Horror films I said I wouldn’t watch, but did.

Back in September of 2010, I wrote a blog entry entitled The horror films I probably won’t watch, and why in which I listed five films that, solely based on my knowledge of their content, I felt unlikely that I’d opt to view them. The five films were:

  1. Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980).
  2. Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) by Pier Paolo Pasolini.
  3. The August Underground Trilogy (August Underground 2002, Mordum 2003, Penance 2007) created by the Pittsburgh-based film production/special effects/design company Toetag Pictures.
  4. The mondo-style films Faces of Death (1978), and it’s imitators Faces of Gore and Traces of Death.
  5. Irreversible (2002) directed by Gaspar Noé.

The main issue I had with the listed films were the common element of “cruelty for the sake of cruelty” — or, in other words, that the sadistic nature of their content existed only to titillate in the most exploitative manner possible. Of course, since I had not seen these films, I had only their reputation on which to base my decision.

In the six years since I originally wrote that post, curiosity has — perhaps, predictably –gotten the better of me. Of the five films on that list, I’ve watched two (and almost three) of them. Here are my thoughts on each, in the order in which they first appeared:

Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust is, without doubt, a nasty film. Every frame of film looks smeared in blood, grime and sweat, probably because it actually was. The animal deaths are brutal and very real, and the actors endured a great deal of hardship while filming in the Amazon. The film is so notorious for the animal deaths, in fact, that I felt little shock when they finally happened as I’d read a great deal about them already. I was not prepared, however, for the casual manner in which violent rape was thrown on the screen. Now, if you’ve watched any number of 70’s Italian exploitation films, you’ll already be aware that rape is depicted with a great deal of frequency. Cannibal Holocaust is no different in that regard, but it’s much more violent here. Then again, this is a brutally violent world that Deodato is creating for us, and he does this quite effectively. The first half of the film, with the rescue team heading into the Amazon to locate the missing filmmakers, is frankly a bit boring. Things improve considerably in the second half, with the executives in New York viewing the footage recovered by the rescue team. This is where the whole “found footage” conceit kicks in, and is without question the greatest contribution Cannibal Holocaust has made to the horror genre. We’d probably not have The Blair Witch Project without the shaky, hand-held camera and POV-style of this earlier film.

The gore is spectacular and reasonably well executed, with the iconic impalement scene standing out as an impressive achievement in practical special effects. Sure, all the blood looks like red paint but, hey, it’s 1979-80. By the end of the film-within-a-film, you’re basically cheering on the natives to take their bloody vengeance on the monstrous Euro-American filmmakers — and boy, do they ever. If you consider yourself more than a casual horror film fan, then you owe it to yourself to watch Cannibal Holocaust at least once. Of the Italian cannibal films, it’s probably the best (though I haven’t seen all of them).

Incidentally, Eli Roth’s 2013 offering The Green Inferno is basically a mash-up of this film with Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox (itself a complete retelling of the basic plot in Deodato’s film). Roth’s rehash pales in comparison to the brutality of the earlier films, partly owing to the fact that one simply couldn’t make those films nowadays (laws protecting animal rights in films were passed after the making of Cannibal Holocaust). The only change Roth makes to his film which I felt worked was the repositioning of the native tribe from “peaceful victims pushed to violence” to very purposeful and sadistic predators. The cheerfully privileged college student-activists in The Green Inferno die out of sheer First World naïveté which — aside from a problematic view of non-white “primitives” as the menacing Other — is an interesting re-contextualization of the traditional cannibal film narrative. 

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Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) by Pier Paolo Pasolini.

 

I tried to watch Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom, I really did. I only made it about 45-minutes into the film before I switched it off. Sure, the cinematography was fabulous and the acting seemed very competent … but, it was so fucking boring. Judging from the first 45-minutes only, it appeared that the sadistic fascists planned to bore their adolescent victims to death with all their incessant talking, talking, talking. One has to suppose that all the infamous rape, torture and shit-eating occurs much later in the film. Perhaps several cups of coffee are required to view this lengthy piece of arthouse-smut. I may follow-up with a films I said I wouldn’t watch because they were so boring, but I persevered anyway post at a future date.

