Monday, January 30, 2012

Lair of the White Worm (1988)

The Movie: Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi), a Scottish archeology student is staying at the local boarding house owned by the Trent sisters, Eve (Catherine Oxenberg) and Mary (Sammi Davis). For his thesis Flint is excavating some of the local Roman ruins, which apparently have not received much attention thus far. Is Angus in luck today, because right in the front yard of the boarding house he uncovers the ruins of a convent. Not only that, he discovers a strange skull; almost like a dinosaur, although as he points out dinosaurs and Romans missed each other by about twenty-five million years.

That evening, while attending the annual party thrown at the local lord’s castle, he learns a bit more. Eve’s boyfriend, Lord James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant, yes the Hugh Grant), has just come into his inheritance; and he explains to Angus that his ancestor, John D’Ampton, is popular in local legend for slaying the neighborhood dragon many centuries ago. In fact, the yearly party is specifically to celebrate that event. He is particularly interested to hear about Angus’ discovery.

But before James is able to see the skull; his neighbor, Lady Sylvia Marsh (the prolific Amanda Donohoe, who you may recognize from the Jim Carrey movie Liar Liar), steals it. The mysterious disappearance of the skull is only one of several peculiar incidents. When Eve comes home and touches the crucifix hanging on her wall (which Lady Sylvia spat some weird venom on while she was pilfering the skull), she is overcome by nightmarish hallucinations. Around this same time, a pocket watch that belonged to Eve and Mary’s father is found in the local caverns; and their parents disappeared without a trace a year ago. Lord James starts to wonder if the legend of his ancestor might not have some truth after all; and if his ancestor actually finished the job.

Unfortunately for our heroes, Lord James is more right than he knows. The D’Ampton Worm was actually worshipped as the god Dionan by an ancient local cult. Things get worse when Lady Sylvia kidnaps Eve. You see, Lady Sylvia Marsh is actually Dionan’s immortal, inhuman priestess; and she has been in the area since at least Roman times. Eve is not only the current Lord D’Ampton’s girlfriend, or even a virgin and devout Christian, which, of course, makes her an ideal sacrifice for Dionan; but the reincarnation of the woman who tried to build the convent over Dionan’s temple. Lady Sylvia Marsh is in the mood for some millennia old vengeance. And of course, the D’Ampton worm lays waiting for its next sacrifice…

The Review:

My dear man, you should know by now that I change my cars as regularly as a snake sheds his skin."
-Lady Sylvia Marsh

I have long been sure that Lair of the White Worm is the main reason why my sister does not trust my movie suggestions. Back when I was a teenager over a decade ago, she came into the room when I was showing it to a friend. She was appalled at what she saw, and to this day my sister will still react if the movie is brought up.

Lair of the White Worm was based off of the novel of the same name, which was Bram Stoker’s last. It is also one of the few cases I have found where the movie is actually better than the book that inspired it. The book reads like Stoker was heavily medicating while he wrote it; although, considering that he was suffering from strokes and possibly syphilis at the time, he very well could have been.

However, considering that the film was directed by the late Ken Russell, a significant amount of that drug fueled sensibility inevitably makes it into the movie. Russell built a rep on excess and his own bizarre creative visions. Among the other examples you’ll find in this film are nightmarishly sexual, psychedelic hallucination sequences; and various subtle, and not so subtle, uses of sexual symbolism in both the back and fore ground.

Ironically, compared to other examples of Russell’s work that I’m familiar with, Lair of the White Worm is rather tame and conventional. However, considering what said body of work is like, that’s really not saying much. All throughout the film is this sense of dementia and long-repressed sexuality bubbling to the surface, to the detriment of all in its way. It mixes in weird ways to provide us in the audience with both a really warped laugh and the sensation that things are going nightmarishly out of control in ways we can’t comprehend.

At the same time though, and this is the really bizarre part, all of this dementia and lunacy is bound up in a fairly conventional plot and setting. Lair is, among other things, a very British film. The basic plot, hero rescues his girlfriend from a huge monster, fuels millions of movies. Also, the dialogue and character interaction is almost every bit what we are led to expect from a British film; polite, sedate, formal, and rather deadpan. The fact that this is true even during the most extreme scenes of psychedelic nightmare and sexual deviance creates an emotional contrast that really affects you. It’s quite a trip.

