Saturday, May 28, 2016

Blow Job – un soffio erotico (1980)

Not to be confused with Andy Warhol’s Blow Job (1963), Alberto Cavallone’s Blow Job is a witchy Italian horror film with a fairly meagre start that escalates into a reality transcending experience that was influenced by Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1952) and the shamanistic writings of Carlos Castaneda. One similarity between both films is the titular blowjob and its ambiguous nature. Warhol’s Blow Job is a thirty five minute still-shot of a young man’s (DeVeren Bookwalter) face while he is supposedly receiving fellatio, allegedly by experimental filmmaker Willard Maas. Because the sexual act itself takes place off camera, it is never absolutely certain if the fellatio is legitimately happening, which along with conflicting accounts of the filming itself adds a curious air of mystery to it.

The blowjob in Cavallone’s film only makes up a fraction of the movie during the third act and coincides with a mescaline (the main active hallucinogen in peyote) trip, and so the fellatio is also presented indirectly. The mescaline aided “blowjob” sort of doubles as a gateway act to a higher form of perception, but the fascination in this case comes more from how the filmmakers choose to represent “suchness” or “the absolute”, the ultimate nature of reality without reduced awareness. One of our lead characters Stefano (Danilo Micheli) transcends reality, under the guidance of an erotic witch Sibilla (Mirella Venturini), to take a trip through the spirit world, aka tripping balls. It involves dancing and low budget experimental set pieces and was more memorable than I was anticipating it to be.

The narrative setting in Blow Job cycles from a somewhat demure hotel, a racehorse track, a spooky house, a trip into the “absolute reality”, and then back to the hotel again for a gruesome and bizarre aftermath. The shift back to the hotel during the conclusion is unexpected and feels like a return to a less fantastical reality.

It’s a little difficult to make sense of, but looking back at it now; I don’t think the lead characters, lovers Stefano and Diana (Anna Massarelli), ever physically left the hotel setting. Analogous to the it-was-all-a-dream-ending, the entire advancement of the plot in Blow Job could be a representation of a bad mescaline trip, with the witch antagonists, Sibilla and Angela (Anna Bruna Cazzato), representing the essence of the drug. Just as with Dorothy waking up at the end of The Wizard of Oz (1939) and being surrounded by familiar figures from her dream, certain denizens of the mescaline trip world, Sibilla and the butler Alphonse (Valerio Isidori), show up as bystanders to the ending crime scene outside of the hotel in Blow Job, which might make my assertion that it was all drug fueled fancy questionable after all. The police officer even asks Stefano if Diana had taken any drugs, to which he replies, “not that I know of.” I think Stefano is being deceitful here and the appearance of Sibilla and Alphonse during this moment may represent his guilt.

We are first introduced to Stefano and Diana at the hotel Cristallo doing what they seem to do best, living an irresponsible, hedonistic lifestyle. Something about the setting in their room does capture that Saturday morning kind of hangover. We don’t know much about them or the nature of their relationship, other than that they are quite physical, and he’s an out of work writer, and they don’t have the money to pay the sizable bill they’ve amassed staying at the hotel.

The hotel porter (Antonio Mea) informs them by phone that the management insists that the overdue guests pay their bill in full by the afternoon or they’ll be forced to leave and forfeit all of their possessions including their car (the nonchalant way this phone conversation plays out is kind of amusing, as the porter kind of maintains his formal hospitable personality while basically screwing them over). This doesn’t seem to bother them a whole lot; it’s probably just another day for the young and self-indulgent couple. Diana immediately wants to start having sex, but Stefano cannot get in the mood knowing the porter downstairs is waiting to rip him off.

"A lot of people don't realize this, but you can put your weed in there." -Distracting Adam Sandler Reference
Meanwhile, in the room directly above them, an epochal event takes place that sets the story in motion. A pale-looking, distressed woman is being menaced by a floating POV-camera with heavy breathing. She becomes fearful enough to the point of jumping out the window to escape, and during the fall, she somehow manages to shatter and bloody-up Diana and Stefano’s window. The resulting commotion from the scene that ensues affords Stefano and Diana a chance to escape from the hotel with their car and possessions.

They, of course, end up at the horse racing tracks. Stefano convinces Diana to give him the rest of her money so he can bet it on the horses and hopefully fix their money problem. Before he places the bet, Stefano runs into a distressed, enigmatic woman with an eyepatch, Angela, who latches on to him, insisting that he has the key to opening some sort of proverbial gate she must pass through (yes, I thought of Ghostbusters too). Knowing he is financially distraught, she offers to tell him the winning horse if in return he helps her to unlock “the gate” that she so desperately wants to pass through. Stefano assumes that she is literally having trouble opening the front gate to her house, so he takes her up on the offer and, thanks to Angela's witchy intervention, successfully bets everything on the horse called “Moby Dick.” Now obligated but without any real understanding of what it is she wants from them, Stefano and Diana stay with Angela at her isolated gothic mansion where things definitely get stranger.

