Friday, December 31, 2010

A Loving Poem To Video Nasties

There has never been anything quite like this incredible 3-disc set from Nucleus Films (UK/PAL). All 72 titles that were on the UK's "Video Nasties" list are individually discussed, the specifics of their releases are cataloged, and each movie's trailer is presented.

On top of that, the first disc contains an amazing documentary exploring the "Video Nasties" phenomenon.  Every angle of the issue is examined via interviews with media experts, actual politicians behind the bans (such as the silly Sir Graham Bright), and well known genre commentators such as Stephen Thrower, Kim Newman, Alan Bryce, Xavier Mendik, Dr. Patricia MacCormack, and Alan Jones. Actress/TV personality Emily Booth pops in to do some presenting and points her pretty, leather-clad ass at the camera to keep the fans transfixed.

For those not familiar with Britain's draconian crackdown on films deemed unsuitable even for adults, the documentary will be an eye-opening experience and testament to just how ignorant certain human beings -- those in powerful public positions, in particular -- can be. 

The packaging of this extraordinary DVD project shows great love for its subject.

For example, the emphasis here is on VHS releases because the bans affected the distribution of VHS's several years before DVD's came along. The producers have built their menus to resemble collections of VHS's on shelves. To watch a trailer separately, you simply arrow left or right across the VHS spines of your favorite "Nasty" and press "OK" to launch the trailer. Little details like this make the experience special.

The conditions of the trailers vary. All are complete, though, and brought back many memories for me. In Australia, there was no official "Video Nasties" list. Nevertheless, the jackboots of the censorship gestapo were well and truly stomping on many of the same titles in the convict colony. Bans were not as frequent, but heavy cuts were common. Fulci's Zombie Flesh Eaters (aka Zombie/Zombi 2) had much of its beefy goodness excised. The splinter in the eye sequence was cut at its juiciest moment. Even Dead and Buried, which spent some time on the "Nasties" list, was attacked with scissors by the Aussie censor. The primary victim was the scene where Lisa Blount (playing a nurse) stabs 'Freddy' in the eyeball.

The poster child for the nastiest of "Nasties" has always been  Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust.  It was banned for years in the UK and was only passed uncut in Australia a year ago. Watched as one of 72 films on this compilation, it certainly stands out as superior entertainment. It's also easy to see how it got the attention of Britain's moral guardians.

Two of my favorite trailers of the 72 are William Asher's  Butcher Baker, Nightmaker Maker and J.S. Cardone's The Slayer. The former, though released on VHS in most territories and screened frequently on US cable in the 80's, is pretty much MIA on DVD. Various companies have announced plans to release it, but there's been no movement so far. It really is a fantastic, terribly twisted movie, and boasts a car stunt you have to see to believe. There is a great central performance by Susan Tyrell, too, who plays a murderous, jealous aunt. Interestingly, Mr. Cardone, still active, recently wrote the remakes of The Stepfather and Prom Night.

Cardone's The Slayer, a formidable presence on the "Nasties" list, was released in Australia by Palace Explosive Video, the "nasty" arm of Palace Home Video's distribution set-up. I was always quite impressed with its grim tone and island setting. Another memorable aspect of it is a murder scene involving a pitchfork pushed through a woman's back and out her chest. This scene is in the terrific trailer.

Some of the titles that made the "Nasties" list did so on title alone. Anything with "Cannibal" in the title (Cannibal Man, Cannibal Apocalypse)) or a power tool (The Tool Box Murders and Driller Killer) was guaranteed a place. But it's hard to explain how the feeble Forest of Fear ended up there, let alone The Boogey Man, Terror Eyes, Possession (!), and Frozen Scream.  Interestingly, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre never earned a place on the list, so go figure that one. Also of interest is the trailer for Don't Go in the Basement, the inspiration for Edgar Wright's parody trailer in Grindhouse.

If anything good came out of the "Video Nasties" phenomenon, it's that massive amounts of attention were given to movies that might have been otherwise ignored or totally forgotten. And the DPP's  "Nasty" list became a type of Holy Grail of must-see movies for adventurous fans and scholars.

In addition to all that, excellent books such as The Art of the Nasty, Seduction of the Gullible, and Shock! Horror! were published, and a fine 3-disc DVD set examining this strange period in British culture has been thoroughly explored.

