The best thing about watching a wide variety of films is finding one you would not normally watch and loving it. It has happened several times. I would not be a fan of James Benning’s films if I’d not watched his Deseret because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I would not be a fan of Ben River’s movies if I’d not stuck his The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are Not Brothers on my rental list on a whim. And two films in this batch… well, one I purchased a copy of my own; and the other, I went and bought a collection of the director’s films on eBay (because it’s apparently deleted and not available from a certain online retailer).
The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczyńska (2015, Poland). I’d seen approving mentions of this but knew almost nothing about it. I suspect I may have mentally filed it as a Polish version of The Shape of Water. If I did, then I did it a huge disservice. It is way better than anything Hollywood has produced. I’ve described it to friends as a horror-musical mashup set in the 1980s featuring a pair of carnivorous mermaids in a Polish nightclub. Which pretty much sums it up. But does not quite get across how fucking good it is. Two mermaids meet a rock band on the beach, and return with them to the nightclub where they perform. They become backing singers and strippers. One of the mermaids falls in the love with band’s bassist, and has her tail surgically replaced with legs, which means she loses her singing voice. But he marries another woman, and the mermaid turns into sea foam – because she had to eat him before daybreak if she wanted to live – and the other mermaid rips out his throat in revenge… And a summary of the plot doesn’t quite get across how beautiful this film looks, how amazingly appropriate is the 1980s music, and how bonkers the whole mythology surrounding the mermaids really is. I think this is going to make my best of the year list. I’ve already bought my own copy. You should definitely see it.
Pulp, Mike Hodges (1972, UK). It’s a Michael Caine film but it nonetheless sounded like it might be worth watching – which is not entirely fair, of course, as Caine has made some good films during his long career, like Get Carter. And director Mike Hodges too has made some good movies during his careers, such as, er, Get Carter. And, um, Flash Gordon. Whatever. It’s a team that has produced good stuff in the past. So it’s a crying shame Pulp is so bad. It has its moments, and it’s by no mean badly made, but… Any film that relies on voiceover needs to seriously think about the story it is telling. In part, the voiceover is baked into this story, as the lead character, played by Caine, is a successful pulp writer and he frames the events of the film, in which he is an unwitting protagonist, as a pulp narrative starring himself. He is in Malta to ghostwrite the autobiography of a mysterious celebrity. This involves taking a coach tour to some ruins, where he is contacted by a representative of the celebrity… and also meets a would-be assassin who is later mysteriously murdered. The celebrity proves to be Mickey Rooney, an actor famous for playing gangsters and with Mob friends and connections. At his birthday party, Rooney is killed, but everyone else thinks it’s one of his practical jokes. Some of Rooney’s Maltese associates, it transpires, did something very bad years before on a hunting trip, and they were afraid Rooney would reveal all in his autobiography. I wanted to like Pulp so much more than I did. The setting – Malta – looks very nice. The plot is pure noir – and just in case you didn’t realise, Caine describes what’s going on in pulp-style throughout – and the central mystery is satisfying. But it all felt like a comedy that had no jokes: sort of tonally wrong, neither actual noir nor a murder-mystery. Missable.
Amuck!, Silvio Amadio (1972, Italy). I do love me some giallo, although I prefer the thriller giallo to the horror giallo – and I admit it’s a bit of a grey area with giallo as to which is which. The titles don’t help. Nor, in fact, do the names of directors. I’ve been using as my yardstick, and it’s probably not a good one, the presence of Barbara Bouchet in the cast. She made a lot of Italian films, many of which were giallo, and many of which are actually not bad. True, she’s not in Footprints on the Moon, which I have an inexplicable love for, but she’s in Milano Calibro 9, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, Don’t Torture a Duckling, The Black Belly of the Tarantula and… Amuck! The original title of this film, Alla ricerca del piacere, translates as “In pursuit of pleasure”, and it was also released as Hot Bed of Sex, Maniac Mansion and Leather and Whips. Although, since giallo has a habit of being inappropriately titled in the US market, they should not be taken as indications of the story. Nor indeed should Amuck!. Bouchet plays the new secretary to louche novelist Farley Granger. His last secretary disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and Bouchet is there undercover to find out what happened to her (they were lovers). It turns out the previous secretary had died during a bout of sex with Granger, his wife, and their brutish manservant. And now that Bouchet knows, they have to get rid of her… The plot summary probably tells you all you need to know about this film. I must admit I quite like that these gialli are slowly being made available in the UK – on several labels – as they’re always entertaining. Call it a guilty pleasure.
