Monday, January 27, 2014

Movie Monday: Black Mama, White Mama

Watch out for...Black Mama, White Mama!
A bunch of years ago, thanks to the fine folks from Exhumed Films, I got a chance to see a little masterpiece called The Twilight People, an ultra-low-budget version of The Island of Dr. Moreau, with a bunch of other weird 70s stuff thrown into the mix. Done with seemingly no budget but lots of cocaine, it instantly became one of my all-time favorite schlocky, grade-Z horror movies.

The film was made by one Eddie Romero, who didn't seem to let a lack of talent get in the way of being a movie director: From 1947 all the way to 1982, he cranked out essentially a film a year(!), some with titles like Mad Doctor of Blood Island, Blood Devils, and Bride of Blood. I think you can see a theme here.

I wanted to find another Romero Joint to talk about for Movie Monday, but unfortunately they're very hard to find for rent or streaming, so I was forced to go "uptown":
Black Mama, White Mama features a genuine movie star, Pam Grier, as well as a relatively decent-sized budget. Featuring Grier and Margaret Markov as Lee and Karen, two comely women headed off to prison in an unnamed tropical country.

It takes Black Mama, White Mama all of ten minutes before we're treated to a scene of a sadistic female guard spying on the girls as they shower and taking things into her own hands, as the topless girls frolic, giggle, and goof around for approximately fifteen minutes. You'd never guess they're locked up!
Shortly thereafter, the aforementioned sadistic guard drags Grier out of her cell and starts slapping her around with a black leather glove. This is stopped by the warden, who knows of her employee's proclivities all too well.

After Lee and Karen get into a fight--leading them to spend a night in the sweatbox (topless, 'natch)--they are some of the others are carted off on a work detail when their bus is attacked by revolutionaries, led by Ernesto (played by the wonderfully named Zaldy Zschormack), who are there to grab Karen.

This leads to the girls escaping, borrowing liberally from The Defiant Ones, but with more nudity. At one point the girls dress up as nuns, making the movie feel like an R-rated episode of Laverne & Shirley. You see, Lee is also wanted; she was a prostitute who has managed to hide $40,00 of her pimp's money. We're treated to all sort of unsavory characters trying to find the girls, like this charming gentleman:
Things get even more complicated when the head of the local law enforcement, Captain Cruz, hires Ruben (the great Sid Haig), who is the boss of a rival gang, to try and stop the other gang from finding Lee and Karen:
Sid Haig, as Ruben, gets a lot of screen time once he shows up. It's almost as if Eddie Romero and his screenwriters(?) fell so in love with the character that they just turned the movie over to him. There's a long sequence of Ruben bedding down the two daughters of one of his goons (making for the one of least erotic threesomes ever committed to film), and another scene of Ruben confronting two of the rival gang and demanding they drop their pants at gunpoint.

Finally, the two gangs find the girls, leading to an all-out bloody gun battle that ends with a surprisingly downbeat (yet still goofy) ending. The End.

As you might guess, Black Mama, White Mama is total trash: it wallows in filth, sweat, and dirt, where no one looks like they've showered in quite a while. But worse than that, is that the movie loses its focus on the girls! It spends so much time with the revolutionaries, the police, gang members, and Sid Haig that by the time Lee and Karen show up at the end, they kinda seem like bystanders in their own movie. Frankly, I wanted to see more of the mamas.

While Black Mama, White Mama doesn't achieve the level of imaginative depravity found in The Twilight People, it was still fun enough that it makes me want to keep trying to find more of Eddie Romero's films. Hmm, maybe something with "blood" in the title...

Monday, January 20, 2014

Movie Monday: Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural

Take a trip with Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural!
Now, before we go on this horrible adventure, a clarification: the main character of this movie is not the title character; rather, it's a young girl named Lila Lee who will go on an extraordinary journey into darkness:
I saw Lemora many years ago, when a friend who had a print of it ran it for a small group of us video store veterans. I remembered it being very strange and moody and kinda hard to follow. So while it started one of my favorite genre girls, Cheryl Smith (more on her later), I sort of forgot about it.

The film remained fairly hard to find, so when Synapse Films released a deluxe version of the film on DVD, struck from a 35mm print, I decided to give it another shot, especially since over time many critics whose writing I admire regarded it as a lost mini-classic.
The plot of Lemora is pretty basic and only really tells a small part of the story: set during the Depression, Lila Lee is the daughter of a notorious gangster, who we see murdering his philandering wife. Lila has been taken in by the local preacher, a real fire-and-brimstone kinda guy. She sings in church in front of the congregation, who the preacher none-too-subtly admonishes for being a bunch of gossips when it comes to Lila.