Even if you're only half a horror fan, you cannot be without this extraordinary volume, a poem to the bloody celluloid that keeps us all sane.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Jan Sverak's KOOKY

One of my favorite directors in the world has a new film, Kooky, and it looks amazing.

It's as if he's partially channeling that other famous Czech, Jan Svankmajer, in a tale featuring puppets in live settings.

Sverak is the director of The Elementary School, a '91 masterpiece that I blogged about here:

It is amongst my top ten films of all time.

He also recently made the excellent Empties.


Kooky, about a discarded teddy bear who won't lie down, features voice work from Zdenek Sverak, Jan's talented father (and frequent co-writer).

"A Teddy bear forced to stand on his two stuffed feet..."

I'm chomping at the bit to see this.

Sverak has a unique take on the world that will surely render this a classic.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Top 10 Found Treasures of 2010

I see hundreds of films a year, but few stay with me like Noboru Tanaka's Secret Chronicle - She-Beast Market (Maruhi - Shikijo Mesu Ichiba). I waited years to see it, and, boy!, was it worthwhile.

Made in '74 by the great Nikkatsu Studios, I guess it's technically a "pink" film, but it's far removed from most of its ilk. It's the story of a junkie prostitute (Meka Seri) trolling for love and dollars in an impoverished urban wasteland. She's forced to contend with a prostitute mother who's competing directly with her, and compelled to take care of a mentally disabled brother with whom she has occasional sexual relations out of sympathy.

In tone, it feels like the best of Italian neo-realism. It's shot in a forceful hand-held style in grainy black and white, it uses an unconventional cutting method, and the performances are so real they're tear-inducing. There is a bizarre, quirky sense of humor at work, and several scenes are truly disturbing and violent. Of course, being a "pink" flick, there are plenty of Nikkatsu's mandatory sex scenes, but these are far less contrived than usual, and Tanaka (always a master!) conveys so much through the sexual exchanges that they're more like subtext than sex.

Audiences looking for a feast of pink back in '74 must have thought they'd stumbled into the wrong theater with this one. It has more in common with Hector Babenco's Pixote or Fellini's La Strada than Nikkatsu's more conventional pink output.

Actress Meika Seri, who is a volcanic presence, also appeared in In the Realm of The Senses and as a junkie prostitute in Fukasaku's Graveyard of Honor.

Best available DVD of the film is the Japanese Geneon disk.

I wrote about this sublime piece of erotic grotesquerie in a recent blog, so I won't go all redundant here. It's sufficient to say that for those who like their sex mixed with the twisted (served with a ripe sauce of audaciousness!), the late Teruo Ishii's Orgies of Edo (Zankoku ijo gyakutai monogatari: Genroku onna keizu; '69) is just the ticket.

Released the same year, and also directed by Ishii, Love and Crime is another of the director's anthology pictures. Like Orgies of Edo, it has its problems (pacing, for example), but it is an extraordinary cinematic document for its time, and tackles subjects nobody else was doing back then (hell, they're not even doing them now!).

The first story involves a man and woman who hook up to kill. Ishii's stylings are immensely interesting here and the atmosphere is thick. Of the three, this is the most accomplished and well-rounded.

The second episode is a retelling of the Sade Abe story, which was completely fleshed out in In The Realm of the Senses. Because it's extremely truncated, it has little time to develop the fascinating relationship between master and slave.

Despite the fact that it's short and not big on logic, my personal favorite story is the third entry.

A dutiful wife, repulsed by the insatiable appetites of her husband, a remorselessly lecherous victim of leprosy, takes a lover. When the freak discovers her indiscretion, he initiates a brutal confrontation. Scenes of the hideous freak attempting to kiss and cuddle his lady are priceless, and reminded me of the works of comic artist Hideshi Hino.

Director Ishii always shines when depicting deformity and bizarre sexual congress. His passion for such material is obvious.

My first exposure to the amazing, dream-like films of Polish director Dorota Kedzierzawska was a TV screening of Wrony (aka Crows; '94); my good friend and fellow cinephile Wendy Rawady kindly showed me her recording. I was enchanted by it.

