Review: The Grapes of Death (1978)

The set-up is simple. A young woman wanders into a fog-shrouded country village, searching for her lost fiancé. Instead, she finds the the townsfolk rotting (the makeup unconvincing but nonetheless effective), the few remaining with any conscious thought having turned into murderers.

The set up is simple, but Director Jean Rollin’s approach is not. Where my last encounter with Rollin (Fascination) left me feeling a bit cold, his Grapes of Death snapped his style into place. Jean Rollin is not a horror director. Even at his most grotesque, like in the sequence in which a blind woman is crucified before getting decapitated, he invests his works with a dreamlike melancholy. You get the sense that he’s searching for something with his work, something the audience can never quite ascertain. Every long take wide shots held in washed out castles and crumbling hills suggests a certain regret, a certain inability to find a secret hidden in the past. As such, every one of villains is a vampire, draining the heroes sense of purpose and hindering their movements. But every hero is a vampire, too, stealing their loved one’s lives away to find some semblance of hope in their own.

The story here is slight, almost irrelevant. Superficially, it explores notions of class and regionalism, but only in the vaguest terms. But all of that nothing fades away when Rollin holds on a barren room for just a second too long, the silence more terrifying than the shambling, simple zombies.

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Review: Wild Side (1995)

“I take offence to that, the rape of my protégé. You know what you get for rape? 10 years in a cell with a gorilla! A psycho gorilla!”

The film that killed Donald Cammell.

A seedy neo-noir with the usual things to say about the relationship between sex and power, Wild Side is elevated by director Donald Cammell’s sensuously offbeat vision and the most Christopher Walken performance I’ve ever seen Walken do. He wears a jet-black wig in this movie and screams about having to go to meetings. He’s simultaneously distancing and entrancing.

Anne Heche stars as a banking exec who moonlights as a high-end escort. She gets tangled up in a sting operation set up by an undercover rapist cop (a hyper-macho Steven Bauer) to take down Walken’s corrupt financier. Unfortinately, Heche can’t help but fall in love with Walken’s girlfriend, played with effortless magnetism (but little actual character) by Joan Chen. Things quickly spiral out of control, as they are wont to do.

This is essentially soft-core Hitchcock, a rote erotic noir narrative that’s enlivened by the intensely strange script. Every scene goes on a little too long, every exchange a purple whatsit of psychosexual tangents, every line just a little off. Cammell shoots everything with his customary flat bloom lighting that pushes everything into a dream-like realm that is always suggesting someone is about to have photo-ready sex, even when no one is fucking. Cammell compounds the discomfort by vacillating between rapid fire cuts and languid long takes, constantly pushing the viewer off balance and almost, almost making them forget that what they’re watching is trite BS.

Tragically, this would be Cammell’s last film. Originally made for an exploitation production company with the promise of classing the place up, Wild Side was eventually taken away from Cammell and edited against his wishes. He killed himself. A couple of years later, friends and collaborators put together Cammell’s original vision.

I watched that cut.

Review: Kinski Paganini (1989)

Klaus Kinski was a crazy person. Sure, his Wikipedia page opens by stating that he was German actor known for his work with acclaimed director Werner Herzog, but, mostly, he was a maniac. Find any video of him on Youtube, and you will find this old bastard screaming his head off, at anyone, for anything. He believed in his prowess as an actor so greatly it entailed a degree of danger; any challenge to his skill or himself was met with anything from a fistfight to a gunshot. He was a bad man.

He was also a genius.

Kinski’s directorial debut (and last film before his death) is an indulgent, disgusting, and maddening autobiography under the guise of a biography. It is also, despite its many frustrations, masterful – cinema at its most unhinged and visual. Against the odds, it becomes a poignant statement on the life of its main actor, who may have been an evil lunatic, but who was also one of the greats.

Kinski Paganini is a mess. Kinski initially offered Herzog his script, but Herzog declined, calling it “un-filmable.” So Kinski decided to direct it himself. When his producers saw the final cut, they panicked and cut it to shreds. Kinski’s director’s cut was eventually released to the public on this DVD, but it looks terrible. The theatrical version – though an impossible and failed attempt to bring sanity to Kinski’s madness – looks gorgeous. Kinski’s version, however, was never restored, making much of the naturally lit film near-unwatchable. Despite its hellish transfer, tracking down this versione originale is worth it, if only to understand the full majesty of Kinski’s ambition.

