Sunday, 30 August 2020

Reflections on ... The Fan (1981)

Recently watched: The Fan (1981). Tagline: “This is the story of a great star and a fan who went too far …” This notorious woman-in-peril slasher flick proved as popular as scabies when it emerged in 1981 (coincidentally, the same year as Mommie Dearest!), promptly sank into deep obscurity, rarely appears on television and has only intermittently been available on DVD over the years. But for cognoscenti of so-bad-they’re-great cult films, The Fan is exalted as an essential kitsch classic.

In a truly miscalculated career move, veteran Golden Age Hollywood queen Lauren Bacall stars as chain-smoking, mink-clad Sally Ross, a tough but vulnerable, bitter but sexy fifty-something Broadway diva (think Margo Channing or Helen Lawson. Or in fact, Bacall herself!). Just as Sally is embarking on rehearsals for an ambitious new stage musical, she begins being stalked by obsessive fan Douglas Breen (Michael Biehn).  Douglas bombards Sally with letters (today, he’d be trolling her on Instagram or Twitter rather than snail mail). As he grows increasingly frustrated and thwarted, the tone degenerates from lovelorn ("I bought a gorgeous new lucite frame for one of your most famous pictures”) to threatening (“Dear bitch. See how accessible you are? How would you like to be fucked by a meat cleaver?”). Eventually, Douglas turns homicidal: anyone in Sally’s orbit he perceives as an obstacle or a threat gets cut! (If you’re squeamish about spurting geysers of blood, The Fan isn’t the film for you).

To be fair, The Fan isn’t really as terrible as its reputation suggests. It certainly isn’t low-budget schlock. The production values are high. The direction is competent and even occasionally stylish, with effective flourishes of suspense. The milieu (disco-era show business glamour-meets-gruesome violence) isn’t dissimilar to the 1978 thriller The Eyes of Laura Mars starring Faye Dunaway.  It offers vivid glimpses of the lost grungy New York of the late seventies and early eighties. (As ever, I was riveted by a brief sequence in a smoky gay dive bar - with a sullen hustler loitering outside!). There’s (mostly) good acting from the A-list cast, like Maureen Stapleton as Sally’s loyal and wisecracking personal assistant (the Thelma Ritter role) and (DILF alert) James Garner as the ex-husband Sally still holds a torch for. And full credit to the distractingly handsome Biehn for attempting to breathe some credibility and conviction into the psycho fan Douglas.

And Bacall is simply majestic. (Unbelievably, Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine were offered the part before Bacall). Sally is a grand dame, a monstre sacré, a force of nature! “I’m a spoiled brat!” Sally exclaims in a moment of self-awareness. Men leap to light her cigarettes for her. “Get the hell out of here!” she’s apt to roar. (Bacall's growling acidic line delivery recalls another bronchial baritone babe: Bea Arthur). Sally laughs, she cries, she shouts. She drinks the shit out of her drinks, she smokes the shit out of her smokes. Sally also consumes one helluva lot of coffee, which can’t help but evoke the ultra-kitsch High Point instant coffee advertisements Bacall was doing on TV around the same time. (I noticed that at rehearsals Sally sips coffee out of those nasty white Styrofoam disposable cups that are verboten now in this more environmentally aware era). 

Some commentators unchivalrously snipe that 56-year old Bacall looks haggard in The Fan. And certainly, some of her close-ups are unforgiving. But this was decades before Botox and fillers were commonplace, and I’d argue Bacall resembles a gloriously ravaged, puffy-eyed lioness. Her face is “lived-in” in the style more commonly associated with older European actresses (think late-period Jeanne Moreau, Anna Magnani, Simone Signoret or Melina Mercouri) than American ones.