So what is this gate, and why does Angela covet passage through it? I have likened the witches in this movie to the essence of mescaline. Eventually Diana develops a spiritual and physical connection to the witch Angela, and Stefano likewise develops a similar connection to Sibilla. These connections represent the relationship between the drug and the user. The gate Angela speaks of is a wall that separates us between the everyday familiar reality and the idea of an ultimate reality that drugs, meditation, alcohol, or religious experience help us to realize. We all harvest a desire to temporarily cross this gate to escape the mundaneness of everyday life and enter a higher form of awareness, where there’s only beauty, and time and space become trivial. Angela pleading to Stefano to be the key to grant her passage through the gate is actually the drugs calling out to Stefano and Diana; they are the ones seduced and taken on a journey through the gate; in a sense, they are not using the drugs; the drugs are using them.

While they are staying at the house, things are of course weird and suspect. The next day, without them knowing, Angela uses black magic to incapacitate Diana and make her sick. Stefano is sent away into town to get help. Angela then uses a magic powder to “cure” Diana and “pass the gate that opens into the garden of happiness.” When she comes to, Diana becomes hooked on Angela, as they’ve now become close lovers, but Diana has of course reached a sort of no-turnaround point now, as she gets stranger and more and more hooked on Angela, to the point of never wanting to leave the isolated mansion and return to reality. If this isn’t a metaphor for substance dependence, I don’t know what is.

Despite his greatest effort, Stefano is unable to get through to Diana. Eventually a second witch, Sibilla, enters the house through a mirror to latch her claws into Stefano, eventually helping him reach a state of complete contemplation with an herb-based hallucinogenic drink before the film slowly climaxes to the promised blow job only to reveal it is not a blow job per se but a transcendence of reality that is portrayed through dance.
I love what’s achieved during the dance scene, which transitions from phantasmagoric, to ballroom masquerade with a nude Diana dancing arm in arm with Angela as Stefano tries to reach her through the crowd but never quite managing.

Death on a motorcycle shows up, parks her bike in the mansion hall, and removes her leather jacket and helmet to reveal that death is Sibilla in a Walmart skull mask. But she still looks cool and downright evocative. Death joins the dance and touches other dancers, one at a time, who fall dead. This is when I first realized I love this movie.

Further supporting my idea that Diana and Stefano are still at the hotel, where I feel they’ve been the whole time, the hotel porter from earlier makes an unforeseen appearance, before the climax, in the front hall and greets Stefano. The porter has the pale, distressed woman from earlier, who jumped out the hotel window to her death, up against the wall, nude, and upside down. He is indulging in some esoteric act of painting a circle across her butt cheeks and kissing each cheek one at a time. The whole butt cheek kissing thing is beyond me, but I like to think of the upside down dead woman, still bloody but seemingly still alive and smiling, as having the same meaning as a reverse tarot card. When a tarot card is drawn in reverse, the card is supposed to have an opposite meaning. Since the meaning is opposite, she is a dead woman who appears alive. Everything in the world Stefano is in now is deceitful; it is a hallucination, not reality, not real consciousness but altered consciousness.

Mescaline trips can range from euphoric to fearfully unpleasant, with the unpleasant being unbearable to the point that the taker considers or commits suicide. A suicide does occur, which, after the veil of deception is lifted, is related back to the first death at the hotel, where the truth is finally revealed. 

Since it could be seen as a drug metaphor, Blow Job could’ve been more psychedelic and colorful, but perhaps its bleak look and grim ending serve it better as a cautionary tale. A. Huxley’s essay was in support of mescaline over all other drugs; Cavallone’s Blow Job feels more like a warning. 

© At the Mansion of Madness

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Ten Films That Describe My Aesthetic

Terence from Chicks with Candles has tagged me to “list ten films that describe my aesthetic.” I believe this is a Tumblr game that has leaked into Blogger in my case. Before me, Terence was tagged by @alfredsnightmare. So what does it mean to say “my aesthetic”? With movies, I think of it as a familiar visual and emotional theme that still resonates with me irregardless of how many times I experience it. 

But perhaps the included images might speak a little more than words.

1) The Forbidden Photos of a Lady above Suspicion (1973): Colorful liquor bar carts, ‘70s giallo glamor, Euro-nightclubs, Technicolor, small cars, cigarettes, Edda Dell’Orso, Ennio Morricone – So these features could describe a lot of movies, but this one has one of my favorite titles and Nieves Navarro in a black high split open side dress. I thought that Navarro’s proud and confident sexually liberated character Dominique felt like a proto-Samantha from Sex and the City.

