Film #79: Blood of Ghastly Horror (1972)

film 79 blood of ghastly horror

Rating: 1.5/5

“You’ve turned loose a homicidal maniac with an artificial brain whose every action is completely unpredictable!”

If there is a film in our collection that has more titles, I can’t think of it. One of the most incoherent of cult director Al Adamson’s films, the superbly named Blood of Ghastly Horror (following on from the director’s other “Blood” films – Blood of Dracula’s Castle, Five Bloody Grave, Brain of Blood, Horror of the Blood Monsters) was initially released in 1964 as Echo of Terror, a serious crime drama. Unable to sell the film, Adamson changed the title to Psycho A Go-Go in 1965, capitalising on the “go-go” craze of the time (similar to Herschell Gordon Lewis’s decision to retitle Terror at Half Day as Monster A-go Go). Despite adding some musical numbers, Psycho A Go-Go‘s popularity quickly declined, along with the go-go fad. In 1967 John Carradine was enlisted for some new horror scenes; in 1971 even more new scenes were shot, attempting to bring a coherence to the random assortment of genres, plots, and dates. The film was, in this eight year period, also titled Two Tickets to Terror, The Man with the Synthetic Brain and, my personal favourite, Fiend with the Electronic Brain. Part crime drama, part zombie movie, part mad scientist film, part revenge epic, it’s utter gibberish with a distinctive Adamson flair for shoddy framing and lurid colours – I wrote thirteen pages of notes, almost all of which are plot, and can still barely establish a timeline.

The DVD version I watched, released in association with Troma (The Toxic Avenger, A Nymphoid Barbarian in a Dinosaur Hell) comes with a special introduction from Adamson’s long time associate, the film’s producer Sam Sherman. Sherman doesn’t try to conceal Blood of Ghastly Horror‘s hotchpotch nature, emphatically stating that they were only ever trying to make a profitable movie for a niche drive-in audience, which they generally succeeded in doing. He is happy to admit the film’s incoherence – speaking as only a producer might, David Konow’s excellent book Schlock-O-Rama: The Films of Al Adamson reports him saying “We ruined the original film that made sense and made a film that didn’t make sense! But you ought to be aware of one thing: the idea was to market a movie, play it and make some money.” And the reason for the film’s final, best known title? “It had blood, it was ghastly and it was horrible.”

Bear with me now, while I try to explain the plot as briefly as possible. The film opens with a zombie killing a bunch of people in an alleyway, then introduces Lieutenant Cross and his partner, who receive a severed head in a box with a message referring to a man called Corey. A poorly signposted flashback traces poor Joe Corey’s life of crime – a Vietnam vet turned diamond thief, whose fingerprints were found at the scene of a heist, despite him having died several years earlier.

Still with me? Okay – there’s a lot more. Another cop, Sgt Ward, locates Dr Vanard (Carradine), who signed Joe’s death certificate; later Bernard admits that he conducted experiments on Joe, saving his life but turning him psychotic in the process (we learn this through a flashback in a flashback). Meanwhile, Joe’s hunting for the diamonds, which have ended up in the hands of the Clark family. He kills some women, then turns up at Vanard’s lab, having inexplicably just remembered what was done to him. He kills Vanard, signalling the end of the first lengthy flashback.

Cross then gets a visit from Vanard’s daughter Susan (Adamson’s wife Regina Carroll), who says she was told to return by a disembodied voodoo zombie jungle voice, through telepathy. Coincidentally, Cross remembers that Joe’s father was researching voodoo telepathy in the Jamaican jungles! Yes, Elton Corey is planning his dastardly revenge for his son’s untimely death, and it involves Susan. At some point, everyone then ends up at Lake Tahoe, where Joe captures Mrs Clark and her daughter, who claim to know nothing about the diamonds. A lengthy woodland chase follows, with Joe pursuing Mrs Clark through the snow, resulting in a shock twist and Joe’s (second) death. The film finishes by returning from this flashback to “present day”, with Elton and his new zombie bride. All I was left wondering was, whose head was in the box at the very beginning?!