I haven’t watched any of the August Underground Trilogy yet, and I’m still on the fence about them. I may give-in to my curiosity late one night, when I’m feeling up to the challenge of a film that features a headless, maggoty toddler corpse. These films are not available (nor will ever be available) on streaming media like Netflix. One has to dig in the deeper, darker places of the Internet to unearth these atrocities.

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One version of artwork for the “Faces of Death” VHS case.

I have, however, watched the infamous Faces of Death (1978), and found the film completely hilarious. I recall closely studying the VHS case at my local Blockbuster Video when I was a teen in the 80’s, curious about the title but too intimidated to actually rent it. Banned in 46 countries! Depiction of actual death!

Lacking any sense of true narrative, the film is a cobbled-together series of newsreel and documentary footage showing fatal accidents, war photography, human autopsies, and animals being dispatched in slaughterhouses, all loosely connected by the authoritative voiceover of our death-tour guide, the fictitious Dr. Francis B. Gröss. Some of the footage is clearly (and, in some cases, laughably) staged reconstructions of reputedly real events. The segment featuring a group of American tourists supposedly eating monkey brains in some exotic locale is laugh-out-loud ridiculous.

The final film, the Gaspar Noé directed Irreversible (2002), I plan to watch at a future date. It’s such a seminal film within the framework of “New French Extremity” that I feel I should, though I seldom feel like settling-in to witness Monica Bellucci get violently raped for several, protracted minutes. Blech. Still, the time-reversal conceit seems like an interesting one.

Anyway, happy Halloween horror-viewing!

The Artist in Horror Cinema.

We all have an idea in our minds of what constitutes the “Artist”: a tormented, misunderstood outsider, compelled by an almost otherworldly drive to create. We recall images like those of Vincent van Gogh’s famous self-portrait with bandaged head, concealing the wound that resulted from severing his own left ear, or we envision the distorted figure of Edvard Munch’s magnum opus The Scream, it’s creator checking himself into a private sanitarium later in life after hearing voices. While these biographical details of Van Gogh and Munch are true and verifiable, this notion of the Artist as a mad, tormented genius is a cultural construction originating from the 19th-century Romantics, as described by scholar Pamela Fletcher in her Victorian Studies text Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century:

[Michael] Wilson’s title essay traces the myth of the artist as a unique genius, alienated from society both by his own commitment to the demands of his art and a philistine public’s inability to value or understand it. Wilson rightly notes that the idea of the artist as a melancholic genius dates back to the Renaissance, but he locates the full flowering of the myth in the Romantic era. — excerpt from “Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century”, by Pamela M. Fletcher.

The Romantic era (approx. 1800-1850) reconfigured the artist as a tragic hero who, in the best case scenario, is a darkly brooding and cynical Byronic hero or, in the worst case, is a half-lunatic hermit who lives on the very fringe of society. Though most-assuredly a myth, this notion of the artist as a crazed — and possibly even dangerous — outsider has persisted even into the modern era.

The genre of horror is fed by our psychological and cultural fears. One of our collective fears is our fear of the Other: those individuals who, whether through a transgression of gender, physical deformity, or mental illness, deviate from the “norm” in terms of their appearance and/or behaviour. (See my previous series of posts on Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, which addresses the topic of women as the Other). These types of individuals tend to make the majority anxious, and therefore they are ideal to occupy the role of the “monster” in horror fiction. Given the Romantic notion of the “mad artist”, it’s hardly surprising that artists have served in this role of the feared Other in horror cinema. Below are a few examples of horror films that have featured visual artists in such roles.

Film still from "Blind Beast" (1969

Film still from “Blind Beast” (1969, dir. Yasuzô Masumura).

1. Blind Beast (1969, dir. Yasuzô Masumura) is a masterpiece of ero guro nansensu from Japan that is based on a story by Edogawa Rampo. A blind sculptor kidnaps a beautiful young model and takes her back to his home to act as his model and muse. He and his mother live in a warehouse which he’s transformed into a surreal sculptural installation of giant body parts, dedicated mainly to the female form. At first, the model only wants to escape from this bizarre scene, but eventually she succumbs to his strange vision and even surpasses his obsession. In true ero guro style, they develop a curiously erotic, sadomasochistic relationship that eventually leads to the crazy, horrific and over-the-top violent finale. Below is the entire film posted on Youtube, though regrettably it lacks English subtitles. Worth watching, if only for its beautiful and bizarre visuals — such as the two protagonists cavorting atop a giant (foam rubber) sculpture of a reclining female nude.

