Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Reflections on ... Cleopatra (1934)

/ Henry Wilcoxon and Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra (1934) /

Recently watched: Cleopatra (1934). Apologies to Elizabeth Taylor, but Claudette Colbert is cinema’s authoritative Queen of the Nile. Visionary director Cecil B DeMille’s lushly opulent and risqué account of the life and loves of Cleopatra VII is infinitely superior to the bloated 1963 version starring Liz’n’Dick. For one thing, DeMille tells his story in 105-minutes – a model of concision compared to the sixties version, which is a ponderous, mind-numbing four hours and twenty minutes long! The 1934 interpretation also offers the most sumptuously Art Deco of screen Cleopatras. (Which makes sense, considering the Art Deco aesthetic was at least partially inspired by ancient Egyptian imagery). 

The Motion Picture Production Code came into effect during production, so the eroticism DeMille was able to sneak past the censors is impressive. (We see exposed female nipples in the opening credits!). DeMille was the undisputed maestro of kinky pagan spectacle, and here proceedings reach a bonkers climax when Cleopatra initiates Marc Antony into Egyptian-style hedonism on her gilded barge. Accompanied by mounds of jewels and goblets of wine, the duo feast on skewers of “reed birds” while languorously reclining. Cleopatra presents a lavish production number to seduce Antony, incorporating legions of homoerotic baby-oiled gladiators, slave boys in loincloths and semi-naked female concubines waving peacock feathers. The pageantry grows ever more crazed. Girls dressed as leopards cavort, crawl on all fours and then somersault through flaming hoops while a muscular male “lion tamer” in ass-baring bondage gear cracks a whip. Finally, Cleopatra gives the signal that she and Antony wish to make love, and her battalion of underlings swing into action. Giant billowing silk curtains unfurl to give the couple privacy. Temple dancers ritualistically perform. Flower petals rain from the sky. The camera pulls back to reveal the galley slaves rowing the barge to the beat of a drum. The segment is a fever dream of orgiastic depravity and a pinnacle of Golden Age Hollywood camp nirvana! 

Colbert makes for a coolly calculating and seductive Cleopatra. (Those butterfly wing-shaped brows really cast a spell!). Her slinky and revealing ensembles (heavy on gold lamé and exposed flesh) are by costumier Travis Banton, the genius who also dressed Paramount’s other divas like Marlene Dietrich and Mae West at the time. His creations all seem to focus attention on Colbert’s boobs, and weirdly anticipate the wild looks Bob Mackie would create for Cher in the seventies. Bear in mind Colbert made It Happened One Night, Imitation of Life and Cleopatra all in the same year. She was effortlessly, stylishly confident in screwball comedies, melodramas and historical epics. So why doesn’t Colbert get the kind of acclaim for this range in the way her peers like Davis, Crawford and Stanwyck routinely do? 

Anyway, as Marc Antony rugged British leading man Henry Wilcoxon matches Colbert for pulchritude and sex appeal (those shortie togas showcase his powerfully muscled thighs beautifully). Which reminds me of an anecdote in Boyd McDonald’s essential 1985 volume of essays Cruising the Movies. McDonald offers an account shared by a sailor friend who was once picked-up by Wilcoxon. The actor gave him a lift from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which involved an overnight hotel stopover. Apparently, Wilcoxon “expressed himself in “animal groans”” and “dropped him at the gardenia-scented Biltmore, sore-assed but satisfied.”

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Reflections on ... The Female Bunch (1969)


Recently watched: The Female Bunch (1969). Tagline: “They dare to do what other women only dream about!” 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). 

Naïve young Las Vegas cocktail waitress Sandy (Nesa Renet) is fed up with men and through with hurting. In fact, Sandy is so distraught after the failure of her romance with a lounge singer that she overdoses on pills. Luckily, she’s rescued by her glamorous blonde go-go dancer friend Libby (Regina Carrol). And Libby knows the solution to Sandy’s problems. Blindfolding her first, Libby drives Sandy to a secret, isolated Californian ranch, the premises of a cult-like all-female community of hardened man-hating feminists. “We are completely independent of men!” thunders Grace (Jennifer Bishop), the sadistic and alienated leader of these female supremacists. This being a late sixties sexploitation film, this pack of misandrists still resemble off-duty strippers or glamour models, complete with heavy dark eye make-up, ratted-up bouffant wiglets and cleavage-flaunting wardrobes straight out of a Frederick’s of Hollywood catalogue. Once Sandy passes the terrifying initiation ritual (she’s buried alive in a coffin), she’s a fully paid-up member of “the sisterhood.” Before long, though, the in-over-her-head Sandy learns of the women’s criminal activity (they’re smuggling heroin over the Mexican border) and penchant for psychotic violence. Can she escape from their clutches in one piece? 

