Desyat Negrityat

a.k.a. Ten Little Indians
directed by
 Stanislav Govorukhin
1987 | Odessa Film Studios | 129′ 

Warning: this Soviet adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel uses the initial title and version of the nursery rhyme that’s so important for its plot, so if you’re afraid of that authentic period racism, this is not the adaptation for you. I’ll spare you the deeply problematic terminology in the review, though.

Eight strangers – among them a retired judge (Vladimir Zeldin), a secretary and governess (Tatyana Drubich), a former policeman (Aleksei Zharkov) and a soldier/mercenary (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) – arrive at an isolated island mansion (on what I shall call N-word Island). They all have been invited, each guest for a different reason, by a certain U.N. Owen, a person quite unknown to everyone. On the island, the group is awaited by a freshly hired couple of servants (Aleksei Zolotnitsky and Irina Tershchenko), who have neither seen nor heard their new employer. Supposedly, Owen has been held up on the mainland and will join the party the next day.

Owen and his various promises to the various guests turn out to be a lie once dinner time arrives. A gramophone recording explains the sins of all ten guests; everyone is responsible for the death of at least one other human being, and everyone, the recording explains, is going to pay for their sins. Which is exactly what happens: one after the other, the guests are killed in ways echoing an old British nursery rhyme that just happens to be posted in everyone’s room. Soon, the guests realize they really are the only people on the island, so the killer must be one of them. But who is it, and will they find out before everyone’s dead or broken by the situation?

I am, in general, not much of an admirer of the works of Agatha Christie. In part, it’s a problem I often have with the cozy subgenre – I just can’t bring myself to care if it was the butler or the young relative who killed Lord Arsebutton for his money, and really, why should I? Christie’s case is further weakened by her love for perfectly annoying detectives (why isn’t anyone murdering Poirot and Miss Marple, for Cthulhu’s sake?), her classism, and the intensely improbable construction of many of her mysteries.

I do make an exception for novels like Ten Little N./Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None, though, because there is little that is actually “cozy” about them, but who’d call a literary sub-genre the “bleaky”? Ten (let’s make it easy on ourselves with the title) is a novel whose basic set-up has fascinated many a movie director, too, but all of them have balked from giving the film its proper, grim ending. Or rather, all of them except Soviet director Stanislav Govorukhin, whose Desyat negrityat not just keeps all the uncomfortable elements of Christie’s original novel including its ending, but focuses on them to create the psychologically dark period piece the novel deserves.

  
  
  

In Govorukhin’s hands, the sometimes somewhat dry book turns into a claustrophobic nightmare that at times feels like a horror film. The director often uses consciously cramped framing – even in shots taking place outside the house – to emphasize how the situation the murderer constructed for his victims throws them back onto themselves, their guilt – even though not all of them feel guilty, and this isn’t a movie where a feeling of guilt saves anyone from anything anyhow – and the pasts deeds whose consequences they can’t escape anymore, if they ever could or did. There’s an incredible sense of tension running through the movie that belies the surface talkiness of its script (though Govorukhin knows quite well when to let his characters stop talking, which becomes clear in the last stages of the film), the seeming simplicity of Govorukhin’s direction, and the film’s length of 129 minutes. On paper, this might still sound like your typical cozy mystery plot, but in practice, this is a film interested in, and awfully good at, exploring the existential darkness inside of and around its characters. And, if we want to give the film a political dimension instead of one sitting between philosophy and psychology, can it be an accident that every character in the film – the killer of killers being no exception – has at one point killed by misusing a position of authority and trust?

The actors, especially Drubich and Kaydanovskiy, are fantastic, selling the moments of naturalistic break-downs as well as those of heated melodrama. They – and the script, of course – also manage to turn what could have been a series of vile people who get exactly what they deserve (let’s call that the “Dexter hypocrisy syndrome”) into complex characters who have at one point in their lives given in to weaknesses that – this seems to be a particularly important point for the film – are universally human. These aren’t all “bad” people, or “good” ones, or “misunderstood” ones, but just people deserving of compassion even though they have done horrible, or callous, or weak, things. Which, on the other hand, doesn’t mean Govorukhin is willing to pretend his characters are the sort of people acting well under outside pressure.