2. As an artist myself, I can fully understand the urge to find the exactly correct hue for a project. On many occasions I’ve paid a princely sum for tubes of Cadmium Red paint because, well, no other pigment is as brilliantly, intensely red (the toxicity of the metal cadmium notwithstanding). Hershell Gordon Lewis, the notorious exploitation-film director who singlehandedly created the splatter-gore film, used this notion of the dangerously obsessive artist to splatter his signature gore in Color Me Blood Red (1965).

"Color Me Blood Red" (1965, dir. Hershell Gordon Lewis.

“Color Me Blood Red” (1965, dir. Hershell Gordon Lewis).

Artist Adam Sorge struggles to find critical and commercial success when he accidently discovers that blood smeared across his canvas provides his paintings with the vibrancy they previously lacked. This discovery provides the rationale for Sorge (and Lewis) to bloodily dispatch a couple of bikini-clad beauties in this lesser offering from Lewis’s “Blood Trilogy”. Low-budget and poorly acted (Lewis often relied on non-actors), what this film lacks in craft, it makes up for with its campy, rough-hewn B-movie charm. You can watch the entire, uncut film on Youtube. Considering that it was made in 1965, it truly is subversively gory.

3. Cauldron of Blood (1970) is a terrible film. That said, I kinda have a soft spot for it. Also known under the title Blind Man’s Bluff, it was cobbled together over a few years, repurposing footage from different films. One reason for this cinematic mess is the fact that its star Boris Karloff was in very poor health, and couldn’t appear in a number of scenes (he died in 1969, before its release). Thus, its creators were obliged to pad the film with previously shot footage. Karloff appears frail and sadly diminished — but even a diminished Karloff is still pretty good. Here’s the short synopsis from IMDB: “A blind sculptor works on his magnum opus unaware that the skeletons he has been using for armatures are the remains of the victims of his evil wife and that he is the next target”.

Again, the entire film is available on Youtube (one assumes distribution companies don’t care about these older films). My advice is to forward to the 1:27 mark and watch the final showdown between Karloff and his gloriously evil wife, where she meets her comeuppance in a vat of acid.

Lady Lazarus’s Halloween Party Movie Night, 2013 Edition.

It’s a cold, misty, grey and rainy Saturday afternoon — the perfect climate in which to begin compiling my annual Halloween horror-movie list to whet your ghoulish, pre-Halloween appetites. Last year, when it came time to write my list, I shared with you the outstanding horror films I’d seen in 2012. I decided to continue with that tradition this year, with a list of horror films that you might want to keep an eye out for — read on to get the bad Lucio Fulci-themed joke, and apologies in advance — and track down online or on DVD. As with last year’s list, some of these films are new, and some were just new to me in 2013.

Lucio Fulci's "The Beyond" (1981).

The blind girl and her canine companion from Lucio Fulci’s “The Beyond” (1981).

1. This past year I caught up with two classics from Italian horror maestro, Lucio Fulci. The sheer audacity of his signature goopy, oozing, swarming-with-maggots gore and trademark eye-gougings rightfully earned him the title of ‘Godfather of Gore’ in late 70’s – 80’s horror cinema. While I can’t recommend any of his films on the basis of story or dialogue, what they do offer are arresting visuals, an undeniably effective atmosphere of dread, and a try-anything attitude towards experimentation in B-movie filmmaking. How else can you explain the batshit-crazy scene that occurs in Zombi 2 where an underwater zombie battles a shark? Although that zombie vs. shark scene is truly heaps of campy-horror fun, the film that I’d most enthusiastically recommend by Fulci is his nightmarish masterpiece The Beyond (1981). For this film, Fulci pulls out all the stops and gives us a crumbling Southern-Gothic hotel, black magic, zombies, a portal to Hell, face-eating tarantulas and not one but three graphic scenes of eyeballs being pulled, poked and eaten out of their sockets. The story meanders passed the brink of comprehension, but the images are worth seeing it through to the end. And speaking of the end, The Beyond boasts one of the most bleak and truly haunting finales to a horror film that I’ve seen in quite a while.

Elijah Wood plays a surprisingly sympathetic serial killer in "Maniac" (2012).

