Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Justine (2016)

“Justine, your prison was my kingdom come.” -Virgin Steele 

Were it not for Jess Franco, I probably would not have had even a passing interest in the writings of eighteenth century troublemaker Marquis de Sade, Donatien Alphonse Franҫois, but thanks to Franco films like Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1969), Eugenie (1970), Eugenie de Sade (1973), and this prominent S&M aesthetic very much characteristic to a lot of Franco’s films (as well as Renato Polselli’s), it was only a matter of time before I would wonder: “why the hell am I not reading de Sade?”. Reading a book by de Sade had been on my bucket list for a good six or seven years. (It didn’t help that I was partially turned off by de Sade after watching Pier Paolo Passolini’s Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) due to the film’s shocking depictions of cruelty and grossness that the Jess Franco films rarely reached). 

Well, I finally read my first de Sade novel, recently, titled Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue (1791), and it was all kinds of fucked up. It was cruel, disgusting, evil, sickeningly disagreeable… And I could hardly put it down. I won’t go as far as to call it a horror novel, but a lot of the sadists poor Justine encounters are outright terrifying, especially the head-cutter character. De Sade seemed to pull no punches. He morally outraged to the extreme and probably intended to.

While reading Justine, I would always hope for the perpetually imprisoned and tortured Justine to get saved by someone (or at least administer some serious payback, rape-revenge style), but there are absolutely no heroes in this tale, and whenever a faint hope or relief presents itself, Justine is always thrown right back into another wretched situation, almost always managing to top the one before it in cruelty and harshness. Justine is de Sade’s creation to relentlessly torture physically as well as intellectually for her steadfast loyalty to virtue and religion, as de Sade’s sadistic libertine villains tended to debate with Justine and give long winded manifesto-like speeches generally in support of the story’s atheistic thesis involving the innateness of evil in nature and providence rewarding vice and punishing virtue in a corrupt world. I was starting to worry a little that the book might be desensitizing me and tapping into a heretofore unrealized evil side to myself. To counteract this, I felt I should instead try reading something with heroes in it or something that goes in a complete opposite masochistic direction like Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs (1870).

The movie Quills (2000), with Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade, helped me understand a little more about what it was that I liked about de Sade. I admire the way he didn’t hold back as a writer in the eighteenth century who could shock and appall more than any other writer that I’m familiar with. I feel his writing exposes a certain truth that lurks beneath society. De Sade chose to expose the beast rather than forget about it. I can’t help thinking that the socially powerful sadists in de Sade’s stories are the same kind of people who would feign morality to the public and who would likewise persecute de Sade and his writing on the pretext of indecency, when really it was because he was exposing them. He also happened to have been a really good writer.

Like many enduring works of literature, Justine has been adapted to the screen more than once. The aforementioned Marquis de Sade’s Justine, with Romina Power as Justine, is a good Jess Franco film that brings an interesting angle to the story by framing it around Marquis de Sade (played by Klaus Kinski) writing the story from prison and being haunted in a way by Justine. This version is also notable for Jack Palance’s batshit insane portrayal of Antonin, a leader of a brotherhood of monks who pursue pleasure above all things. Justine de Sade from 1972, with Alice Arno as Justine, is an impressively faithful adaptation, in that it somehow manages to squeeze almost the entire book near-verbatim into its one-hour and fifty-five-minute run time. Cruel Passions, with Koo Stark as Justine, from 1977 modifies the story while also remaining faithful to the spirit of de Sade’s writing and really does a nice job at building new ideas from the book. Among all of the classic literary figures making an appearance in the deliciously gothic TV series Penny Dreadful, Justine, played by Jessica Barden, makes an exciting appearance in season 3, and it’s a very different take, where Justine eventually gives in to vice and starts to resemble more her corrupt murderess sister Juliette. (de Sade also wrote a massively epic book, based on Justine’s sister, Juliette (1797) that surpasses The Lord of the Rings trilogy in length).

There is a Bolivian Justine film from 2016 written, directed, edited, and co-produced by Jac Avila who also stars in it as the sadist Rodin. Avila’s Justine nearly escaped my notice since it never came up when I was searching for Justine films online. I accidentally came across the trailer on YouTube. I was sold on the trailer and the tagline “A FILM MORE SADISTIC THAN DE SADE HIMSELF”, a tagline that unfortunately is not true (it’s sadistic but does not dethrone the master), but this version does give us a terrific Justine, played by Amy Hesketh who also co-produced the film.

