Film #53: Love Goddess of the Cannibals (1978)

film 53 love goddess of the cannibals

Rating: 2/5

Love Goddess of the Cannibals, also known as Papaya: Love Goddess of the Cannibals or, most accurately, Caribbean Papaya, is one of a number of Shameless DVDs I’ve bought over the years. With their lurid yellow covers and their wonderfully trashy and exploitative titles, Shameless are responsible for bringing many Italian horrors to the UK, but they’re a mixed bag. I really ought to remember that a great title does not necessarily mean the film will be even the slightest bit entertaining. This one is neither terrible not particularly good but, despite it being slow and featuring neither a goddess nor any real cannibals, it had just about enough in it to keep my attention – some eerily empty shanty towns, for example, and one especially memorable masked orgy sequence.

Viewers expecting a cannibal movie will be sorely disappointed – the film’s current title is pretty misleading. It attempts to provide some of what it promises by opening with our titular character, Papaya (played by a woman listed only as Melissa in the credits), biting of some unfortunate man’s man-parts after rubbing a papaya fruit all over him (foreplay’s really changed since the 70s). This, and one heart-eating moment during the aforementioned masked orgy, constitute the full total of cannibalism on screen – Cannibal Holocaust, this ain’t. Instead, what we are confronted with is a bizarre, slow, soft-core porn story about a group of (badly dubbed) Americans trying to build a nuclear reactor on a small Caribbean island, much to the local’s dismay. The islanders’ solution is to unleash Papaya on these unsuspecting men, who seduces each one before killing them. It doesn’t actually make any sense whatsoever – if the whole island wants to see these men’s plans foiled, why do they need any kind of subterfuge? Why does she need to seduce them, when they could be so easily dispatched without coitus first? But, these are pointless questions to ask about a film like this; it’s easier to simply accept that, for almost 90 minutes, there will be a series of tenuously connected sex scenes, with some kind of narrative attempting to hold it all together.

The sex itself is typically European, largely inoffensive, and frequently hilarious. Our hero Vincent (Maurice Poli) and his part-time-girlfriend Sara (Sirpa Lane, famous for other adult content movies like The Beast and Nazi Love Camp 27) engage in some fairly nondescript shower sex before eventually getting caught up in Papaya’s confusing plot – using local legends, she leads them to a building, where they witness dead pigs being gutted, a man being de-hearted, and a load of frenzied gyrating. They take this surprisingly well – personally, I’d be at least the slightest bit shocked, but they accept it without question or horror, and soon enough their clothes are removed and they’re participating in this voodoo-lovefest. Later on there’s a truly bizarre bath scene, in which Papaya runs the two a bath, and before you can blink all three of them are naked and washing each other. A normal person might feel somewhat exposed, or consider Papaya’s invitation slightly inappropriate, but not Sara and Vincent. They’re so overwhelmed by Papaya’s beauty and seductiveness that they will happily do whatever she says. Again, I’m not sure why, because Papaya (or Melissa) cannot kiss. Her tightly-closed, supremely awkward technique is one of the most disconcerting aspects of the (numerous) sex scenes; the girls are pretty, but there is clearly no chemistry whatsoever and, quite frankly, it all just looks really uncomfortable.

Yet, as I’ve said, there are some redeeming qualities to the film. Despite its ludicrous (and oddly pedestrian) plot, the truly dreadful dubbing, the bad acting, the rather unpleasant cock-fighting scene (get your brains out of the gutter, I mean roosters) and the slow pace, there are moments that are strangely hypnotic. The Caribbean island is revealed as a dusty, ramshackle place, with the beautiful beaches secondary to the more lived-in areas of town; as Vincent remarks, these are the areas not designed for tourists, and they’re far more interesting than picturesque palm trees and white sands. And, as a porno goes, it might not be particularly erotic, but it’s not unwatchable either. Yes, it has a misleading title, and there’s very little gore, but it could be far worse and, luckily, there are enough moments of unintentional humour and ridiculousness to keep it reasonably entertaining. True, as the credits rolled I realised I still didn’t actually have a clue what had happened (it also boasts some kind of twist at the end; whether it works or not I couldn’t say, I was already too confused), but I can still remember the pastel coloured wooden huts lining the empty streets of the shanty town, the delightfully 70s afros and flares, and the fact that someone, somewhere, thought a papaya in the groin was sexy.