Lila gets a letter from her father, who is dying, staying a few towns away. Lila sneaks off to visit him, and enters in a truly bizarre world of nightmarish shadows and creepy people. Lila is only thirteen, so danger seems to lurk at every turn: she buys a bus ticket from a too-friendly ticket agent, getting on a bus that seems to be running in the middle of the night, driven by another creepy, bizarre stranger:
You can't imagine how Lila is possibly going to survive in this dark, surrealistic world, but things are not always what they seem: despite the bus driver's weird ways, he turns out to be protective of the young girl. He warns of her of the bands of zombie-like people who roam the woods, at one point attacking the bus.

Lila is rescued by Lemora (Lesley Gilb), who takes a real liking to the young girl:
It is Lemora who summoned Lila, for motives not immediately apparent: is it to get Lila out of the grips of the preacher, to actually see her real father, or for something more nefarious?

Lila learns that there are two sets of vampires lurking about: one is a more human-looking bunch (like Lemora), the other is a monster-like group who prowl the streets attacking everyone they can get their hands (and fangs) on.

Now, while that is the basic plot, but there's really so much more to this movie than just that. Director Richard Blackburn creates a very off-putting world for poor little Lila to wander through; while there are recognizable things from our world like cars and buses and city streets, the swamp that the bus line runs through seems like a post-apocalyptic no-man's land, where there's no law and order, just monsters around every turn.

Almost every scene in the movie is shot in hues of blue or purple; we never see any sunlight, almost as if there is no day in these people's lives: it's permanent midnight once Lila goes off on her journey. It isn't until the preacher shows up at the end to find Lila that anyone seems to take any interest that a young girl is living with an older woman in a big creepy castle. Lemora is interested in Lila all right, but we're never sure what form that interest takes: it seems sort of sexual, but maybe it's not...

While I won't say Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural is any sort of lost classic, it is a highly unique, weirdly-compelling trip through a child's nightmare. Sometimes its low budget and amateurish acting works against it, but director Blackburn clearly had a specific vision in mind (which he elaborates on during the audio commentary track), and was mostly able to pull it off.

Holding the movie's center is Cheryl Smith's starring role as Lila. I first discovered her when I was a very early teen on cable in a soft-core porn version of Cinderella; it was the first time I ever saw a lot of the stuff that goes on in that movie. It established a lifelong warm feeling for her, since she was so sweet and guileless, despite being in the middle of a softcore porn movie! She had a brief film career in the 70s and 80s, but continued problems with drugs led her to some time in prison, illness, and then an early death in 2002. Watching her in this movie only underscores that she was, in fact, quite talented as an actress; it's a real tragedy she had such a tough life. Watching the innocent Lila get drawn into this dark world, you can't help but think Cheryl took the same journey, as she got sucked into the meat grinder of Hollywood's hedonistic scene.

Lemora ends on a very ambiguous note: we're not sure what's happening exactly, which only gives the movie more of a dreamlike quality: did all this just really take place? In any case, Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural is highly recommended to anyone who enjoys off-center horror and mystery; it's an interesting story, well told by a bunch of talented people with little money but a lot of skill at creeping you out.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Movie Monday: The Uninvited

Are you ready for...The Uninvited?
I love horror movies, always have. So when I hear that there's a genuinely scary movie out there that I haven't seen, I try and track it down. I especially love horror from the Golden Age of Hollywood, because filmmakers of the time were so much more limited: they couldn't rely on gore or extreme violence, so they had to be creative.

Case in point: The Uninvited, directed by Lewis Allen (Suddenly):
A brother and sister (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) buy a massive house sitting along an English sea coast. Despite resistance from the granddaughter of the owner (Gail Russell), it is sold to them by its owner, an old Navy man named Commander Beech (Donald Crisp). Rick and Pamela start to move in right away, along with their little dog:
Rick runs into Stella in town, and she reveals why she tried to talk them out of buying the house: it was lived in by her late mother, who died when Stella was very young. Stella worships her late mother, and doesn't want to give up the house, even though no one lives there. Rick is smitten by Stella (despite, or maybe because, their 20-year age difference) and tries to show her how she's living her life in the shadow of her mother:
It doesn't take long to see that something is wrong with the house: there's a glassed-in penthouse that is eerily cold, even when the sun is directly shining in. Soon after, Rick hears a woman sobbing downstairs, but neither he or Pamela can find the source (in a truly eerie sequence). 