Elijah Wood plays a surprisingly sympathetic serial killer in “Maniac” (2012).

2. The recent remake of the 1980’s slasher-horror Maniac by French director Franck Khalfoun was a superlative rethink of the serial killer cult classic. Then again, with Alexandre Aja heading up the screenwriting team, one should hardly be surprised at this clever re-contextualization of the tired old slasher genre. It was Aja, after all, who gave us the gender-bending slasher-thriller Haute Tension back in 2003. When the remake of Maniac was announced, many wondered (as I did) how the relatively diminutive Elijah Wood could step into the role of serial killer Frank Zito that had been originally portrayed by the large, hulking Joe Spinell. Admittedly, he was convincingly creepy as the cannibalistic Kevin in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, but then all Wood needed to do for that role was stare vacantly behind eyeglasses and grin. The character of Frank needs to be equal parts nerdy, pathetic and truly terrifying. Wood pulls this off, in part due to the POV-style of the film. The audience experiences the film through Frank’s eyes, and Wood is only occasionally glimpsed in mirrors and other reflective surfaces. As the grimy, crime-infested New York City of the original film no longer exists, Khalfoun shot in the sleazier neighbourhoods still existent in Los Angeles to recreate an environment that threatens violence. The kills are bloody enough to satisfy most gorehounds, though the CGI does lack the visceral quality of Tom Savini’s famed physical SFX — such as the infamous scene in the 1980 original where Savini himself has his head blown off by a close range shotgun. That said, this remake is definitely worth a look.

Jorge Michel Grau's cannibal film "We Are What We Are." (2010).

Jorge Michel Grau’s cannibal film “We Are What We Are.” (2010).

3. Recently on Hulu, I noticed there’d been an English-language remake of the Mexican cannibal film We Are What We Are (Original Spanish title Somos lo que hay, 2010. Directed by Jorge Michel Grau). While I’ve not seen this remake, the original Mexican film was a surprise discovery for me this past year (the film was only released in North America on VOD). It tells the curious story of a family of cannibals who are compelled — for reasons that are left to one’s own imagination — to ritualistically murder and devour victims kidnapped off the streets of Mexico City. For a cannibal film, We Are What We Are is profoundly understated in it’s gore…at least, until the latter half of the film. For the most part, it’s a tense family drama, and relies much more on character development and atmosphere than one would expect from a film in this genre. Recommended for the horror fan who likes a dash of the unexpected.

"X is for XXL" from the horror anthology "The ABC's of Death." (2012)

“X is for XXL” from the horror anthology “The ABC’s of Death.” (2012)

4. Five minutes, five thousand dollars, and one randomly-selected letter of the alphabet. That was the premise behind the massive horror anthology The ABC’s of Death (2012).  It contains 26 different shorts, each by different directors spanning fifteen countries. Like most anthologies, it’s a real mixed bag of offerings. Even though watching all 26 shorts felt like a bit of a slog, at least one could have fun trying to guess what each letter represented, as this information is never revealed until the end of each segment. Stand-outs for me include “D is for Dogfight”, the darkly funny claymation “T is for Toilets”, and the very meta “Q is for Quack.” “L is for Libido” by Indonesian director Timo Tjahjanto is sick and twisted, and Noboru Iguchi’s “F is for Fart” is just plain loopy. The best of the bunch, by a wide margin, is Xavier Gens “X is for XXL”.

Katharine Isabelle stars as the titular "American Mary", though it's never revealed as to why she's identified as "American."

Katharine Isabelle stars as “American Mary”, though it’s never revealed as to why she’s identified as American.

5. The Canadian directorial-duo of Jen and Sylvia Soska, a.k.a. the “Twisted Twins”, have been steadily gaining notoriety in the genre film world these past few years.  They first gained attention with the low-budget exploitation film Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009), and returned in 2013 with the gloss and production values of a bigger budget with American Mary (2013). Starring Katharine Isabelle — best known to horror fans as Ginger from the Ginger Snaps franchise — this film is essentially a rape-revenge mashed up with medical-horror. The titular Mary is a medical school drop-out who finds herself working as an underground surgeon in the world of (very extreme) body modification. The visual style of American Mary is very much fetish intermingled with body horror, though the body modification community is not exploited nor treated unkindly.

Horror Films 101: “When love goes terribly wrong” moments in horror cinema.

