Regular readers of this blog know that I am a big fan of "blaxploitation films", the sub-genre of exploitation cinema that flourished during the 1970s. While I haven't seen every blaxploitation film made during that era, I've thoroughly enjoyed the films I have seen. These movies take me back to my high school years with vintage cars, clothes, music, really bad guys, beautiful women and tons of "R" rated violence. These films were staples on both the inner city grindhouse circuit as well as the suburban drive-ins that were still in operation.
COFFY (1973), which I watched for the first time yesterday, shows exploitation auteur Jack Hill at the top of his game in this violent actioner about a woman out to get revenge. Coffy (Pam Grier), is a nurse at a major metropolitan hospital (the city is never actually named but it's clear it's Los Angeles), whose little sister has become a heroin addict. The girl is in a rehab clinic but the prognosis for recovery doesn't look good. Coffy decides to seek out and kill all of the men responsible for her sister's condition.
And that's just what she does. Coffy is not a police officer, a military veteran or a government agent of any sort. She's a fiercely determined and driven young woman who will stop at nothing to get the evil men who have hurt her sister.
Coffy enters a sleazily underworld of pimps, prostitutes, drugs, mob hit men (including the great Sid Haig), crooked cops and corrupt politicians. The bad guys try to stop her several times using a variety of methods of mayhem but Coffy keeps on fighting. Hand guns, shotguns, sharpened hair pins, razor blades and various vehicles are all instruments of massive carnage throughout the film. At the end, all of the bad men have been dispatched, even a man Coffy loved.
Nothing trumps revenge.
Pam Grier, who had previously appeared in Hill's women-in-prison picture THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1971), owns this movie from start to finish. With little formal acting training or experience (she was a receptionist at American International Pictures when Hill spotted her and cast her), Grier exudes star power in every frame. She's a beautiful, smart and competent young woman, no shrinking damsel in distress who must be rescued by a more capable man. She kicks ass and takes names and in the process, became an icon of 1970s blaxploitation cinema. Coffy as a character and Grier as an actress, both became positive role models for independent, strong women in a genre and industry dominated by men. Sure it's a low budget B movie but COFFY is nonetheless an important film from the break-all-the-rules cinema of the 1970s.
Saturday, August 3, 2019
Friday, July 26, 2019
American director Nicholas Ray would, at first glance, seem to be a rather curious choice to helm a World War II action film. Better known for such classics as THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1949), IN A LONELY PLACE (1950), ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1952), MACAO (1952), REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956), Ray did have one war movie, FLYING LEATHERNECKS (1951) under his belt. And a Nicholas Ray directed war movie is bound to be something different from the usual run of the mill fare.
BITTER VICTORY (1957) is the story of two men, Major David Brand (Curt Jurgens) and Captain Jim Leith (Richard Burton) who clash in North Africa during WWII. As it turns out, Leith, a combat veteran, had a brief but torrid affair with Jane (Ruth Roman), before she married Brand. Leith still carries a torch for Jane and she is still romantically attracted to the dashing young soldier.
The British high command orders a commando raid on Benghazi to capture Nazi documents stored there. It's a dangerous mission but Brand, with no field experience, is given command of the operation due to his seniority and rank. Leith is assigned his second in command. The rest of the squad is composed of veteran British actors including Nigel Green and Christopher Lee.
Ray wastes no time in getting the men to their objective where Brand freezes under stress, unable to kill a German sentry. It's up to Leith to do the dirty work and the operation continues. The men get the documents as ordered and put their escape plan into action. But the camels that were supposed to carry the men back to the rendezvous point don't show up, forcing the men to set off across the North African desert on foot.
They're ambushed by a Nazi patrol and a vicious gun battle leaves most of the Germans dead except for Colonel Lutze (Fred Matter), whom the commandos take prisoner. Brand is clearly in over his head and he depends upon Leith to make the hard decisions. But when Brand sees a scorpion about to attack Leith, he does nothing to interfere, letting the man be stung, becoming unable to continue the journey. When a fierce sand storm erupts, it's Leith that saves Brand from certain death, dying in the process. The rest of his men believe Brand killed Leith and view him with suspicion for the rest of the trek.
The men finally meet up with British forces but while celebrating, they ignore Colonel Lutze who puts the bags containing the documents to the torch. Only one bag is able to be salvaged but it's enough for Brand to be recognized as a hero by the British top brass and awarded a medal for heroism under fire, a medal he most certainly doesn't deserve.
BITTER VICTORY is an interesting, offbeat and first rate little war movie that is unflinching it depicting some rather atrocious war crimes (on both sides). Burton and Jurgens seem to genuinely hate each other while Roman harbors deep feelings for both men. Cynical and uncompromising, BITTER VICTORY is well worth seeing for fans of Nicholas Ray and World War II films.
Thursday, July 25, 2019
I doubt if I'm the first horror film fan to point this out but who knows? Maybe this is a genuine first.
After watching THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE (1962) yesterday afternoon for the first time in at least twenty-five years, it struck me how similar the film is to Georges Franju's poetic horror film, EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960). In EYES, a mad doctor is obsessed with restoring his daughter's beauty. The young woman's face was horribly scared in an automobile accident and she wanders the corridors of a remote French chateau wearing a white, full face mask, with only her eyes visible. The doctor and his female assistant, stalk, capture and kill various young French women, peel their faces off and graft them onto his daughter using an advanced surgical technique known only to the doctor. Of course, the transplants are only temporary and the daughter, horrified but what she has become, destroys everything in the lab before wandering off into the night.
