious ‘mixed message’. To complicate matters further, actress Brenda Vaccaro went on to date the movie's gangleader Don Stroud in real life!

Brenda quickly rose to bigger films, with parts in Airport 77 and Capricorn One (1978). Don Stroud was forever playing heavies on TV cop shows, but tried to break the mould in The Amityville Horror, by playing a priest! That’s stretching it a bit, Don.

Like many 'survival plots', the action is carefully set up so that the only course of action is murder. Nowadays I'm thankful that more films, like Park Chan-Wook's Vengeance trilogy, show up murderous vengeance as a messy business of escalation and further tragedy.

But as an exercise in revenge fantasy, I’d still posit Death Weekend as a more responsible film in an irresponsible genre. I’m guessing it’s the ambiguity of the ending is the main reason for this film not being updated to an appearance on DVD as yet. All the male revenge films are out, why not the female?

Unless you track down a VHS, you'll have to settle for these clips on YouTube...


August 26, 2007

HINOKIO (2005) what if a robot could go to school for you?

(2005, Japan)

Enjoyable children’s escapist fantasy, but too many sub-plots

Region 3 NTSC Hong Kong DVD (from Asia Video)

From the posters and the trailer, I was expecting the tale of a young boy attending school through the use of a robot surrogate. But this isn’t the only story in the film, which tries to tackle several serious themes at once, and still deliver a feelgood fantasy.

It begins on familiar Japanese ground, with the mother dying in the opening sequence! If you did a survey of all Japanese children’s films and TV series, you’d find that the character of the mother was dead more than alive. Prove me wrong!

A car crash has left young Satoru (Kanata Hongo) motherless, wheelchair-bound and ‘shut in’. Although set in a Japan of the near future, shut-ins are a peculiarly modern Japanese phenomenon of (mostly) teenage boys who refuse to leave their rooms in the family home. Usually passing the time with video games, they can reach their twenties (or older!) without ever going out, their parents covering up for them to preserve the family reputation.

In the film, his father (Masatoshi Nakamura) respects the child’s privacy by never entering his room unless invited. Dad is also a cybernetics scientist and has installed a huge interactive console in Satoru‘s bedroom. From this he can direct a robot to go to school for him and be his eyes, ears and mouth. There, he spots a girl he really fancies, but how can he meet her without leaving his room? Surely if he approaches her using the robot, he won’t stand a chance? In school, the robot is too much of a novelty to miss out on, and a gang of bullies decide to see how resilient its manufacture is.

So far so good, but then we get two perplexing new subplots. One is about an online video game that actually connects with Purgatory (refering to the Buddhist gateway, where your fate is decided – reincarnation or hell) and is supposed to affect real-life events. This is a strand from the ‘shut-in’ problem – one character getting obsessively addicted to video games - but is barely followed through as a storyline. Instead more time is spent on the urban legend-inspired idea of a website influencing your fate – a theme followed to greater effect in the Girl from Hell (Jigoku Shoujo) series.

Besides the video game, a friend that Satoru makes friends with at school turns out to be a girl, not a boy. This revelation is successfully realised in the film, but again, hardly explored. The idea that he is best friends with a (short-haired) girl, but still really wants a girlfriend who’s a traditional (long-haired) beauty who is a complete stranger, seemed to be an unintentional, undeveloped idea in the film. Also sending out mixed messages is a scene where a child puts out an electrical fire with a pan of water!!!

The storyline sort of forgets Satoru (he's not even the child on the DVD sleeve) and concentrates on how the robot appears to be the one attracting friends instead of him. The story builds to a bizarre climax where a whole host of problems collide in disaster…

One of many images used in publicity that aren't actually in the film

Because of the English titles, and the (pretty dire) American soppy songs for the feel-good bits of the film, I got the impression this was aimed at a market far wider than just Japan. It could be sold as a kid-friendly A.I., a cyber-E.T. even. The robot schoolboy certainly looks very impressive, and portrays the sort of technology that Japan will probably be the first to realise.

The visuals effects look excellent, especially the robot walking amongst the children. The close-ups are slightly less convincing because that’s when a more jerky animatronic prop is being used. Other special effects involving green-screen look a little fakey, but it’s a children’s fantasy, so hey.

The child actors are totally convincing and make the movie work as well as it does, and make the robot a believable character too. I enjoyed the film, but I’d advise that you don’t follow the story too closely, and just let it happen. It’s the journey that’s important, not the destination.

