Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Summer in St. Tropez (1983)

(aka: Un été à Saint-Tropez/Sommer in St. Tropez, Ein )

I suppose David Hamilton's A Summer In St. Tropez is a strange film to run across here at horrorman Blogs. It is certainly not horror. And technically, it's not exploitation. In fact, it's quite the opposite, despite the abundance of nudity. Hamilton, in all his photographic genius manages to capture the innocence, grace and beauty of seven young girls who reside together in a remote country house in the South of France. The girls pass the hours unselfconciously with one another in their idyllic life of innocence, whether running along sunset tinged beaches, riding bicycles or horses up quiet and shady country roads, picking flowers in a meadows, ballet dancing, washing their hair outdoors, even sleeping. So why am I posting about A Summer In St. Tropez? Because I loved it.

Be warned, though, Hamilton's film is art...unapologetic art. The director utilizes the actresses and the French countryside to keep the screen alive with beautiful imagery throughout, and disregards dialogue completely, though the characters do occasionally laugh and giggle. Unless you appreciate the art of photography (I was actually a part-time professional photographer back in the early 90's...big woop, huh?), I could see some growing bored with this film. There is no plot to speak of. Just sixty-minutes (yep, it is a pretty short film) of the seven lovely lasses going about their daily routines. Lucky for us, they are nude much of the time. Hamilton shot the film around his own house in Saint Tropez, which is 800 years old. Seeing this film makes you want to go to the South of France. The area is truly spectacular. Another factor which may put some off is Hamilton's trademark use of soft-focus photography and diffusion filters. I've heard many people remark that the quality of the DVD transfer is of poor quality; however, if you've ever seen any of Hamilton's photography books, you'll know that this is simply his style. Speaking of his books, stills from A Summer In St. Tropez can be seen in his 2005 book La Danse. Also, there are a handful of shots in the film that were taken from his books Sisters and Dreams of a Young Girl.

Many of Hamilton's books depicts young teen girls nude, and unfortunately, he has been the subject of controversy and even child pornography allegations, mostly from the U.S. and Great Britain. This is a shame, because much like American photographer Sally Mann, whose early books contained nude pictures of her own adolescent children, Hamilton is one of the most talented photographers the world has ever known. Not to mention one of the most successful (his books have sold millions). Because of differing attitudes regarding age and nudity in France and much of the rest of the world, Hamilton has not received this negative attention in his adopted home. “A distinction must be made between eroticism and pornography," the 73 year-old Hamilton said. "The media have blurred the disparity to an unforgivable degree. For those intelligent enough to recognize the difference, erotica will continue to hold a unique fascination. Social evils should not be confused with the pursuit of true beauty.”

I find it disturbing that some use Hamilton's photographs and films to fuel the "is it art or pornography?" debate. True, most of the model/actresses in St. Tropez are a few years older than many of those in his books and other films (17-18), but to think that someone could look upon his work and call it "pornography" or "obscene", regardless of age, astounds and alarms me. What does it say about the society we live in when a picture of a young girl innocently washing her hair in a garden tub is viewed as pornography? I'm not naive. I know that this is not the mere unfounded rantings of right-wing religious fanatics. Unfortunately, there are some sick, disgusting people in this world who get their rocks off by looking at photographs and films of little girls. Child pornography is a distressful shortcoming of the Internet age, a crime for which I think perpetrators should be punished harshly and severely. However, in the U.S. and other areas of the world, this could turn into something akin to the Salem Witch Trials. When Sally Mann's black-and-white photographs of her eleven year-old daughter climbing a tree without a shirt is looked upon as pornography... Well, it seems to me that those doing the accusing aren't that far removed from the perverted sicko masturbating in front of his computer screen.

From what I've seen from David Hamilton (Bilitis, Laura: Shadows of a Summer with Maud Adams, Tender Cousins, Premiers désirs), his films and books are beautiful and awe inspiring. After watching several of Catherine Breillat's grim films which explore female sexuality in a perverse stark and cold style, Hamilton offers a refreshing "flip side" to that, giving us a glimpse into the true beauty and pure innocence of seven lovely young women. This film isn't for everyone. As I've said, their is no dialogue and basically no plot. Just a master photographer doing what he does best.