The film’s only weakness in my eyes lies in the construction of its plot, or rather, how artificially constructed it is. There’s a central plot point – and we can thank Christie for that – that just beggars believe when you stop and think about it for a second (and, to digress for a parenthesis, it is ironically a plot point contemporary movies like the mildly diverting Sawseries seem to have fallen in love with wholesale), needing everyone still alive at a particular moment to be outrageously dense or credulous, and the killer to be extremely lucky and talented in the ways of the pulp yogi. However, Govorukhin’s direction is so strong I couldn’t help but look with raised eyebrows at the solution of the film’s mystery, yet still be decidedly enthusiastic about the film as a whole.

The mystery isn’t the point of the film anyhow. Desyat Negrityat is all about showing what made its characters what they are, and what they become.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Der Schwarze Abt

a.k.a. The Black Abbot
directed by
 Franz Josef Gottlieb

1963 / Rialto Film85′
written by Johannes Kai and Franz Josef Gottlieb
cinematography by Richard Angst and Rudolf Sandtner
music by Martin Böttcher
starring Joachim Fuchsberger, Grit Boettcher, Dieter Borsche, Charles Regnier, Eddi Arent, Klaus Kinski, Eva Ingeborg Scholz, Werner Peters

The new owner of the hunting cabin (whose inside looks more like that of a bungalow to me, but what do I know about hunting cabins) on the estate of Lord Chelford (Dieter Borsche) is knifed in the back by a man dressed up as the legendary Black Abbot. Said Abbot is supposed to protect a mythical gold treasure hidden in the ruins of an abbey on Chelford’s estate.

Scotland Yard sends Detective Puddler (Charles Regnier) and his comic relief assistant Horatio (Eddi Arent, of course) to deal with the problem by living in Chelford’s estate for a time, which seems eminently reasonable once you’ve gotten to know Chelford’s surroundings.

The Lord himself is clearly on the verge of some sort of breakdown, obsessing over finding the legendary treasure and charming his fiancée Leslie Gine (Grit Boettcher) with talk about “owning her”. Leslie, you see, is the sister of Chelford’s lawyer Arthur (Harry Wüstenhagen), who – as we will learn – is in the habit of selling his sister, a woman so pliable it’s difficult to imagine a better argument for feminism, off to the highest bidder to help with his betting debts. Early in the movie, the bookmakers Arthur is indebted to will all turn out to be one single person, Arthur’s office manager Fabian Gilder (Werner Peters). That villain will then proceed to blackmail the lawyer into selling his precious sister to him instead of Chelford. Gilder also would very much like to get his hands on the gold treasure and has planted a crook going under the delightful and totally believable nom de plum of Thomas Fortuna (Klaus “KINSKI!” Kinski) as a Butler with Chelford. Gilder also cooperates with Chelford’s former secretary Mary Wenner (Eva Ingeborg Schulz). Wenner promises to lead Gilder to the treasure if he only somehow manages to stop the engagement between Chelford and Leslie so that she can have the Lord – and especially his title – for herself.

Having a headache already? Then you won’t be pleased to hear of the existence of Dick Alford (Joachim Fuchsberger), Chelford’s cousin and financial administrator. Dick is doing his best to protect Chelford from any suspicion the police may have against him, but his loyalties are torn between Chelford and the fact that he is also romantically interested in Leslie – and his interest, Leslie actually reciprocates. But Dick has other secrets too, secrets that may not be quite as innocent; or are they?

Clearly, this volatile mix of interests and shady people can only lead to violence, madness, and KINSKI! skulking through abbey ruins.

  
  
  
  

Der Schwarze Abt is another one of the half dozen krimis (all adaptations of either Edgar – like this one – or Bryan Edgar Wallace) director Franz Josef Gottlieb made in 1963 and 1964 which suggest a talent that doesn’t show in anything the man directed before or after. If you told me these six films were made by Gottlieb’s secret twin, or a mysterious masked director using his name for equally mysterious reasons, I’d believe you at once. It’s a more satisfying, and obviously less boring, explanation than “he had a talent for this sort of film he never used before or after”.