The official Hong Kong DVD (pictured at top) has excellent English subtitles, 5.1 Japanese audio, an anamorphic widescreen 16:9 picture, but only a trailer for extras.

The trailer is here on YouTube, or click on the above image to watch it here.

Finally, the title of the film has ‘Inter Galactic Love Story’ written under it - I've watched it and still don't know why! Maybe it’s alluding to the meeting of two worlds, robot and human, and got lost in translation?

The Japanese DVD cover, with THAT tagline

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August 20, 2007

THE BLACK HOLE (1979) - Disney's STAR WARS

(1979, USA)

Atmospheric space adventure in need of restoration

It's about time I looked at the film that inspired the name of this blog! I keep revisiting this film, but it's getting harder to enjoy on DVD, because the picture noticeably needs remastering now.

When the first Star Wars was released in 1977, everyone else (and their dog) wanted to make a movie as successful. That meant outer space! Adventure! Robots! Laser gun battles!

The Walt Disney Studio made their own space epic, which looked as spectacular as Star Wars, but the camerawork and spaceships were not nearly as agile. Even though Disney Studios built their own recordable camera movement computer, ‘ACES’, needed for the complex visual FX. But they were mostly using the older traditional special effects techniques, trying to compete with John Dykstra's motion control system over at Industrial Light and Magic.

For instance ILM were using multiple passes (re-recording multiple visual elements on the same piece of film), while Disney used multiple optical composites (each time you composite two visual elements together, the film goes down a generation and softens). Some shots in The Black Hole have been composited so many times, that the picture is defocussed, almost ‘soft’ focus, and crawling with film grain. These shots are now really noticeable and will look no better on HD.

The only current DVD release, in standard-definition NTSC, still shows up the wires supporting the actors in 'zero-gravity', dodgy matte lines, and the excessive film grain. Even the edges of matte paintings, an effect previously perfected by Disney, are easily discernible.

I’m hoping that some sort of restoration can improve the look of the film. I'd also like to see some DVD extras, especially since this was Disney's most expensive film at the time. It still deserves attention. It has a unique story and a creepy atmosphere – a ghost ship perched on the edge of a black hole, crewed only by silver faced drones, sentry robots and a megalomaniac intent on probing the secrets of space.

It’s part mystery, part rollicking adventure. Despite some informative babble about black holes, science gets thrown out of the window by the end of the film! The climactic meteor rolling down the ship’s central corridor is hugely spectacular, doesn't really make sense, but still makes a huge visual impact.

It's also worth a look for the design work on the main spaceship, the Cygnus – an inside-out construction, latticed like an internally-lit Eiffel Tower.

The soundtrack is one of John Barry’s best, where he perfected his space march music, which also came in handy for other Star Wars wannabes, Moonraker and Starcrash.

It’s also interesting as Disney was trying to lose its 'kiddie' image at the time, in order to win back older family audiences. Slightly uncertain in tone, the film veers between an adult and a child audience. Disney were very worried about making their first PG-rated film - with an all adult cast, (light) swearing, onscreen deaths and more graphic scares than ever before. The ending was controversial too, it ends up as like 2001 - A Space Odyssey aimed at children.

The adult elements in The Black Hole sit uncomfortably with the robot sidekicks, who have huge, cute, stuck-on Disney eyes. Nowadays they remind me more of the eyes of South Park characters. Early production artwork also had flying robots, but looking more like The Ultimate Computer from TV's Star Trek, and definitely without any eyes. Besides being cute, Vincent the robot tests our patience by spouting more classical quotes than Jean-Luc Picard. But don't let me put you off.

Hopefully Disney are aiming for a better digital release for the film's 30th anniversary in 2 year's time.

Also in this period, Disney made some other interesting, 'more adult' movies...
- there was Watcher in the Woods - a creepy ghost tale (which needed an extensive reshoot to remove the leftfield, sci-fi twist ending)
- Dragonslayer which has the best movie dragon ever filmed, with more child-unfriendly plot twists and blood too
- Something Wicked This Way Comes, about a haunted fairground, which almost plays like a Stephen King story now
- and of course the hugely influential Tron, which tried to start the ball rolling a little too early on CG special effects.

Do you want to know more…?
The best guide to the pre-production and special effects of The Black Hole was in a magnificently illustrated double issue of the lamented movie magazine Cinefantastique (pictured) published in Spring 1980.