Blood of Ghastly Horror is easily one of the most narratively incoherent films I’ve seen; most of its plot is flashback, but they’re so long (as a result of the cut-and-paste nature of the movie) that it’s almost impossible to keep up – characters disappear then reappear ages later, time lines are jumbled and confused, and the attempts to combine all the elements result in an uncomfortably muddled narrative. Parts of the movie was evidently filmed without sound (the whole final chase, for example), and I’m sure astute viewers will recognise changing styles from the various filming schedules. While the musical numbers added for one of the film’s early incarnations is absent, the lab equipment features in other Adamson movies, becoming a sex machine in Horror of the Blood Monsters, and the action is poorly captured in “Chill-o-rama in Metrocolor,” whatever that is. However, Morton brings an impressively deranged quality to the role; a sinister sneer and manic expression reminiscent of a young Jack Nicholson, which works well. Carradine is underused and elderly but solid as always, and the (recycled) score – a jazzy cop-drama soundtrack – is simple but effective. That’s not to say it’s a good film – it isn’t. The action is sloppy, characters are repeatedly either shot in restrictive extreme close ups, or are inexplicably cut out of the frame. Adamson should be commended for having the audacity to attempt to sell this cop-heist-zombie-revenge-drama-horror-thriller, but inevitably it hasn’t worked. And seriously, whose head is in the box?!?

Films #77 & 78: A Trip to the Moon (1902) & The Extraordinary Voyage (2011)

film 77 78 a trip to the moon the extraordinary voyage

Ratings: A Trip to the Moon, 5/5; The Extraordinary Voyage, 4/5

It was impossible to give Georges Méliès’ short film anything other than five stars – it’s a mini masterpiece, with its images remaining some of the most iconic in cinema history. Over a hundred and ten years after it was made, A Trip to the Moon , perhaps the first true narrative film, is still breathtaking; Méliès’ unique vision is an example of pure fantasy, and it’s utterly bonkers. There are several versions of the film available, varying in length, colour, and quality. The version I watched is the best available; painstakingly restored, it is as crisp and clear as it ever was, the original hand-painted colours are gloriously psychedelic, the story finally told in its entirety. It comes with new accompanying music by French electronica band Air, whose specially written score is a perfect addition, adding tension and excitement at times, bringing (unintelligible) voices to the silent performances on screen, and adding another layer of whimsy and magic to the highly stylised, timeless images.

Film buffs will no doubt know just how important Méliès and his films were, but for those who don’t, a brief history lesson. While moving images had been around for several decades during the 1800s, the early pioneers of cinema were the Lumière Brothers and George Méliès. While the Lumière Brothers concentrated on providing spectacle through presenting general activities – leaving a factory, knocking down a wall, a train arriving at a station – in as realistic a form as possible, Méliès, a magician by trade, quickly saw film’s potential for trickery and fantasy. Having allegedly discovering such possibilities through a mistake – while filming an innocuous street scene, Méliès’ camera jammed, and it took him several seconds to get it running again, with the result being that, when he watched the footage later, a carriage suddenly transformed into a hearse – the filmmaker took full advantage of the new technology, and his early films are filled with trick shots and creative deceptions.

Rooted in fairground attractions and the sideshow, Méliès’ films generally consist of one or a series of staged tableaux; the camera doesn’t move during scenes and there is minimal editing, resulting in a distinctively theatrical style of presentation. Méliès was not concerned with realism, and his films in particular are obviously created, with painted sets and backdrops offering an instantly recognisable, entirely unrealistic aesthetic. A Trip to the Moon, featuring a group of academics who build a rocket and are shot through a cannon into the moon, where they discover a race of strange lobster-men, is overtly inspired by the written works of Jules Verne, and was later (illegally) remade by Pathé in 1908. The most iconic shot of the ambitious fifteen minute film, which became one of the earliest box office hits, is the rocket’s moon landing – splatting unceremoniously into the moon’s eye, it has inspired everything from music videos (The Smashing Pumpkin’s Tonight Tonight) to Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge). Yet none of the subsequent homages and rip-offs come close to matching the unfettered imagination of Méliès, whose vision is both childlike in its innocence, and absolutely mad in its showiness.

This restored version reveals the true beauty of this strange and unusual voyage, and each scene is a sight to behold – the troupe of scantily clad showgirls pushing the rocket into its launching position, the explorers first encountering the fantastical jungle on the moon, the fights between the lobster-men and the humans, the way in which the moon’s inhabitants are unceremoniously turned into multi-coloured puffs of smoke when hit with umbrellas. It’s one of the most important films in cinema history, and the fact that it still survives is a miracle.