In the film at hand, Gottlieb’s visual imagination doesn’t get quite as bizarre as in the later Das Phantom von Soho, but that’s mostly because he seems to have made the surprising choice of mirroring the slow increase of the plot’s derangement and complexity (or is it mere complicatedness?) in his visuals. So the film starts off slowly, with a lot of scenes of nasty people being nasty to each other that are shot flatly, staged simply, and are lit too brightly for my tastes in black and white films. But the more the plot increases in bizarrery and density, the stranger Gottlieb’s approach to the framing and staging of scenes becomes; the brightness is becoming less and less bright, the fog more artificial and the ruins ever more gothic and picturesque. Dialogue scenes that would have been filmed in a very standard manner in the film’s early parts are now filmed from behind the swinging pendulum of a clock, and Richard Angst’s camera becomes increasingly mobile. Despite their general visual superiority over other German post-war films (seeing as most German post-war films were absolutely allergic to anything that smelled of visual interest or elegance), this sort of ambitious set-up is uncommon even for the Wallace films, rather pointing towards the giallo, so I wouldn’t be surprised at all to hear it were explicitly Gottlieb’s films rather than those of Reinl or Vohrer that influenced that genre visually.

Der Schwarze Abt is very proto-gialloesque in other aspects too, with its concentration on nasty people being nasty to each other, a plot that’s even more complicated than usual for the krimi, and its relegating of the titular masked evil-doer to more of a normal murderer than the masked pulp super-villain of many of the other Wallace krimis. Often, the less pulpy Wallace adaptations are the less interesting to me too, but that’s only because many of the lesser films of the cycle seem to relegate the villains to the side lines only because they seem ashamed of those villains’ lurid pulpiness, exactly the part I find most enjoyable about them. Der Schwarze Abt just knows other places where it can also find that pulp feeling, namely in headache-inducing plot convolutions and some very well done melodramatics, and so decides to provide all the luridness and excitement its audience could ever wish for through them.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Der Würger von Schloß Blackmoor

dir. Harald Reinl
1963 / Mosaik Film / 84′
a.k.a. The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle
written by Ladislas Fodor and Gustav Kampendonk
cinematography by Ernst W. Kalinke
music by Oskar Sala
starring Karin Dor, Harry Riebauer, Dieter Eppler, Rudolf Fernau, Ingmar Zeisberg, Hans Nielsen, and Hans Reiser

Former colonialist bureaucrat Lucius Clark (Rudolf Fernau) has found a pretty sweet set-up for himself. He’s soon to be knighted for his crimes against humanity/deeds for the British Empire, and spends his life sponging off the money belonging to his niece Claridge Dorsett (the inevitable Karin Dor) which he is uses to rent most of the castle of a certain Lord Blackmoor (Walter Giller). Oh, and he also has an oven full of stolen raw diamonds he’s slowly selling off to the – of course – shady bar owner Tavish (Hans Nielsen). Because Clark’s lazy, he has hired on ex-con diamond cutter Anthony (Dieter Eppler as Klaus Kinski) as pretend butler, so that everything needed for the illegal diamond trade is happening in house, or rather in castle.

Alas, all good things have to come to an end, and so Clark soon enough finds himself confronted with various problems, most of them connected to his dark past (so it’s all his own fault). First and foremost, a masked man who knows quite a lot about Clark’s past wants him to hand over the diamonds, and kills whoever gets in his way. That guy, let’s call him “The Strangler”, strangles his victims and then cuts an “M” into their foreheads before he decapitates them for extra fun and games. Then there’s the fact that Tavish, the shady lawyer Tromby (Richard Häussler) and barmaid Judy (Ingmar Zeisberg) – in varying configurations – would very much like to acquire some of Clark’s diamonds without having to pay for them. Oh, and did I mention Claridge’s colleague Mike (Hans Reiser) and Lord Blackwood are also acting quite suspiciously? Or that Anthony’s raving mad, wants to make sweet sweet love to the diamonds, and would prefer to make Clark rich by killing Claridge instead of seeing his boss sell his precioussss?

Fortunately for the blandly innocent Claridge, Scotland Yard sends its most wooden inspector, Jeff Mitchell (Harry “I’m so emotionless, I’m two pieces of wood” Riebauer) to romance her painfully somehow solve the strangler cases.

 
 
 

Der Würger is yet another of those non-Edgar Wallace krimis that are doing their best to emulate the successful formula of the Rialto movies; that’s certainly easier to do when you have, like krimi veteran director Harald Reinl does here, a Bryan Edgar Wallace novel to adapt. Edgar Wallace’s son did, after all, make a career out of emulating his father and selling his surname to the highest bidder (frequently German producer impresario Artur “Atze” Brauner, who is as close to one of the eccentric producer impresarios of the US and the UK as we Germans ever got), so the shoe fits perfectly well.