Scene from the Thai film "Shutter" (2004).

Scene from the Thai film “Shutter” (2004).

1. Asian ghosts always have an agenda. Typically, it’s one motivated by a desire for revenge, or a need for justice. In the Thai supernatural-thriller Shutter (2004, directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom), the heroine Jane mistakenly believes that the female ghost who torments both she and her boyfriend Tun is seeking revenge for the hit-and-run accident in which the mysterious woman was killed. There’s much more to the story, however, as a dark secret connecting Tun to the dead woman is ultimately revealed. The true horror of this film may be the fact that, even though Tun’s deeply troubling past has been shown, Jane seems to be supportive of him at the finale — so much for justice and gender equality in Thailand. I thoroughly enjoyed this Thai ghost story and, even though an English-language remake was released in 2008, I feel no need to watch it. I can read subtitles just fine, thanks.

Unrequited love gone wrong in "Haute Tension" (2003).

Unrequited love gone wrong in “Haute Tension” (2003).

2. Haute Tension (2003). If a woman wielding a bloody chainsaw towers above you, shouting “Do you love me?!” over the ear-splitting whirl of the blade, I would just quickly say “YES!”. If you don’t happen to share her amorous feelings, you can explain so later at a safe distance. Preferably over the phone, from another continent.

May admires her Frankenstein-like creation.

May admires her Frankenstein-like creation.

3. The desperate ache of loneliness never seemed so palpable as it does in Lucky McKee’s May (2002). When our titular heroine, a socially-awkward misfit whose best friend is a (very creepy) doll, fails to find her true love, she takes matters into her own hands and fashions herself one. Angela Bettis, a long-time acting staple in McKee’s films, turns in a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a character who’s essentially a psychotic serial killer. A criminally neglected film.

Keir Dullea, all turtlenecks and shaggy 1970's hair, as Peter in "Black Christmas" (1974).

Keir Dullea, all turtlenecks and shaggy 1970’s hair, as Peter in “Black Christmas” (1974).

4. You know a relationship’s going south when you begin to suspect your lover of being a serial killer. Such was the case between Jess and her turtleneck-wearing boyfriend Peter in Black Christmas (1974). When Jess reveals to Peter her unwanted pregnancy and plans to have an abortion, his reaction is not only negative, but downright crazy in its intensity. But did this news, plus his failed piano recital — artists, they’re so sensitive —  push Peter to the brink of insanity?

Theatre of Blood: Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol

"Crime in a Madhouse". Photograph by Hans Wilder, 1947.

“Crime in a Madhouse”. Photograph by Hans Wilder, 1947.

If you’re  a fan of horror and/or theatre, you will inevitably encounter the term grand guignol and, if you’re like me, wonder what it means and from where it comes. The French phrase grand guignol has been absorbed into the English lexicon as a term to describe any excessively gruesome and gory spectacle, but its origins are much more specific. Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol was a theatre founded in Paris by Oscar Méténier in 1894. Operating for 65 years, it produced one-act plays, many of which focused on violent and erotic works of horror.

The theatre was opened by Oscar Metenier, a writer and police secretary, who created slice-of-life plays about the Parisian underlife and stories of true crime. Metenier was a follower of Naturalism: a movement in late 19th Century theatre that attempted to create a perfect illusion of reality. Naturalistic works often exposed the dark harshness of life, with themes of poverty, racism, sex, prejudice, disease, prostitution, and filth.

After a couple of years at the helm, Metenier handed the theatre over to Max Maurey, who saw the commercial potential of the theatre and, in particular, capitalized upon its darker side. Maurey incorporated melodrama into the Grand-Guignol’s acting style to heighten the emotion of the more sensational elements while keeping Naturalism as the guiding principle for characters and situations. It was under Maurey that the style of the Grand Guignol became renowned throughout Europe and, eventually, the world.

— text from Theatre of Blood web site.

Theatre-goers would be treated to five or six one-act plays in an evening’s performance, alternating between bawdy, Vaudevillian-style comedies, to violent tales of crime, madness, and bloody revenge. The gory special effects of the Grand-Guignol were world-renowned for their high degree of realism, and the theatre employed teams of propsmen who specialized in fake blood, severed limbs, and impaled eyeballs. Some of the more famous horror-themed plays staged included:

Le Laboratoire des Hallucinations, by André de Lorde: When a doctor finds his wife’s lover in his operating room, he performs a graphic brain surgery rendering the adulterer a hallucinating semi-zombie. Now insane, the lover/patient hammers a chisel into the doctor’s brain.