But what elevates The Fan to camp nirvana for gay viewers are the enticing glimpses of Sally’s glitzy musical Never Say Never. (Her previous play was entitled It’s Called Tomorrow). These scenes hit the same sweet spot as Neely O’Hara or Helen Lawson’s musical segments in Valley of the Dolls (1967). (The ballad "Hearts Not Diamonds" is Bacall's equivalent of "I'll Plant My Own Tree”). We get to chart Never Say Never’s progress from early rehearsals (cue dancers in leg warmers doing stretching exercises in front of a mirror and Bacall in a leotard) to glittering gala opening night. But what kind of gruesomely bizarre and inadvertently hilarious production is this meant to be? For one thing, it seems to feature a grand total of two songs. Everyone seems wildly enthusiastic about Sally’s singing, but raspy-voiced Bacall’s sixty cigarettes-a-day croak is grating. (Can I just point out here that Lizabeth Scott could sing?). What we see on the triumphant first night involves shocking pink neon lighting, male and female dancers gyrating Fosse-style on scaffolding, copious dry ice mist – and no perceptible plot. “She’s got no love – in Paris!” a male dancer hisses dramatically. At least we know who to thank. Note the credit “musical staging and choreography by Arlene Philips”. Phillips (formerly of British dance troupe Hot Gossip, much later a judge on TV’s Strictly Come Dancing) choreographed the disastrous Village People disco movie Can’t Stop the Music the year before, so she’s partly responsible for not one but two kitsch masterpieces! After the infamous debacle of Can’t Stop the Music, whose bright idea was it to hire Phillips again so soon? Whoever it was, I could kiss them!

Further reading:

Read some funny and perceptive analyses of The Fan here, here and here. 

There’s something perversely fascinating about seeing a classy, prestigious performer like Bacall wind up in an exploitation shocker like The Fan. When interviewed for a 1981 People magazine cover story supposedly to promote the movie, the leading lady was typically blunt: “The Fan is much more graphic and violent than when I read the script. The movie I wanted to make had more to do with what happens to the life of the woman and less blood and gore.” The producers must have been thrilled! Bacall’s appearance in The Fan is comparable to Lyle Waggoner in Love Me Deadly (1972) and Leslie Uggams in Poor Pretty Eddie (1975). 

My reflections on what I consider Bacall's most underrated performance in Young Man with a Horn (1950).

Monday, 24 August 2020

Reflections on ... Hot Blood (1956)

Recently watched: Hot Blood (1956). Rotten Tomatoes synopsis: “Set in the gypsy community of contemporary Los Angeles, dancer Stephano Torino (Cornel Wilde) is tricked into an arranged marriage with tempestuous Annie Caldash (Jane Russell).” Taglines: “In the midst of that steaming night their blood reached its boiling point!” and “Jane Russell shakes her tambourines and drives Cornel Wilde!” (Who doesn’t love a good boob joke?).

I’d always been intrigued by romantic musical comedy Hot Blood, made by visionary director Nicholas Ray (1911 - 1979) between two of his definitive artistic statements, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Bigger Than Life (1956). Considering Ray’s status as a major auteur and that he was then at his creative zenith, Hot Blood feels like a weirdly forgotten entry in his filmography. Having finally watched it (via Cinema Paradiso), I can understand why – this is a minor work rather than a lost classic. The initial Taming of the Shrew-style antagonism between Stephano and Annie isn’t very engaging (it must have been written into Russell’s contracts that she must squabble with all her leading men) and the treatment of the “volatile” Romani characters is rampantly clichéd. 

But no movie directed by Ray and starring Jane Russell in the fifties could be without some compensations. Filmed in Cinemascope and Technicolour, Hot Blood is entrancing in visual terms.  In his 1957 review for Cahiers du Cinéma, Jean-Luc Godard (who once declared, "cinema is Nicholas Ray”) raved, “No reservations are necessary in praising the deliberate and systematic use of the gaudiest colours to be seen in the cinema: barley-sugar orange shirts, acid-green dresses, violet cars, blue and pink carpets.” To that list, I would add: the ever-present shocking pinks and deep blood-reds, the powder blue Thunderbird that Russell’s blonde love rival drives and for that matter, the thick coat of coral lipstick that Russell herself wears. The soundtrack is by maestro of exotica music Les Baxter! Russell gets to sing (the Middle Eastern-style ballad almost threatens to turn into “Misirlou”), and Wilde gets to go shirtless (phwooar!). The catfight Russell has with another woman is enjoyably vicious. As a homoerotic bonus, there are swarthy, dark-eyed and curly-haired “gypsy boys” loitering in the crowd scenes who look like refugees from a Bob Mizer photo shoot. (The character of Annie’s brother Xano is played by the stunning James H Russell - Jane Russell’s own real-life brother!).