And Kinski is nothing if not ambitious here. Ostensibly a biography of famed violinist Niccolo Paganini – a notoriously lecherous violinist who was so musically talented that he was accused of possession – Kinski Paganini instead acts as a prismatic dive into the writer/director/star’s broken mind. The film consists primarily of montages, intercutting Paganini playing his instrument with him having occasionally un-simulated sex with scores of women. In voiceover, “Paganini” acknowledges his ugliness before confessing that his virtuosic playing still sends women into orgiastic desire for him. Eventually, our “hero” begins to die, and his son becomes his only companion; but those things don’t occur until very late in the film, essentially acting as a sad epilogue. Most of the film plays out thusly: Paganini plays, women masturbate; Paganini plays, women fuck Paganini; Paganini walks ominously through a town square, his son cries; Paganini plays, women beg for his member; Paganini grows sick, he plays to grow well again; and so on.

There is only the hint of a story here, barely any arcs. Kinski is attempting to mirror the swirling memories of a dying man, and that non-narrative approach produces a fractured, impressionistic work that never lets up. Despite its pretentions, it finds a way to sneak staggering emotion into its heart. The climactic sequence, in particular, found me tearing up despite my rational annoyance at it. Kinski forced me to feel sadness for him (and his character), almost against my wishes.

Which leads me to a perhaps unsettling thought, which I will preface by saying that I do not condone any of Kinski’s behaviour, on or off film sets. Now, having said that …

Maybe Kinski was onto something.

Klaus Kinski clearly believed himself to be an artistic messiah. He believed himself worthy of all the pain he took and inflicted. In his mind, he was a great, and his belief in himself lead to persecution and glory in equal measure. It’s easy to see how Kinski saw himself in Paganini, and it’s surprising how much power he finds in the comparison.

That previous paragraph was hard to write. It makes me a little sick to give into the ego of a man who thinks it necessary to show himself engage in un-simulated sex in a film about his greatness – and that’s to say nothing of his personal life, and the alleged sexual abuse he engaged in with his children.

Again, I do not think that Klaus Kinski was a good man. I do not want to celebrate this film.

And yet, my rational protestations of praising Kinski’s cinematic id were unable to fight the waves of poignancy that arose from watching it. I wanted to dislike this, I wanted to hate it – but instead I found it strangely beautiful.

It’s tough be apolitical when consuming art. When everything is rife with systemic abuse, it’s hard to see Casey Affleck’s Oscar win as indicative of anything but a sexist system. It’s hard to believe that Woody Allen can say what he said at Cannes a couple years ago about his wife and still get actors to work with him. It’s hard to accept that Roman Polanski is still making films despite the fact that he is literally a runaway statutory rapist.

It’s a struggle, which itself seems strange. Morally, shouldn’t these men be put away, left to die away from the arts? Why, beyond the aforementioned systemic rot, is the separation between art and artist even a conversation?

I ask these questions, and I don’t have anything better to say than this: art is powerful. Art can transcend its origins and work magic on an audience, for better or worse. Sometimes horror creates beauty, and sometimes that beauty can be stronger than the horror ever was. In a perfect world, of course, we wouldn’t allow any of the awful stuff to happen in the first place. But it’s not a perfect world, it’s a broken one, and, if we fail to stop the horror, it makes sense to embrace any wonder that comes out of it.

Kinski Paganini is an ethically dubious proposition to endorse, but it understands the relationship between art and life in a way that I think is important to spread. I think promoting that message is a damn fine way to find something good in Kinski’s legacy, rather than just wallowing in the misery of the rest of him.

Remember hell, but look to heaven.

Review: We Are the Flesh (2016)

“Something like love doesn’t exist. Only demonstrations of love.”

In a vaguely post-apocalyptic Mexico, two siblings stumble upon an older, grimy gentleman (a fantastic Noe Hernandez) who offers them food and shelter on the condition that they give in to his sensual proclivities.