Un Crime dans une Maison de Fous, by André de Lorde: Two hags in an insane asylum use scissors to blind a young, pretty fellow inmate out of jealousy.

L’Horrible Passion, by André de Lorde: A nanny strangles the children in her care.

Le Baiser dans la nuit by Maurice Level: A young woman visits the man whose face she horribly disfigured with acid, where he obtains his revenge.

A scene from Grand Guignol.

A scene from Grand Guignol.

Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol closed its door in 1962. Audiences had dwindled in the years following WWII, likely due to the fact that the staged horrors had now been eclipsed by the real world horrors of the war and the Holocaust. “We could never equal Buchenwald,” said its final director, Charles Nonon. “Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality.” (from Wikipedia).

Nostalgic for Sleaze, part VI: film review for ‘Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS.’

Dyanne Thorne and her intimidating assets feature prominently on the film poster for ‘Ilsa She-Wolf of the SS’.

At last, we come to the final of the three exploitation films I planned to discuss for my Nostalgic for Sleaze series of blog posts.  In June, I offered my two-cents worth on Joe D’Amato’s Images in a Convent (1979), and then earlier this month I discussed Women in Cages (1971). As promised, I reviewed each film in [quote] “descending order from “most enjoyable/least offensive” to “least enjoyable/completely offensive” [end quote]. And thus, we now arrive at that most notorious of naziploitation films Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1974).

To begin, I’d like to get a few obvious points out of the way. Any film that hinges its plot — however threadbare this plot might be — on ‘dramatic recreations’ of actual Nazi atrocities is not going to be pleasant viewing. I understand that a subgenre of exploitation cinema exists that’s dedicated to detailed accounts of war atrocities — many of them focused on Japanese WWII war crimes, curiously enough — but I personally find these distasteful as forms of entertainment. Oh sure, Ilsa offers up topless Aryan babes in highly fetishized Nazi uniforms whose bodies glisten with sweat as they flog prisoners to death, but…Sweet Jesus, they just flogged those prisoners to death. And then hung them upside down, naked and bloodied, for the rest of the camp to admire. Sexualized violence reaches its most vile and maladjusted apex in this nasty piece of exploitation cinema. Even though Ilsa was filmed on the former set of Hogan’s Heroes, this definitely isn’t a fun film.

Quick Synopsis: A female Nazi Stalag Commandant performs gruesome ‘medical experiments’ on her female prisoners in an effort to demonstrate that women can endure more physical pain than men, and should therefore be allowed into combat. When she’s not torturing women, Ilsa amuses herself by forcing various male prisoners to satisfy her carnal urges. When these men disappoint her — as they invariably do since, in addition to being a sadist, she’s also an insatiable nymphomaniac — she has them castrated. Ilsa becomes flummoxed when she encounters Anna, a prisoner who seems capable of withstanding an enormous amount of pain. She also discovers a male prisoner — with the über-masculine name Wolfe — who possesses impressive porn-star talents that just may help him keep his, um, manhood.

Ilsa and her blonde henchwomen.

Though it would be impossible to deny the excessive sleaziness of this film, there are a few elements that make it almost watchable. The scenes between Wolfe and Ilsa are hilarious, as the ordinarily domineering Commandant coos and swoons like a schoolgirl before his cocksure male swagger. Are we to understand that Ilsa is a misunderstood sadist-Nazi who’s simply looking for the right fella to fawn over? The other amusing element is one of Ilsa’s implements of torture, which is an electrified dildo. While that does sound rather nasty, the image of Dyanne Thorne waggling this menacing black dildo under the nose of her victims is thoroughly giggle-inducing.

But then, there’s the rest of the film. Fans of this cult favourite argue that the gore and torture is so over-the-top that it’s cartoonish and silly. While I can agree with this to a point, I simply cannot defend the film’s continual coupling of naked titillation with extreme violence. Here’s a quick sampling of some of the unpleasant ways you could meet your end if you’re a woman in Ilsa’s prison camp:

1. Being flogged to death by topless Nazis.

2. Having your innards spew outwards inside a pressure chamber. Oh, and we get a good look at your tits while you’re spewing.