Ready to buy A Summer In St. Tropez?

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Anatomy Of Hell (2004)

(aka: Anatomie de l'enfer/Pornocratie)

I could lie and claim that I understood everything controversial French director Catherine Breillat intended to relay in her bizarre 2004 film Anatomy Of Hell the first time I watched it. But I won't. To a lot of viewers it may seem like just another twisted and pretentious "art-house" quasi-porn flick; which, in a way, I suppose it is. However, after watching this film twice, and watching the lengthy interview with the director on Tartan's DVD extras and reading a number of other interviews, I have a new appreciation, not only for this film, but for Catherine Breillat in general. She is an extremely intelligent lady. Saying this, I'll add that I've literally seen thousands of horror films and none surpass Anatomy Of Hell as far as being weird, disturbing or perverse. Breillat explores female sexuality and men's darkest fears about women's sexual power in this startling explicit and clinical film. The story centers on a woman (former model Amira Casar-The Last Mistress with Asia Argento) who pays a gay man (porn star Rocco Siffredi-Romance, Joe D'Amato's Tarzan-X: Shame of Jane) to accompany her home and watch her most private activities for four nights. To "watch her when she is unwatchable". He accepts her solicitation and is initially repulsed by the obscenity of the female body (???). Eventually, however, the two develop an intimate relationship, which threatens the man's identity.

Though I'd heard of her of course, I've only just recently delved into the film's of Breillat. The first one, 1999's Romance, was impressive and thought provoking in a cold, clinical sort of way. I keep using the word "clinical", but really that is the best way to describe her films. As I mentioned in an earlier post on Romance here at horrorman Blogs, Breillat's films are usually grim and humorless and explore female sexuality in a stark and unflinching style, including scenes which border on the hardcore. I've heard it said that with her detached analytical approach, Breillat "takes the fun out of sex", which is true enough. With Anatomy Of Hell, the director brings to the forefront how men, perhaps unconsciously or very consciously, fear women and are perhaps even repulsed by them. Early on in the movie, when Casar's character slits her wrist in the bathroom of a gay nightclub, Rocco Siffredi's character rushes in to rescue her, "Why did you do that?" he inquires. "Because I'm a woman," Casar says. The Man, being gay, isn't that crazy about women either. Later on, back at The Woman's seaside chateau, he stands over her as she lies nude on her bed and proclaims, “I bless the day I was born immune to you and all of your kind. The elastic resistance of a boy's anus doesn't lie about the tightness of his lower intestine. The lie about the softness of women is hateful…the malevolent triviality that turns them into a trap.” Even as a little girl, The Woman was viewed as an oddity by her young male playmates, who, after growing tired of pushing her and asserting their male dominance, coerce her into playing "doctor". Of course, when she lays in the bushes and removes her panties, the three boys giggle and point and prod her vagina with the stems of their eyeglasses.

"Essentially, she's paying him to watch her where she can't be watched," Breillat said in a 2004 interview with Kevin Murphy. "It's like the theory of Pythagoras, which postulates that you can't watch what is not watchable. We are constantly watching ourselves and aware of the fact that society is always watching us, but the difficulty lies in the attempt to see ourselves in a different way than we are envisaged by society. If you can't love yourself, you can't love anybody else. This woman is paying this man to be the first guy on the earth to look at her. They recreate the first night and the first woman, like Adam and Eve." Again, at first The Man is repulsed by The Woman. At one point, even outlining her naughty bits with lipstick to further highlight their obscenity. In another scene, he takes a rake from the garden and inserts it into her vagina while she is sleeping (obviously, she is a very sound sleeper). On the third and fourth nights, however, he gradually becomes enthralled by The Woman's biology when she starts her menstrual cycle. Roger Ebert said in his review of the film, "There are scenes here where Breillat deliberately disgusts us, not because we are disgusted by the natural life functions of women, as she implies, but simply because The Woman does things that would make any reasonable Man, or Woman, for that matter, throw up." Uh... Like what, Roger? Squeeze a stone dildo out her vagina? Drink menstrual tea? (Okay, granted, that was kind of messed up). To me, the most disgusting thing about the film was that Breillat intentionally found the hairiest women she could find for Amira Casar's body double (the movie makes a disclaimer at the beginning, saying that a body double was used for Casar's "most intimate scenes" and that this should be viewed as an extension of her character). I mean, haven't the French ever heard of Lady Schick?