2) Succubus (1968): Provocative muses, looming castle destinations, mannequins, inner personality conflicts, nightclub faux torture scenes, dream sequences, trippy acid parties – The hazy soft-focused sequence when Janine Reynaud’s Lorna Green drifts out of bed and ventures to the limestone river castle in Lisbon and the questionable perspective of dream or reality remains a gold standard for surreal film experiences for me. Is she mad, or just not of this world?

3) The Reincarnation of Isabel (1973): Erotic madness, mountainous terrain, spaced out looking actors standing around the Castle Balsorano, Eastmancolor, expressive sadomasochism, comical sex scenes, day and night merging, excessive use of grandiose set pieces – This movie’s a chaotic mess, but it’s also an expressionistic masterpiece that thrives on account of its aesthetic and not its narrative.

4) The Blood Spattered Bride (1972): Ancestral mansions, sapphic vampires, Carmilla influenced, bloody daggers, blurred line between dream and reality, bloody mariticide, gothic candle lit dinner scenes, sylvan settings – Beautiful but disturbing with several uncomfortable parts, The Blood spattered Bride still works as a great Spanish horror film despite being pretty heavy with its tones of misogyny and misandry.

5) The Spider Labyrinth (1988): Conspiracy theory – How can conspiracy theory be an aesthetic? Well, have a look at the included screen grab below. That realization that you were in the lion’s den the entire time makes for a uneasy experience in denouements to films such as The Perfume of the Lady in Black, Short Night of Glass Dolls, and Rosemary’s Baby.

6) Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night (1987): ‘80s Filmation nostalgia, inappropriately scary for intended kid audience, creepy carnivals – This unofficial sequel to Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio did give me nightmares, particularly on account of one scene with Pinocchio at The Neon Cabaret, some sort of kid’s disco (the Playland counterpart), where the kid’s faces start to horrifically distort after he drinks the sparkly green liquid, which I like to think is carbonated Ecto Cooler spiked with absinthe.

7) All the Colors of the Dark (1972): Black Masses, Edwige fenech (yes, she counts as an aesthetic), looming mansion destinations, Bruno Nicolai, staying classy and fashionable (like something out of a JCPenny’s catalogue) while being stalked by your killer. I love black mass scenes and All the Colors of the Dark easily has my favorites.

8) The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman (1971): Vampires moving through space in slow motion, classic monster mashups, Paul Naschy, gothic ambiance – With the right amount of fog and dread, slow motion framing can make your monsters seem to exist outside of space and time, and the effect is quite startling, so much so that Amando di Ossorio would mimic it for his Blind Dead Templars.

9) Queens of Evil (1970): Horror movies with a fairytale exterior, provocative situations that aren’t what they seem, ancient witches in touch with modern ‘70s fashions, Snow White, free spirited hippies with a lot of crazy ideas about free loveQueens of Evil is a fantastic horror film with a biting social message.

10) Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988): Classic cel animation juxtaposed with reality, nourish style set in 1940s LA, inappropriate for kids despite being one of my favorite movies as a kid – There couldn’t be anything more awesome than cartoons being real and the existence of a place like Toontown and not to mention a chance to meet Betty Boop.


Friday, April 1, 2016

Adrift / Touha zvaná Anada (1971)

Adrift was one of the last, if not the last, Czechoslovak New Wave films before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Filming was actually interrupted by the invasion, with a military bridge being temporarily erected at the filming site on the banks of the Danube River. Adrift’s co-director and co-writer (academy award winning filmmaker Ján Kadár) then fled the country and made another film in the US, The Angel Levine. After the loosening of Soviet control in Czechoslovakia in 1969, Kadár returned, and, after getting everyone back together, filming for Adrift resumed.

I became interested in Adrift (or my preferred title: A Desire Called Anada) at random while scanning for new older foreign films to watch. One drew me in by its poster design (I know, typical) that put me in the mood for a haunting, surreal fantasy about a water nymph. I also saw that it was Czechoslovak, which had me recalling At the Mansion of Madness favorites Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) and Morgiana (1972). I’ve also been meaning to explore more Czechoslovak New Wave films, especially for this site, so I kind of committed myself to Adrift for review before even watching it. I decided not to read anything about it and go in fresh without knowing what it was about or if it was any good. (Yep, that’s how this blogger sometimes picks movies). Spoiler: it’s good.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Marta (1971)

Austrian actor Marisa Mell (born Marlies Theres Moitzi) is remembered by most as a sexy ‘60s cult icon, particularly as Diabolik’s girlfriend/partner-in-crime, Eva, in Mario Bava’s comic adaptation Danger: Diabolik (1968), but Mell also starred in a fine line of Euro-thriller dramas, usually playing the seductive swindler-murderess type – Death will Have your Eyes (1974) and Diary of an Erotic Murderess (1975) to name a couple. Her particular attention-grabbing, statuesque presence could make the most routine mystery plot a delight to sit through. However, she was underutilized in her movie career in certain respects; considering her demigoddess-like physiognomy, it’s unfortunate that she didn’t play more fantastical or otherworldly characters in fantasy or horror films; and along with Margaret Lee, I thought of her as a Eurospy girl that should’ve eventually been a real Bond girl.