As with Swiss Army Man, We Are the Flesh is an exploration of bodily desire and instinct when removed from the confines of polite society. Unlike Swiss Army Man, which seems primarily concerned with the link between self-denial and unhappiness, We Are the Flesh seems concerned with the contradictions inherent to applying a system of morality upon the feral, animalistic soul of humanity.

As such, We Are the Flesh intends to shock. It features incest, possibly un-simulated sex, necrophilia, cannibalism, the exchange of fluids – all enacted with a sensual glee, intended to disorient the viewer by presenting these supposed horrors as desirable outcomes. Hernandez’s un-named man is unbelievably charismatic, a grimy God whose sheer will drives the dream-like narrative, almost every choice and action making sense as part of his seductive will. He gives a great monologue early on about loneliness and the way that he allowed himself to succumb to it. I’m paraphrasing here, but it comes down to this: “When you can longer avoid the grotesque thoughts in your head, you must embrace them. And after a while, they no longer seem so grotesque.” If, deep down in the parts we don’t like to acknowledge exist, if deep down there the mind desperately needs to enact something, how can we call it wrong just because society says so?

Writer/director Emiliano Rocha Minter makes his thesis palatable by injecting his film with gorgeous cinematography and a healthy dose of dark humour. The whole film is bathed in a haze of never ending caverns and deep blacks, luring you deep into the frame and into the world of it. The intimacy provided by the camera makes the occasional outright hilarity that much more surprising and welcome, such as the music cues, which usually occur at moments of extreme deprivation, and are so perfectly unexpected and real that I choked on my red wine a few times.

We Are the Flesh is not as disgusting as the buzz might lead one to believe. It is, however, an inaccessible and at times frustratingly abstract descent into debauchery – but it’s well worth the investment.

Review: Szamanka (1996)

“Every God is a God of death.”

My third Andrzej “Unresolved Issues with Women” Zulawski film is also the first one I’ve outright enjoyed – though whether that’s because I actually dig this or have just become numbed to Zulawski’s abrasive style is up for debate.

Anyway, Szamanka is the story of an anthropologist who simultaneously becomes obsessed with a polish student known only as ‘The Italian’ and the centuries-old body of a Shaman. As these obsessions dovetail, the anthropologist’s life – hell, everyone’s lives – falls apart.

Szamanka exists in two modes: violent sex and freakout screaming. Like his most well known film Possession, this is about the possessed – The Italian is possessed by … something wild (maybe), the anthropologist is possessed by The Italian, and the world is possessed by chaos.

The Italian and the anthropologist’s relationship is based in BDSM, though neither accept the place of the sub, instead spending the entire film trying to dominate the other. As their relationship intensifies, the world itself seems to tear apart, and Zulawski starts abandoning traditional logic in his storytelling. He begins likening their sexual exploits to a spiritual experience, and religion in general as a channel through which sexual desire is twisted. As a crying The Italian drips the anthropologist’s semen onto his arm in the shadow of a makeshift crucifix, I found myself numb to the crazy imagery, but also entranced. Maybe it’s because the hysteria never lets up, but I finally found myself lost in a Zulawski film. Maybe that’s the point of all of his works. When hysteria becomes normalised, the only way to feel something is to become more hysterical.

All of this violent outdoing of itself eventually culminates in a scene reminiscent of Possession, except this one actually made me recoil in horror – you’ll know the moment when you see it. Zulawski returns to the same themes again and again, and I don’t know if I feel comfortable with how much he feints towards outright misogyny, but he’s never less than absolutely fascinating.

P.S. There is a scene in this film in which a guy smokes three cigarettes at once from his fist. I found this intriguing.

Review: Wild Things (1998)

“They were acting! They were all acting!”

I remember seeing the cover of this in the video rental place as a kid, 9 or 10, and it always excited the part of my adolescent brain that was just getting curious about sex but was mostly frightened by the unknown of it. This cover, with the leering eyes, the implication of soaking wet bodies, the aggressively posed men at the bottom of the image – all of this tapped into that alluring fear of whatever pre-pubescent version of sexuality I possessed.