Based on Breillat's novel Pornocratie, Anatomy Of Hell waste little time before offering up its often shocking images. Homophobes beware, the very first scene is of two gay men in an alleyway, one zealously giving the other a blowjob. Except for the hairy underarms, Amira Casar is lovely, and spends 99.9 % of the film nude. If you're curious as to "just how hardcore" some of the scenes are, there are at least two close-up scenes where Rocco inserts his fingers into The Woman's vagina (again, that of a body double). The second time, The Woman has just started her period and Rocco's fingers come out wet with blood. For a gay man who was supposedly sickened by the biology of a woman just two days earlier, he does a surprising thing and licks the blood off. The scene where The Man outlines The Woman's naughty bits with lipstick is as about as up-close and in your face as it can get. There is a scene where Rocco's character is lying with his head between The Woman's legs and she pushes out a huge stone dildo she'd been "hiding" (again...all that hair! Jeez!). And though Breillat claims that she found it impossible to find a single actress that would actually have intercourse with Siffredi, there is one "penetration" shot, albeit a very bloody one (quick! someone give that girl a transfusion). Rocco, being the studly porn star he is, had no qualms about showing off his manly attributes a time or two. Still, if you're merely looking for smut and good wholesome titillation, I'd suggest looking elsewhere. Breillat's films are not about pleasure or arousal.

I was surprised by the acting in Anatomy Of Hell. Not from Casar, who is a talented and excellent award winning actress, but from Rocco Siffredi. I guess European porn stars are better actors than those here in the U.S. (though, that's not saying much). I'd only seen Siffredi in Breillat's film Romance, in which he had a small, minor role. His part in this film is much meatier (no pun intended), and he actually displays a wide range of emotions. In short, I can understand the critics who bash this movie. It is quite pretentious. I think Breillat went out of her way to shock, offend and disgust. The dialogue was unrealistic and ostentatious, and believe it or not, for once, I agree with Mr. Ebert: as a man, I'm not disgusted by the natural biological functions of women (even the excessively hairy ones), though I have met a few of whom I'm afraid. But, damn it, I just can't help but liking Breillat's films. Shock away.

UPDATE 10-18-08 - Just watched Breillat's debut film A Real Young Girl and didn't really like it.

Ready to buy Anatomy Of Hell?

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Wicked Lake (2008)

Jack of all-trades Zack Passero (The Big Weird Normal ) is the greatest director in the world! Why more filmmakers don't start their movies off with a hot naked girl posing in front of an art class and end it with four hot naked girls splashing in a lake while the credits roll is a mystery to me. Written by Adam Rockoff (author of Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film), and Chris Sivertson (Jack Ketchum's The Lost), Wicked Lake is about four beautiful co-eds who embark on a road trip to a lakeside mountain cabin for a relaxing weekend. Unbeknownst to them, two clans of deranged male misfits have their eyes on them. The girls appear to be easy prey for the predatory perverts, at least until the fateful stroke of midnight when all hell literally breaks loose. I hate to read spoilers in a review, but I would imagine most horror fans (at least those visiting this site) have either already heard or read what happens with the girls [stop reading and skip to the next paragraph if you haven't]. At the stroke of midnight the quartet of lovelies turn into teeth-gnashing, skull-chomping, blood-sucking vampire/witches and quickly turn the tables on the male intruders. And boy, do they ever.

