Saturday, February 16, 2019

Alice or the Last Escapade / Alice ou la dernière fugue (1977)

I’ve been a fan of Alice in Wonderland since I was a kid, although I didn’t read Lewis Carroll’s Alice books until I was an adult, which was prompted by my first viewing of Jan Svankmajer’s Alice (1988), and ever since reading them I’ve been pretty enthusiastic about keeping an eye out for films inspired by or adapted from the books, which was what attracted me to the French surrealist film Alice or the Last Escapade in the first place. I thought the film did a pretty good job at creating an interesting new take on Alice in Wonderland (without actually being about Alice in Wonderland) while also being a bit derivative and having an ending that viewers will no doubt have seen before that I still thought was beautifully executed. It’s also very much of the ‘70s Eurocult sensibility and a product of its time, but it feels like there’s also a little something here for everyone, including the curious Alice in wonderland fan (who doesn’t mind a lightly inspired non-adaptation), and even the surreal, the arthouse, or even the gothic horror fan.

I’ve only seen a few films from French New Wave filmmaker Claude Chabrol (specifically Alice or the Last Escapade, Le Bonnes Femmes (1960), and This Man Must Die (1969)), but from what I understand, Alice or the Last Escapade is supposedly a departure from Chabrol’s usual style and is a foray into the more aesthetically surreal brand of storytelling/filmmaking involving a beautiful albeit tragic female muse-like lead and a co-starring mansion, sort of along the lines of Jess Franco’s A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973) and Mario Bava’s Lisa and the Devil (1973) but without most of those directors’ particular characteristics.

Being a fan of so many different genres in movies, music, and video games, I’ve honestly never been bothered by seemingly endless different takes on the same trope; it’s how the creators approach it with new interpretations, developments, and personal signatures that help keep the product from seeming too cliché, and despite the familiarities that are all over the place, Alice or the Last Escapade manages to hardly ever feel too cliché.

Another major draw here is the appealing presence of Sylvia Kristel in the leading role as Alice Carroll. Viewers do get to spend the entirety of the film with Kristel during her escapade into a sometimes startling but mostly relaxing sojourn of isolated leisure and interspersed encounters with poor conversationalists, who seem to be trying to be as enigmatic and least helpful as possible. She’s seemingly trapped in a kind of beautiful green but still nightmarish at times dreamland, with a mansion at its core that itself is quite generous, laying out food and tea for her, and even fixing her car, not to mention classical vinyl records and a plethora of books for her to consume. Her windy, spooky first night at the mansion suggests that horrors await her, but come morning, she’s all alone in a sunny, well-tended mansion and there’s bread and butter and tea laid out for her, and later she’s greeted with raw pork chops that she gets to butter and cook to her liking.

Understandably, Alice is not happy. After a few futile attempts to escape the mansion grounds, repeatedly ending up in the same place or following an insurmountable wall and coming full circle, she seems to reluctantly accept her situation for the time being. The place won’t let her go (a little like Hill House not letting Eleanor go). Is being trapped in a reality of leisure and peace, isolated from the real world, really a life worth living? How long will it last before you’d become permanently detached from reality?... Here I am, asking questions, a violation of the film’s central rule, NO QUESTIONS, as several characters who appear out of the blue remind Alice whenever she questions her startling new situation, kind of like the first and second rule of Project Mayhem ;).

The pendulum clock in her bedroom seems to be an indicator of when the hauntings come. Things get tumultuous when the pendulum starts to swing, and Alice gets the idea one day to try and flee the mansion when the clock starts up, and whatever it is that’s keeping her there tries to hold on to her, as space and time distort (an interesting visual post-editing effect), and Alice is pulling herself against indoor wind along the floor to get out. She floors her vehicle out the gate in time, eventually leading up to what I thought was the most memorable and funny part, involving a bonkers crowd at a homely looking restaurant she stops in (a tea party counterpart?), where Alice pretty much realizes she’s still a prisoner in whatever reality has trapped her (like a never-ending trip or dream) before consigning herself back to the old mansion again.

There might be a little too much not going on most of the time, but I really enjoy the surreal nature and ambiance of the entire film, and Sylvia Kristel is an absolute delight; she really is wonderful for the part, and you do get a sense of concern for her. I like Alice’s way of rebelling against some of the other characters by staying hardened and not answering any of their questions either; they seem to admire her for this.