While Méliès’ vision, and his influence on film history, is the initial focus of Serge Bromberg and Éric Lange’s accompanying documentary The Extraordinary Voyage, they also show the painstaking process of restoring the film. The colour version was believed lost until 1993, when a single print, in terrible condition, was discovered in Spain. With great care and optimism, the film was carefully unreeled, piece by brittle piece and, in a process lasting over ten years, eventually it was brought back to life. The documentary, including talking head interviews with Tom Hanks, Michel Gondry (The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), reveals the restoration as a true labour of love – an impossible journey made possible, ironically, because of extraordinary technical advances. While perhaps not providing any new information for those with a basic knowledge of early cinema history, it does nonetheless offer an excellent overview, while also including a substantial number of Méliès’ other films, including The One Man Band and The Man With Four Heads, demonstrating the magician’s penchant for trickery and his undeniable achievements. What is so wonderful is that, while modern film effects can so easily be dismissed as CGI – without the viewer necessarily understanding any of the complexities involved in that process – the early trick films remain magical somehow. We know they are an illusion, but explanations remain beyond our grasp, and all the more impressive precisely because of this. Like a real magic trick, the solution is often infuriatingly simple, but it’s a cynical person who really wants to know it. Instead, we can lose ourselves in the illusion, and embrace our childish, often forgotten, sense of wonder and awe.

Films #75 & 76: The Mighty Gorga (1969) & One Million AC/DC (1969)

film 75 76 the mighty gorga one million acdc

Ratings: The Mighty Gorga, 1/5; One Million AC/DC, 1/5

“We’re still just a couple of outsiders in a green hell.”
“I’m off to see the lizard.”

A prehistoric double bill, both are utterly terrible films – The Mighty Gorga has, at least, an actual story. One Million AC/DC (which has nothing whatsoever to do with the rock band), written by Ed Wood using the pseudonym Akdon Telmig, which is one letter away from being Vodka Gimlet in reverse, is basically just a soft-core caveman porno. Both, however, feature quite possibly the greatest dinosaurs ever – and I say both, because it’s the same T-Rex in both movies. I had read about the special effects (ha!), but I can honestly say, no one had really convinced me that they would be as bad as they were. The fact that not one, but two filmmakers had the sheer audacity to include them in their movies is mind-boggling – trust me when I say that a four year old could have created the exact same scenes using their sandbox and some plastic toys.

First up, The Mighty Gorga. A fairly straight-forward, no budget exotic location/ giant ape movie, it stars Anthony Eisley (Dracula Vs Frankenstein) as Mark, a circus owner desperately trying to increase revenue. There’s a brief subplot introduced at the beginning of the movie, in which his brother (or someone) is sabotaging the business, but as soon as Mark arrives in the Congo (which looks suspiciously like a national park in California) any problems “back home” are quickly forgotten. He befriends a feisty female wild animal breeder whose father went missing trying to find a giant ape and, with native “Indian” George in tow, head into the wilderness to find either or both the monkey and the dad.

The film’s low budget is all too obvious, from the frequent day-night issues (just look at the sequence in which the bison’s pen is burned down) to the uninspiring, visibly un-exotic location, to the gorilla itself. Gorga, who apparently protects a local tribe’s village on an isolated plateau, is a man in a gorilla suit – not one of the many gorilla actors working at the time, but the director himself, David L Hewitt. The suit is truly dreadful; the ape’s eyes bulge with a permanently surprised expression (this comes in handy later on, when the beast is apparently completely dumbfounded by a bandage on his giant pinky). Even more bizarre, we never see below the gorilla’s torso – not even when he’s fighting the dinosaurs or leering over the village’s huts. Despite Gorga supposedly being a giant gorilla, somehow Hewitt succeeds in not even making it seem human sized – particularly when it fights the tiny plastic dinosaur, with its snapping mouth and bobbing movements, it is hard to accept that Gorga is anything other than an equally inanimate toy.

Much of the film is dedicated to Eisley and his female companion attempting to convince the audience that they are in peril. Their exploration, which, thanks to the terrible editing, seems like it takes about five minutes, is supposed to last for days. Their ascent of the cliff-face to the plateau above involves them walking slowly along a gentle path. Their beige jungle clothes never get even the slightest hint of dirt on them. Up on the plateau, they discover giant roses and a prehistoric nest with some peach-coloured eggs – Mark says they’re purple. They quickly find the missing father, and plan to escape from the tribe by fleeing down a secret volcanic tunnel that contains, as legend dictates, King Solomon’s treasure. Poor Solomon must have been a truly rubbish king, because the riches consist of a single chest with some Mardi Gras beads scattered around. Eventually the group leave the plateau, arriving out of Ro-Man’s cave in Bronson Canyon and staring upwards at the destruction they’ve left behind – we’re supposed to believe that stock footage lava has somehow destroyed everything, though no one seems even the slightest bit concerned by the whole situation.