As this synopsis suggests, exploitation Western The Female Bunch shares DNA with Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) in which a trio of vicious go-go dancers embark on a homicidal crime spree in the desert. A z-grade grindhouse hack, director Al Adamson is no Meyer: his film-making is functional rather than dementedly inspired, but he does sustain an atmosphere of cruelty and sweaty urgency. Don’t expect much character development or motivation. For example, once the ultra-militant feminist amazons cross the Mexican border and start downing tequila in a taverna, within no time they are literally rolling around naked on the sawdust floor getting pawed by male admirers in an orgiastic bacchanal. So hetero-normative! So much for “man-hating!” Valerie Solanas would be vomiting with rage! (To be fair, only one of the gang members is overtly delineated as lesbian). 

In truth, the real-life behind-the-scenes stories surrounding The Female Bunch are considerably more interesting than anything that unfolds onscreen. The cast includes two genuine down-on-their-luck Hollywood stars presumably hungry for work (Lon Chaney Jr and Russ Tamblyn). Notoriously, The Female Bunch was filmed on location at the Spahn Ranch in the summer of 1969 - when it was inhabited by The Manson Family! Perhaps the most striking member of the female gang is statuesque redhead Sadie, played by Aleshia Brevard (billed here as A’lesha Lee). Brevard enjoyed a lengthy career on the margins of show business as a film, stage and TV actress, Playboy playmate, model and nightclub entertainer – and was a transgender pioneer. She kept her gender reassignment surgery a secret until 2001 when she released her autobiography The Woman I Was Not Born to Be. (She died in 2017 aged 79). As Libby, the magnetic Regina Carrol nails one of my favourite sixties bad girl looks (disheveled teased mane of peroxide hair, frosted white lipstick). Carrol was married to the director, and tragically died of cancer aged just 49.  And finally, Al Adamson was gruesomely murdered aged 66 in 1995 (his live-in handyman killed him after a dispute and “entombed” the corpse under cement where the jacuzzi used to be. The LA Times headline screamed: “Horror Film Director Found Slain, Buried Under Floor”).


The Female Bunch is free to view on Amazon Prime

Sunday, 27 December 2020

Reflections on ... Voyage of the Rock Aliens (1984)

Recently watched: Voyage of the Rock Aliens (1984). Tagline: “the story of a guy, a girl and an alien... and one night they will always remember!” 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).  

Incomprehensible. Stultifying. Bizarre. Botched! In the early eighties, former child actress, cherub-faced starlet and “triple threat” Pia Zadora reigned as the undisputed queen of bad movies. (Her filmography-from-hell includes crimes-against-cinema like Fake-out (1982) and The Lonely Lady (1983)). Enduring the 97-minute duration of misbegotten low-budget New Wave musical comedy Voyage of the Rock Aliens certainly justifies how Zadora earned that title. (Note: don’t confuse Voyage of the Rock Aliens with Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968) – an entirely different but equally terrible film starring that earlier queen of bad movies, Mamie Van Doren). 

Voyage was calculatedly formulated to promote Zadora as a viable pop siren in the vein of Madonna or Cyndi Lauper. In fact, it opens with an epic rock video for “When the Rain Begins to Fall”, Zadora’s hi-NRG disco duet with Jermaine Jackson. The video has that artfully distressed post-apocalyptic / post-punk look typical of the era (it’s hard to overstate the stylistic influence of Mad Max in the eighties). Seemingly tacked-on at random, the video bears zero relation to what unfolds next. How to explain Voyage of the Rock Aliens? According to Wikipedia, its scriptwriter conceived it as a deliberately campy tongue-in-cheek spoof hybrid of fifties and sixties b-movie genres. A postmodern mash-up of science fiction, beach party musicals, monster movies and rock’n’roll juvenile delinquent flicks sounds potentially amusing in more competent hands, but the conception and execution here is frankly - if cheerfully - inept. 

