Review: Casting JonBenet (2017)

Similar in structure and purpose to Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet presents the audience a pile of speculation regarding a mystery (in this case the murder of the titular child-pageant queen) to explore the nature of curiosity and psychological projection. Ascher’s approach abstracted his participants into conceptual objects, making them somewhat beyond judgement. Green, on the other hand, chooses to show her interview subjects, often speaking directly to the camera, and that lack of distance makes the condescension inherent in both projects unfortunately visible. It’s tough to watch Casting JonBenet and not feel like Green is begging us to laugh at these actors and their wild theories regarding the murder. In the early going, she edits the film for maximum comic impact and irony, which gives the eery impression that Green is exploiting her well-intentioned participants, rather than the murder itself, for our entertainment.

Fortunately, Green’s film gradually finds empathy for these people, ditching the sense of mockery for one of community. As the theories and personal projections pile up, the emotion takes centre stage. Perhaps this is part of Green’s point; that the human need for understanding is greater than any one foolish attempt. The last 10 minutes almost make up for the missteps, a startlingly powerful culmination of the film’s process, heartbreaking and intellectually satisfying in equal measure. Nevertheless, it’s a bumpy road to get to that rather humanistic finale, and one I don’t feel entirely comfortable condoning.

Review: Vampir-Cuadecuc (1971)

Shot behind the scenes in high-contrast black and white film stock on the set of Jesus Franco’s Dracula film, Cuadecuc edits the filmmaking process – the funny faces, the tired Franco, the lights and the crew – into its own loose adaptation of the Stoker tale to haunting, provoking results. Director Pere Portabella mimics the look of a lost German silent film, making what could be an entirely humorous exercise – check out the crew spraying cobwebs onto Christopher Lee’s reclining body – into a disconcerting blurring of fiction and reality. Portabella reminds us of the power of storytelling by turning the process into the product, the performance into the truth.

When we are finally allowed sound for a brief moment at the end, it’s not someone calling “cut”, it’s Lee talking about what it means to become Dracula, his striking visage suddenly frightening in the low light – it’s almost as if he’s lying to us, a real vampire trying to convince us he’s an actor, not the other way around.

Review: The Iron Rose (19730

I think I just found my new favourite movie.

In The Iron Rose, Jean Rollin takes a Bunuelian story of psychological entrapment and applies the rawest, most personal form of his aesthetic to create a heartbreaking masterpiece of youth and mortality.

Two unnamed young lovers – a sensitive tough guy and a winsome naïf – have a date in a cemetery. After making love in a crypt, they find themselves unable to leave the graveyard, and spend the night gradually coming apart.

Watching The Iron Rose feels voyeuristic. Something about this – the sincerity and the pain and the strangeness – feels so personal to Rollin, like he’s just placing his withering heart on the table for all to see. There’s no vampires here, no zombies, nothing overtly supernatural. It’s just two young idealists struggling to understand their place in a universe that existed long before them and will exist long after.

As they grow more and more frightened, the lovers begin to transform into their true selves. He exhibits cowardice, insecurity, a fear of death that shows itself in a flippant destruction of his surrounds. She becomes weary, accepting and welcoming of entrapment and darkness, wiser and scarier than her years should allow; her disappointment in him drives her to the dead. Is this what Rollin thinks of humanity? Is this what he thinks of life – simply a spiteful response to the inevitability of mortality?

In Rollin’s world, everyone is simply circling the grave, every action inextricably tied to their future sleep. Early on, we are shown a clown in full makeup attending to a grave. Rollin intercuts between a scene of sex and this clown, gradually showing his whole process. Beyond the initial confusion of his presence, the clown is never treated as a joke. He’s simply another force of ostensible joy being affected by the grave. The lovers may fuck in the cemetery in direct opposition to what lays below them, but they’re simply staving off time – no matter what, it’s all coming down.

Rollin’s contemplative approach reaches its peak here. Even at his most macabre – such as a make-out session on top of a pile of bones – he finds only regret and melancholy. When the male paramour reaches his nadir, Rollin shoots his pathetic destruction from afar, any sense of dread eclipsed by a gentle acceptance.

And yet, despite this fatalism, The Iron Rose is not a film without joy. Rollin’s obsession with the female form comes to a head in a fantasy, as the female lover walks naked upon a rocky stretch of beach (a stretch that Rollin seems to use often). She smiles, she laughs, she finds happiness in her peace. At the graveyard, too, there are times of surrealist comedy. Save for one, every other inhabitant we see is some kind of cartoonish creature – the clown, a caped man, a medieval hunchback – and the inherent strangeness of the lovers’ venue choice is played for dark comedy early on.

Jean Rollin seems obsessed with death, or at the very least, the mystery that comes right after. But he doesn’t seem scared. He just seems … done.

