Sunflower Skins

September 25, 2011

Guam with the Pope & Vagrancy Films’s 6 Year Show

Filed under: News, reviews — Tags: , , , , — Sunflower Skins @ 2:22 pm

Last night Vagrancy Films hosted their 6th year show at Rainbow Cinemas, screening Duke Mitchell’s long-lost classic “Gone with the Pope” and featuring over 20 minutes of mind-altering trailers. One of the best shows I’ve ever attended: a crowded theatre (we need these shows packed, people!); lots of Vagrancy Virgins (call James a “scumbag” and you get in half-price); an early broken reel (o the joys of real film!); trailers that push the limits of black, child, and whale exploitation; heckling from the usual vagrants and Big Poppa Dump himself; plus a fresh print of a fucking fantastic movie (great music and editing, hilarious one-liners, one after the other, all the exaggerated racism and misogyny you’d expect from true 1970’s Grindhouse, and  surprisingly sensitive slower-paced scenes–adding a real sense of holiness to the film). What an exceptionally profound religious experience (and I’m not just saying that because I won an Ilsa press sheet).

The next Vagrancy event is Lucio Fulci’s HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY – FULL UNCUT 35mm 30th Anniversary, playing Saturday, October 22 at 11:30 pm, Rainbow Cinemas, London, Ontario. Don’t be a snobby fool; show up and support local grindhouse.

February 16, 2010

Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s The Killer’s Playground (1976)

The Killer’s Playground (1976)


  • ¿Quién puede matar a un niño?
  • ¿Ma come si può uccidere un bambino?
  • Ein Kind zu töten…
  • Island of the Damned
  • Oi eglimaties tou etous 2000
  • Vem kan döda ett barn?
  • Who Can Kill a Child?

Dir. Narciso Ibáñez Serrador; Starring Lewis Fiander, Prunella Ransome, Antonio Iranzo

Based on Juan José Plans’s novel El juego de los niños, The Killer’s Playground is an easy film to fall into and enjoy—if you let it; the opening title sequence is rough and needlessly narrated, instantly spelling out the message that, of all the victims of war, children suffer the most in this world, largely due to human ignorance. Getting past the first few minutes may seem like a gruelling process—viewing stock footage of the 20th century’s worst crimes against humanity—but the effort is well worth the while. The tired plot of young-couple-on-vacation is brightly revived by a middle-aged Spanish couple visiting an old island off the coast of Spain. Shot in Ciruelos, Granada, and the Balearic Islands (masking as Belvais and Almanzora), The Killer’s Playground is rich with culture. Trope would have it that Tom and Evelyn end up the only adults on an island sick with madness, but this madness presents itself in a particular and, for the times, rather unique manner: children are gathering together and killing all the adults. They are not an angry mob though; a little girl laughs whilst beating an old man to death with his own cane. These kids are having a good time at their new game.

Serrador’s direction is hardly subtle, for he quickly and clearly sets up a dichotomy between killing an adult—infected by humanity’s greed and capacity for evil—and killing an innocent child. For a child can be nothing but innocent, right? In contrast to Serrador’s fierce direction, the pace builds slowly and carefully. Aside from the opening title sequence, the action is akin to the first part of Rosemary’s Baby, complete with the light-hearted ambience. Nothing truly scary happens for the first forty minutes of The Killer’s Playground, yet the entire film seethes eeriness and atmosphere.

Lewis Fiander, as Tom, reminds one of Donald Sutherland circa Don’t Look Now. Sadly, while this appears too good to be true, Fiander manages to convey his emotions when it really counts. However, his pretty wife, Evelyn, pregnant with their third child, is excellently played by British actress Prunella Ransome. She carries the full weight and conviction of her character through this film’s toughest and strangest moments. And there are some downright creepy moments. The more you allow this film to envelop you, the more intensely you’ll experience its most horrifying scares; The Killer’s Playground is at once deliciously engaging and disturbing.

One of the details I enjoy most about foreign cinema from the 1970’s is that the composers know when to leave the film silent. Waldo de los Ríos’s understated score suits José Luis Alcaine’s photography, emptying the film aesthetically yet greatly enhancing the overall ghost-town-sense. Wandering through the beautiful village, Evelyn and Tom have far more architecture to study than people, slowly leading them to realize that although Almanzora is charming and attractive, it is also quite sinister.

Call me cold, but I find children inherently creepy, so this film has a one-up on me before it even gets going. Though the story may appear predictable, the final irony remains startling, unnerving, and relevant.