/ Above: real-life sibling James H Russell (as Xano) and Jane Russell (as Annie) in Hot Blood /

Hot Blood’s s campiest moment: Stephano and Annie’s dramatic, elaborate and S&M-tinged dance routine at their wedding celebration (I say “S&M-tinged” because it involves a lot of whip-cracking). We see Wilde and Russell dancing together in close-ups and medium shots, and then in the long shots it’s transparently (and hilariously) obvious they are replaced by professional dancers costumed like them doing the complicated steps. Verdict? More like Tepid Blood!

Thursday, 20 August 2020

Reflections on ... The Thrill Killers (1964)

/ Cash Flagg (aka Ray Dennis Steckler) and Liz Renay in The Thrill Killers /

The Thrill Killers (1964). Alternate title: The Maniacs Are Loose. Tagline: “Homicidal Maniacs on a Bloody Rampage!” I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend is accompanying me only semi-willingly).   

Recently I’ve plunged into the gleefully low-brow wild, wild world of naïve outsider psychotronic auteur Ray Dennis Steckler (25 January 1938 – 7 January 2009). While The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964) was an entertainingly incoherent mess, surely dirt-cheap exploitation “roughie” The Thrill Killers - a precursor to the psycho killer slasher flick - is Steckler’s tour de force? (Full disclosure: I haven’t watched Rat Pfink A Boo-Boo (1966) yet). Yes, comparisons to Ed Wood Jr are merited, but to Steckler’s credit, in this instance at least he achieves genuine white-knuckle urgency.  It helps that Thrill Killers is only 69-minutes long, and that Steckler’s guiding principle seems to be: motivation? Backstories? Character development? Nuance? Who needs ‘em! Plus, there’s bongo music on the soundtrack, women with bouffant hairdos, cars with fins and glimpses of atomic-era Los Angeles!

/ Liz Renay and Gary Kent grappling in The Thrill Killers /

Thrill Killers follows three separate narratives that collide at the climax. Joe Saxon (Joseph Bardo) is an unsuccessful aspiring actor struggling in the Hollywood rat race, to the despair of his long-suffering wife Liz (glamour icon Liz Renay). Meanwhile, wild-eyed feral loner Mort "Mad Dog" Click (portrayed by Steckler himself under his fabulous acting pseudonym Cash Flagg) is embarking on a seemingly random killing spree. And then comes the news (relayed over a tinny transistor radio) that three ax-wielding psychotic murders have escaped from a high-security mental institution. While the violence is tame by modern standards (and mostly occurs just out of frame or in shadow), thanks to Steckler’s dynamic no-frills film-making it packs an unexpected jolt, with a visceral sense of panic and claustrophobia. Admittedly, the decapitated head bouncing down a flight of stairs is unintentionally funny.

/ Above: is it wrong that I found Gary Kent as one of the three escaped lunatics outrageously sexy? He looks like just the kind of handsome thug Bob Mizer used to photograph clad in nothing but a posing pouch for Athletic Model Guild. The life and times of stuntman and actor Kent (still with us at the age of 87) was reportedly an inspiration for the character played by Brad Pitt in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) / 

/ Liz Renay in peril /

My favourite sequence: to ingratiate himself with the parasitic show biz community, Joe throws a lavish cocktail party at his home - which swiftly degenerates into an out-of-control bacchanal! Couples are gyrating frantically to loud twangy music. Hedonists are feeding each other bunches of grapes. One guy is wearing a toga. Alcoholic beverages are consumed. A girl gets pushed into the pool! Some delinquents drive a motorcycle through his living room! No wonder his wife is seething with disgust. 

