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.

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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: Punisher War Zone (2008)

Shame this idiosyncratic, female-directed, action/horror superhero movie didn’t make money, because … well that sentence speaks for itself.

Director Lexi Alexander and Screenwriters Matt Holloway and Nick Santora understand that the Punisher and heroes of his ilk – tortured antiheroes with simple motives – should basically be grounding forces in a movie like this, not the central focus. So, instead, most of the film deals with the villains – Dominic West’s (impressively ugly) Jigsaw and his brother, Doug Hutchinson’s Looney Bin Jim, who have this delightful warm dynamic. My favourite scene in the film is where Looney Bin Jim tells his brother that he “won’t ever have to see [his] reflection again.” And then he throws his body into every mirror in a hotel lobby. That’s nuts, but it’s also really sweet.

Everyone is playing way big here (save, strangely, for Wayne Knight, who brings a lot of pathos into the corners), which is the right choice for Alexander’s brand of hyper-unreality. This is the perfect empty neon sleaze, all night time, all backlit, all blood-soaked alleyways. It’s all so wonderfully tacky – like the montage of our villains gathering up allies in front of a projected American Flag, perverting Patton, obviously, but also calling to mind Blow Out. Everyone is a cartoon, but they’re all extremely endearing cartoons – West and Hutchinson are so ridiculous and awful that they become loveable. When the Punisher starts picking people off (in various gory fashions), it’s kind of scary and kind of weighty, because he’s literally killing off the life that surrounds his solemn centre. This is a goofy film, but one that doesn’t quite lose its edge.

Review: Raw (2017)

Rather than the gore-endurance test the marketing suggests, Raw shows its hand early as a startlingly intimate coming-of-age story centred around a complicated sororal relationship that is spiced up considerably by Julia Ducournau’s delightful gallows humour. The most upsetting moments in the film are not the moments of cannibalism (which are generally just hilarious), but the emotional pain inflicted through the semi-incestuous rivalry at the heart of the picture. Raw is about one woman trying to balance what it means to be a mature human person and what it means to be a mature human animal – and it’s also about her sister, trying and failing to be a teacher.

I mean, this was basically made for me, the tone is exactly my bag, and I guffawed multiple times in the theatre, especially when cued by the guttural, heavy metal organ soundtrack. Ducourneau has an eye for detail and character (she’s willing to go on these little amazing narrative detours just to add a flavourful side character, like a sassy old man with dentures), and this is a hell of a debut.

After the screening I saw, there was a brief discussion with a few female critics, and the best thing that came out of it was when one of the critics (whose first name I remember but of which I will refuse to butcher the spelling) said, “Heteronormativity is the true monster.” And the whole audience started hooting and hollering.

Review: Murderlust (1985)

The quotidian misogynist.

Thoroughly pleased by its ability to create consistent discomfort, Murderlust finds great power in following its fucked-up protagonist in extreme, banal detail.

Our main man is a Sunday school teacher and security guard who moonlights as an explicitly misogynistic serial killer. We are not privy to the origin of his hatred, all we are given is the procedure to every aspect of his life. We follow our moustachioed asshole as he attempts to pay rent, as he rises up in the church, as he tries to go on dates, as he just lounges around his apartment. All the while, he contemplates killing the women he finds so dire. Murderlust is not gory, it’s not particularly exciting, but it is compellingly tedious. By bathing us in the whole existence of this self-loathing killer, director Donald M. Jones is able to acclimate us to his worldview, the true boredom that permeates every aspect of his life; when the murders finally do occur, they become cathartic, for him and the audience – finally something of interest.

And that’s the rub, the true power of this film. Jones forces us to empathise with this psycho, if only on a very primal level, partially created by our expectations of horror movies. Truly sickening shit that made me feel dirty.

Well worth a watch.

Review: Pigs (1972)

“It seems as though dead people don’t have any civil rights at all!”

Surprisingly thoughtful (if obviously problematic and gross) exploration of community and family dynamics, rather than the admittedly awesome man-eating pig movie I assumed I was getting into based on its poster.

Opens with our protagonist, Lynn (played by Toni Lawrence) being molested by her father before killing the old bastard. After escaping a mental hospital, she ends up living with an aged diner owner (Director/Writer Marc Lawrence) who – gasp – feeds the dead to his pigs. Instead of the terror coming from that dynamic, however, the two soon form a symbiotic bond, as her trauma-induced murders are protected by the old man’s body disposal techniques.

In its own strange way, Pigs (or Daddy’s Deadly Darling, the original and more accurate title) is trying to understand father-daughter relationships. What is expected from each side, and how the world views the often disturbing implication of close ones. Lawrence is aided immeasurably by the fact that he is playing opposite his actual daughter, and they truly do share a familial intimacy that helps us buy into their bond.

Unfortunately (well, for society, this makes it interesting for me), Lawrence’s thematic ideals are undercut by Lynn’s characterisation as a castrating lunatic who is beyond help, creating a gender dynamic that always shifts the blame slightly towards her. Also, while Lawrence often shoots this under the cover of expressionistic darkness, much of the light shots and scenes are goofy as hell, seemingly due (at least in part) to an outmatched budget.

Still, that goofiness has its charms – what other movie about sexual abuse and man eating pigs has its own theme song?

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.