In this, a young girl, upset with the adult world and ignored by her friends, exacts "revenge" by kidnapping an even younger child. This act launches the girls on an incredible journey of discovery in which the older girl becomes a proxy parent for the younger girl. The duo attempts to leave Poland by boat, but complications arise. The film's magic is in its performances and gentle style. Even though the subject matter is potent, the tone is closer to a fairytale, and there is a strong theme of responsibility.

from Wrony (Crows)

Eager to see more Kedzierzawska films, I managed to track down her Diably, diably this year with the help of a Polish Facebook 'friend'. Diably, diably, made three years before Wrony, is a most atypical coming of age tale about a young Polish girl who becomes fascinated with Gypsies.

Although her parents and friends constantly disparage them, this only fuels her curiosity for their unique culture. Not surprisingly, she finds acceptance and love among the Gypsies until they are forced to hit the road. Justyna Cimmny's performance as the young woman (Mala) is breathtaking, as is Zdzislaw Najda's luminous cinematography, which has a Days of Heaven feel to it.

Diably, diably is one of my fondest found treasures of the year.

Mindful of not spoiling some wonderful revelations, I'd prefer not to say too much about The King of Masks (Bian Lian; '96), an extraordinary Chinese movie (and true story!) about an extraordinary artist who is seeking an heir to whom he can hand pass on the secrets of his art. His art involves the rapid, seamless changing of silk face masks.

At its base, this is a deeply moving story of survival and persistence against all odds. Once again, the protagonist is a young, lonely girl who invents the perfect solution to a personal dilemma. The "King" of the story, it seems, finds the answer to his prayers.

Of course, things don't quite go as planned for either party.

This beautiful piece of cinema focuses on lost traditions and values, but is never cloying or sappy. It's a story of hardship and tolerance and the need to be open to change.

Only discovered this year by me, it's utterly brilliant.

Technically, I didn't see this for the first time this year -- I saw it when I was about ten year's old on TV. But seeing Henry Verneuil's Le Casse (The Burglars) again on DVD just recently was akin to seeing it for the first time.

What a superb thriller it is, and what a great reminder it is that Jean-Paul Belmondo was one of the world's greatest action stars. Despite the fact that he's most often associated with Godard films such as Breathless (which has had greater international prominence), he was the Steve McQueen of his era with a mighty handful of ace crime pics to his credit such as Cop or Hood ('79), The Thief of Paris ('67), and the amazing Peur Sur La Ville (aka Fear Over The City; 75).

The new French DVD's of Le Casse and Peur Sur La Ville are revelations.

This ultra-rare epic from director Shohei Immamura was released on Blu-ray Disc (Region B only ) by Eureka UK in 2010. It's a mind-boggling, complex piece of work.

The story involves an engineer who arrives on a strange island to supervise the building of a well. The island is a melting pot of traditions that are being steadfastly embraced and rejected at the same time. The engineer is forced to traverse both the disparate beliefs and his own impulses. Adding to the tension is the presence of a disgraced family whose adherence to incestuous traditions has made them pariahs.

If the film sounds like a difficult proposition for the viewer, it certainly is. Immamura, who always concerned himself with fringe societies and their passing, mines territory that would have fascinated directors such as Werner Herzog also. This epic of grotesquerie and cultural collisions is truly one of a kind, and I can only be grateful that at least one distributor in the world deemed it important enough to issue as a Blu-ray only with exceptional extras, a booklet, and a dazzling rendition of the negative materials.

If you're up for adventure, invest some British pounds in this beauty.

And speaking of British, you'll find nothing more British than the 600+ books of the late queen of childrens' literature Enid Blyton.

An unbelievable gesture this year has been the release of two Enid Blyton serials on DVD. These are not the sorry color TV shows from the 70's or the more valiant attempts to do 'The Famous Five' right in the 90's.

Nope, these were produced by the Children's Film Foundation in the late 50's and are in glorious black and white. They totally capture the spirit and intention of Blyton's famous novels like nothing I've ever seen and they're richly produced.

Arguably the best ever adaptation of a Blyton story

I love them!

On top of the treats that are the disks themselves, both DVD's come with booklets that contain lashings of information and hot historical tidbits.

The transfers are impeccable and Blyton expert Norman Wright's contributions are smashing.

When I first read Blyton from my sick bed in the late 60's, what I saw in my head was close to the images in these fantastic serials.

Other Treasures of 2010:
Messiah of Evil
The Icons of Suspense Collection - Hammer Films
Oshima's Outlaw 60's
Tokugawa Sex Ban
Inochi Bonifuro
Gangs of Oz Parts 1 & 2
Koji Wakamatsu Volume 2
Crime Investigation Australia Series 2
Graphic Sexual Horror
Village of Doom

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Three Very Special Dishes Coming Soon

I loved Sion Sono's Strange Circus, so I know I'm going to love this.