Cinema Lottery #10

cinema 10 gravity

Gravity
Release date: 8 November 2013
Rating: 4.5/5

After a string of films in which a (male) actor carries an entire film (Buried, 127 Hours, Brake, Moon), this time it’s Sandra Bullock’s turn. Gravity, written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron, is a claustrophobic, disorienting, and dizzying film – a disaster movie in space, with poor Ryan (Bullock) desperately trying to get back to Earth. Its plot is actually rather generic: Ryan is on her first mission, her charismatic associate Matt Kowalski (George Clooney, playing himself) is on his last. Inevitably, things go wrong, and continue to do so for a tense ninety minutes – Ryan’s misfortunes almost push her into Michael Bay territory (just consider the calamities that occur in Armageddon as a result of everyone’s sheer incompetence), but Gravity is executed with such a confidence and professionalism that it pulls it off. So Ryan is bounced off satellites and forced out of supposedly safe refuge, sent spinning wildly out of control into the vast nothingness of space and bombarded with high flying debris, and the audience is dragged along with her.

While Bullock should be commended for her performance, the other elements all work to support her role. The sound design is perfect – the “no sound in space” issue is bypassed by including muffled noises, as though one were hearing from within a spacesuit, and some uncomfortable, increasingly loud tones at moments of particular tension. Visually, Gravity is stunning, and its one of the few non-horror movies that really benefits from 3D, which enhances the feeling of weightlessness while also reinforcing the disorienting situations Ryan gets into. Cuaron captures the vast expanse of space, with the Earth calmly sitting below, and it is both beautiful and isolating – serene, yet terrifying. If ever there was a film made to be watched at an IMAX, by the way, this is it. Unrelenting and uncompromising, Gravity is one hell of a bumpy, breathless, ride. Suddenly, going into space doesn’t seem quite so romantic a notion.

Philomena
Release date: 1 November 2013
Rating: 4/5

In 2009, journalist and former Labour party spin doctor Martin Sixsmith published an article in The Guardian, with the attention-grabbing headline, “The Catholic church sold my child”. It was a story that had originated as a throwaway human interest piece, but as the truth emerged, it became increasingly shocking. Fifty years prior, Philomena Lee had given birth to a son in secrecy in a convent in Tipperary. Like many other young, unmarried women in Ireland at the time, she was forced to hand over control of the child to the nuns, who in turn had them adopted, often to families in America, in exchange for “donations” to the church. Having never forgotten this child, Philomena’s attempts to find him proved futile, so she enlisted the help of Sixsmith, whose investigative journalism background helped her to eventually discover what had happened to her son.

Stephen Frears’ film is an unassuming piece of work – understated and subtle, with a focus on the performances of both Judi Dench (as Philomena) and Steve Coogan (as Sixsmith). Coogan has also written the screenplay, and here he proves not only his capabilities as a serious actor, but a deftness of touch in his writing; there are just enough moments of light-heartedness, predominantly as a result of the relationship between the cynical Sixsmith and Philomena, that stops the film from becoming saturated in melodrama. Dench is, as always, utterly convincing. Despite the actions of the Church, she remains steadfast in her faith, both in God and humanity, yet her naivety is matched with wisdom, good humour, and a quiet determination. In this tale of conspiracy and cover-ups, charting one of the most shameful moments in Irish history, it’s a testament to the actors that they are not overwhelmed by the plot. Yet Philomena remains rooted in truth, and doesn’t need to exaggerate the events it portrays. At its core, this is less a ruthless expose of the Catholic chuch’s sins, than a film about a mother trying to discover what happened to her child – it just happens to have far-reaching implications. It’s a subtle, yet confident, piece of filmmaking, with an excellent screenplay and superb central performances – if this makes it to awards season, surely Dench should be at least considered for another accolade.