Another notable feature of this movie is Russell’s unconventional approach to conventional horror movie tropes, which covers my two favorite elements in this movie. The first is the exposition; we learn the history of the D’Ampton Worm through a source I have not seen used in any other movie, a rock band playing at James’ party. It is an extremely catchy and fun little tune; and what’s more, in a few short minutes we know everything that in most other movies we learn from ten minutes of some dry academic character talking.

The other unconventional approach that I love is the heroes’ approach to fighting Lady Sylvia and her god. All throughout the movie Lady Sylvia is depicted with snakelike features and symbols; her fangs, her ability to spit venom, one scene that has her slithering out of a huge basket. In response, the heroes take her on using conventional snake fighting and/or charming methods; bagpipes and records of snake-charmer music alongside the conventional explosives and poison gas.

Amanda Donohoe is perfect as Lady Marsh. Not only does she look the part, stylishly attractive but with a face that actually looks snakelike given the right accentuation; she really gets into the role. From her attitude and the energy Donohoe puts into the part, one gets the impression that she was having the time of her life. The role is also well written; a strong, competent, clever and ruthless villain who is nevertheless elegantly depraved and twisted enough to capture the imagination. Among the things I like best about her is her ability to adapt to the heroes’ strategies against her and form her own strategies to counter them; it’s not something you see very often in movie villains. Ultimately, she’s one of the main parts of the movie that sticks in your mind.

I wish I could be as equally impressed with the other female leads, but unfortunately they ultimately come across as your typical damsels in distress. I apologize for the mini-rant, but I really like strong women. It’s extremely frustrating for me that in the majority of movies, particularly mainstream ones, the heroines are nearly always weak, passive individuals who need the male leads to save them. Worse, on the rare occasion when a female character is strong and competent; more often than not she is depicted either as the villain, or as having something wrong with her.

The male leads are more interesting. Grant and Capaldi establish a rapport from the beginning that’s fun to watch. One thing I noticed that I found interesting is that they seem to start out with a mild but latent hostility to each other. What’s more, the way it’s played out makes me think that it’s more instinctive than conscious; the two men come from very different social backgrounds and aren’t sure what to expect from each other. However, as the movie progresses; their struggle in the face of a common foe finds them forming an equally subtle, but effective, respect for each other. Some of their exchange of dialogue is great.

I find particularly interesting the role of James D’Ampton in the fight against Lady Sylvia. Admittedly, he doesn’t confront her or the D’Ampton Worm directly; that job falls to Angus. However, it’s James who first notices something is wrong, who is able to put most of the pieces together, and who convinces the others of the threat. Also, while he doesn’t confront the villains directly, he does play an equally essential role in the conflict. I’m sure Eve, for one, is very glad that he plays his hand when he does.

Finally, I would be negligent if I failed to mention Stratford Johns in the role of James’ butler and manservant, Peters. While a very small role, Stratford captures my attention in one particular scene. For most of his time in the movie, Peters fits pretty much all the stereotypes of the proper English butler. However there is one scene, when he is discussing snake-charming music with James, where he lets the façade drop and gives a lecherous leer and tone to his voice that is just wonderful.

In short, Lair of the White Worm is a bizarre film by a bizarre director, who’s taming down of some of the perversity actually makes the rest of it stand out even more. Twisted, perversely funny, and downright weird in some aspects; this movie is a must see for a certain personality type. However, keep in mind that this isn’t a film for everyone. Even a little over a decade and a half later; my sister still looks at me suspiciously whenever I suggest a movie to her.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Lips of Blood (1975)

The Movie: Frédéric (Jean Rollin associate Jean-Loup Philippe), a fairly successful man, experiences a shock at the reception for the launch of a new perfume. The photograph on a poster, showing a ruined castle by the sea, triggers a memory from when he was about twelve (Frédéric as a child is played by Rollin’s son, Serge). One night, while following a dog, he got lost among some castle ruins. Inside the castle he stumbled upon a girl (European 1970s sexploitation queen Annie Belle, credited here as Annie Briand), a little older than him, who comforted him and watched over him while he slept. Frédéric instantly fell in love.