Wicked Lake is Fever Dreams third U.S. production following Flesh For The Beast and Shadow: Dead Riot. As I mentioned, Passero starts the film out with Ilene (Robin Sydney-Big Bad Wolf, Dead Man's Hand ) posing nude in front of an art-class. Caleb, one of the wanna-be artist (Marc Senter-Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever) walks Ilene home after class and, after giving her a child-like drawing of a unicorn jumping over a rainbow, ask to feel one of her breast. Though Ilene plops one out, one of her gal pals steps out onto the porch and scares the quirky and shy fellow off. When Caleb returns home, we find that he isn't the only oddball in the family. His two abusive older brothers (Will Keenan -Tromeo and Juliet, and Justin Stone-Mad Cowgirl), along with their wheelchair bound uncle Sir Jim (Frank Birney -TV's The Practice ), are there to greet him. When the fam starts to give him a hard time for coming home late, Caleb promptly tells them about the four girls. Being the horn-dog family that they are, the four take out to follow the ladies to their rented cabin by the lake. The girls, however, before reaching their quite mountain retreat, stop at a gas station for refreshments and tampons (they really do). In the process of doing their shopping, they manage to both provoke and arouse (one idiot even sits on a stool and masturbates the entire time the girls are there) three backwoods hicks. So now, they not only have Caleb and his nutbag family following them, but three libidinous hillbillies as well. Once they reach the cabin, the girls sunbathe and go for a swim in the lake (nude, of course. Can girls really get breast cancer from laying in the sun topless?), and in general, have a gay ole' time. That is until nightfall, when Caleb and his family show up. After Helen (Eryn Joslyn -The Grey) let's them in, Caleb's brothers, Palmer and Fred, immediately begin to abuse and humiliate the girls. When nervous Caleb grows too excited and pukes all over the floor, Palmer forces Jill (Eve Mauro-The Devil's Dungeon, Land Of The Lost) to strip off her shirt and use it to clean up the mess. Later, he makes Mary (newcomer Carlee Baker) spread her legs and bend over while Fred cuts off her shorts with a straight razor and spanks her with a belt. After which they attempt to make her suck on Sir Jim's "nub". For the ladies, however, all the humiliation ends at the stroke of midnight.

Once the mayhem ensues, SFX make-up artist Melanie Tooker (who worked on From Dusk Till Dawn, Army Of Darkness and Clive Barker's Lord of Illusions) takes care of all the blood and gore and does very well, considering the film's budget. There are several well-executed FX scenes that should please gore-hounds: a severed head exploding in a microwave, numerous spouting jugulars, a scene where a guy gets his brains sucked out through a straw, a tree branch rammed up through a girl's jaw, a bullet to the groin, a shot-gun blast to another guy's head... Not to mention poor Jacob hanging impaled to the front door throughout half of the movie. Still, it's obvious Passero's main focus was not on blood and guts, but rather T&A. In a recent interview, he said, "We could've cast a bunch of bimbos that didn't mind getting naked, and it could've been pretty terrible, I think." Instead, he sought out four young actresses (three of whom were relatively unknown at the time) who not only didn't seem to mind getting naked, but were impressive actresses to boot. Kudos to Dino Ladki for casting these four very gorgeous ladies. All of them are remarkably sexy (even if the film hadn't been half as good, it would've still been worth watching just to see them). Eve Mauro is amazing.

I haven't mentioned that while things are taking place at the cabin, two police detectives are also tracking the girls after discovering a little surprise in their basement back home. Michael Esparza (I Know Who Killed Me) plays Ray, a young rookie cop who has teamed up with his late father's ex-partner, Jake, a burnt-out, cynical, coke-sniffing veteran played by Tim Thomerson (Trancers ). I suppose their roles were necessary considering the ending, but I felt that their scenes interrupted the flow of the main plot. Still, it was fun seeing Thomerson playing the stereotypical cop. There are also a couple of cameo appearances worth mentioning: Angela Bettis (Lucky McKee's MOH episode Sick Girl) plays the part of a mother waiting for her little daughter outside a gas station bathroom (I laughed so hard when Carlee Baker's character flipped-off the little girl as they were walking away). Also, Al Jourgensen from Ministry not only provides the film's score, but appears briefly as a perverted art professor. I've been a big fan of Ministry since "The Land Of Rape And Honey", and was impressed with Jourgensen's cover songs used on the soundtrack. The introduction he gives at the beginning of the DVD is pretty amusing as well.