Bad Grandpa
Release date: 23 October 2013
Rating: 2/5

If you’re not already a fan of Jackass, I wonder, would you even consider going to see their latest gross-out movie? This is now the fourth cinematic outing for the team, who now appears to consist entirely of Johnny Knoxville – none of the others are present, and Knoxville himself is buried under a mountain of old-man make-up. Replacing his friends is Jackson Nicoll, who plays 8-year-old Billy, the grandson of the titular grandpa and easily the most engaging character – it mustn’t be that easy for a child to keep a straight face in these absurd situations, but Nicoll succeeds, and even manages to invite some degree of pathos while doing so. Yet Bad Grandpa is a flawed and self-indulgent film that makes some serious errors in judgement regarding its style.

There are two major problems at play. One is the decision to combine a fictional narrative with hidden camera scenes capturing the reactions of real people when confronted with this irresponsible, foul-mouthed, disgusting, perverted grandpa and his grandson; not only is the narrative flimsy at best, but it creates some suspicion as to the “realness” of the rest of it. The second big problem is the reactions, which are almost entirely apathetic; perhaps it’s a shocking indictment of American society that people are so accepting of the absurd and ridiculous, but more likely is that many people suspected some kind of foul play – we’ve become so saturated in hidden camera shows that it’s no longer a novelty. These might be the biggest problems, but they’re not the only ones. Knoxville churns out the now expected series of skits, and they’re all as immature as the next, lacking any real subtlety, intelligence, or originality, while, presumably, all those in on the joke pat themselves on the back. Unfortunately, no one else is laughing. There are a few moments, admittedly, when I sniggered a little, but every single one of those moments was in the trailer. My advice? You’ll know yourself whether this movie is for you or not and, if you think it is, my review is irrelevant. If you think it’s not for you, stay well away. You will gain nothing from seeing it.

Closed Circuit
Release date: 25 October 2013
Rating: 3.5/5

I’ve seen a whole bunch of British, gritty, political thrillers over the course of these press days, and each has been as generic and forgettable as the next. So Closed Circuit came as a pleasant surprise – not amazing, but by far the most polished and interesting film of its kind that I’ve seen this year. It’s also, intriguingly, almost entirely a red herring – despite the twists and turns, the actual outcome of the court case becomes irrelevant; instead, the focus remains fixed firmly on the ways in which politics (and politicians) invade and corrupt the supposedly impartial legal system, engineering situations to save face and get the result they desire. In doing so, the film manages to sidestep potential problems in a satisfactory solution, for example, because the solution is unnecessary.

Eric Bana is Martin Rose, the replacement attorney for a suspected terrorist, who supposedly masterminded a horrific attack on Borough Market. Along with another attorney (Rebecca Hall), he is tasked with defending a suspect with a mass of evidence so secret that not even Rose is privy to it; thus begins the conspiracy that the two lawyers must decide to either fight or accept. Bana and Hall are supported by a solid cast, including Jim Broadbent, Ciaran Hinds, and Julia Stiles, the latter of whom features for no reason whatsoever – as an American journalist, she appears in two scenes and is then quickly dispatched (off screen) and forgotten about. Her inclusion is one of the most obvious flaws in the film, which is, despite some weaknesses (Rose’s family life is hinted at but unexpanded and adds little; the title and opening scenes’ emphasis on CCTV footage is also ultimately irrelevant) reasonably engaging and intriguing. It may not be remembered in years to come, but seeing as I can remember it a day later, it has already exceeded my expectations.

Film #52: It Came From Outer Space (1953)

film 52 it came from outer space

Rating: 4/5

“If we’ve been seeing things, it’s because we did see them.”