Avila’s Justine seems to me to meld de Sade’s Justine with The Passion of the Christ (2004) and commits wholly to the sadism element by mostly being a collection of prolonged torture sequences that are convincing and hard to watch. This does also inevitably result in a certain level of monotony at times, but the sets are always so creative and interesting, and the performances are so spirited, that this ends up being forgivable. In fact, it’s a little like watching a Jess Franco film at times (that’s a good thing here), with how hypnotic some of the prolonged, repetitious nude torture scenes can be. The dungeon torture scene to Jean Rollin’s Requiem for a Vampire (1971) also comes to mind.

The proceedings are off to an especially unnerving and brutal start with the wrongfully convicted Justine being tied up and publicly punished with fifty lashes of the executioner’s cat o' nine tails whip that are counted off one by one by an aristocratic audience over a very dramatic and doomy theme composed by Kevin Hatton, and it is a slow and painful fifty lashes. At around the thirty-sixth lash, Justine passes out from the pain. Seeing this, the executioner wakes her with a rudely administered splash of water to her face before recommencing the punishment. The film maintains this unpleasant tone throughout its duration without ever really letting up.

One of the aristocrats viewing Justine’s punishment from the crowd is Justine’s sister Juliette (Cortney Willis), although neither one of them realizes it yet (they were separated when they were very young after their parents died). While Justine is publicly displayed in a pillory, she recounts to Juliette her misfortunate life and how she came to her present situation. During the flashback/backstory scenes, Justine will frequently stop what she is doing to look into the camera and narrate to viewers. I had mixed feelings on this at first since the peculiar narrative technique kind of took me out of it and would seem a little unintentionally funny or even almost a little cute at times. But it’s also appropriate since, like in the book, Justine is telling the story to her sister. I got used to it and grew to love it on re-watches.

The dungeon torture set piece involving a spinning wheel gets a lot of play. Justine and her fellow captive maidens, Rosalie (Mila Joya) and Omphale (Beatriz Rivera), each get a turn to be spun on the wheel-of-torture while being whipped by Rodin, which does kind of feel like repetitive padding at times. It’s a cool idea, but it might’ve been milked too much here. I did really like the innovative Argento-like camera work, where a camera is attached to the spinning wheel for a really cool effect. It also looked like a lot of fun for the actors. (There are a couple behind-the-scenes videos on YouTube of everyone having a blast while testing out the wheel.)

Amy Hesketh gives it her all as Justine, particularly during the torture scenes. She is so good at showing emotion. With each crack of the whip, her screams and cries effectively sell a sense of legitimate pain and anguish to viewers. Her facial expressions also portray the fear and misery that would be required for a character with as wretched of an existence as Justine. (Note: Amy Hesketh is also a producer, director, and writer who has made a number of interesting looking horror films with Jac Avila, such as Bluebeard (2012), Dead but Dreaming (2013), and Olalla (2015), that I’m interested in checking out).

The actors playing Rosalie (Joya) and Omphale (Rivera) also gracefully act the hell out of their roles as tortured and wrongfully persecuted prisoners of Rodin alongside Justine. Between torture sessions the three women provide bedside comfort to one another in order to recover enough before the libertine monster they serve puts them through the gamut of torment and abuse all over again. They form a certain kinship, like sisters who are in it together.

Jac Avila’s portrayal of Rodin is kind of how I envisioned him in the book: very cold, straight-faced, and libertine. He also acts like a teacher to Justine, explaining his thoughts and meanings behind the torture sessions.

Jac Avila’s Justine does have a few unique directions while essentially recounting the central story of de Sade’s Justine but focusing less on de Sade’s heavy contrast of vice and virtue in favor of a passion play and relating pain and punishment more to biblical themes, with a female Christ who is suffering and dying for nothing (aside from her tormentors' amusement). 

A lot of episodes from the book are essentially condensed down to Rodin’s torture dungeon in this film, with Rodin himself pretty much personifying the plethora of rapists and libertine scoundrels poor Justine has to deal with throughout the book. Avila creates his own torture scenarios, recreating very little from the book, relishing heavily in repetitive whip lashing and realistic skin markings. Nude figures full of gashed and marked up skin is a major motif here.