In the ensuing years, I saw the cover of Wild Things again and again, usually next to Species or Poison Ivy or any number of other soft-core erotic thrillers that produced a million DTV sequels sold entirely on the promise of being socially-acceptable porn. I’ve since seen Species and Poison Ivy (or one of its sequels, I don’t really remember), and I admit to watching them almost purely for the promise of T & A. Being 15 and afraid of the internet creates strange cinematic urges.

Still, even with my search for almost porn I could get past my parents, I never returned to Wild Things. Even when I got older, the cover, the premise, it all brought back that fear that used to mingle with the desire.

Only recently, as I’ve delved deep into the realm of sleaze and exploitation, did I find the courage the watch it. Scott Tobias’s AV Club article on the film gave me the kick I needed.

And I’m glad I didn’t take the plunge when I was 15, because Wild Things is a cynical and bitter film that shows an absolute contempt for humanity – it just uses sex and sleaze as its vessel of hate.

Wild Things sees humans as greedy, self-servings bastards, each and every one of them is putting on a performance – no state of mind is permanent, no moral system is instinctual. We’re all actors, and we’re all ephemeral.

But on top of all that cynicism is a darkly hilarious neo-noir filled with sex and violence.

Matt Dillon plays a school counselor that all the girls love. After he presumable spurns Denise Richards’ student, she accuses him of raping her and takes him to trial with the help of another student’s (Neve Campbell) similar accusations. Dillon hires Bill Murray’s scene-stealing sketchy lawyer with a fake broken neck to defend him from the accusations. In the courtroom, it’s revealed that the accusations were false, fabricated by both girls as revenge. But, while Dillon and Murray celebrate, a detective played by Kevin Bacon starts getting suspicious.

And he’s right to be. Wild Things is a ridiculous film played hysterically, and it has at least 6 twists. Betrayals, reveals, threesomes, murders, sex murders, bribes – all of it, all the time. It keeps pulling tricks out of its sleeve for its entire runtime. However, despite how crazy and trashy this all is, it’s not dumb. It’s impeccably plotted, working like clockwork to deliver pay-off after pay-off, cloaking its intelligence in dumb, trashy sleaze. No matter how gratuitous or exploitative the sex and nudity may seem, it’s all building to its larger point: the fact that there is an audience for exploitation is just proof that humanity will take anything it can get to feel a sense of satisfaction.

You can watch Wild Things purely for the T & A, you can use a few choice clips to fuel a lazy afternoon if you wanted to. But if, after that session, a little part in the back of your mind feels darker … if there’s a shadow hanging over your psyche that day … it’s because writer Stephen Peters and director John McNaughton snuck their angry, broken hearts into your head.

Review: The Neon Demon (2016)

“What are you? A Mormon?”

A fairy-tale steeped in the most breathtakingly beautiful imagery I’ve seen in years, The Neon Demon benefits from a campy sense of humour, something that was really missing from Only God Forgives.

Refn kind of throws his entire narrative into air quotes, making it hard to discern what he is actually saying here. I think he builds his foundation on an idea he believes in; the fashion industry commodifies the male gaze, and that patriarchal abuse is internalised into these characters. But beyond that, his ideas on beauty, aestheticism, sex, and violence are vague, because everything is presented with an ironic tinge. On the one hand, he presents the fetishisation of beauty as destructive, but then films the entire thing built around that fetishisation. He resolutely refuses to show the models in an overtly eroticised manner, but then he eroticises violence surrounding them.

It’s tough to parse his intentions at any given moment, but that’s maybe what gives The Neon Demon its staying power. The actual narrative here is slim, but the ambiguities within it (regardless of depth) are vast.

And, beyond all of that, it’s just supremely well made. Everyone gives fantastic performances, despite the limitations imposed on them by Refn’s style. Elle Fanning sells a huge transformation with just the slightest of changes in body language. Abbey Lee gets the biggest laugh with a twitch of her lip, and Keanu Reeves is clearly having a blast being sleazy as hell. Despite all the serious subject matter and Refn’s formal distance, this is a fun time.