The Killer’s Playground @ IMDb

January 29, 2010

Ingmar Bergman’s Jungfrukällan (1960)

Jungfrukällan (1960)

A.K.A. The Virgin Spring

Dir. Ingmar Bergman; Starring Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom

It is little wonder that Ingmar Bergman’s brilliant Jungfrukällan took best foreign language film at the 1961 Academy Awards; based on “Töre’s Daughter at Vänge,” a Swedish ballad from the 13th century, the stark imagery and symbolism create a visually stunning, emotionally moving experience. Filmed in black and white, the cinematography stresses the conflicting spiritualities of medieval Sweden, from the pure white candles of Christian devotion to the dark hair and dress of the Norse god worshippers.

Jungfrukällan is an excellent introduction to Bergman’s work, for it is not as psychologically demanding as many of his other, later films. One of the few scripts he did not write, he instead employed Ulla Isaksson to adapt the simple ballad for the screen. The story follows a peasant family whose proud and beautiful daughter, Karin, is brutally raped and murdered by three herdsmen; seeking food and shelter, the men appeal to a farmer, unaware that he is Karin’s father, Töre. The herdsmen offer to trade Karin’s clothing for Töre’s hospitality and only then do the men discover each other’s identity. Violence controls the latter part of the film as Töre attempts to avenge his daughter’s life, but anger quickly turns to horror as he realizes that he too has become a vicious murderer. If one is familiar with the storyline, subtitles are not especially necessary to the strong imagery presented; in all languages we recognize grief. Bergman insists that the viewer both sympathize with and condemn Töre for his actions—we must feel and understand his anguish, yet at the same time require that he atone.

Though tame in the face of modern-day work, the film faced severe controversy and censorship due to its rape scene; as Bergman himself argues in a letter about his explicit filmmaking, “[i]t shows the crime in its naked atrocity, forcing us, in shocked desperation, to leave aesthetic enjoyment of a work of art for passionate involvement in a human drama of crime that breeds new crime, of guilt and grace.” He adds that in the search for truth, the viewer must “take part in the herdsmen’s crime, but we must also, in despair, witness the father’s evil deed” regardless of certain taboos. The restored version of Jungfrukällan, presented by The Criterion Collection, contains a booklet about the film, including essays, a translation of the original Swedish ballad, and Bergman’s letter in defence of his artistic vision.

Despite the heavy religious imagery and Töre’s plea for God’s forgiveness, it is insufficient to label Jungfrukällan as merely a religious film, as that narrows the scope of spirituality found in the story and its well-developed characters. Töre must ask for forgiveness not only from God, but from himself as well. Emphasizing the division between Paganism and Christianity in Sweden’s changing world, Bergman forces us to examine the human spirit and its capability for vengeance and compassion.

*          *          *

The Last House on the Left (1972), Wes Craven’s adaptation of Jungfrukällan, recoils from Bergman’s subtlety and delves head-first into horror with an exploitation film so shocking that the tagline reads: “To avoid fainting, keep repeating, ‘It’s only a movie… It’s only a movie…’.”

Updated to “present day” 1970’s, 17-year old Mari Collingwood is beautiful, charming, and sexually mature. It’s her birthday and she’s going to a rock concert with her bad-ass friend Phyllis Stone, but first the girls want to score some “good grass.” Unfortunately they ask the wrong people—recently escaped convicts—and are raped, tortured, and left to die. The convicts, needing food and shelter, appeal to a pleasant rural couple who just happen to be Mr. and Mrs. Collingwood. Cynthia Carr gives an especially gruelling and powerful performance as Mari’s anxious mother, desperate for retribution.

Some may question why this horror movie falls into the exploitation category; Craven exploits the contrast between hippie love and unmitigated violence, forcing the viewer to watch a scene that will have no happy ending and, at the same time, knowing that we won’t look away from what’s happening to these girls. Craven is exploiting his audience and our disturbed curiosity. We want just as much justice as Mr. and Mrs. Collingwood do, so our sympathies lie with their revenge, stepping back only after it’s too late.

Craven’s ending strays from the original, carrying less impact, for he does not use the same heavy symbolism that Bergman relishes. Additionally, some viewers, like myself, may find David A. Hess’s honky-tonk score too over the top; intended to sharply contrast the onscreen violence, the light-hearted music is often more distracting than effective. Like its predecessor, however, the final scene of Last House makes it difficult to determine exactly who we feel sorry for—and this vagueness is exactly what makes this film so important, paving the way for other ambiguous and open-ended films.