There’s little to praise about The Mighty Gorga. Oddly, for a jungle movie, the only animals to feature are all clearly in captivity – the circus/zoo at the beginning provides the most animal spectacle, with the subsequent jungle visibly devoid of any animal life whatsoever. There are a few reasonably clever moments (or one, anyway) in the script, largely revolving around the assumptions of the “outsider” – Mark’s pained attempts to communicate with the black slave-native George (Lee Parrish), only to discover that the local only speaks English, is actually quite funny. I am struggling to think of any other genuinely “good” moments; luckily the bad ones provide more than enough entertainment for the right audience. I stared, open-mouthed at the “epic” fight between the dinosaur and Gorga – it truly is a thing to behold.

While I was certain that One Million AC/DC couldn’t possibly match The Mighty Gorga in terms of shoddy effects, it turned out I was wrong. The same, snapping-mouthed, bobbing dinosaur reappears here to eat a barbie doll! It fights another dinosaur! It peers over an embankment! It’s not in this movie enough. Poor Ed Wood, who was by this time not even on the fringes of Hollywood, had succumbed to alcohol, domestic violence, poverty and pornography – the later years of his life were dominated by shoddy sex stories. There’s little of his distinctive screenwriting style here, although there are hints – the fat man first seen at the beginning of the movie takes on a strange narrator-role, commenting on the events going on around him. Primarily, however, One Million AC/DC has little dialogue – maybe ten minutes in total, and all rather inane. The “plot” revolves around a cave full of orgy-loving, furry-bikini-clad neanderthals. Outside, a dinosaur tries to eat them if they leave. A gorilla kidnaps one of the cave girls, who spends the whole movie trying to escape his clutches (at the end they appear to be a happy couple). And that is it. Like Orgy of the Dead, also written by Ed Wood, the main aim of the movie is titillation. This is more hardcore than Orgy; luckily the virgin’s sacrifice at the beginning of the film remains the most explicit scene. The girls, all stick-thin with protruding rib cages, are pretty enough, but it’s all rather seedy and unpleasant, with rape implications frequent throughout. The actual sex consists of a lot of frenzied writhing and groaning, mainly from the women (although some of the men emit freakishly guttural, animalistic grunts to ensure the viewer cannot possibly find any of it even remotely erotic).

The constant sex is interspersed with shots bad movie fans will find suspiciously familiar. At least some of the footage is taken from One Million Years BC, and at least two different sequences reappear (again!) in Horror of the Blood Monsters. Not to mention the footage ripped from The Mighty Gorga, and the generic volcanic stock footage beneath the opening credits. As this is filmed in colour, the recycled shots have been tinted (like in Horror of the Blood Monsters) – here it’s so badly done that it’s difficult to even see what they’re trying to show.

About ten minutes into One Million AC/DC I was certain that, finally, Children of the Living Dead would no longer be the sole worst-reviewed movie of our collection. At least that movie was supremely entertaining: this is virtually unwatchable. Michael Adams described Ed Wood’s porno as “the tar pit of cinema,” and I was equally ready to dismiss it. Then, out of the blue, came the scene that elevated this dire caveman sexploitation picture to a glorious 1/5: a sing-along. Yes, as the tribe plan to destroy the dinosaur using a newfangled bow and arrow designed by a pervy cave painter, the chief and his woman pause in their sexcapades to sing a song straight to camera. It goes like this: (to the tune of For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow) “The spear goes into the monster (x3), And the monster loses his mind.” Finally, something other than that darn dinosaur to stare open-mouthed at. It was a moment of sheer surrealism, completely unexpected, entirely out of place, and reassuringly bizarre, making up for the seventy-five minutes of dire copulation that went before it – but only barely.

Film #74: Hobo With a Shotgun (2011)

film 74 hobo with a shotgun

Rating: 4/5

“You can’t solve all the world’s problems with a shotgun.”

Easily one of the most evocative film titles of our collection, Hobo With a Shotgun came into being after winning Robert Rodriguez’ South by Southwest Grindhouse trailer competition. It’s the second of the fake trailers, sandwiched between Rodriguez’ Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, to become a bona fide, full length movie – arguably Machete has been the bigger success story, with a sequel only recently out of cinemas and a third film on the way (somewhat indicative of the fact that it’s hard enough to make one movie out of a two minute trailer, let alone three, it’s called Machete Kills Again… In Space!). Yet Hobo With a Shotgun is by far the more authentic of the two – would a genuine grindhouse film really get such a publicity drive? Would it really star actors like Robert De Niro and Mel Gibson? Of course not. Jason Eisener’s film feels utterly rooted in the 70s, more than homage, more than imitation – Hobo With a Shotgun is entirely its own movie, and it’s bloody great.