/ Portrait of a marriage in turmoil!  Liz Renay and Joseph Bardo in The Thrill Killers /

Speaking of Liz Renay: surely any film featuring the b-movie actress / burlesque queen / convicted felon / naive outsider painter / gangster’s moll / authoress of multiple volumes of memoirs (including My Face for the World to See and How to Attract Men) and all-round super vixen is in is an instant camp classic simply by virtue of her presence? I thrilled to the shots of Renay running for her life through the woods in her tight cocktail dress, shrieking half-heartedly. For John Waters aficionados, Renay is synonymous with Muffy St Jacques in Desperate Living (1977). It must be said Waters elicited an infinitely superior performance out of her than Steckler (and weirdly, Renay looks considerably younger in Desperate Living). 

/ Note the poster for The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies on the wall behind Liz Renay - an in-joke? /

Renay is arguably upstaged, though, by Laura Benedict as Linda the café proprietress. In her sole film credit, the sultry and aloof Benedict is the embodiment of early sixties cool (winged Juliette Greco eyeliner, beatnik sweater, ironed hair) and is so imperturbably nonchalant throughout that she anticipates Aubrey Plaza.

/ Above: Linda Benedict - an appreciation! I've since learned that she was married to Gary Kent at this point. They must have made a stunning couple /

/ Watch The Thrill Killers on YouTube below /

Further reading:

Read more analyses of The Thrill Killers here and here.

Saturday, 15 August 2020

Reflections on ... Poor Pretty Eddie (1975)

Recently watched: Poor Pretty Eddie (1975). “Look, I have two weeks before my next concert. Now I’m going to get in my car and drive until I find a nice, quiet hole to crawl into.” When glamorous but exhausted African American show biz diva Liz Wetherly (Leslie Uggams) utters those words, little does she anticipate the horrors this impromptu solo road trip holds in store. In no time, her car has broken down on some godforsaken Southern dirt road in the middle of nowhere. (Poor Pretty Eddie was filmed in Athens, Georgia). Looking for assistance, Liz wanders into a decaying isolated hunting lodge called Bertha’s Oasis. The first person she encounters is handyman Keno (Ted Cassidy – aka Lurch from The Addams Family) just as he’s beheading a chicken with an ax! Further grotesquery awaits: the proprietress Bertha (Shelley Winters) is a former showgirl-turned-sloppy alcoholic harridan who lives with her much-younger studmuffin lover, aspiring Country & Western singer Eddie (Michael Christian). While her car is getting repaired, Liz checks into one of Bertha’s cabins – but will she survive to check out?

Poor Pretty Eddie is a putrid exploitation shocker that lives up to its notorious reputation. It’s a prime exemplar of “hicksploitation”: the subgenre of rural horror movies featuring homicidal rednecks. The hit film Deliverance came out three years earlier and clearly influenced the representation of hillbilly characters here. And the decrepit shanty town locale also anticipates Mortville in John Waters’ punk epic Desperate Living (1977).

The acting is genuinely good. As child-like but dangerously deluded halfwit Eddie, Christian manages to be simultaneously repellent and sexy (it must be said: he fills-out his Vegas-era Elvis fringed outfits nicely). And of course, Winters specialized in portraying blowzy, frowzy slatterns. An aside: for some masochistic reason, I’ve read both volumes of Winters’ wildly self-aggrandizing memoirs. She’s keen to depict herself as the highly-principled uncompromising earth mother of Method Acting – but she never once mentions the multitude of low-budget hagsploitation b-movies she mainly made from the early seventies onward. That would have been so much more interesting!

What the hell was classy mainstream entertainer Uggams thinking when she signed up for this? The only comparable example that comes to mind is Lyle Waggoner appearing in the necrophilia-themed Love Me Deadly (1972). Full credit to Uggams, though: she fully embraces the material. I love the haughty contempt with which Liz contemplates the dumb crackers she’s surrounded with, and she gives great side eye. Interestingly, the role was originally offered to Nichelle Nichols (Uhuru from Star Trek). I bet Nichols felt like she had a lucky escape!

Eddie’s behind-the-scenes story is almost more interesting than what unfolds onscreen. The production company had links to pornography, organized crime and money-laundering. (The executive producer was known as “The Scarface of Porn”). In a laudable attempt to cover all the bases, the film was released under multiple titles for different demographics. For the honky drive-in / grindhouse circuit it was called Poor Pretty Eddie. For African American audiences, it was sold as a blaxploitation movie re-titled Black Vengeance. And there’s supposedly a radically different, much softer-core version entitled Heartbreak Hotel that shifts the emphasis to Eddie and Bertha’s relationship – and has a happy ending!