There were some wonderfully thought-provoking and intriguing science fiction films in the 1950s – it was a great time for the genre, and It Came From Outer Space is one of the classics. Directed by Jack Arnold (The Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man), based on a story by Ray Bradbury, it’s one of the quintessential sci-fi films of the decade, perfectly encapsulating many of the themes running throughout the genre at the time.

It’s widely acknowledged that, particularly in the 1950s, science fiction and horror were particularly successful in capturing the zeitgeist of the times; it was a decade of great uncertainty about the future. Scientific technology was advancing, and the potential consequences of nuclear experimentation were dire, and the world was in the midst of great political uncertainty, with the Cold War in full swing. It’s little surprise then that the science fiction and horror films of the 1950s were filled with atomic monsters, alien invasions, and pod people. It Came From Outer Space deals with some of the underlying social fears in the United States with a great deal of intelligence under the guise of entertainment, combining a plea for tolerance and understanding with some well-placed gimmicks and impressive, albeit reasonably low-budget effects.

Richard Carlson (The Creature From the Black Lagoon) is John Putnam, an author and amateur astronomer who is one of the first people in a small town in Arizona to witness what appears to be a meteor falling to Earth. With his girlfriend Ellen (Barbara Rush), the next morning he goes to investigate, and is the only person to see what really landed before falling rocks buries the object. Naturally, the townspeople dismiss his claims about the meteor’s real identity, but John remains steadfast, and his beliefs are compounded when his friends and neighbours start acting strangely.

Thematically, It Came From Outer Space echoes some of the sentiments of earlier sci-fi films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, and pre-empts the pod-people concept made famous by 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The aliens here are not trying to cause harm, having accidentally crashed on Earth – they do not pose a threat, and are merely trying to get off the planet without incident. Instead, it is humanity that offers the most danger, to both the aliens and themselves. The human instinct to fear the unknown, and fight it, is the most hazardous thing in the film; this is emphasised by the mob mentality of the townspeople when confronted with the possibility of invasion. While John and Ellen are initially fearful, they quickly realise that tolerance is key to everyone’s survival, and they become the aliens’ only allies in a town more concerned with a witch hunt. It’s a slow-burning narrative, with some impressively realised sequences and an intelligent, forward-thinking message, particularly pertinent for the time.

Arnold does not forget that this is a genre picture first and foremost, and he uses his budget well. Originally shown in 3D, the moments designed for this extra dimension are still obvious, but not intrusive, while the aliens – shown only briefly – are great designs, otherworldly and horrible, yet not quite as gruesome as they appear to think themselves to be. Most famously, however, It Came From Outer Space boasts an unusual first person (or should that be, first alien) perspective, allowing the viewer an odd chance to witness our world in an entirely new light. This also adds a valuable sense of empathy with, and relationship to, the aliens, with Arnold literally putting the viewer in the aliens’ position. It’s a great touch, and makes the big reveal all the more anticipated and relevant.

I’ll always have a soft spot for these kinds of science fiction movies – the ones that conceal smart ideas behind seemingly trashy, drive-in aesthetics. The acting is solid, though some of the dialogue is clunky (the constantly repeated claim that the “meteor” landing is the “biggest thing to ever happen” is over-emphasised, for example). Some of the effects are dated, but they add to the kitsch appeal of the film. Yet it is a smart movie, with a valuable and particularly pertinent message – one that remains just as relevant today as it did sixty years ago.

Film #51: Orgy of the Dead (1965)

film 51 orgy of the dead

Rating: 1.5/5

“Torture! Torture! It pleasures me!”

In the 1950s and 60s, there were a string of “nudie cuties” – films in which the primary aim was to show a bevy of topless females, purely for titillation. Unlike hardcore, it’s difficult to imagine anyone finding these offensive – they’re often very innocent in their style and content (hence the “cutie” description). Orgy of the Dead isn’t quite a nudie cutie, primarily because it’s not really that cute; directed by A C Stephens (a pseudonym for Stephen C Apostolof, who went on to produce and direct a number of erotic movies), this has gained some notoriety due to its screenwriter, none other than Ed Wood. It’s not surprising, then, that Orgy of the Dead adopts a horror-inspired plot, and one that, despite the ridiculous premise, appears to include vaguely biographical details. This plot, however, is merely filler; the majority of the movie consists of a series of topless dances – dances that, despite those performing them being professional strippers, lack any sense of rhythm or eroticism. It’s a desperately dull, obviously low-budget, tacky film, but the filler-plot just about manages to make it entertaining.