Vampir Cuadecuc, Pere Portabella (1970, Spain). I think I saw mention of this tweeted by Second Run, who I follow as they are an excellent label, and thought it was a Romanian vampire film or something, so of minor interest. But I bunged it on my rental list anyway. I got a lot of things wrong. It’s not Romanian, it’s Spanish. It’s also an experimental film, shot on the set of Jess Franco’s Count Dracula, starring Christopher Lee and Herbert Lom. But it’s no fly-on-the-wall documentary. Portabella haunted the set of Count Dracula, and shot his own footage – but it’s all in stark black and white, and the soundtrack consists of loud experimental music comprising hums and noise. I loved it. I loved it so much I hunted online for more by Portabella and found an OOP collection of twenty-two of his films (including Vampir Cuadecuc), which I promptly ordered. There is no way to describe Vampir Cuadecuc that makes sense, or in any way prepares you for the experience of seeing it. Just go and watch it.
The Beyond, Hasraf Dulull (2017, UK). After a couple of abortive attempts to watch films on Amazon Prime I ended up on this one, which had the advantage of an interesting premise. But with cinema, it’s all in the presentation. And the originality of the premise is often considered secondary, if not ignored. The Beyond does indeed have a quite good central conceit, and it treats it well. It just fails a little in the execution. Which puts it in a strange position – do you admire it for what it tries to do, or criticise it because it fails to meet what you expect it to do? Its story is straightforward enough in sf terms. An anomaly appears in Earth orbit and sucks an ISS astronaut into it. The scenes set in orbit are handled convincingly. Then mysterious spheres appear all over the earth, hovering in mid-air. Investigation of the anomaly reveals a world just visible through it, and so the US repurposes a black defence programme to create cyborg soldiers, Human 2.0, to create astronauts to explore through the anomaly. The programme does not go well when the first volunteer dies. The best qualified person turns down the chance to join the programme, but is eventually persuaded otherwise when it transpires she’s just about the only possible choice. What happens on the mission through the anomaly is left mostly unexplained, but what the astronaut brings back does cause earth to re-evaluate the purpose of the alien spheres. The whole thing is framed liked a documentary, with talking heads and interviews with those involved. The special effects are generally of a high-quality. If anything lets the film down, it’s the acting, which often doesn’t quite manage to hit that difficult line between acting and acting-as-if-in-a-documentary. Given all the really shit independent sf films available on Amazon Prime, The Beyond came as a pleasant surprise. Worth a punt.
American Guerrilla in the Philippines, Fritz Lang (1950, USA). I’ve been trying to watch all of Lang’s films but, like many other directors of his generation, such as Wilder, Preminger, Sirk, who moved to Hollywood from Germany, they were happy to cut their cloth to whatever was needed. Despite that, they still managed to produced classics, often while constrained by the studio. But not every film they made was good, or in any way remarkable. Some of them were likely done for the money, and the director’s investment in the project came down to nothing more than simply being professional about it. Of course, old school directors of that type tended to put their own stamp on whatever material they worked on, but, to be honest, I couldn’t see anything in American Guerilla in the Philippines which struck me as especially Lang-ian (Lang-isch?). I mean, without knowing the director, could anyone have said it was by the same guy as the director of Metropolis or Man Hunt or While the City Sleeps? American Guerilla in the Philippines has US Navy MTB ensign Tyrone Power stranded in, well, the Philippines during WWII. In his attempts to rejoin the fighting, he ends up helping the resistance in the Philippines. There’s an initial attempt to sail to Australia, which fails. And, of course, there’s a love interest, the French wife of a local planter. As WWII films go, there’s nothing notable about American Guerilla in the Philippines, except perhaps the fact it was filmed on location and uses a lot of local talent in supporting roles. Otherwise, it’s your usual self-aggrandising US war film, although perhaps a little more open than most to the contribution of others (although, of course, it would still like the viewer to believe the US single-handedly liberated the Philippines from the Japanese). Yawn.
1001 Moies you Must See Before You Die count: 896