With its queasy, bad taste emphasis on rape and racism, Eddie has something to offend everyone. It certainly abounds with unpleasant moments. But it feels weirdly relevant today in the era of Black Lives Matter and Trump. Today, the hicks who brutalize Liz would sport MAGA hats, rage against the removal of Confederate flags and be addicted to opioids. Time has not mellowed Poor Pretty Eddie. Approach with caution!

Further reading:

Temple of Schlock's in-depth account of the production of Poor Pretty Eddie.

Funny and perceptive analysis of Poor Pretty Eddie here.

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Reflections on ... The Dark Mirror (1946)

Recently watched: The Dark Mirror (1946). Tagline: “Twins! One who loves … and one who loves to kill!” 

A nice way to remember the great Olivia de Havilland (who died last month aged 104): the BBC recently screened the 1946 psychological thriller The Dark Mirror in tribute (it might still be on the iPlayer – check! It’s also viewable on YouTube). The Dark Mirror is a real potboiler (albeit artfully directed by film noir maestro Robert Siodmak), hardly one of the Golden Age Hollywood star’s most prestigious films and I’m probably alone here, but this is my favourite performance by de Havilland. 

Or should I say “performances”? She portrays identical twins Terry and Ruth Collins who are suspected of murder. Inevitably, one sister is good and one evil. (This was a popular scenario at the time. De Havilland’s friend and peer Bette Davis starred in not one but two variations of this theme). Terry and Ruth aren’t just identical twins: even as adults, they also always wear identical outfits and coiffures. (No one comments on how dysfunctional this is). Helpfully, their choices in accessories occasionally distinguishes the sisters. They sometimes wear necklaces that spell-out “Terry” or “Ruth” (anticipating the “Carrie” one Sarah Jessica Parker used to wear on Sex in the City) or brooches in the shape of “R” or “T”.  But of course, this jewelry can be used to mislead! 

Anyway, de Havilland specialized in playing virtuous women so it’s fascinating when (as the psycho killer twin) she uses her familiar purring honeyed tones to gaslight, manipulate and spread malice, and to see her serenely beautiful face twisted in rage. She’s so good it makes you wish de Havilland played unsympathetic roles more often. She wouldn’t get another opportunity again until Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte in 1964.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

Reflections on ... Passport to Shame (1958)

Recently watched: Passport to Shame (1958), a tense, irresistibly trashy black-and-white British b-movie that aims to expose the scourge of prostitution rings in London. Tagline: “EXPOSED! The Shame of London Vice!” Alternate American title: Room 43. I was already enticed just by the RadioTimes description (“a cheap, tawdry and utterly fascinating piece of vintage sexploitation”) – and it didn’t disappoint!

You know Passport is going to be good when it commences with an unintentionally hilarious “what you’re about to see” public service announcement, with lawman Fabian of the Yard earnestly addressing the camera to warn us about this “blight” on society. (He employs the now rarely-heard word “seamy” – let’s bring that back!). The putative lead actress is Odile Versois as protagonist Malou, the naïve French girl unwittingly lured into white slavery. But Malou is a wan and tiresome one-dimensional victim (and saddled with a terrible ponytail wiglet).

Instead, Passport is comprehensively stolen by 26-year old Diana Dors - British cinema’s reigning bad girl - at her pouting sex goddess zenith in a secondary role as fellow prostitute Vicki. Dors is given a fabulous introduction on a busy street at night. The camera lovingly pans up from her stiletto heels, to her skin-tight white pencil skirt before settling on her platinum blonde mane. A male passerby grabs Vicki by the elbow to stop her from stepping off the curb into a puddle. “You almost wound up in the gutter!” he exclaims, and Dors gives him a knowing smirk before swiveling away. (An interesting visual shorthand: virtuous Malou typically wears full skirts with crinolines, while Dors and the other "working girls" hobble around in painted-on pencil skirts).