While the original trailer featured David Brunt as the Hobo of the title, Rutger Hauer takes over for the film itself, arriving in the ironically named Hope Town in much the same way as a real hobo would – by train. (On a side note, blues musician Seasick Steve has handily provided a distinction between hobos, tramps, and bums – “Hobos are people who move around looking for work, tramps are people who move around but don’t look for work, and bums are people who don’t move and don’t work.”) All this unnamed hobo wants is a quiet life and a lawnmower, so he can set up his own business, but Hope Town is a bad place: the streets are dirty and filled with vagrants; the police are corrupt; murder is a sport, and the people are too afraid, or too ambivalent, to do anything about it. At the helm is criminal kingpin Drake (Brian Downey) and his thug-jock sons, Slick and Ivan. Befriending a (possibly underage) prostitute called Abby (Molly Dunsworth), our homeless hero realises that he has to take the law into his own hands, to rid the town of the scum and restore some sense of social decency.

Hauer is perfect as the Hobo – silent, stoic, with a well-worn face and a permanently weary expression. He doesn’t talk often, but when he does, his thoughts form into intelligent, sometimes lengthy, speeches that reveal his intelligence and heart. The scumbags he’s faced with come in all forms, and are true grindhouse classics – the paedophile Santa Claus may only get a few brief scenes but is always mentioned in other reviews, and deservedly so (we first see him driving off with a screaming child in the back seat). Slick and Ivan are slimeball morons, glorifying death and revelling in sadism, while kingpin Drake is equally as deluded about his own sense of grandeur and omnipotence. The trio are first seen killing their uncle in full view of a whole community, through a rather ingenious technique involving a manhole cover, a noose of barbed wire, and a car’s tow bar. It sets the tone of the gore, which is unashamedly over-the-top and completely gratuitous. Interestingly, the nudity that traditionally goes hand in hand with the gore is understated and rare, limited to one scene in which topless girls play piñata with a hapless victim.

Make no mistake, however: Hobo With a Shotgun may be ridiculous, excessive, stupidly gory, but it’s by no means a bad movie. It so perfectly captures the essence of classic grindhouse and exploitation films, from its music (never mind Disco Inferno playing as a school bus full of kids get incinerated, the opening credits’ accompanying score instantly sets the scene) to its visuals. Aesthetically, this is a thing of beauty – shot in glorious Technicolor, every scene is bathed in lurid, neon colours (this is the grindhouse equivalent of a Nicholas Winding Refn movie) and unnatural, discomforting hues. The gore itself is equally retro – and, at times, far less in-your-face than you might expect. Just like the old 70s movies, Eisener allows his audience’s imaginations to create some of the particularly grisly scenes for themselves – the Hobo getting the word SCUM etched onto his chest, for example, is a great combination of quick cuts between Hauer’s pained expression and some extreme close-ups of what is clearly a prosthetic. It’s perfectly in keeping with the exploitation films of the 70s, albeit with the swearing ramped up for 21st century audiences.

It may be a perfect addition to the grindhouse genre, but there are some issues. Reflecting, perhaps, the problems of having to flesh out the trailer to feature length, the final showdown veers wildly into a strange, vaguely supernatural realm, with motorcycle-riding armoured “demons” on the rampage (there’s also a very intriguing blink-and-you’ll-miss-it inclusion of what appears to be a giant octopus?!). This is, however, one lapse in judgement on Eisener’s part and, although it’s perhaps a shame that he didn’t have enough confidence in Drake as a truly villainous nemesis, it does lead to a rather epic battle, with a typically bittersweet conclusion.

I’ll finish this review with an anecdote. I first watched Hobo With a Shotgun at FrightFest’s mini horror festival in Glasgow. It was the last (and most eagerly anticipated) film of the day, and the audience, many of whom had spent the whole day in the auditorium, leaving only for bathroom and cigarette breaks, nevertheless bayed, whooped and cheered as Eisener appeared to introduce his movie (and, later, they were equally vocal in their appreciation for every moment of excessive, ridiculous gore). The director stayed to watch, having removed his trousers for comfort and inviting the paying punters to do the same (I’m not sure whether any actually did). Watching this blackly comic, modern grindhouse classic was a truly great experience; at home some of that screening’s magic is understandably lost, but the film remains just as fun. For gore fans, this is an essential addition to the genre.