The film really is a visual masterpiece. Elegant, classical images are presented in all their brilliant luster, as cinematographer Jean Rabier follows Kristel in varying wardrobe with his camera, exploring the mansion and its grounds, overgrown with green, inside and out, a strange reality that seems to be in operation just for her. At one point, Alice strikes a nude pose that resembles Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus

So, what is the movie trying to say? Or, what does it mean? Of course, it could mean a lot of things, especially to different viewers, and I enjoy finding meaning in movies as much as anyone else, but I’m going to sit this one out and choose to play along with this movie’s game and cease asking questions at this point. A reader and friend of mine Terence once pointed out to me that there is a reference to Rene Magritte’s Therapist painting during the part where Alice talks to the enigmatic boy who carries a bird cage dressed-up like that resembling the one from the Magritte painting. The boy likes to liberate birds in his cage one at a time; I like to think he is freeing souls from captivity. He too does not answer questions. As another character puts it, “questions are useless… when there are no answers.” There’s a quote from Magritte that resonates with this film: “when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question 'What does that mean'? It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.” -Rene Magritte 

© At the Mansion of Madness


Friday, December 21, 2018

House of the Damned / La loba y la Paloma (1974)

House of the Damned is that generically titled, sort of misleading, pleasant delight that reminds me of why I still enjoy exploring near-forgotten Eurocult films from decades past with the word “House” in their titles. It’s far from the traditional haunted house horror and is more of a peculiar seaside murder drama that still hits a lot of the right notes for Spanish horror fans. The translation of the Spanish title is something like The She Wolf and the Dove, which I think is referring to Sandra and Maria (played by Carmen Sevilla and Muriel Catalá), the two main female characters who are also featured on the different regional title posters.
Which one of them is supposed to be the wolf and which one is the dove?

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Dunwich Horror (1970)

Before AIP’s The Dunwich Horror, a 1970 film adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror novella of the same name, not a whole lot had been done yet to try and bring Lovecraft to the screen. The Haunted Palace from 1963 is partially based on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward; Die, Monster, Die! from 1965 is a loose adaptation of The Color out of Space; The Shuttered Room from 1967 is an adaptation of August Derleth's story of the same name that was inspired by Lovecraft, and The Crimson Cult from 1969 only takes mild inspiration from Dreams in the Witch House. As far as I can tell, The Dunwich Horror is the first film to be a faithful attempt at a direct title adaptation of an HP Lovecraft story. Not surprisingly some liberties were taken with this film, such as updating it for the late '60s, early '70s, but that’s always to be expected. I do think the The Dunwich Horror movie, for its era, does do Lovecraft justice, even if it doesn’t quite live up to the novella.

It was filmed in Mendocino California, a small coastal community that kind of passes for a New England looking town. I don’t think there was any kind of ocean near Dunwich in the original story, but the seaside connection is suitably Lovecraftian and serves the film well, as it’s usually filmed at night to look dark and ominous with unseen horrors.

The stylish occult and satanic animated intro credits set to the classical and catchy main theme by Les Baxter is a great start that gets you into both a ‘70s and a Lovecraft mood. It has a cartoony and imaginative way of painting the ceremonial birth of the main character Wilbur Whateley on Sentinel Hill. Even the film's detractors agree that this animated segment is terrific.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Sex of the Devil / Il sesso del diavolo - Trittico (1971)

How could any Eurocult horror fan resist being attracted to a movie with a poster like this and a title like Sex of the Devil? Whether or not the movie delivers what it promises on the cover is another matter, but when beholding such an epic, suggestively satanic, occult, and erotic poster like this one (centering on what I thought looked a little like a possessed Mia farrow), a spectacular fantasy of a movie is birthed in the mind of the observer, one that is often very different from the movie in reality, for better or worse. I admit to initially being attracted and baited in to this film based solely on this poster. Sex of the Devil not surprisingly turned out to be something other than I had imagined, and if it weren’t for that advertisement I may have never found it. So basically, the movie poster did its job, and I slowly fell in love with another movie.

Despite not being what I expected and bearing the usual pacing and plot resolution issues, Sex of the Devil still delivered the goods, and, in the end, it ended up delivering what it promised on the poster as well.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

A Whisper in the Dark / Un sussurro nel buio (1976)

A Whisper in the Dark is a personal favorite of mine. It has been referred to as the Italian The Turn of the Screw (1898) and is a subtle take on the haunted family category of storytelling, focusing on a wealthy family living in a gorgeous and at times spooky villa that’s like a hotel resort (probably because it was filmed at a hotel, the five-star Hotel Villa Condulmer near Venice). It’s got that gothic horror aesthetic but downplays the horror in favor of exploring family dynamics with shades of the supernatural that are symbolic of unresolved family problems. The supernatural is always kept ambiguous; almost everything strange that happens can be explained, but the circumstances do leave a lot to the imagination. As is usually the case, the ambiguity is the film’s strength and its weakness.