A number of Marisa Mell starring vehicles currently suffer from not having proper releases, such as a little seen Spanish/Italian mystery thriller, directed and co-written by Jose Antonio Nieves Conde, called Marta aka …dopo di che, uccide il maschio e lo divora. I had been interested in checking it out for a while, and when a reader mentioned the film to me, I was finally driven to track down a copy and watch it. The version I first watched didn’t have the best image quality, but even worse was that it had all of Marisa Mell’s nude scenes edited out (the nerve), but I liked it enough to buy a DVD-R of the uncut version, which, sadly, was of even lower image quality; Marta is obviously in need of proper restoration.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Spasmo (1974)

I know now that it’s Italian for ‘spasm’ (or a name giallo fans might give their pets), but when I first watched this film’s delirious trailer, I remember thinking: “who or what is Spasmo?” and after I saw the movie, I still didn’t know what Spasmo was. It’s just one of those appealing one word titles that, like Orgasmo, somehow complement the film rather well.

You don’t forget a title and a film like Spasmo. As for the details of the story and characters, that can get a little hazy, not just with time but even upon reflection the following day, since there’s so much to it. Images of assaulted mannequins meld with memories of murdered characters that may or may not have been real from the perspective of the protagonist, who is either losing his mind or is in the worst company ever. It really makes you wonder if Umberto Lenzi’s experimental giallo is either a confusing mess or a labyrinth of mysteries and riddles for the viewer to explore and analyze.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Devil of Kreuzberg (2015)

It’s always been interesting to get to know fellow film bloggers through their writing or vlogs. You come across a lot of great writers with a mutual passion for European genre and horror movies, yet some of them have a passion that goes beyond just talking about the movies; they make them too. Now, I confess to knowing nothing about filmmaking and I probably never will, but I can only imagine what kind of intense commitment and passion must go in to making a genre love letter like The Devil of Kreuzberg, a medium-length German gothic horror film from indie filmmaker, and I might point out fellow film blogger, Alexander Bakshaev.

I’ve followed Alex on Trash Film Addict for a few years now, so I was familiar with what kind of films he’s interested in and looking forward to how someone who knows a lot about vintage gothic horror would tackle a low-budget gothic horror film in 2015, and I’ve got to say I was impressed.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Dracula Saga (1973)

Count Dracula seems to have a habit of always being reborn, both within the stories themselves as well as in different incarnations across the board of entertainment media. He’s become so synonymous with horror and Halloween that he will never leave the public consciousness. You can kill him off with a wooden stake or by overexposing him with so many variations, adaptations, tie-ins, or spin-offs, but he’s never going away; he’ll always be reborn. And why shouldn’t he? Like most great ideas, there always seems to be plenty more to explore. I wonder if Bram Stoker knew just how immortal his creation would turn out to be and that killing him off at the end of the novel was only the beginning.

Much like Hammer’s Dracula films, the Spanish horror film The Dracula Saga / La saga de los Drácula is a take that explores further possibilities with The Count. With a stretch of the imagination, it kind of works as an unofficial prequel to Stoker's Dracula, but it’s rather more of an alteration of sorts that disregards the events of the original story and takes liberties to imagine what Dracula’s family would be like, with a story told primarily through Dracula’s estranged granddaughter, Berta (Tina Sáinz – I could’ve easily seen Emma Cohen in this role as well). Although there are narrations from Dracula at the beginning and at the end, telling the story at the end as if it was his story all along, while the English trailer is narrated by Berta, who claims this is her story, so it's a bit of a toss up as to whose story this really is. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Monster of the Opera / Il mostro dell’opera (1964)

Il mostro dell’opera is not quite what you’d call an adaptation but more an experimental variation of The Phantom of the Opera. But it’s unlikely that viewers will come to this side of Eurocult obscurity just to see what replacing The Phantom with a Count Dracula-esque vampire in a beloved and well-known canon would be like; most probably seek this out because of the movie’s co-writer/director Renato Polselli. I know I did.

If you’re a fan of Polselli’s The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), of which this makes a good double bill with, you are going to love this, and if you’re a fan of Polselli’s delirious S&M fever nightmares from the early ‘70s, you’ll love this too, because Il mostro dell’opera is like a predecessor to Delirium (1972) and Rites, Black Magic and Secret Orgies in the Fourteenth Century (1973) aka The Reincarnation of Isabel – minus the turbulent editing. It builds on everything that made The Vampire and the Ballerina a fun time but is progressive in a sense with certain erotic and expressionistic elements that in contrast to its old-fashioned, classic look makes it feel ahead of its time.
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