Film #73: Moulin Rouge! (2001)

film 73 moulin rouge

Rating: 2.5/5

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return.”

Baz Luhrmann’s third feature, following the superb Romeo + Juliet (1996), continues – and develops – the writer/director’s unique vision, transforming Paris of the 1900s into a hyperrealistic whirlwind of hedonism, colour and gaudy glitz. At the centre of the film is a story about love, but it’s a rather trite tale in comparison to the beautiful, timeless tragedy of Shakespeare – the similarly doomed romance between an impoverished bohemian writer (Ewan McGregor) and the glamorous “sparkling diamond” of the Moulin Rouge (Nicole Kidman) benefits from the natural chemistry between the two stars but lacks any sense of originality. Instead, Luhrmann distracts us from the banality of the story with a constant barrage of spectacle – it feels like everything needs to be punctuated with exclamation marks. The costumes! The dancing! The theatre! The overacting! Yet although the frenetic pace and manic editing style does capture the overwhelming sense of dizzying debauchery, there is no time to pause and actually focus on what is being shown. Luhrmann further infuriates by constantly overusing extreme close-ups – the actors’ faces dominate the frame, and there’s barely a hint as to the undoubtedly impressive sets surrounding them.

It’s a shame, because the few brief glimpses of Luhrmann’s Paris are beautiful – a Melies-inspired moon watches over the city, with the Eiffel Tower and the city’s sole hill, Mont Martre, looming on the skyline. At the foot of the hill is the Moulin Rouge, arguably the most famous cabaret club in Europe, if not the world. Its parties are legendary, its girls equally so, and Luhrmann revels in the spectacle of the place. This is the ultimate bohemian dream – a world in which “freedom, truth, beauty and love” rule supreme. Writer Christian’s life is turned upside down following his encounter with Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo; perhaps it’s just me who always feels somewhat uncomfortable at the frequency of “regular-sized” actors portraying dwarves, though he does a good job despite the strange fake legs) and the artist’s merry band of fellow bohemians. Together, they conspire to ensure their play, the ultimate bohemian artwork championing the aforementioned ideals, is put on at the Moulin Rouge. In a classic case of mistaken identity, Satine (Kidman) believes Christian is the Duke, a potential patron of the new theatre, and soon the star-crossed lovers are hiding their trysts while the villainous, nameless Duke (Richard Roxburgh in an impressively sleazy role, complete with spindly moustache) attempts to remain oblivious to the treachery under his nose.

It’s a messy plot, symptomatic of a generally messy film, though it does eventually calm down somewhat. The initial rendezvous, held in the magnificent giant elephant in which Satine lives, is a particularly cluttered, confused sequence; Kidman shrieks and pouts while characters pop up with comic sound effects, McGregor turns on the charm and lights the screen up with his irresistible smile, but it’s all too manic. All the pizazz, while undoubtedly working to create a unique, instantly recognisable aesthetic, is far too distracting. The characters are entirely two dimensional, with no sense of depth or development, and the love story – the most important thing, as we are constantly reminded – fails to make any significant emotional impact as a result. It doesn’t help that its tragedy is reduced to a blood stain on the handkerchief of Satine, whose delicate coughs and sparkly beads of sweat on her brow are simply tiresome; the ending is inevitable, and particularly uninspired. Furthermore, the romance starts to grate – the two are so caught up in love that they barely even try to conceal this apparently “secret” love affair, despite knowing the potential damage they could cause, not just to themselves, but to everyone around them. Their selfishness and immaturity may be a sign of passion, but for anyone even remotely cynical, it’s just irritating and, quite frankly, rude.

There is a lot to praise, however, and it’s frustrating to see such talent and vision destroyed by excessive overuse and a lack of self-control on the part of the director. The music, continuing the distinctive style of Luhrmann, consists of a vast array of famous songs, reappropriated and combined in medleys. Some work better than others – the rendition of Roxanne by the Unconscious Argentinian (Jacek Koman) is wonderful, the first dance number of the Moulin Rouge less so. When the camera pauses long enough for us to actually see the choreography of the dance routines, they’re wonderfully evocative and, at times, quite powerful. The central performances of McGregor and Kidman fizz with energy, and McGregor has a beautiful tone to his voice – in fact, it is his star quality that really comes to the fore. Neither, however, quite match Jim Broadbent, who utterly steals the show as the Moulin Rouge’s owner Zidler – he is also the only character with even a hint of depth, and he is fantastic. Yet the film’s biggest flaw is Luhrmann himself, whose directorial style is manic; he shows a distinct lack of self-restraint, and the emotion of the story is compromised as a result (it’s perhaps for this reason that the Academy chose not to consider him for best director despite the film’s other nominations). Despite its apparent emphasis on the bohemian ideals, what really emerges is that there’s very little substance beneath the glitzy, crazed style.