The cinematography by Claudio Cirillo is really the main attraction, and with Marcello Aliprandi’s direction, the visuals, coupled with Pino Donaggio’s sweet and melancholic score, end up being the stuff of fairytales, comprising some of the most majestic locations and set pieces. The villa and its somber exterior and grounds, dating back to the sixteenth century, have a deep, haunting presence, a rich sense of past generations emanating from it. And the children’s ball is an enchanting segment, with costumes and constantly falling confetti, which concludes with a phantasmagoric night time burning of an effigy floating on the river. According to Cirillo the different weather conditions, such as the foggy atmosphere seen during the opening credits, were by chance. Listening to Cirillo vibrantly talk about his craft on the NoShame DVD interview, you can tell the man is an artist.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Daughter of Dracula / La fille de Dracula (1972)

Jess Franco filmed Daughter of Dracula back to back with the preceding film Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein (1972). These two films seem similar and for me were sometimes easy to confuse with one another, but after reviewing them both back to back, I realize they are quite different in many ways. Unlike the previous film, the eroticism is amped up this time around, particularly with the love/feeding scenes between Franco regulars of the era Anne Libert and Britt Nichols. It isn’t necessarily the monster mashup like the previous film since for monsters we just have Dracula, a femme vampire, and a mystery killer. Perhaps it’s more of a Eurocult genre mashup, as this one has a reputation for being confused as to whether it wants to be an erotic vampire horror film or a giallo-like murder mystery.

Daughter of Dracula doesn’t quite reach its potential, but it’s nonetheless a relaxing Gothic horror with a captivating modern ‘70s setting in an old-world location that provides the right ambiance us Eurocult fans can’t get enough of.

Howard Vernon reprises his role as his own odd, unique, near-lifeless version of Count Dracula from Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein. He’s even less active here, but Britt Nichols and Anne Libert get more to do this time around, even if Nichols’ vampire scenes may’ve soared a little more in the preceding movie.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein / Dracula contra Frankenstein (1972)

Jess Franco had already covered Dracula by directing a movie adaption of Bram Stoker’s seminal Gothic horror vampire novel from 1897 a couple years prior. So, what does Jess do next when returning to make another Gothic Count Dracula movie?... Take the Universal route and throw Dracula in with other classic monster figures, like Frankenstein and The Wolfman, to have a go at it and see who would win in a fight.

With Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein, the familiar monster mashup style gets the Jess Franco treatment, which is essentially Classic Universal horror in color with Franco’s flavor of visual and hypnotic storytelling, yet for a Jess Franco film, the eroticism is quite tame, with no nudity to be found. It adapts certain elements from Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the Dracula angle, but the Frankenstein angle borrows more from Franco’s own The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962) and less from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Curiously, the opening text, credited to David H Klunne (a Franco pseudonym), is pretty much a poetic and short synopsis of the film, rather than some sort of backstory setup to get viewers up to date, like an opening Star Wars crawl. That’s OK, because there isn’t really a whole lot to spoil, since the experience of the film, in this case, is a little more important than the story, which I think isn’t necessarily hard to follow, but it doesn’t really sink in either since there is a lot of visual depth, atmosphere, and cool ideas in what is a slow and thin plot.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

School of Fear / Il gioko (1989)

‘80s Italian horror TV movies aren’t always the most memorable and have a tendency to be a little underwhelming in comparison to the classic gialli and Eurohorror films from the ‘60s and ‘70s golden era. By the late ‘80s, we were at, or were even beyond, the tail end of the horror boom, with many Italian directors making movies more for television. Lamberto Bava directed a lot of TV movies throughout his career. His ‘80s horror TV movies paid a lot of homage to the classic gialli and horror films that sculpted the genre like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Inferno (1980), House by the Cemetery (1981), his father’s Black Sunday (1960), and even his own Demons (1985). A lot of times his TV films could be a little mediocre and almost feel like near-pointless rehashes, like Demons 3: The Ogre (1988), but Lamberto Bava also had a tendency to catch you by surprise with TV movies like Demons 5: The Devil’s Veil (1989), the hilarious and ‘80s satirical Dinner with a Vampire (1989), and the (previously) hard-to-find School of Fear.

Aside from being an interesting take on the evil kid trope, School of Fear / Il gioko does present a lot to chew on, and like Demons 5: The Devil’s Veil and Macabre (1980) is a little more of what I prefer from director Lamberto Bava. Don’t get me wrong, Demons and A Blade in the Dark (1983) are awesome too, but I honestly lamented for a time that we never really got something as twisted, different, and well-made as Macabre. It’s still no Macabre, but School of Fear feels a little more in the right direction towards something twisted and different.

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