Of course, with the sort of movies I generally champion, keeping as close to a successful formula as possible is not necessarily a bad thing as long as one knows what to do with it. Reinl (and scriptwriters Ladislas Fodor and Gustav Kampendonk, both men of excellent names, interesting filmographies, and a talent for writing absurdly confusing scripts) is as good at producing excellent, low budgeted entertainment out of a formula as one can be. Whenever I praise one of Reinl’s krimis, I mention his highly mobile camera, his talent for serial-like action sequences and the noir-like mood of the slower scenes (often also thanks to cinematographer Ernst W. Kalinke), and these three elements are again what turn Der Würger into a pretty great time.

Sure, the action isn’t quite as good and frequent as in some of Reinl’s higher budgeted Rialto productions, but what is there of it is as exciting as action in German movies of this period (or, frankly, any period, for German director almost always just suck at this sort of thing) gets, showing off some nicely creative touches.

The art direction also isn’t quite up to the Rialto standards; fake Britain is not as playfully fake as it sometimes gets, nor does the film show quite the absurd imagination of its big predecessors. There’s your standard castle, there’s fog, there’s a boring bar, and for most of the film’s running time, that’s perfectly enough to put me in the not-Britain of the krimis.

 
 
 

The film’s other big flaw is clearly the acting. While German movies of this period always tend to the stiff and slightly melodramatic, most of the performances here are just the decided bit stiffer than usual (that might vary with the dubbed versions, of course); the performances aren’t horrible, they’re just not as good as the could be. There are two exceptions to that in the cast: Riebauer who plays exactly the same character Heinz Drache or Joachim Fuchsberger usually played lacks so heavily in charisma I have a hard time understanding why anybody would want to cast him as anything, not to speak of as the male lead, while Dietler Eppler may not be a Klaus Kinski, but sure as hell does his utmost to channel the great actor’s spirit by ranting, raving and making bug eyes at Karin Dor, something I do heartily approve of.

I also do approve of the production’s peculiar choice of soundtrack. The krimis always had a tendency to involve some of the better German film composers like Martin Böttcher and the godly Peter Thomas, but Der Würger goes one step further by (like a few other films did) employing the pioneer of electronic music Oskar Sala, co-inventor of the Trautonium and all-around eccentric musical genius. His weird, abstract electronic score probably isn’t what one would expect to hear in a piece of pulpy entertainment like this (some of Sala’s musical decisions seem somewhat perverse) but it’s often exactly what the film needs to feel more unique than it actually is. Sala’s music even turns what may be the most boring bar in the krimi genre into a place of weirdness and (slight) wonder.

Now, even though I’ve been pretty critical about nearly every part of the movie, I do like Der Würger von Schloß Blackmoor quite a bit, even ignoring Sala’s and Eppler’s contributions. The film may not be quite up to the standards of the best of the Rialto Wallace krimis, but those films are as good as this genre gets; Der Würger may not be quite as excellent, yet it’s still an all-around fun film despite all of its flaws.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

The Invisible Man vs. The Human Fly

a.k.a.: Tomei Ningen To Hae Otoko
Year:
1957  Runtime: 96′  Director: Mitsuo Murayama
Writer: Hajime Takaiwa   Cinematography: Hiroshi Murai   Music: Tokujiro Okubo
Cast: Yoshiro Kitahara, Ryuji Shinagawa, Junko Kanau, Ikuko Mori

A strange and increasingly violent series of burglaries and murders shakes Japan. The murder victims are usually found stabbed in the back, and killed in tightly controlled or completely locked places. Or on an airplane toilet. Additionally, nobody ever sees or hears any sign of the perpetrator or perpetrators. Why, you could think the killer is invisible! That’s at least what the lead investigator of the case, well-respected young cop Wakabayashi, says in a moment of weakness.

When the policeman utters this rather absurd theory while interviewing some scientists he is friendly with about the airplane toilet business one of them witnessed, they aren’t laughing about his flights of fancy. Ironically, the men are working on some scientific ray stuff whose by-product is invisibility, or, as they prefer it to be called, imperceptibility. They haven’t tested it on a human being yet, though, out of fear that it might be dangerous.