Film #72: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

film 72 shadow of the vampire

Rating: 3.5/5

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Max Schreck, who will be portraying our vampire, Count Orlock. As you no doubt have heard, Max’s methods are somewhat… unconventional, but… I am sure you will come to respect his artistry in this matter.”

The first vampire movie, Nosferatu (1922) remains to this day one of the most eerie, haunting, and iconic films of all time – Max Schreck’s Count Orlok is arguably the least human representation of a vampire. There’s little hint as to the romanticism now overwhelming the horror aspects of these creatures; Orlok is entirely inhuman in both his physical appearance and his actions. It’s no wonder, then, that legend suggests Schreck was truly a vampire. He wasn’t (probably), but Shadow of the Vampire plays fast and loose with the myths and tales surrounding F R Murnau’s silent masterpiece (aptly subheaded A Symphony of Horror), presenting Schreck as the ultimate in difficult leading actors, and Murnau (John Malkovich) himself as a director obsessed with realising his vision.

If Schreck’s performance in Nosferatu is central to the film’s inate creepiness, Willem Dafoe’s performance as Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire is equally crucial, and he was (deservedly) Oscar-nominated for the role that was written specifically for him. The role of Orlok demands a strong performance from an unconventional actor, and has been played by three very different men – Schreck, Klaus Kinski (in Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake), and Dafoe. Technically Dafoe plays Schreck-playing-Orlok, but the distinction is particularly blurry, as it soon transpires Schreck is simply a character created to disguise the fact that the vampire is real. Schreck-the-character and Orlok are one and the same, with Murnau so determined to create a piece of documentary-art that he’s willing to sacrifice several members of his cast and crew in the process. In this way, the film is not only about a myth, but about cinema – this extreme example of method acting demonstrates the problems it causes for other members of the cast and crew as well as the success of a truly authentic performance. Meanwhile, Murnau’s obsession cleverly alludes to a conflict within the film industry – the director as auteur, forced to work with others who may somehow taint or damage his unique vision. It’s particularly telling that Murnau is so derisive towards his writer, practically willing Orlok to devour him first.

Such is the success of both director E Elias Merhige’s attention to period detail, and Dafoe’s performance, that when scenes from Murnau’s original film feature, it’s almost impossible to see the distinction. Following the film’s troubled production, Merhige allows his audience to watch the silent movie come into being – the camera rolls, the iris is in, and the colours drain from the image as Gustav (Eddie Izzard) attempts to act – in that delightfully overwrought, overly emphatic style prevalent in the silent era – opposite Orlok. Accompanying these scenes are the unobtrusive yet evocative orchestral score (taken from John William’s score of the 1979 version of Dracula) and the soothing, distinctive tone of Malkovich’s voice as Murnau tells his actors the story of their shot. It’s highly effective, not only in providing a rather romantic representation of the film industry at the time, but also in bringing a literary feel to the film – after all, Nosferatu is famously not an adaptation of Dracula, but the story is undeniably, blatantly rooted in Bram Stoker’s gothic novel.

This is not just a period piece, however, and while at least a basic knowledge of Murnau’s Nosferatu is preferable, it’s not essential. Due to the overtly fictional reimagining of a genuine historic moment, it’s easiest to just accept the supernatural elements, and to enjoy the wonderful performances and, in particular, the brilliantly strained relationship between Murnau and his most difficult actor. Malkovich brings a natural, tightly-wound lunacy to Murnau that frequently threatens to explode. Dafoe is clearly in his element, hamming up the inhuman aspects of Schreck/Orlok – while the real Schreck brought a kind of naïve alienness to Orlok, Dafoe’s creation is indulgent in his strangeness, and often very funny as a result; both he and Izzard in particular encapsulate the black humour permeating the script.

It’s a shame then that Shadow of the Vampire becomes rather cluttered at the end, the script getting messy and seemingly struggling to find an ending that will satisfy all the various elements established to that point. The result, which brings both the supernatural elements and Murnau’s doggedly obsessive vision to a climax, feels far more rushed than the earlier scenes, which gradually built up the sense of on-set unease in much the same way as Nosferatu, with long, shadowy fingers creeping into the frame and ominous shadows in dark corners. Merhige’s version of this well-worn story remains more a well-made curio than a true classic; if it inspires more people to seek out the film on which it is based, then that can only be a good thing. As to whether it will convince audiences that Schreck really was a vampire, well, his performance is still strong enough for that myth to endure without any help.