I may have been exaggerating a tad-bit (well, a lot) when I said Passero was the greatest director in the world. All the beautiful ladies just had me excited. Wicked Lake isn't without its faults, but what film isn't. Though I would have liked to have seen a few more SFX scenes (not just bodies and mouths smeared with blood), for a low-budget horror/dark-comedy, I was pleasantly surprised. And I'm always in favor of films that forgo CGI. It was definitely worth the $20, for I'm sure I'll be watching it again and again. If you are a female, my girlfriend and her friend was over watching this film with me, and surprisingly, they both liked it too. But girlfriend is kind of a sicko-perv.

Ready to buy Wicked Lake?

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Monday, October 6, 2008

The Devil's Plaything (1973)

(aka: Fluch der Schwarzen Schwestern, Der/Vampire Ecstasy/Veil of Blood/Schloss der schwarzen Hexen, Das/The Curse of the Black Sisters )

Nestled in the mountains of present day Germany, a grim and secluded castle stands - the haunted legacy of the beautiful medieval vampire Baroness Daniella Varga. Executed centuries earlier because of her ravenous lust for female blood, the Baroness uttered a curse that she would return one day to satisfy her unnatural lust. When four unwary women convene on the castle, they are unaware that the dark and mysterious housekeeper is a satanic high priestess presiding over a coven of delectable minions who perform wild orgiastic rituals and sensual lesbian acts each night to keep the Baroness' profane spirit alive. The women are drawn deeper and deeper into the erotic nightmare, succumbing to torrid and evil fantasies of the flesh, as Daniella and her servants attempt to use one of the house guests as a vessel for the baroness's return so that she might continue her evil reign of terror.

American sexploitation giant Joseph W. Sarno (Confessions of a Young American Housewife, Inga) and producer Chris Nebe teamed up in the mid-'70's to make a trio of exploitation films. The first of these was the softcore vampire nudie The Devil's Plaything in Nebe's native country of Germany. I find it a bit difficult to write about this film, because Sarno was so erratic. There were numerous scenes that were obviously inspired by Hammer's erotic "Karnstein" vampire films (The Vampire Lovers, Lust For A Vampire, Twins Of Evil) as well as Countess Dracula, and despite the opinion of many reviewers who say that Sarno was incapable of creating and capturing that "Gothic" atmosphere, I'd have to disagree. No, it's certainly not Hammer (nobody could make films like Hammer), but there were plenty of scenes which I thought were moody and atmospheric. Most of the exterior scenes outside the castle were spectacular (the castle, a 12th-century Munich bastion, was supposedly owned by producer Chris Nebe's uncle), and many others, including the one where Marie Forsa's character creeps nude through the shadows into the room of another guest to hover over his bed, is proof that cinematographer Steve Silverman (Passion in Hot Hollows) was more than capable. On the flip side, there were almost as many scenes that seemed rushed and sloppily composed. Another factor which I found a bit irritating and off-putting was the character's heavy German accents. Sarno shot the movie with English dialogue instead of German or Swedish so as to make it more presentable to U.S. and other English speaking markets. In doing so, in many of the scenes you have to pay close attention to understand and follow what the characters are saying, and even then, it is touch and go. However, I thought the heavy accents lent some air of authenticity to the film, whereas shoddy English dubbing would have only cheapened it. So...