As someone just coming off of the book, I found Avila’s Justine to be a worthwhile experience filled with disturbing violent imagery that also in its own way manages to be beautiful, particularly in the way it is framed and filmed by cinematographer Miguel Inti Canedo and edited by Avila. Plus, it is nice to have a modern Justine film to round out the collection of available Justine films, which are mostly from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Even though the movie is chock-full of de Sadean torture, once you get accustomed to it, you’ll notice there’s also something kind of hypnotic and moody about it, which might have a lot to do with Hatton’s mind-altering soundtrack. It can be an enlightening experience, but more for those who might understand de Sade more, otherwise you’ll likely wonder what the fuck this shit is you’re watching. 

© At the Mansion of Madness


Monday, October 21, 2019

Assignment Terror / Los monstruos del terror (1970)

Halloween always gets me in the mood for the classic Universal monsters, so I thought I would revisit a Spanish monster mash-up (done in the vein of Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) and House of Frankenstein (1944)) that I had not seen in over ten years.

Assignment Terror is one of the Paul Naschy films I revisited the least for some reason. Naschy wrote and starred in it, but at the same time I couldn’t help thinking it needed a little more Naschy. Paul Naschy’s scripts usually come off as real personal projects, but, even with the presence of the Universal monsters that inspired Naschy’s childhood love for horror, I didn’t quite feel that as much with Assignment Terror. But to be fair, it is quite early in Naschy’s filmography. Plus, I can see how Naschy might’ve thought it best to have his tragic lycanthrope character Waldemar Daninsky step aside a little to make room for the other classic monsters. In the end, it still ends up being Naschy’s show and what I think is an alright old-school monster movie that has got a few neat tricks up its sleeve. The whole thing is of course messy and flawed but also kind of whacky and fun.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Macumba Sexual (1983)

For me, going back to Macumba Sexual is going back to my Jess Franco origins, as it was the second Jess Franco film I ever saw, the first being Mansion of the Living Dead (1982). I came across both Severin DVDs of these films at a video store in 2007 and took a chance with Mansion first even though I was expecting it to be terrible (I had heard of Jess Franco and a not so revered zombie movie by the name of Oasis of the Zombies (1982)). At the time, I was desperate for something new, and I was sort of fascinated by the cheap looking blind dead Templar rip-offs on the DVD cover (Diet Tombs of the Blind Dead?). My expectations were low, but it turned out to be a funny, sexy, ultra-weird, and surprisingly atmospheric horror movie with a captivating lead actress, Lina Romay (born Rosa Maria Almirall). I shortly went back to the store for Macumba Sexual and, despite some frustrations, have been hooked on Jess Franco ever since (thanks Severin!).

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Evil Eye / Malocchio (1975)

Evil Eye is that kind of movie that gracefully tries to do it all but ends up not really knowing what to do with itself afterwards. When looking at the film as a whole, it feels like a nice recap of the enduring motifs of the giallo, occult, gothic horror, and erotica film, and for that it will surely find a place in the hearts of Eurocult fans (it certainly has for me), but it’s hard to tell if it is a work of genius, a mistake of a masterpiece, or just an empty, routine cash-in. Is it great or not-great? I honestly have referred to it as both.
The Spanish, Italian, Mexican co-production Evil Eye (aka Mal de ojo in Spain, Malocchio and Eroticofollia in Italy, and Más allá del exorcismo in Mexico) is directed and co-written by Mario Siciliano. It was also co-written by Spanish writers Julio Buchs and Federico De Urrutia. Interestingly, Buchs and De Urrutia have several co-writing credits together, such as Alta tension (1972) and A Bullet for Sandoval (1969), many of which Buchs directed. Evil Eye seems to be the very last film either writer worked on. Julio Buchs died in 1973 before the film was released.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Sex of Angels / Il sesso degli angeli (1968)

This wicked looking poster for the nominally X-rated Italian/German drama The Sex of Angels and the Google plot synopsis, which reads “young women steal a yacht and kidnap a young man and spend a weekend having sex and doing drugs,” really aren’t all that misleading, although there’s a lot more to the story. The poster also exaggerates the situation, as what is depicted is rather the result of a conundrum brought on by irresponsibility followed by an even more irresponsible course of action. 

The setup to The Sex of Angels is, of course, an appealing one to the male fancy. Being seized by three beautiful modern-day angels and taken on a boat ride into the endless summer of ’68? Why not? It sounds like a good time, and for the most part it is, but in trying to postulate what the film might be trying to say with its outcome, I can’t help but put it in the context of ‘60s youth counter culture and the sexual revolution and see it as a cautionary tale of seduction and widespread use of LSD and what I thought was a kind of critical impression of the behaviors of the “sexually liberated.”

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.

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 The Dunwich Horror from 1929, 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.
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