August 16, 2007

DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS (1954) a frightfully British space invader

(1954, UK)

One of the few, fun 1950s sci-fi films made in the UK, that is still in circulation
There are lots of classic American sci-fi films from this decade, Tarantula, It Came from Outer Space etc, but few worth watching from the UK. I’d recommend Fiend Without a Face, the Quatermass films of course and X – The Unknown, but that’s about it.

The first time I saw Devil Girl From Mars, I was delighted to have found it, mainly because it was fun. It hadn’t ever been on TV to my knowledge, so it was a late discovery to find this on VHS. It’s a daft film in many ways and I’d not taken it very seriously. But on rewatching, it at least stands up well as entertaining on several levels!

A mysterious craft lands near a remote Scottish hotel. It’s out of season, so there are only a few guests, Coincidentally, a pair of scientists investigating a plane crash are forced to stop at the hotel. They discover the craft from outer space has inhabitants, who aren’t friendly…

Mind-bogglingly, this tale of space invasion, was based on a stage play, and I'm guessing that there was only one setting, the hotel bar! Thankfully in the movie, we get to see the outside of the hotel and the craft itself, but an awful lot of the film features characters walking between the two locations…

I was struck by the similarity with the stage version of Dracula, which seems to have been an influence on the story. The female alien constantly enters the hotel (a gothic pile in the middle of the moors) through the French windows, keeps unveiling more and more powers including hypnotism (big close-up of her eyes) and wears a flashy black cape. Although her 'Renfield' is a big robot.

The limited setting of the story betrays its B-movie status, but the special effects are handsomely mounted, except that the design of the UFO makes it less believable – it looks both a light fitting or a fancy hubcap. SFX director Jack Whitehead (The Tunnel, 1935), does very well with a sizeable model that has lots of internal lighting and seamless moving parts. It reminded me a lot of a smaller version of the spaceship in Dalek Invasion Earth 2150, which also had a spinning section. The ray blasts are achieved much the same way as The Day The Earth Stood Still (another obvious influence) with a series of lap dissolves, but are well done – the targets are rather small fry – like bushes and dead trees…

The robot looks top heavy when it walks and more impressive in the posters, or when it stands still, and thankfully it doesn’t have to do much.

The cast is above par and take it all as seriously as possible (except a kid who can’t act for toffee). Notably there is a cult cast - Hazel Court (before she was in Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein and sensational in Corman’s Masque of the Red Death), Adrienne Corri (memorable as the circus-master in Vampire Circus, the madwoman in Madhouse, and as the space sheriff in Moon Zero Two), and John Laurie (from Hammer’s The Reptile and beloved British sitcom Dad’s Army). The melodrama of the multiple plotlines, is as unlikely as the story, but there’s rarely a dull moment.
Obviously, the striking Patricia Laffan as Nyah steals all her scenes, mainly due to her ahead-of-its-time black leather mini-skirt and long legs. She doesn't have to overplay her lines, because they’re already pretty silly.

The film doesn’t outstay its welcome, if you like fifties sci-fi and you’re forewarned about the tiny ‘pub invasion’ scenario, this shouldn’t disappoint.

If you want more info on the lovely Hazel Court, there's a detailed fansite here...

I watched this on a UK VHS, which had pretty low volume audio on it. Hopefully the American DVD releases are better. It’s black and white and looks fine in full-frame 1.33 aspect. Strangely, it’s available on DVD
in the US (pictured below) but ironically not in the UK.

August 04, 2007

HORRORS OF THE BLACK ZOO (1963) - a good Michael Gough movie!

(USA, 1963)

From the makers of
Horrors of the Black Museum, Konga, Trog, and Berserk!

Ladies and Gentlemen... Michael Gough!

Before audiences thrilled to William Shatner’s unique acting style, British actor Michael Gough (most recently seen as Alfred the Butler in the Tim Burton Batman films, as well as Sleepy Hollow at the ripe age of 85) carved up a niche of his own for reaching the very top of the over-acting scales in a series of memorably low-budget horror films. Years before Shatner bellowed "KHAAAAAAN!", Gough had already done a "KONGAAAAAAA!".

His starring roles were in fright films that were a tier below the Hammer Horrors and Tigon terrors in which he only gained supporting roles. He was in Hammer’s first Dracula (1958), a fantastic rendition of the oft-told tale. As Arthur Holmwood he began his bankability as a horror star, but worked steadily for producer Herman Cohen, whose scripts lacked the subtlety of Hammer screenplays, which is saying something!