3. Being boiled alive till you’re red as a lobster.

4. Having some highly dubious gynaecological surgery performed on you, without anesthesia.

Admittedly, the many moments of high camp and pure, B-movie excess in Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS make it more ridiculous than truly sinister. That said, I still felt like having a shower after watching it. Yuck.

Can’t recommend it, but hey, it’s your party. Watch at your own risk.

Nostalgic for sleaze, part III: more grisly than ever in Blood Color!

Print advertisement for Herschell Gordon Lewis’s splatter-gore classic, “Blood Feast.” (1963).

Sex sells. So, evidently, does violence. When the two are paired together and offered up as a form of “extreme” entertainment, the results can be problematic. Throughout the horror genre, as well as within exploitation cinema, the naked bodies of young women are displayed, initially to arouse, and then to be victimized by violence. But why? Granted, there is a small segment of any population that are sexual sadists, and by which I mean truly pathological individuals and not your garden-variety, suburban married couple who dabble in spanking and other types of weekend sadomasochism. But this type of individual is not the norm, and is certainly not indicative of the fan base for horror & exploitation cinema. Most horror geeks — and I include myself in this grouping — are people who have a taste for that which is not typically found in mainstream, non-genre entertainment: the shocking, the trashy, the absurd and the downright nasty. These are also the mainstays of that close relative to horror, the exploitation film. Exploitation films of the 1970’s competed with each other over an ever-shrinking audience at drive-ins and grindhouse theatres, and this competition resulted in a kind of oneupmanship in terms of sex, violence and gore. Advertisements tantalized by promising the most shocking, the most sickening, and the most racy content available at a cinema.

The average consumer of horror and exploitation films in the 1970’s was young and male. The majority of men like to view attractive women in states of undress, and if they are horror/exploitation fans, they also have a taste for gore and violence. Hence, sexualized violence towards women — like the naked torture victims in nunsploitation, naziploitation, and WIP (Women in Prison) films —  became an accepted, and even expected, feature in these films. I rather suspect, though, that the male audience that flocked to see Pam Grier play a sadistic lesbian prison warden in Women in Cages were more interested in the physical attributes of Grier and her onscreen cohorts than the plights of the prison inmates.

However, this “boys will be boys” explanation doesn’t let either the filmmakers, the producers, nor it’s audience off the hook that easily. One can’t help but draw a parallel between the social changes propelled forward by Second Wave Feminism of the late-1960’s and 1970’s and the corresponding cinematic “backlash” against women in exploitation films. The same could be argued for the equally controversial blaxploitation film for its reinforcing of negative racial stereotypes at a time in history when the civil rights movement had advanced equality for African-Americans. Do I think there was some organized conspiracy against gender equality amongst B-movie filmmakers? No, of course not. The Roger Cormans of the world cared about bums-in-seats in movie theatres, not sociopolitical agendas. One thing that exploitation cinema has certainly never promised to be is politically-correct or enlightened — in fact, the inverse is often true. However, there is an undeniably strong anti-feminist ethic to many of the aforementioned films, best characterized as a “who the hell does she think she is? Let’s teach her a lesson” response to the burgeoning political power of women in the 1970’s.

“Tokyo Gore Police” stars Eihi Shiina as a member of Tokyo Police who exterminates creepy mutants, ninja-style.

You might now be asking yourself the question: why does Lady Lazarus, a woman and professed feminist, enjoy watching exploitation films? Well, apart from enjoying the trashy, campy fun of it all, it is only in the speculative fiction of horror, science fiction & fantasy that women can truly stand in equal footing with men — and by “equal footing”, I mean in terms of physical strength and prowess. Female characters can be imbued with superhuman strength, have magical powers, be kick-ass ninjas or fight off the zombie hordes. For every repellently misogynistic film like Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1974), you have the blood-drenched, splatter-gore lunacy of Tokyo Gore Police (2008), a contemporary Japanese horror-exploitation film with a sword-wielding female protagonist. While this film is replete with very disturbing and sexually-charged body horror imagery — most notable being a headless ‘human chair‘ — I did not sense the same level of sadism targeted specifically at women as I did in the Ilsa film. Everyone in Tokyo Gore Police — men, women, chairs — gets the slice ‘n’ dice treatment.