Zany hijinks, wacky misunderstandings and “what-the-fuck” moments ensue when a group of rock’n’roll-crazed aliens (styled to vaguely resemble Devo) land their guitar-shaped spaceship on earth and try to ingratiate themselves with the local teenagers of a town called Speelburg. Voyage’s tone is established with an introductory Beach Blanket Bingo-style musical number. The song is grating. The choreography is clunky. The weather is visibly overcast and chilly. Some of the “high schoolers” are seemingly well into their late twenties. To be fair, it does offer a time capsule of eighties fashion trends: it’s a veritable day-glo riot of ra-ra skirts, crimped hair, fingerless lace gloves and wraparound sunglasses. Dee Dee (Zadora) yearns to sing with her boyfriend Frankie’s band (Frankie and The Pack) at their high school’s upcoming cotillion. But surly delinquent hoodlum Frankie (Craig Sheffer) is such a selfish, insecure jerk he won’t let her. (This scenario reminded me of Lucy constantly wanting to crash Ricky’s stage show in old episodes of I Love Lucy). The leader of the aliens (Tom Nolan) develops a crush on Dee Dee and has no qualms about her joining his band, inciting Frankie’s jealousy. 

Proceedings are padded-out with some annoying sub-plots. Two homicidal killers escape from a high security mental facility. The eccentric elderly female sheriff investigates the town’s UFO sighting. (This surely represents an unseemly career low for Academy Award-winning veteran character actress Ruth Gordon of Rosemary’s Baby and Harold and Maude fame). There’s also a sea monster whose tentacle pops up at random and is never explained.  Storytelling coherence isn’t one of Voyage’s strengths: it frequently feels like some pages have gone missing from the script, or some crucial explanatory scenes have been accidentally deleted.   

Anyway, Zadora gamely tackles the acting, singing and dancing with more enthusiasm than skill. Frankie’s bandmates are played by a genuine Los Angeles psychobilly band called Jimmy and The Mustangs - a poor man’s Stray Cats, although it must be said they do provide eye candy in their mesh t-shirts and studded leather biker jackets. Speaking of which: pretty boy Sheffer’s Frankie (pouting as if his life depends on it) is filmed like an escapee from an eighties gay porn film, with a homoerotic focus on his sinewy torso and painted-on black jeans. (For which I thank you!). With horrible symmetry, Voyage concludes by reprising “When the Rain Begins to Fall” (with Scheffer lip-syncing to Jermaine Jackson’s vocals) with some of the most half-assed green screen technology ever captured on celluloid. Clearly the filmmakers had stopped caring by then. Problem is, you will have too! 

Voyage of the Rock Aliens is FREE to view on Amazon Prime. In the meantime, here's the trailer. 

Postscript: the last time I attended the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender over Easter 2019, my friend Kevin and I made a point of checking out Pia Zadora’s jazz revue at an Italian restaurant called Piero’s. In between sets, the lady herself pulled up a chair, joined us and hung out! We interrogated the effervescent Zadora about her wayward film career and trust me – she couldn’t have been more hip, knowing or self-deprecating. She's well aware that films like Voyage of the Rock Aliens were terrible and is able to laugh at them (and herself) now. Read more about this historic encounter here. 

 / Pictured: Kevin, Pia and I /


Monday, 14 December 2020

Reflections on ... Blowing Wild (1953)


Recently watched: Blowing Wild (1953). Tagline: “Fighting wild! Loving wild!” 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). 

Golden age Hollywood royalty Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanywck memorably appeared onscreen together in the justly celebrated comedies Meet John Doe and Ball of Fire (both 1941). There’s a minor but interesting collaboration the duo made much later in their careers that rarely gets cited: the frankly tawdry, hard-boiled melodrama Blowing Wild. (Don’t let the title mislead you: it’s not an exploration into the heartbreak of flatulence). Blowing Wild deserves to be better known. At its best, it reaches a fever pitch of baroque, operatic lunacy that anticipates the 1954 Nicholas Ray Western Johnny Guitar.