Stella comes for dinner, and senses a presence in the house. Rather than being scared, she thinks it's the spirit of her late mother, who died under mysterious circumstances by falling off the nearby cliff into the ocean. 
One of the reasons The Uninvited is distinctive in terms of Hollywood history is that, early on, it's obvious that there really is a ghost in the house: it's not a crook pulling a Scooby-esque scam, not a hoax; it's an actual supernatural being. In fact, the studio (Paramount) thought the film a little too vague on that subject, and added in special effects that left no doubt about the ghostly presence:
I would love to report that The Uninvited is a lost classic of horror. Unavailable on DVD for decades, its reputation got burnished by its unavailability, as well as the enthusiastic accolades by filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Guillermo Del Toro (the former putting it on his list of the Top 11 Scariest Movies of All Time).

But while there are scenes that are definitely frightening, full of menace and eerie tension, I found often as not the spell is broken by talky scenes involving a doctor (Alan Napier, who went on to play Alfred on Batman), a housekeeper (Barbara Everest), and the woman who runs the local sanitorium (Cornelia Otis Skinner), and old friend of the family. Add to the fact that Rick never seems all that scared of the ghost--during one sequence, he makes jokes at it, almost mocking it. I know that England was at war back then and maybe it was harder to phase those people, but still! (Also: the film ends on a joke that feels lifted from a Bob Hope movie, which elicited a groan when I realized that was it)

Despite all that, The Uninvited is still worth seeing: at a brisk 90 or so minutes, the film goes down easy, and the scenes of the ghost revealing its presence one way or the other are still quite effective (there's a great moment of a book having its pages turned by the ghost, and no one in the scene notices). It feels like the kind of movie Val Lewton might have made, had he access to big Hollywood stars and a bigger budget.

I'm happy to say The Uninvited is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray, from Criterion no less, which shows that the film's rep as a creepy lost classic is now firmly in place.


Monday, January 6, 2014

Movie Monday: Lawman

A top-notch cast and crew brings you...Lawman!
I recently discovered the blog Every 70's Movie, which has taken on the insane mission of covering every single American movie released in the decade, film by film, day by day. There are a number of reasons I like it, but one of the main ones is that it highlights movies that I have never even heard of, let alone seen! I like to think I know a lot about movies, and I worked for a few years at a very good video store which helped me expand my knowledge beyond just those genres that interested me the most.

One of the films the blog introduced me to was 1971's Lawman, featuring this killer poster and starring a truly amazing cast: Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Lee J. Cobb, Robert Duvall, and Sheree North! Directed by Michael Winner (Death Wish), I was thought I was surely in for an unheralded classic:
The film opens in the town of Bannock, where a bunch of cowboys from a neighboring town called Sabbath(!) have gotten sh*t-faced drunk and are shooting up the place. An innocent civilian gets caught in the crossfire, which leads to Bannock's marshal, Jered Maddox (Lancaster) heading into Sabbath to extract some good ol' fashioned justice.

We learn pretty quickly that Lawman was a "modern" western, one of the films following in the wake of the groundbreaking The Wild Bunch. Simple morality tales of good and evil are not what Lawman has in mind. No, it becomes clear that Maddox--even though he is The Law--is in many ways just as violent and savage as those he's out to arrest.
Maddox's mission comes into direct conflict with Sabbath's sheriff (Ryan), and the local rancher (Cobb), who employs the cowboys. There's a whole lot of talk, and I have to admit I got a little frustrated waiting for the action to start, as Ryan and Cobb sat around dusty sets talking about Good and Evil.
Everyone tries to talk Maddox out of his desire to get the four men (the fifth is killed by Maddox early on)--they try reasoning with him, as well as bribing him, to no avail. A former flame of Maddox's named Laura Shelby (North) tries a different tack, intervening on behalf of one of the cowboys who is her common-law husband. Maddox is willing to bed her down (of course, it is Sheree North), but he's still not willing to bend: he wants these men dead.

Of all the cowboys, the one who gets the most screen time is Vernon Adams, played by Robert Duvall:
Adams claims he didn't participate in the melee, and he has a farm to run, so he doesn't have the time to go along with Maddox and let everything get sorted out. Maddox ties Adams up at Laura's ranch, where Adams tries to talk her into double-crossing Maddox.

There's more, a lot more, with a very downbeat, bloody ending that seemed of a piece with so many of the other westerns made at the time (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is another one that comes to mind). Lawman's world view is bleak, and questions the morality of society that allows killing, for any reason.

I will admit, going into the film I was kinda hoping there'd be a bit more fun to be had (the poster, shockingly, tries to sell the film as something less heavy than it actually was), and I thought there was maybe one or two too many scenes of people discussing the themes of the movie, but the cast is so good that it still makes Lawman worth watching. These were masters of film acting in the twilight of their careers, and it's hard not to see the parallels in a film about the romantic Old West being swept away featuring stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood as they began leaving the stage.

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