Unfortunately, he was never able to find the castle or the girl again. In fact, everyone around him has insisted that it never happened at all, that it was a childhood dream or fantasy that he had, nothing more. When Frédéric takes his mother (Natalie Perrey, who has been involved with just about every Jean Rollin film I’m familiar with, though not always in front of the camera) aside after seeing the poster, this is exactly how she responds (for, it is strongly implied, the million and first time). However, after seeing the poster, Frédéric is convinced that his experience was real after all and determined to rediscover the castle.

Frédéric starts by seeking the photographer (Martine Grimaud, who went on to become a French porn star) who took the picture and asking her about it. She at first refuses to tell him, saying that somebody paid her a lot of money not to. However, after he turns on the charm she agrees to meet him that night and give him everything she knows. Unfortunately, that is the start of a very strange and stressful night for our hero. He finds that somebody has murdered the photographer to prevent her from telling him what he wants to know. What’s more, strangers appear to impede his search, while strange visions of the girl seem to be guiding him to some end. One of the first places she leads him is a graveyard crypt, where Frédéric inadvertently releases four very beautiful, yet vicious and deadly, female vampires.

It is soon apparent that there is a conspiracy determined to keep Frédéric from succeeding in his quest. The girl and the vampires seem equally determined that he does succeed. Frédéric himself refuses to give up. Unfortunately, he has no idea how close to home for him the conspiracy lies…

The Review:

Scents are like memories, the person evaporates but the memory remains

Happy 2012 dear readers, albeit a little overdue. A new year! A new beginning! A new chance to accomplish things in life! And no, the Mayan calendar doesn’t actually say the world will end in December. I won’t go into the details here and now, but feel free to contact me if you really want to hear them.

For my first review of 2012 I am covering Lips of Blood, probably one of the most well known works of the late French director Jean Rollin. In fact, many consider it his masterpiece. I wouldn’t go quite that far (my personal favorites of his are Night of the Hunted and Shiver of the Vampires), but it is still a very well made and arresting piece of work.

All of the major themes Rollin liked to work with are present; love, memory, isolation, the search for answers beyond everyday life, vampirism, and having a sense of wonder of the world. There is a bit more of a streamlined, conventional plot to Lips of Blood than there is to most of Rollin’s movies, and it is a bit more accessible to a more mainstream audience; but at the same time it is still every bit as dreamy, atmospheric, haunting and emotional as one would come to expect of Rollin’s work.

Just the camera work and settings alone make this movie worth a watch. Rollin worked on a low budget, which means that he mainly shot on location; but he makes very effective work of the locations that he uses. Among other things we are presented with some very haunting shots of the castle ruins, the beach that appears in many Rollin films, a graveyard full of crypts, and various nighttime Paris locations. Many of these shots just stick with you.

However, it’s not just the settings and camera work that make this an effective movie. Much credit also needs to go to the cast and characters who drive this movie’s plot. Jean-Loup Philippe has a large responsibility as our hero and protagonist, but he pulls it off well. Unlike the only other male Rollin protagonist I can currently think of (see my November, 2011 review of Fascination), I find Frédéric to be sympathetic and identifiable. Here is a man who fully realizes that something important is missing, that the everyday world everyone tries to keep him in is unable to provide him with what he truly needs. Overall Frédéric is a good man, but he won’t let anything stand in his way to find the truth. And, while he does make a few mistakes, Frédéric ultimately proves himself to be fairly intelligent and competent.

I have seen quite a few of Annie Belle’s other movies, including the very first one she was in, Bacchanales Sexuelles/Fly Me the French Way, which Rollin directed under his Michel Gentil pseudonym. Now, I find that I often have a problem with watching Annie Belle in her movies; I tend to feel really bad about doing it. In most of her ‘70s movies Annie Belle gives off this little sister vibe (well, she’s nothing like my actual little sister, but you know what I mean), this sense of youth and innocence that makes me feel like a dirty old man; and not in a good way. It’s not until some of her later films, where she’s still gorgeous but her looks have matured a bit, that I can appreciate how sexy she is without feeling like I’m participating in the defilement of an innocent.