I’d assumed the action would occur in the vicinity of Soho, but in fact Passport’s locale is mainly situated around Bayswater. Anyway, Passport is swathed in moody film noir-style lighting and boasts some exceptional performances. Craggy-faced tough guy Eddie Considine is the Canadian cabdriver with a heart of gold determined to save Malou’s virtue. Brenda de Banzie as Aggie the brothel madam suggests a malevolent, fro frou and British-accented version of Ethel Mertz from I Love Lucy, and Herbert Lom exudes menace as sleazeball pimp Nick. (Boy, does he not appreciate being reminded of his humble origins in the East End!). Passport reaches a crazed climax when – in a moment worthy of Reefer Madness – an unsuspecting Malou smokes marijuana (she assumes it’s a regular cigarette) and proceeds to have a berserk German Expressionist nightmare.

/ Below: bonus cheesecake shot of Dors. In the film itself, we only get a fleeting glimpse of Vicki wearing this sexy lingerie but Passport to Shame's publicity material seemed to focus on it! / 

Monday, 3 August 2020

Reflections on ... Nico, 1988 (2017)

Trine Dryholm as gloomy punk diva Nico in the biopic Nico, 1988 /

My quick reflections on Nico, 1988, the 2017 biopic about the chain-smoking, heroin-ravaged and wraith-cheekboned German punk chanteuse Nico (1938 – 1988) starring Danish actress Trine Dryholm and directed by Susanna Nicchiarelli. As the title suggests, the movie focuses on the final year of the down-on-her-luck former Warhol Superstar's life, when she was touring the dives of Europe doing desultory concerts. (I streamed it on More4 Saturday night. If you’re curious to see it, don’t delay – it’s going to get deleted from the platform soon!).

 / The actual Nico photographed in the late eighties towards the end of her life /

I’ve been a Nico obsessive since I was a teenager, but I approached the film with an open mind. (It received a decidedly mixed reception). Good or bad, for me Nico, 1988 was bound to be fascinating.

What mainly struck a wrong note for me: when Nico angrily snaps at a journalist, “Don’t call me Nico. Call me by my real name – Christa!” The film seemingly implies she resented the persona of “Nico” being imposed on her and yearned to return to her “true self” Christa again. But I’ve never read anything to support this assertion and doubt Nico ever said it. It was her mentor the German fashion photographer Herbert Tobias who first bestowed the mononym “Nico” on her in the fifties when she was a 16-year old model and she kept it for the rest of her life. From what I’ve gathered, she disliked her real name (Christa Päffgen) anyway, feeling it was bourgeois and “too German” and preferred the air of mystery and androgyny that “Nico” provided.

 / Teenage fashion model Nico photographed in 1956 by Herbert Tobias - the photographer who first nicknamed her "Nico" /

The script crams-in lots of awkward exposition (like Nico bringing-up the subject of her childhood, for example, or that her son Ari was fathered by actor Alain Delon) in an unnatural way to fill-in the gaps. Nico, 1988 frequently displays a shaky and selective grasp of the facts. (Which is true of all biopics, to be fair).

Trine Dryholm as Nico /

According to the script, Nico spoke in “profound” show business platitudes (“I’ve been on the top. I’ve been on the bottom. Both places are empty”) worthy of Helen Lawson or Neely O’Hara in Valley of the Dolls.

/ Pop Art "girl of the moment" Nico in the sixties when she was the chanteuse for Andy Warhol's house band The Velvet Underground /

The film uncritically buys into the popular cliché that Nico “deliberately” made herself ugly later in life (“Am I ugly? Good! I wasn’t happy when I was beautiful”). Nico was always deeply image-conscious, there’s no shortage of examples of her on the record fretting about gaining weight, and for someone “unconcerned” about her appearance Nico was remarkably devoted to black eyeliner and mascara right to the end.

/ Embodiment of ruined glamour: Nico - wreathed in cigarette smoke - onstage in the eighties /  

Nico’s touring band contains a female Romanian violinist called Sylvia. I could be wrong, but I don’t think Nico’s backing group ever featured a female musician (she was notorious for her antipathy towards other women). There’s a half-hearted fabricated subplot about a doomed romance between Sylvia and another of Nico’s heroin-addicted musicians which seems to get dropped mid-way through. This creates the impression Nicchiarelli was unsure if Nico’s own story sufficiently was interesting.