In 1959, Gough starred in Horrors of the Black Museum, where a Jekyll/Hyde killer reuses famous murder weapons from Scotland Yard’s infamous crime museum. The opening scene with the ‘spiked’ binoculars set a new high in cinema sadism, which Cohen’s films specialised in – prefiguring the inventiveness of death scenes in seventies slasher films. The film was compared to Michael Powell's Peeping Tom and Sidney Hayers' Circus of Horrors in David Pirie's seminal critique of British Horror films, 'A Heritage of Horror', which is finally getting a revised reprint very soon. High praise indeed.

In Herman Cohen films, careful attention was lavished on the murders, but the characters were cardboard thin, leaving Gough without much depth to work with. He opted instead to heighten the emotional range… when his character gets angry, he’s very VERY angry. The same goes for sarcasm, sadism, glee – all pitched as high as the ceiling!

This frenzied brand of acting isn’t achieved with arm-waving or playing with props. Gough has to achieve this intensity in close ups – by using every muscle in his face and neck, and the full capacity of his lungs, he emotes until the viewer is pressed back in their seats!

Thus making the subsequent 'Cohens', like Konga, essential viewing for fans of his style, as is Berserk! and Trog (both
as second fiddle to Joan Crawford).

To label Gough's acting in this period as ‘bad’ (which he himself does) is to do him a disservice. Witness him in other horror films of the decade, under different directors. He is more subdued but still just as memorable – my favourite being the sneaky artist duelling with snooty art critic Christopher Lee (not much of a stretch there) in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, where Gough again appears with a chimp.

Which brings us back to the least seen of the Gough/Cohen horror films Black Zoo, later re-titled as the better and obvious choice Horrors of the Black Zoo. Here Gough is a fanatical animal lover, with a menagerie of big cats and a gorilla in a small zoo somewhere in L.A. He has an empathic, almost hypnotic control over his lions and tigers So when trouble threatens, he can kill his enemies without laying a hand on them… shades of Willard.

The animal attacks are quite spectacular, and even the man in a gorilla suit despatches a victim with a particularly nasty realism, that looked censored in the print I managed to see, but still packs quite a punch. But scenes of lions leaping on their trainers looks too much like a Tarzan film, and this story lacks the horror ‘hook’ that other Cohen films had (like the circus-themed deaths in Berserk!). It was obviously far more dangerous to film, with the cast often sharing the set with a lion in many scenes.

It’s also interesting because the police investigation subplot, that often slows these films down to a crawl, is barely featured. Instead the focus is on Gough, his wife and their mute assistant (Rod Lauren) – his character is a James Dean clone, a sultry good-looking ‘teenager’ who spends a lot of time flexing inside his tight tee-shirt and jeans. The camera spends an inordinate amount of time on him and barely any time on the pretty girls who visit the zoo. The relationship between him and the teen is far more complex than the sparks between Gough's character and his wife. (Sad to say that Rod Lauren passed away only three weeks ago.)

Then again, a dramatic highlight of Black Zoo starts innocently enough with Gough’s character talking to his wife (Jeanne Cooper) over dinner in their kitchen. An argument develops, escalates, and keeps on escalating
, to the breath-taking heights OF OVER-ACTING! At it’s peak, Gough’s voice transforms from a shout TO A FEARFUL BELLOW, with Cooper keeping up with him ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP! A fantastically simple scene turns into a veritable Battle Royale of acting, where subtlety is the first victim... REPEATEDLY.

As a horror film, besides the sadistic mayhem, Black Zoo also offers a unique scene where Gough and his family of both people and big cats walk in a funeral procession to a misty graveyard. Seeing lions and tigers among the gravestones, in a scene dominated by grandiose music, struck me as unique and inventive, largely due to the camerawork and lighting. I was instantly reminded of the Roger Corman Poe films of the time, and indeed cinematographer Floyd Crosby had been responsible for shooting most of them.

In fact, seeing a Herman Cohen film shot in Hollywood, makes it look ten times better than his English films. His low budget seems to go much further. He can also get famous faces more easily in the US. Way down the cast are Elisha Cook Jr (The Maltese Falcon, Electra Glide in Blue) and Edward Platt as a police chief, already being called ‘Chief’ years before his famous regular character in the TV series, Get Smart, as the Chief!