Cooper is Jeff Dawson, a taciturn drifter searching for employment in Depression-era South America. Dawson’s luck seems to improve when local oil baron Paco Conway (Anthony Quinn) hires him as a foreman – but sparks fly when he discovers that Conway’s wife Marina (Stanwyck) is an old flame. And the highly volatile Marina makes it extremely clear she’s still carrying a torch for him.  Even when Dawson tells her, “You’re no good, Marina! You’re just no good!” she still lunges at him for a kiss. After Dawson contemptuously brushes her lipstick off his mouth with the back of his hand, she growls, “You tried to wipe me off before - and you never could!” 

Blowing Wild boils with hints of dysfunctional perversity. Paco knocks a guy out in a fistfight while Marina (a dominatrix in jodhpurs) observes approvingly on horseback. “She likes to see me fight!” a grinning Paco assures Dawson. Later, one of the laborers confides to Dawson that Marina has a history of sleeping with Paco’s workmen. Marina sublimates her pent-up sexual frustration with reckless high-speed horseback riding. A furiously pumping oil derrick outside the Conways’ mansion (the source of their wealth) seemingly represents the couples’ inner turmoil. 

Hugo Fregonese’s direction is terse and muscular. In terms of acting and charisma, you can’t fail with a cast like this. The performances from Quinn and Stanwyck are ferocious (Cooper is his usual laconic cowboy self). As Paco the cuckolded husband, the unfailingly intense Quinn oozes swarthy machismo and a constant patina of sweat. And Stanwyck is simply majestic as hot-pool-of-woman-need Marina. When Marina cracks-up spectacularly towards the denouement (Dawson to Marina: “It makes me sick to even look at you!” Marina: “You’ll never get away from me! I won’t let you!”), Stanwyck suggests a crazed Lady Macbeth figure. And then there’s Ruth Roman in the secondary female lead as Sal Donnelly, waiting in the wings to claim Dawson for herself. A sensual and earthy actress with a distinctive nicotine-stained voice, Roman elevates every film she appears in. There’s a deliciously bitchy encounter when Marina goes to the casino where Sal works to confront her rival. (It culminates with Marina sneering, “You're a liar, a cheap little liar. What can he see in you?”). Actually, I'd happily watch a 90-minute movie of just tough broads Stanwyck and Roman exchanging insults. 

Early on, there’s one gloriously noir moment that justifies Blowing Wild’s existence: Paco roughly embraces Miranda from behind while she’s seated at her make-up table. Marina (clad in a black negligee) furiously snarls, “You smell like the gutter!” and Paco responds, “That’s just where I’ve been!”

You can watch Blowing Wild on YouTube (just ignore the Spanish subtitles):

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Reflections on ... Point of Terror (1971)

 / Dyanne Thorne in Point of Terror (1971) /

Recently watched: Point of Terror (1971). Tagline: “Demons long locked in the depths of the mind come out to destroy the weak and believing!” 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). 

Upon release this wildly tawdry exploitation curiosity was misleadingly and inexplicably promoted as a horror film (that tagline bears zero relation to anything that unfolds onscreen). And to this day Wikipedia describes it as a an “erotic drama horror film.” More accurately, Point of Terror is a shamelessly old-fashioned, down-and-dirty melodrama about adultery, murder and double crossing. The script - with its echoes of old film noirs like The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity - could easily have been written three decades earlier but it’s been tweaked for the swingin’ permissive era and the sexploitation-hungry demands of the drive-in circuit. The tone is pure soap opera. Everyone drinks too much and snarls bitchy dialogue at each other. There’s hammy acting, chain-smoking, poolside lounging, flashes of nudity and bed-hopping. In summary: irresistible! 

Point of Terror’s campy lunacy is established immediately, with leading man Peter Carpenter wearing a fringed red ensemble, flailing around doing jazz hands while beltin’ out a musical number over the opening credits. Carpenter is muscular stud muffin Tony Trelos, a crotch-thrusting, hip-swiveling, tight-trousered and side-burned virile nightclub singer (think Vegas-era Elvis, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck or Tony Polar in Valley of the Dolls (1967)) employed at a Santa Monica cocktail lounge called The Lobster House. 