Sarno's story is entertaining enough, and the director waste little time in getting things rolling having four young woman and a man arriving at the misty and ominous Castle Varga within the first few minutes. Two of the ladies, Helga and Monika, have been summoned to the castle for the reading of an inheritance, which gives them rightful ownership of the abode provided they reside there for an entire year (Helga has also brought along her best friend). The other two, a female anthropologist who specializes in the occult and ancient folk-lore and her brother, show up after their car breaks down near the castle. The five are greeted by the dark and mysterious "housekeeper" Wanda, who promptly shows them to their rooms. That night, the five guest hear peculiar chanting coming from the bowels of the castle and, on the ensuing nights, each falls victim to torrid sexual fantasies brought on by Wanda and a coven of nude disciples bent on bringing the 400 year-old Baroness Daniella Varga back to life. It seems that Wanda (Hungarian actress Nadia Henkowa - Butterflies) has the power to hypnotize and cast spells that "set your nipples on fire." If you've ever seen a Sarno film, you might have a pretty good idea of what the director is going to present. Wanda and her coven engage in nightly orgiastic rituals below in the castle's dungeon, gyrating nude in front of flaming cauldrons, masturbating with penis shaped candles, and having sex with the two sole male members of the group (lucky bastards). Sarno also introduces us to Swedish sexpot Marie Forså (Justine And Juliette), who was only 17 at the time and plays the part of Helga. Forså isn't the most attractive actress in the world, but there were a couple of scenes, one where she fellates a candle and a couple where she moans and writhes while rubbing her crotch and moaning, "Oh please...make it stop. Make this throbbing stop," that might have some squirming on their couches. German actress Ulrike Butz (she appeared in a number of Walter Boos' early 70's sex comedies, like The Swinging Co-eds) plays Monika. Butz's character is a relatively minor one up until the last third of the film, after which "Monika" suddenly becomes a rather important facet of the story. Dr. Julia Malenkow (Anke Syring-Girl Meets Girl) and her brother Peter (Nico Wolferstetter-Love In 3-D), are the siblings whose car breaks down near the castle. Julia, an anthropologist, is the only one intelligent enough it seems to suspect something odd is going on within the castle. Dr. Julia, who also has an "unnatural" relationship with her brother, tries to warn him and gives him a crucifix made of garlic. So what does Pete do? Gives it to the little tart Helga for whom he has the hots. Others in the cast include Flavia Keyt (she appeared uncredited as a prostitute in The French Sex Murders), Alon D'Armand (The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse ), Claudia Fielers (Caged Women), Natasha Michnowa (Bittersweet Love), and Christa Jaeger (Girl Meets Girl).

Surprisingly, I really liked The Devil's Plaything. A lot of things could have been better--Sarno's choppy editing, the often incomprehensible dialogue, the fact that most of the actresses were unattractive and hard-looking (yes, I know, I'm shallow)--but overall, I was pleasantly surprised. I've loved female vampire movies from the very first moment I saw Hammer's Brides Of Dracula when I was eight or nine years old. Unfortunately, The Devil's Plaything doesn't come close to comparing to those classics of Hammer. Sarno was certainly no Terence Fisher and Nebe was no Anthony Hinds, but considering Sarno's specialty was cheapy-nudie flicks...I thought the film turned out okay. As much as I like nudity in films, I think that if Sarno would have focused more on the vampire elements and catching that moody, Gothic feel he would have produced a far more substantial and enjoyable movie. I would have liked to have seen more sexy vampires roaming the shadowy foyers in flowing sheer negligee or gallivanting across the countryside or through the misty woodlands, and fewer repetitive scenes of the coven swaying behind a burning cauldron. And if your going to make a film about female vampires, give them fangs for godsakes, and show us a lot more neck-biting and blood.

Retro Shock-O-Rama Cinema offers this film in two different versions. The Devil’s Plaything is the R-rated cut of the film, which Sarno shot as Veil of Blood. The DVD comes with a coupon you can send in to get the "unrated" version (titled Vampire Ecstasy) for the cost of S&H. My coupon is still
tucked away inside the sleeve.

Ready to buy The Devil's Plaything ?

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