I would even go as far as to say that it's Herman Cohen’s best film – perhaps I haven’t over-watched it like his others, but with some inventive surprises, brutal murders, a less threadbare look than usual, and even some quality drama leaking into the three-way split between the central characters…

Warner Archive DVD (update: October, 2011)
After years of absence from home video, Black Zoo has finally arrived in Warner Archive's made-on-demand DVD-R collection, in 2.35 Panavision widescreen.

Do you want to know MORE?

An excellent site on the films of Herman Cohen is here, with stills and posters from Black Zoo and all his others. The fantastic portrait of Michael Gough comes from their site, and I hope they'll forgive me for nabbing it - it's the only decent photo of the actor on the net. Please visit their site for more details about producer Herman Cohen's many other crazy, enjoyable productions.

Here are even more Michael Gough films you might like:

The Man in the White Suit
(1951) - comedy with Alec Guinness
The Phantom of the Opera (1962) - the Hammer Horror version
The Skull (1965) - with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee

'The Cybernauts' episode of The Avengers (1965)
Horror Hospital (1973)
Top Secret! (1984)
Caravaggio (1986) - one of several Derek Jarman films he appeared in
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) for director Wes Craven

August 01, 2007

CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD (1975) Cleopatra, comin at ya!

(US, 1975)

The slickest-looking, biggest budgetted blaxploitation film of the seventies.

Region 2 PAL DVD (Warner Bros)

This was the only sequel to Cleopatra Jones (1973), that also starred the late Tamara Dobson. I watched this to get me in the mood for my first trip to Hong Kong. It was the first time I'd seen the film widescreen - it's shot in 2.35 Panavision and has recently been released this way on DVD. Before that I'd been unimpressed with the film on a cramped full-frame VHS.

The new DVD makes the film look fantastic. The extensive location photography shows off Hong Kong as it was back when Enter the Dragon (1973) was still hot. Now, almost all of the old Hong Kong has been built over, and the city is almost unrecognisable. It's new buildings are very impressive, but I'd love to have seen it all thirty years ago...

With a large budget, dozens of Chinese stuntmen and the movie studio facilities of Run Run Shaw, the film boasts endless action and huge sets, not least the enormous split-level casino which practically gets destroyed in the climactic fight.

The story is slight, but fast-paced. The likeable cast enjoy a stream of catchy dialogue.

The formidable Tamara Dobson as Cleopatra, cuts a swathe through every crowd, sporting a fantastic new outfit in each scene. Her magnetism and optimism almost make her glow - an embodiment of the sixties' catchphrase "black is beautiful". It's surprising that her screen presence wasn't used for a third film with this character. Besides her charm, she looks comfortable with pistols and machine guns, but never dominates the fights like James Bond. All of her allies get a sizeable piece of the action too.

Her guide around Hong Kong is Tanny (Ni Tien), no mean crimefighter herself - she get's a marvellous fight scene to herself, where she has to fend off six baddies while dressed only in a bathrobe, with her arms strapped to her sides!

Fun to see Albert Popwell enjoying himself in a comedy/action role for a change, rather than being gunned down in Dirty Harry movies. He plays one of Cleo's fellow government agents, trying to crack a drug cartel.

Stella Stevens plays crime boss, The Dragon Queen. While she's obviously giving it all she's got, in swordfights and hand-to-hand combat, she's not quite as imposing an adversary as Shelley Winters (the baddie in the first Cleopatra Jones), or as menacing. But compared to her usual 'helpless blonde' characters, like in The Poseidon Adventure, her gritty performance as a sadistic lesbian is nearly a revelation!

The ridiculously fast and furious action, with stuntmen falling through the air every time Cleo so much as looks at them, is knockabout fun rather than a serious thriller. The kung fu fighting isn't very clearly choreographed, or rather may not have been shot by someone familiar with fight choreography. But that makes this more of a fun film than a vicious one.

While much of seventies 'black cinema' preached to the converted about under-explored issues, this is an example of blaxploitation as escapist entertainment. A supercool black woman crime-fighting in an exotic faraway city.

But in 1975, the blaxploitation bubble had almost burst. Black actors were integrated higher up in the casts of Hollywood films, in non-stereotypical parts, but in supporting roles, rarely the lead. That's what made the blaxploitation films special while they lasted - top billing, and all-black casts... and big hats.

Tamara, you're still looking good.

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