Apart from putting the idea of an invisible copper into his brain, this isn’t getting Wakabayashi anywhere right now. Fortunately, the continuing murder spree gives our hero and his team a lot to distract them. The last few victims have been pointing in the air and swatting at something during their last moments, and witnesses heard the buzzing of a fly. Why, you could think the killer can turn into a fly! Which is nearly, but not quite what is happening. In truth, the killer is using an experimental reagent made during the war to facilitate his escapes. This reagent, you see, can shrink down a man until he is not quite as small as a fly. As SCIENCE(!) teaches, all small creatures are able to float through the air while making the buzzing noise of a fly, so that’s the explanation for the noises the witnesses heard.

About half of the murders are connected by this reagent too, because the victims have all been part in the war crimes committed during its creation, though none of them have been punished for them. This part of the killing spree is vengeance for and by the only man who did get punished, and is now using a rather mad gentleman with an addiction to the reagent to commit the murders. The other half of the killings has something to do with the madman’s obsession with a nightclub singer on whom he likes to perv when he is shrunk down, but let’s not go there.

Obviously, this is the sort of case that can only be cracked if someone is willing to take the risk of becoming an invisible man.

  
  
  

Even though this plot description sounds as awesome as it is dumb, Daiei’s IM vs HF is not quite as awe-inspiring as I would have liked it to be. The film has two major problems it is only just able to conquer to my satisfaction. The first one is scriptwriter Hajime Takaiwa’s peculiar decision to frame much of the movie’s first two thirds as a slightly weird police procedural, with many scenes of earnest looking men doing earnest police business that are only from time to time broken up by the insanity that waits in the plot’s background. The second problem is also one belonging to the script. Takaiwa seems hell-bent to stuff Human Fly as full of elements of the police procedural, the slightly sleazy exploitationer and the mad science horror film as possible. This, however, leaves even the more patient viewer (like me) with a film full of ideas and plot-threads that are never really explored nor explained and in the end more often than not just stop with a hand-waving gesture when Takaiwa is getting bored of them.

Characterization-wise, there’s never a clear through-line for why people act like they do. Just to take some obvious examples, why does the film’s villain suddenly turn from a man out for vengeance and a bit of money into the sort of bad guy more fitting into an issue of The Spider? What does he need the invisibility ray for when he already can turn into a flying, buzzing little man? And, while I’m at it, why doesn’t he just steal it (he is the Human Fly, after all) instead of going for a semi-apocalyptic blackmail plan? And why does the elder scientist’s daughter decide that the invisible scientist already at work isn’t enough and turns into the invisible woman?

I sure could make up some reasons for the characters’ behaviour, and some of the film’s obvious plot holes, but I do think that’s the responsibility of the script, not the audience. Especially the film’s last third gives the impression of Takaiwa giving up and just making stuff up as it goes along without any thought for coherence or sense. Come to think of it, hero pulps like The Spider with their usually heated and sloppily constructed narratives seem like an excellent point of comparison to what Taikawa does here writing-wise.

Comparable to many of the hero pulps, the writing flaws that hinder IM vs HF from becoming the goodSF/crime/horror hybrid movie with a subtextual line about the violence committed by war-touched people in post-war Japan it could have been, are also making it enjoyably nutty and near impossible to dislike for viewers like me who can get excited about a film that’s just full of silly stuff for no good reason other than the clear awesomeness of all silly stuff. This is, after all a film that doesn’t want to realize that flies have wings for a reason, a film that also makes up some nonsense about face and hands of an invisible person getting visible quite fast again because of the rays of the sun while the rest of it doesn’t (no nudity for Japanese people who want to turn visible again, it seems), only to then forget that for the rest of its running time. It also presents turning back from an invisibility by means of SCIENCE(!) as very dangerous, until it’s time to wrap everything up, when it’s not only possible to turn visible again and live, but to seemingly go from one state to the other at will. It’s all very dumb, and reeks of lazy writing as much any modern blockbuster I’ve seen, but it sure is fun to watch what nonsense Takaiwa is going to come up with next.