Take that, Herschell Gordon Lewis.

Lady Lazarus’s 2011 Halloween Party Movie Night: ‘Pushing Boundaries.’

This is the follow-up post to Lady Lazarus’s 2011 Halloween Party Movie Night: ‘Ghoulish Delights.’

Pushing Boundaries.

Something you don’t want coming at you in the dark (and with that hammer) in REC and REC2.

1. The Spanish horror films [REC] (2007) and [REC]2 (2009) have proven to be a potent one-two punch in recent horror cinema. The second film is less of a sequel as a continuation of the first, with the action literally picking up where the first film ended. This is a very good thing, indeed, as the final third of [REC] set-up an unanticipated and fairly novel plot twist involving the Vatican, some dubious medical experiments, and a solitary priest living in the penthouse of the sealed-off, ‘zombie’-infested Madrid apartment building. It is this unique mashup of zombie-meets-supernatural thriller that makes the [REC] films standout from the recent overabundance of shaky-camera, faux found-footage style horror films. From what I’ve read, the shot-for-shot English language remake Quarantine (which I have not seen) altered the heavy Catholicism of the original Spanish film, replacing all those Virgin Marys with more generic, non-denominational Christian iconography. While the Catholicism would not have the same resonance for the multicultural, multi-faith English-speaking world as it would for the Latin, an easier and more obvious correlation exists between the flesh-eating ‘zombies’ and the characteristically morbid, blood-drenched imagery of Spanish Catholicism than it does for the more ‘sanitized’ versions of Christianity. The only disappointment I had with these films was the ending of [REC]2 which, as soon as a certain character reappears on the scene, is pretty much spelled out.

Catherine Begin as the diabolical Mademoiselle in “Martyrs” (2008).

2. I had purposely avoided Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008) after reading the synopsis and questioning whether a plot that hinged upon the brutal and systematic abuse, torture and murder of young women was something I wanted to witness. After relenting and watching the film, I must admit that it pleasantly surprised me. Now, make no mistake — this is a troubling, violent, and gory film that boldly underscores the word extreme in the phrase ‘New French Extremity’, a category of recent French films in which Martyrs is often included. Much like the [REC] films above, Laugier’s Martyrs veers off in an unexpected and fascinating direction towards the end of the film, revealing a secret society of privileged individuals determined to discover — at any cost — the existence of an afterlife. The enigmatic ending will have you scratching your head for years to come.

3. Any film that re-imagines and updates the ‘slasher’ genre immediately gets my attention, as did Alexandre Aja’s superlative Haute Tension (2003). While some horror fans argue that the ‘big reveal’ in the film didn’t work, I give Aja credit for playing with the conventions of gender in the rigidly formulaic slasher genre. In one of my earlier posts, entitled Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, I wrote extensively on this film.

Nothing quite says “revenge” like a fish hook in the eyelid. Jennifer Hills is more of a badass in the 2010 remake of “I Spit On Your Grave.”

4. Like the dated sexual politics of the slasher film, the rape-revenge film is an exploitation subgenre also in need of an update. Much has changed in gender roles and equality since Meir Zarchi made his controversial 1978 cult film I Spit On Your Grave. The 2010 remake, which credits Zarchi as one of its producers, attempts to address some of the shortfalls of the original — at least, shortfalls in the eyes of this contemporary horror fan. In my earlier post Rape-Revenge Girl, I criticized Zarchi’s film for the rather unsatisfying revenge sequences. “The quotient of rape-to-revenge in Zarchi’s film is too much rape, not enough revenge,” I wrote, and “…the deaths of Jennifer’s rapists were not violent and/or gory enough for my — admittedly, gruesome — taste.” As if in direct response to my criticism, the 2010 remake offers up grisly and sickly-twisted revenge killings reminiscent of the stuff you’d find in “torture porn” films like Saw and Hostel. Admittedly, the whole transformation of Jennifer Hills from cheerful girl-next-door, to rape victim, to psychopathic and sadistic killer doesn’t work in any realm other than extreme, cathartic fantasy. Then again, if you’re opting to watch a film entitled I Spit On Your Grave, then you probably know what you’re in store for and will suspend your disbelief long enough to see the blood spill.