/ Director Susanna Nicchiarelli and leading lady Trine Dryholm /

When Nico embarks on her final, fatal bicycle journey in Ibiza on that fateful day in July 1988 (en route to buy marijuana, she suffers a heart attack, crashes her bike and dies of a cerebral hemorrhage), she should be seen winding a black scarf around her head first. Filmmaker Paul Morrissey would later rail something like it was “those damn black rags” Nico insisted on wearing that caused her death.

Actually, the sartorial styling is always a bit “off”: Nico’s sunglasses should be butch mirrored aviators.  She should be sporting a keffiyeh scarf. They still depict Nico wearing the long brown boots she was wearing around the time of her Marble Index album in the late sixties. By the eighties, Nico had long since discarded them for black leather motorcycle boots, always left unbuckled. To their credit, the signature punk-y skull-studded black leather wristband Nico wore in the eighties is well represented.

/ The skull wristband! Worn by the actual Nico (above) and Dryholm (below) /

There are some inexplicable musical choices. I can possibly understand why Nico is depicted huskily warbling Nat King Cole’s "Nature Boy” in a hotel lobby backed by jazz musicians in Italy. She recorded the jazz standard “My Funny Valentine” on her final album in 1985. Maybe they couldn’t afford the rights to that song? But why does Dryholm croon the 1984 single “Big in Japan” by Alphaville over the closing credits? It has zero connection with Nico.

Trine Dryholm as Nico /

At its weakest, Nico, 1988 sometimes looks and feels like a French and Saunders parody. There could have been more moments of absurd black tragi-comedy. Dryholm never quite nails the cadaverous and macabre Morticia Addams-like aspect of Nico’s demeanor. She should have been even more perverse, morbid and inscrutable! But maybe Nicchiarelli feared that would make her unsympathetic?

 / Zombie Queen: a wraith-like Nico photographed in the Italian magazine Ciao in 1981 / 

What the makers of Nico, 1988 got right:  

Nico’s grubby indifference to hygiene (her former lovers recall she preferred spraying herself with perfume rather than bathing). “Don’t worry, sir,” Nico explains to her new landlord in Manchester when he explains how the boiler works. “I take showers very rarely.”

Sandor Funtek is perfectly cast as Ari (Nico’s profoundly troubled son) and his scenes with Dryholm (when Nico belatedly attempts to compensate for her prolonged absences during his childhood) are moving. They even got the birthmark on his forehead right!

 / Dryholm as Nico and Funtek as Ari ... /

/ ... and the real deal / 

In truth, Dryholm never really resembles Nico (she looks more like Helen Mirren. Or as Variety’s critic puts it, she “looks like a long-black-haired, coldly fierce erotic-zombie version of Roseanne Barr”). Nor does she attempt to emulate Nico’s inimitable Germanic vampire priestess Voice of Doom. But you can’t fault her intensely committed, starkly unglamorous portrayal and her re-interpretations of Nico’s songs are powerful. And Dryholm intermittently captures Nico’s Night of the Living Dead thousand-yard death glare. I especially liked the wired and jittery soundcheck performance of “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”

Ultimately, Nico, 1988 is a sympathetic and well-intentioned low budget labour of love and a noble enterprise for both Nicchiarelli and Dryholm. Let’s face it: it’s impressive Nico, 1988 even got made. If this biopic leads to anyone discovering Nico’s haunting and uncompromised musical vision, that can only be a good thing.  

/ Nico towards the end of her life /

Further reading:

I’ve blogged about the Nico - the Marlene Dietrich of punk / Edith Piaf of the Blank Generation - many times: her contemporary Marianne Faithfull reflects on Nico; the historic encounter When John Waters Met Nico; Nico’s 1960s modelling days; how the old jazz standard “My Funny Valentine” (and heroin) connects Nico with Chet Baker; and When Patti Smith Met Nico; Nico's influence on Leonard Cohen.