I tell you this so you’ll understand why when I first saw her in Lips of Blood, the sentence that kept running through my head was “it’s not just me!” Jean Rollin had to have gotten that vibe from her as well, because her character is built entirely around it. Even as we learn the dark truth of who and what the mysterious girl is, she still comes across as a childlike and sympathetic innocent; she may be a monster, but she is a monster entirely in spite of herself. The movie itself never breaks this image as well. Even though Belle does do a nude scene at the end, and one where she is making love; the camera never leers at her, never conveys the scene to us as anything other than something completely sweet and innocent.

In fact, despite being constantly categorized with the “eurosleaze” moniker, Lips of Blood really isn’t an exploitation movie at all. There is copious female nudity, this is a Rollin Picture after all, and even a bit of male nudity; but with the exception of one scene that I will get to shortly, the nudity really doesn’t come across as exploitative. It’s treated as actual art nudity, an appreciation of the human body; not just a chance to leer and ogle at bare flesh. The violence is also fairly tame, with minimum blood.

As an example of one of the perverse ironies that the gods who created this world seem so fond of, the fact that Lips of Blood is so classy is what kept it from being a commercial success. At the time it came out, movie restrictions and censorship had pretty much been dropped. Hardcore pornography was on the rise, and was threatening to edge out softcore exploitation and erotica. As a result, a quirky art film like Lips of Blood had no chance; “respectable” individuals would avoid it as sleaze, but the actual sleaze fans would be more interested in the hardcore sex films.

As I said, there is one exception to the classy nudity theme; although even it isn’t quite what it appears to be on the surface. The scene where Frédéric goes to the photographer’s studio to ask about the castle begins with a photo shoot. The photographer, wearing a robe and boots, is shooting a young woman wearing nothing but knee-high boots. The girl strikes increasingly provocative poses, until Frédéric arrives and she is dismissed. Then, after Frédéric asks the photographer about the castle, and she refuses; she goes upstairs to change for an appointment, then comes back down in nothing but her boots and a belly chain claiming she can’t find her dress. Then she agrees to tell him, propositions him, he accepts, and the scene cuts.

Now, as you can probably recognize, this scene is the reductio ad absurdum of your typical porno setup. However, “absurdum” is the key word here. Aside from the fact that there are two beautiful women in the buff (something I rarely have any problem with); the scene doesn’t come across as erotic, or even as if it’s meant to be. Instead it comes across as ridiculous to the point of being kind of funny. Knowing what I do about Rollin now, how at the time he had to crank out a lot of hardcore pornography to get the money for the projects he wanted to film; I can’t help but wonder if he wasn’t trying to make a point with this scene. If nothing else, I get the sense that he might have been using the scene to laugh at his own issues.

The final element I’d like to discuss is the vampires. Rollin had a thing with the theme of vampirism, and he liked to experiment with it in his movies. Particularly in this film, the vampires are nothing like the pop culture versions of vampires we so often think of. On the one hand, they are sexy; particularly with two of them wearing only a thin, translucent veil. However, it is equally clear that they are dangerous. There are several scenes where the vampires look at a victim with expressions of such hunger that it’s rather discomforting.

However, despite that they are sympathetic. Essentially, these vampires are extensions of Rollin’s favorite theme of isolationism. They are completely cut off from humanity; partly because of how dangerous their hunger is to others, and partly through their inability to communicate, only able to growl, snarl and scream. And at the end, when they are destroyed, despite the danger they represent there is still something incredibly sad about it.

The two vampires that most catch the attention are played by Marie-Pierre and Catherine (who I’ve heard is a successful director now) Castel, identical twins who Rollin used often, singularly and together, in his movies. If nothing else they provide a bit of humor with my two favorite moments in the film. The first is when they are leaving their crypt for the first time; one of the girls has an evil grin on her face while the other has this zombiesh expression like she still needs her coffee. The other is a scene where they break Frédéric out of a mental hospital disguised as nurses.

In the end, Lips of Blood is an art movie in the true sense of the term. It is a beautiful, sensual and haunting piece of work that invokes emotions we don’t really see much in movies anymore. If you’re into odd art movies, definitely worth seeing.