The film’s other big plus point is Mitsuo Murayama’s (whom I know as one of the Japanese directors who’d go on to work a bit for Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers) direction. For my taste, Murayama isn’t a very consistent stylist, but he is the kind of director always going for the most interesting angle from which to shoot the more boring police procedural scenes, making the parts of IM vs HF most in need of not looking square and boring look much weirder than their actual content and context deserve; if you’re the generous type, you might even suggest Murayama is hinting at the strangeness surrounding his square policemen right from the beginning by way of his stylistic tics. Be that as it may, Murayama’s often peculiarly cramped, close-up and Dutch angle heavy visual style keeps the movie’s rather slow beginning interesting, and helps the mess that is its script stay a mess that is fun to watch even in its worst moments.

The Horror!? is a weekly cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, an aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Maya

Year: 1989   Runtime: 96′  Director: Marcello Avallone
Writers: Marcello Avallone, Andrea Purgatori, Maurizio Tedesco  Cinematography: Silvano Ippoliti
Music: Gabriele Ducros   Cast: Peter Phelps, Mariellia Valentini, Erich Wildpret, Cyrus Elias,
Mariangélica Ayala, William Berger

A small town in rural Mexico is predominantly inhabited by descendants of a Mayan tribe who are still holding to some old traditions. Once a year, the townsfolk celebrate a ritual, symbolic sacrifice of a child on top of the local pyramid to keep the ghost of the evil Xibalba (or Xibalbai – the voice actors are of more than one opinion), whom the townsfolk’s ancestors murdered, at bay. Of course there’s a prophecy that the dead guy will some day return to cut out every tribe member’s heart.

Some time before the newest celebration is supposed to take place, US expat Salomon Slivak (a very sweaty William Berger) stumbles onto the top of the pyramid after meeting a strange, big-haired girl child, mumbling an off-screen monologue about crossing some sort of “border to the other side”. Slivak sure seems to have crossed over to somewhere, for something or someone kills him up there by cutting out his heart.

A few days after the old man’s death, his daughter Lisa (Mariella Valentini) arrives in town. The more Lisa hears about the circumstances of her father’s death, the more disquieted she becomes, until she kinda-sorta begins to try and find his killer herself. This being the sort of film that it is, Lisa isn’t actually doing much more than walking around, asking weird questions that are answered in even weirder ways, and doesn’t appear for large parts of the plot (such as it is). She also kinda-sorta falls for another local US expat, restaurant owner, gambler, bum and all-around jerk Peter (Peter Phelps), whose best trait probably is his hatred of wearing shirts.

While Lisa and Peter aren’t doing much, further killings hit the town. An invisible force murders people in various, creative ways, but never misses out on cutting out the hearts of its victims afterwards.

The whole affair culminates (as far as a film told in a way as roundabout as this one can be said to culminate) on the night of the big ceremony. Will our protagonists actually do some protagging for a change?

Marcello Avallone’s Maya is a pretty weird film that will grow on a certain, very specific and very small sub-set of fans of Italian horror like green fungus on bread, while the rest of the world will look at it – if it’ll realize its existence at all – with a mixture of boredom and exasperation. Fortunately, it’s quite easy to find out to which of the two groups you, dear reader, will belong. Just try and imagine a film indebted to the style and rhythm of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, transplanted into Venezuela standing in for Mexico, tarted up with some barely understandable and badly explained bit of fictitious mythology, with less gore and more interrupted rape scenes (three, by my count), and made by a director who isn’t quite as talented (or mad) as Fulci at his best, but is really trying to be. If that thought makes you happy, or at least a wee bit interested, than there’s a good chance that you’re either me or belonging to the group of Italian horror fans in need to watch out for fungus attacks. Otherwise, you better stay away from Maya, because it’ll only bore you.

  
  
  

For us, the un-bored and un-boreable, Maya is a bit of a treat, especially since there aren’t all that many films actually inspired by more than just the gore of Fulci’s best films. As I said, Avallone’s movie is much more restrained in the gore department than Fulci’s movies generally were, but the murder scenes share the near-arrogant apathy towards the laws of physics and logic with the maestro’s work. The murders are very much at the heart of the movie, too, establishing the proper mood of the unreal, of the breaking-in of the illogical into the world as we know it, at a place where the borders between the quotidian world and the beyond have grown thin and weary.