Echoing other Wood-directed movies, Plan 9 From Outer Space and Night of the Ghouls, Orgy of the Dead opens with Criswell rising from his coffin, spouting gibberish (and even repeating lines of narration from Night of the Ghouls) to introduce the film. He was fifty-eight at the time of filming, and he cuts a rather lecherous figure. It’s worth noting that this is the only film I can think of in which we see Criswell in colour, but it does him no favours. He plays The Emperor – a kind of master of the dead who, along with his sidekick The Black Ghoul (Fawn Silver, clearly ripping off Vampira’s image), forces dead females to dance for his enjoyment. Their dances relate somehow to how they died – so, during the course of the movie, among others we get to see: a girl dance with the skeleton of her murdered husband; a girl who dances like a Native American because she through herself into fire after the death of her lover; a girl who loves gold having coins thrown over her; a streetwalker dancing to a smooth jazz accompaniment; a zombie; and a girl wearing a baggy onsie-style catsuit (complete with ears and tail), with breasts and buttocks exposed. Yes, I must concede that the themes of the dances are somewhat vague and abstract, but the cat girl in particular is a sight to behold.

While Criswell and Fawn Silver leer over these uncoordinated females, our heroes are introduced. Bob (William Bates) is an aspiring author (of course), who would prefer not to write about daisies, dogs and trees (?!) but about horror (naturally). Thus, he drags along his petulant girlfriend Shirley (there are many Shirleys in Wood’s writing, and his transvestite alter-ego also took that name; here Shirley is played by an utterly personality-free Pat Barrington, who also plays the Gold Girl, resulting in a strange situation where Shirley at one point ogles herself) to a graveyard for inspiration, where they stumble upon Criswell’s debauchery. Captured by a Wolfman and a Mummy (the former screams rather than howls; the latter discusses Cleopatra and his hatred of snakes), the comedy sidekicks of the movie, they are tied up and forced to watch, so that they may gain some kind of education, apparently.

Orgy of the Dead is a mess, and the discontinuity is even more obvious because of the colour. As Shirley and Bob drive to the graveyard, the shots alternate between broad daylight and pitch black night. The graveyard is obviously a set, made even more artificial and tacky by the constant overuse of a smoke machine. The dancers are the most ungainly group, and there is nothing about their routines that offer any hint of professionalism; if you’re looking for spectacle, you won’t find it here – although, that being said, one girl displays the most bizarre breast-waggling style I have ever witnessed. It’s less showgirl, more flapping lunatic. Meanwhile, Criswell remains slumped in a corner. Part creepy old man, part deluded ignoramus, it frequently appears that he has lost all sense of what is happening around him. As a result, it’s not only an uncomfortable performance because of his obvious age in contrast to the topless girls he’s ogling, but because he seems to be lacking some of his faculties.

Badfilm fans will, however, be rewarded for their patience. While the routines themselves are a true test of endurance (even cutaways to the girls’ audience show them looking bored and, at times, disgusted), the dialogue in between is wonderfully Woodian (and Wooden) – Shirley and Bob have a “massive” fight that consists of her flatly telling him, “I hate you”. Bob’s attempt at escape is the most incompetent and pointless display of masculinity (he manages about one step before being knocked unconscious). Fawn Silver spends the majority of the movie warning Criswell about the approaching sun, but when he grants her time for her own “pleasures”, she spends an inordinate amount of time writhing around and licking a knife. By the time the night eventually comes to an end, everyone emerges an idiot; perhaps even the viewer, for actually sitting through the whole thing.