Film #71: Bring It On (2000)

film 71 bring it on

Rating: 3/5

“You are cheerleaders. Cheerleaders are dancers who have gone retarded. What you do is a tiny, pathetic subset of dancing. I will attempt to turn your robotic routines into poetry, written with the human body. Follow me or perish, sweater monkeys.”

Six years before Step Up brought mainstream success to dance movies, there was this – the cheerleading equivalent of the dance movie. All the elements are there: the two rival teams separated by race and class, the fledgling romance, the competitive spirit (demonstrated through a series of “cheer-offs” rather than dance-offs) and – of course – the epic showdown at the end. Bring It On celebrates the culture and skill of cheerleading, proving it’s not just about bitchy girls in short skirts and gay men (although, naturally, they feature), but that it’s a sport, and one that is not easy to master.

Kirsten Dunst stars as Torrance, newly appointed head cheerleader at the Rancho Carne High School, whose world begins to crumble when she discovered bitchtacular former head Big Red (Lindsay Sloane) had been routinely (ha!) stealing ideas from a less fortunate inner city school who also have a new leader. Confronted with this horrible revelation, as well as a disgruntled team, a moronic college boyfriend, and an unhappy new team mate in the form of former gymnast and cheerleading-cynic Missy (Eliza Dushku), Torrance is faced with the seemingly impossible task of keeping her team together and securing the cheerleading championship trophy once again.

It is, of course, a familiar story. For non-American audiences, however, the world of cheerleading is rather alien and, in all probability the primary source of information on the sport is from the movies. Here, the inclusion of big name stars such as Dunst (this was released at a time when the young actress appeared in practically everything) doesn’t actually compromise the routines as much as, say, early dance movies like Save the Last Dance where it’s blatantly obvious a stand-in is doing all the impressive steps. After all, cheerleading is a group activity, and there are plenty of entertaining small scenes, building up to an excellent final showdown, fully showcasing the talents and athletic abilities of the teens.

The plot is basic and rather generic, but it delivers exactly what it promises and has some engaging and, ultimately, very likeable characters to follow. Dunst’s Torrance is at times manic and overacted, but cheerleading is her life and she reacts accordingly, and it’s hard not to warm to her enthusiasm and sincerity. Dushku’s Missy acts as the perfect foil to Torrance – although she gets caught up in Torrance’s world, her initial disdain for the “sport” allows her to keep more of a distance from the drama. The story is also helped by the snappy language and quick-fire, scathing, silly humour that permeates the film, which actually does twist some of the more conventional aspects of a high school movie to suit its own needs. In particular, the school’s football team turn out to be utterly incompetent, making their insults and jibes towards the cheerleading squad tasked with trying to get the crowd excited at the latest overwhelming defeat seem even more pathetic – they may be jocks, the film suggests, but they’re still idiots.

The actual rivalry between the East Compton Clovers and the Toros is the film’s real weak point – its class/race divide, so prevalent in early dance movies, is clichéd and more than a little cringeworthy. It’s an encounter between Torrance and the Clover’s captain Isis (Gabrielle Union) that results in the now-parodied “You’d better bring it”/ “Oh, I’ll bring it” exchange – accompanied by stern faces and snarky raised eyebrows, of course. Yet the generic elements, while largely unoriginal, do work, and are presented with confidence. This is a film that understands its role and is happy to fulfil it. It also has a trump card up its sleeve – no, not the boyish, puppy charm of love interest Cliff (Jesse Bradford), but the bitchy, dismissive “artistry” of the ridiculously named Sparky Polastri (Ian Roberts). Sparky, filled with disdain for the cheerleaders he’s tasked with helping, responsible for the quote that opens this review, and the sole champion of the lost art of the “spirit fingers”, is a wonderfully scathing, hammed up and utterly indulgent character, whose brief cameo easily steals the show.

Since its cinematic release in 2000, Bring It On has spawned an impressive four sequels, all straight-to-DVD – none of the original cast returned for even the second instalment, arriving rather late (2006) and featuring Hayden Panettiere (Heroes) and Solange “younger sister of Beyonce” Knowles. I assume I’m not alone when I say that I’ve not bothered to watch any of the later movies, but the original remains a bona fide guilty pleasure, and one of the most entertaining, albeit silly, high school/ dance movies of the 2000s.