EYES WITHOUT A FACE is an undiluted masterpiece, one of the greatest horror films of the twentieth-century. THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE is exploitation trash from beginning to end but it does follow the plot line of EYES (albeit with some differences). A mad young doctor Bill Cortner (Jason Evers), is experimenting with transplants of human limbs and organs and he's developed an enzyme to aid in his work. He demonstrates his technique by reviving a patient declared dead by his surgeon father (Bruce Brighton). Cortner is called to his country estate by Kurt (Anthony La Penna) and Cortner and his girlfriend Jan (Virginia Leith), jump in the car and speed towards the house. An accident occurs but Bill salvages Jan's disembodied head from the wreckage. He takes her head to his basement laboratory, puts it in a developing tray, attaches bizarre equipment and lo and behold, Jan's head is alive!
But Bill's technique can't keep a bodiless head alive for more than 48 hours and he begins a desperate hunt for a young woman whose body he can attach Jan's head to.
Okay, so the comparisons to EYE are pretty obvious to anyone who knows their 1960s horror cinema. But where BRAIN goes off the rails can be found in the additional plot elements that director and co-screenwriter Joseph Green bring to the narrative. Jan talks to Kurt and learns more about Bill's experiments. Kurt was one of Bill's subjects but his operation went wrong, leaving him with a crippled left arm. Jan's head has also inexplicably developed a crude form of telepathy and she communicates via brain waves with the unseen "thing in the closet".
Meanwhile Bill prowls strip clubs, bathing suit beauty pageants and women on the street for his perfect body donor before settling on Doris (Adele Lamont) a facially scarred photographer's model. He convinces her that he can fix the scar on her face, a ploy she falls for. He takes her back to the house where all hell has broken loose.
The thing in the closet, a monstrous 7 foot tall creature with one misplaced eye and a pin head, has ripped off Kurt's good arm. The monster attacks Bill, biting and ripping a hunk of flesh out of his throat. A fire is started and the monster carries off the unconscious Doris into the night while Kurt, Bill and Jan are consumed in the flames, the penalty paid for tampering in "things better left unknown".
With tinny sound, sparse sets, wooden acting and unimaginative direction, BRAIN is a bottom-of-the-barrel effort by anyone's standards. All of the usual mad doctor horror film tropes are on display, most of them borrowed from far better films. But what sets BRAIN apart is the in-your-face sleaziness of Bill's search for a donor body.
He goes to what has to be the world's worst strip club where the dancer (yes, there's only one), gyrates on the floor among the customers, not on a stage as found in traditional establishments. She never takes anything off and receives plenty of looks from the men and women who are patrons of the club. After the show, Bill visits her in her dressing room where she comes on to him before being interrupted by another stripper. This ends in a cat fight in which the two women wrestle and tussle on the floor. What does any of this have to do with anything else in the film? Nothing except to provide some cheap titillation.
Bill cruises city streets, ogling random women before he comes across a girl he knows. She convinces him to attend a beauty pageant in which the finalists parade across the stage in swim suits. Bill stares at the women but doesn't find a suitable candidate. When he finally goes to Doris's apartment, she's being photographed by a gaggle of sweaty perverts, all of whom are frantically snapping pictures with their personal cameras.
THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE reeks of sleaze thanks to the parade of "B" girls that populate the film and some crude but effective early gore effects. It's utter, irredeemable trash but it does have it's fans.
I'm not one of them.
If you're a horror film fan and you haven't seen this film, you need to see it at least once. If you've already endured a viewing of BRAIN, go watch EYES WITHOUT A FACE instead.
You can thank me later.
Wednesday, July 24, 2019
Somewhere between Roman Polanski's masterpiece of urban horror, ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) and the over-the-top insanity of Larry Cohen's monster baby epic IT'S ALIVE (1974) lies GRACE (2009). This low budget, independent Canadian horror film borrows a great deal from the body horror oeuvre of fellow Canadian David Cronenberg in it's depiction of motherhood gone horribly wrong.
Madeline (Jordan Ladd), is a pregnant young woman whose husband, Michael (Stephen Park), dies in a car accident before the baby is born. The accident also leave the baby dead but Madeline decides to let the corpse go full term and be delivered anyway, telling everyone that the infant died at birth. But somehow, the baby girl named Grace, comes alive after delivery. Is it a miracle? Or something far more sinister.
It's the sinister option, of course, with young Grace refusing to accept breast milk in lieu of something else: blood. And not just any blood as Madeline finds out when she tries to feed Grace blood drained from fresh cuts of meat. No, little Grace demands human blood and she ravenously takes it from her anemic mother. Madeline is soon forced to find a supply of human blood that doesn't involve the ravaging her nipples and breasts. She finds that source in the form of a meddling Dr. Sohn (Malcolm Stewart) and Vivian (Gabrielle Rose), her grief stricken mother-in-law. But by then it's too late as Madeline herself has succumbed to the curse of needing human blood herself. And things ratchet up another notch in the last scene of the film when young Grace starts teething, implying a need for both blood and flesh.
GRACE is a very well made little shocker which touches on some extremely disturbing themes and many "really-wish-I-hadn't-seen-that" scenes of shockingly intimate blood and gore. Not for the faint of heart, GRACE is a slowly building exercise in maternal terror and dread with no explanation given for why this living dead baby has come to be. She simply is and Madeline will do anything to protect and provide for her.
This film is certainly not every one's cup of tea but for fans of modern, independent horror films, GRACE is definitely worth seeing.