“They say that stars are the Gods sending us signals.”

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.

Review: Awakening of the Beast (1970)

I realised pretty early on that this wasn’t a Coffin Joe film of the nature I presumed, and that watching it prior to my viewings of the others was probably a bad idea. But I only had the DVD for another day, so I did some quick research and powered through. This may have been a mistake.

What I assumed would be a B-grade horror film actually turned out to be a masturbatory meta-commentary on the nature of transgression and also the power of Jose Mojica Marins’ artistry? Awakening of the Beast is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some strange shit.

The first 2/3 of the film present themselves as a bizarre TV program about an experiment involving four individuals who are injected with LSD and then enact a series of sexual perversions, with the film occasionally cutting to a board of people (including the scientist in charge of the experiments) commenting on the validity of the findings. Marins in there as well, and everyone, including himself, are confused as to why he’s present.

This section is mildly compelling and hypnotic, a gently surreal dive into sexual mores and desire, Bunuelian but more intent on shocking the audience. There’s no narrative as such, but there is a collective force blooming, even if its point seems nebulous. Gradually, however, we cut more and more to the panel, where Marins begins defending himself, and his Coffin Joe character, as an artistic statement, using mockumentary footage of an obscenity trial to justify his art. A strange thorough-line regarding Marins (and by extension, Coffin Joe’s) place in the public consciousness becomes visible.

That thread culminates in the final sections of the film, a breath-taking, full colour nightmare sequence that occurs when the test subjects are shown a Coffin Joe film. There’s no continuity or arcs here, just 30 minutes of hellish, hallucinogenic imagery. It’s wild and disturbing stuff, and, without spoiling anything, reveals the film as essentially a big jerking off by Marins, who claims to be exploring the necessity of transgression in a politically closed minded country, but is really just saying that he’s pretty fucking cool.

Having seen the first true Coffin Joe film by the time of this writing, I can agree that Marins is a talented, probably pretty cool motherfucker, but Awakening of the Beast is still ridiculously self-indulgent.

Review: Police Beat (2005)

“Your tree is dead, and if it’s not chopped down, it will continue to disturb and harm the living.”

Robinson Devor continues to convince me that the commercial failure of his sublime The Woman Chaser essentially robbed cinema of one of its great impressionists, pushing Devor deep into the underground where few can find him. His three features – this, the aforementioned Willeford adaptation, and his gorgeous zoophilia documentary Zoo – show an incredible ability to find the resolutely human in the absurd, something that brings depth to even his most esoteric outings.

Police Beat tells the story of Z, a West-African immigrant and rookie bicycle cop in Seattle, struggles to focus on the increasingly bizarre crimes he encounters due to his worry of his girlfriend’s infidelity.

This foundation allows Devor to craft an expressionistic tone poem that encapsulates the confusion of life. Police Beat is intimate and alien, it’s political and personal, violent and gentle. Z’s mind is fractured, and his world reflects that. His story, which takes place over seven days, spans across life and time, a fractured series of episodes of varying horror and hilarity, all belonging to a sense of otherness. The film pointedly takes place in the midst of the Bush presidency, and Z’s discomfort with his place in that United States – grateful for the chance to prosper but angry at policies that allow for such potential – manifests itself in his tenuous romantic relationship – loving but distant. Z is a moralistic, black and white force in a confusing world, and that friction seemingly affects his immediate reality. Men drown in piles of lilypads. A BDSM sexual encounter ends with a woman running naked through the park. A man walks into a house with the owner’s permission, walks upstairs and masturbates to birds, then leaves. There is no reason to this life, no consistency. But still, Z simply moves forward, unable or unwilling to confront his present for fear of his uncertain future. How do you comprehend the external when your internal is so confused?

All of this turmoil is captured in a gorgeous, stripped-back cerulean palette, reminiscent of Zulawski’s On the Silver Globe, though guided by Devor’s gentle, roaming camera. He shows us a raging monsoon but shoots it like a gentle rain.

A beautiful, profound, endlessly rewarding work.

“We’re going to learn the lindy dance.”

Review: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)

“There is no end.”

A feral, feverish nightmare of a film that is well worth your time.

The first hour is basically just abstraction, speeding through the suggestion of plot rather that a real thing. Then, it becomes a nonstop brutal whirlwind of action, so vicious and surreal that it’s both darkly comic and terrifying.  It’s essentially a horror film, bringing up questions of free will and identity – are you the product of your choices?  What if your choices were illusions, a series of pieces set from the start? If you are without choice, if you have no input on where you end up, are you really anything other than a vessel for others?

When Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning finally reaches its conclusion in a fight with a phantom-like, face-painted Jean Claude Van Damme, it feels less like a release and more like a quiet failure, the only victory in the fact that no one has to kill anyone for at least a little while.

This film will haunt me.