From there, Point of Terror smash cuts to Tony asleep on the beach, tormented by a nightmare. Screaming himself awake, Tony encounters buxotic bikini-clad MILF Andrea Hilliard (Dyanne Thorne). It turns out he’s trespassing on her private beach. Hungrily ogling his rippling bronzed torso, the cougar-ish Andrea assures him it’s fine. Even better: Andrea is rich (ker-ching!), co-owns a record label with her husband and is enthusiastic to mix business with pleasure and sign-up this hunky new discovery. But Andrea has baggage: she’s trapped in a bitterly dysfunctional marriage to her invalid husband Martin (Joel Marston). Here’s a sampling of their ugly arguments: Martin: “Dirty bitch! You drink too goddamn much! It’s because of your drinking I’m in this chair!” Andrea: “Martin, I have a headache this big with your name on it!” 

/ Tony and Andrea "meet cute" at the beach /

/ Turmoil! Joel Marston and Dyanne Thorne as the feuding Hilliards /

Tony invites Andrea to see him perform that night. (Note that The Lobster House’s stage is decorated with tinfoil - perhaps inspired by Warhol’s silver Factory?). “This is what I am and what I’ll always be / A drifter of the heart / Until love changes me!” Tony lustily wails, which makes Andrea go all misty and “tropical” downtown. (We always watch each of Tony’s cringe-worthy songs in their entirety! No cutting away!). In no time, the duo has embarked on an affair and begun production on Tony’s new album. (The “music industry” segments evoke Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). Speaking of Meyer: Peter Carpenter made his film debut as a Canadian Royal Mounted Police officer seduced by Erica Gavin in Vixen (1968)). 

/ Tony rocks the Lobster House. The blonde woman in green with ringlets is Andrea /

/ In the recording studio with Tony and Andrea /

Interestingly, Tony is portrayed as a grasping, amoral anti-hero. He takes his long-suffering girlfriend Sally for granted and brazenly cheats on her, and it’s implied he has a history of exploiting gullible older women to further his show biz aspirations. “I want to be somebody. That’s all I’ve ever wanted,” he explains for anyone who’s missed the point. “And I’ll do anything to get it. Anything!” Tony thinks he’s found his match in Andrea, but she is far more treacherous than he suspects! (To her credit, Sally warned, “She plays games, Tony! You’re just one of her toys!”). In no time, their relationship has soured (Tony: “Look, I’m not one of those beach bums you used to run around with!” Andrea: “No, they had a little class!”). But watch out, Tony: it turns out Andrea convinced Martin to kill his first wife so that they could be together. And another murder seems increasingly inevitable! 

/ Paula Mitchell as Sally in Point of Terror (1971) /

For trash enthusiasts, Point of Terror offers a cornucopia of riches. In an Eve Arden-style sidekick role, Leslie Simms (rocking a frosted blonde Tammy Wynette wig) steals every scene as Fran, Andrea’s perennially tipsy best friend. (I loved this exchange between the gal pals: Fran: “What’s he got to give you?” Andrea: “Kicks!” Fran: “He’s using you.” Andrea: “We’re using each other”). The gorgeously vivid nightclub lighting (heavy on the shocking pinks and greens) anticipates Italian giallo films like Suspiria (1977). The groovy early seventies clothing (Andrea’s crimplene dresses, Tony’s unbuttoned shirts exposing maximum tanned “chest meat”) are crimes against fashion. Andrea’s bouffant coiffures are like a tribute to the album covers of Nancy Sinatra (except when she opts for little girl pigtails, which are a tribute to Donna Douglas as Ellie May Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies). The sex scene in the swimming pool predicts the one in Showgirls (1995). 

/ Leslie Simms as Fran /

/ Thorne's baroque wedding cake hairstyles are worthy of comparison to Lana Turner's in The Big Cube (1969) /

Best of all is director Alex Nicol’s equal opportunity lechery. Sure, we get to see Dyanne Thorne’s boobs, but we also get multiple crotch shots of Peter Carpenter in spray-on skintight pants. (The frequently shirtless Carpenter resembles a vintage Playgirl centrefold come to life). Most memorably, the camera freezes on a lingering glimpse of Christopher’s pert naked ass in a shower scene. Eyeing him up and down, Andrea purrs, “The view from here is marvelous!” 

Point of Terror is viewable (for free!) on Amazon Prime. It's also available on Blu-ray and DVD via Vinegar Syndrome.