I wasn't a fan of Ji-woon Kim's The Good, The Bad, and the Weird, but I was blown away by Bittersweet Life.

I Saw The Devil is his new thriller.

Reaction has been strong.

I'm not having an easy time finding an English subbed version of Kinatay.

This French DVD is, however, impressive.

Until I've seen a version I can understand, I won't speak of it in detail.

Let's just say it's pretty special.

Best Documentaries of 2010

I'm deliberately refraining from writing about these as much has already been written about them during their release periods.

All are amazing and well worth your time and dollars.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Top 10 of 2010 (in no order)


The Girl Who Played With Fire
The Wolfman
I Am Love
Black Swan
The Secrets in Their Eyes
The American
The Town
Valhalla Rising
 Rabbit Hole

I'm deliberately refraining from writing about these as much has already been written about them during their release periods.

All are amazing and well worth your time and dollars.

Will Eisner's Darkest Work?

This short film from Germany, The Super (Der Super, '85), is a troubling and extraordinary piece of work.

It is based on A Contract With God, and Other Tenement Stories by Will Eisner. The novel, which was published in '78, is about the residents of Dropsie Avenue, a Bronx tenement.

This adaptation, set in Depression era Germany, detours much from the original in terms of specific plot points, but the source's grim tone is intact.

Erich Bar is 'Scuggs' (love that name!), a fat, freakish bully who pushes around the Jewish residents of his building.

Scuggs' applecart is well and truly knocked over, though, when he stomps upstairs to confront a tenant about a plumbing issue... and comes face to face with the seemingly angelic Rosy (Natalia Bitnar).

Recovering from his encounter with Rosy, Scuggs retreats to his filthy quarters -- to masturbate and reflect on his desperate existence.

Despite the Super's surly nature, we see a softer side of him in this sequence.

Though not invited, the mischievous Rosy slinks upstairs and visits the vulnerable Scuggs at his lowest ebb, and proposes a deal.

I must note that the luminous Bitnar's performance in The Super is quietly incendiary. Somehow, she walks a fine line between vixen and victim without a single misstep. That she didn't do more acting is a great shame.

Erich Bar, too, is amazing as Scuggs, bouncing effortlessly from surly to strangely child-like.

Although the presentation of this "seduction" sequence is restrained, its power is palpable, and we find our sympathies entering a strange spin cycle.

When Scuggs pays Rosy, the little girl absconds with his cashbox.

As any normal bloke would would do, Scuggs sends his hound after the thieving moppet.

But she conveniently drops a poisoned bone on the stairwell, quickly ending the pursuit.

It becomes obvious at this point that the little vixen's visit to Scuggs' den of greasy desire was part of a more elaborate scheme.

Let me be up front here -- Der Super fucks with us from the very beginning. What we see is never what we ultimately get, and when we do get something, we're not sure it's what we want.

That is the film's magic. That's what elevates it to the pinnacle of transgressive art.

Adapted from the Eisner graphic novel by director Tobias Meinecke, the film is extravagantly photographed by Czech DP Igor Luther, who shot The Tin Drum (and close to a hundred other features and shorts), and smells of Polanski's The Tenant. Music by Gunter Winkler, which swings between music box and dark strings, is the perfect compliment to the potent imagery, and never overwhelms.

Meineckie's depiction of the tenement's frightened residents and portrayal of general paranoia mirrors the current Child Sex panic that is sweeping the globe. I guess something had to replace the Reds under the bed. Now it's Reds (or is that Peds?) in your kid's bed?

Is Scuggs a pedofile? A pathetic opportunist lacking a moral compass? Or a victim of truly dark forces?

Is Rosy just a little girl oblivious to her emerging sexuality? A calculating devil in the body of a juvie?

The answers to these questions are left to the audience.

Like all good fairy tales, this one comes full circle.

A new Super is sought after Scuggs' demise and the little darling is on the front step to greet the first applicant.

He has a dog, too. Though probably not for long.

The film was produced by Klaus Schreyer and quickly fell into obscurity.

News has emerged that A Contract With God... is heading for the big screen again with four directors to helm one story apiece.

It's difficult to imagine how any new take on Der Super would even come close to Meinecke's almost forgotten masterpiece.