The Criterion Collection presents Jungfrukallan

The Last House on the Left on IMDb

May 2, 2009

Jess Franco’s “Mädchen im Nachtverkehr” (1976)

Filed under: reviews — Tags: , , , , , — Sunflower Skins @ 8:42 pm

Mädchen im Nachtverkehr (1976)
A.K.A. Girls in the Night Traffic, Wilde Lust, Wild Desire
Dir. Jess Franco; Starring Kali Hansa, Diotta Fatou, Pilar Coll

Keeping in true Grindhouse tradition, Vagrancy Films offers a double feature from sexploitation master Jess Franco: Mädchen im Nachtverkehr, an X-Rated subtitled cut running just over an hour, and Wilde Lust, the 25-minute longer XXX German version. Mädchen im Nachtverkehr has better picture quality, but Wilde Lust definitely shows more, so Vagrancy kindly offers both in one package, courteously catering to their viewers. When the box art alone shows a bed full of naked ladies and some very sensual banana-eating, you know you’ve got a good deal.

We begin with said ladies who are actually high-class hookers, only it appears they have worn themselves out and are now resting; Franco opens with some bizarre music while the girls massage each other and discuss their clients. Using flashbacks amidst the slumber party, Franco wastes no time getting down to business; the women are beautiful, bushy pros who give their Johns exactly what they want, whether it’s plain ol’ missionary, role-playing as a corpse, or theatrical sex shows.

But when an erotic photographer turns out to be a kidnapping pimp, hijinks ensue. One of the hookers is taken to a Turkish brothel, where the workers appear far less interested in their jobs than the Swiss girls. Soon all of the friends are kidnapped and bored in the brothel, plotting revenge on their captor.

For the XXX cut, some die-hard fans might feel the need to brush up on their German, although the English subs are hilarious with such gems as “Willie is terrific” and “You have a plump bust.” Our opinion, however, is that the dialogue isn’t so important because Franco’s imagery is more than satisfactory for story-telling. The cinematography is very flowing and slow, giving the impression that we’re watching from a distance; though the actual cuts in the reel are sometimes jumpy, the lack of abrupt camera movement adds serenity to the experience.

Franco pumped out several exploitation and horror films a year and was already a veteran filmmaker by the time he made Mädchen im Nachtverkehr. With over 200 directorial credits to his name, the Franco legacy holds its own again the waxed and tanned hardcores of today; for a 1970’s porno, the women are actually real hotties. Music includes saloon-style ragtime, honky-tonk ditties, and horn-blowing.

No, really, there’s a saxaphone.

Jess Franco at Grindhouse Database

March 25, 2009

Ken Russell’s “The Devils” (1971)

Dir. Ken Russell; Starring Vanessa Redgrave, Oliver Reed, Dudley Sutton

Using Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun as his point of departure, Ken Russell gives a vivid and unsettling portrait of renaissance history: religious intolerance, repression, and corruption are at the heart of The Devils, an exotic film about the adulterous priest Urbain Grandier and his supposed possession of a local convent. Amidst the political turmoil of 17th century France and Cardinal Richelieu’s desire for absolute power, Sister Jeanne of the Angels has become sexually obsessed with Grandier, and her sisters follow suit with mass hysteria; Grandier is charged with witchcraft and the nuns must be exorcized.

Forget Sean Penn. Forget Mickey Rourke. This is Ollie Reed in his greatest role, sweating and seducing and praying—and evoking the audience’s simultaneous empathy and disgust. His intensity never lets up for a moment, but then again, neither does Russell. Sister Jeanne’s wild dreams about Grandier are loaded with colour, biblical transgressions, and unsettling sexual imagery. Vanessa Redgrave’s Mother Superior will, in short, terrify and haunt you as few nuns can: be wary of her giggling piety.

Some may disagree with me, but I particularly like this depiction of the Loudun Possessions because Russell does not go over the top. Yes, the film is image upon image upon image, but he never decisively tells the audience how to feel about Grandier; Russell offers several options—admiration, sympathy, condemnation—yet leaves it to the viewer to decide. We are swayed from believing the heretical accusations to sensing it was a political ploy set up by Richelieu in order to desecrate Grandier’s reputation. After several screenings I still do not know, which is perhaps critical to the film’s beauty.

I have on good film-snob authority that Mark Kermode’s 2002 documentary Hell on Earth is “bloody brilliant.” Additionally, be sure that you see the uncensored print of The Devils with the infamous “Rape of Christ” scene. Controversy led to the film being re-rated, re-cut, and banned outright in many countries, and it is through Kermode’s perseverance that the deleted scene was recovered, although official copies of the film remain without it. But guess what, kids? Do you think Vagrancy would sell a censored version of one of the greatest films ever made? Certainly not.

Russell’s absurd portrayal of Louis XIII as a flaming homosexual provides some much-needed and well-placed comedy in an otherwise terrifying film about sexual and religious perversion. Although Russell has obviously taken some artistic liberties, the creepiest thing about The Devils is that it actually happened. Don’t heckle this one, you beer-guzzling buffoons; sit back in awe. One of the most disturbing films I have ever seen, my first viewing left me curled in a foetal position, horrified.


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