The parts of the film’s running time that aren’t spent on the murders show the town (most of the time, it actually looks like a village, but some scenes seem to establish it as slightly larger with a slightly less rural feel – you could certainly put it down to sloppy direction, or you could see this imprecision as just another way Avallone uses to rattle the audience’s securities) as a place whose inhabitants are generally closer to acts of madness, violence and irrationality than is typical. Interestingly enough, Avallone uses two (horribly acted) wandering rapist Texan punks on vacation to make it difficult to read the townsfolk’s irrational tendencies as an expression of his film’s racism (though it’s clearly not a filmwithout any problematic ideas about race) but rather as a consequence of the place’s closeness to the other side, as if a door had been standing open just a tiny bit for centuries, letting something unhealthy and destructive cross over that infects (perhaps calls to) anyone coming into contact with it, in small and large ways.

Maya’s plot – as far as you can actually speak of a plot, which you probably can’t – has the stop-and-start quality of the Fulci films it is so obviously inspired by, the same sense of rambling and meandering that is hypnotic to some, and just boring to others, but that seems to be just the logical way to plot a film that is in part about the absence of the sort of order “tight” or just technically competent plotting would suggest.

The movie’s characters, all – as is tradition in Italian genre cinema – either chew scenery as if they’d never eaten anything better or seem passive and listless as if the only emotional reactions they have ever been able to show is sweating. And there’s a lot of sweating done by the whole cast, adding to the air of heaviness and oppression. Maya‘s script includes some minor attempts at giving its characters something akin to development, but most of it is buried under the murder scenes and the sweating, and obstructed by the film’s slow, slow rhythm.

I’ll certainly always prefer Fulci’s big three of gory, dream-like horror to Maya, for Fulci’s just a better, more daring director than Avallone.Maya, however, is still a minor pearl that puts such a heavy, honest emphasis on a mood of weirdness and slight alienation that it would be quit impossible for me not to love it.

The Horror!? is a weekly cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, an aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Der Frosch mit der Maske

a.k.a. Face of the Frog
Year: 1959   Runtime: 87′  Director: Harald Reinl
Writers: Egon Eis, J. Joachim Bartsch  Cinematography: Ernst W. Kalinke
Music: Willy Mattes, Peter Thomas   Cast: Joachim Fuchsberger, Siegfried Lowitz,
Eva Anthes, Eddi Arent, Jochen Brockmann, Karl Lange, Walter Wilz

For over a year now, a (rather large) gang under the leadership of the mysterious masked villain only known as the Frog (played by himself, if we can believe the credits), has been terrorizing Britain with a series of robberies and break-ins, blackmail, and a bit of murder to make things more interesting, always leaving behind the mark of a frog at the places of their crimes. Why it’s so difficult to catch the members of a gang who is in the habit of branding its own with the sign of the Frog in a pretty visible place I don’t know.

On the case is Scotland Yard’s Inspector Elk (Siegfried Lowitz, who’d later go on to play a smug and rude cop in the long-running – and pretty damn boring – TV police procedural Der Alte, in popularity only second to Derrick), a man of a smugness and rudeness as great as his success at catching the Frog is small. But even the incompetent must get lucky some time, and Elk’s time comes when the Frog takes a carnal interest in a certain Ella Bennet (Eva Anthes). The villain’s idea of romance is a bit peculiar: suddenly appearing masked in a lady’s room at night and declaring that you’ll come again to take her with you another night, whether she wants to come or not is – I think – not what Miss Lonelyhearts recommends. I’m not sure what Miss Lonelyhearts says to blackmailing the lady of your heart by pulling her improbably naive brother (Walter Wilz) into a contrived murder affair, but that’s The Frog’s Way of Romance™, too. Whatever happened to roses and long walks in the park?

The Frog’s rather dubious handling of his romantic situation is good news for Elk, though, for it provides the inspector with ample opportunity to gather clues regarding the plans and identity of his enemy.

Fortunately for everyone involved, Elk’s not the only one the case. Cocky millionaire amateur detective (and nephew of Elk’s boss) Richard Gordon (Joachim “Blackie” Fuchsberger, some time before his career as a popular TV host, or as we Germans say, “Showmaster”) and his competent comic relief butler James (Eddi Arent) are inserting themselves into the investigation. Gordon’s pretty damn enthusiastic about his hobby, too, at least once he’s met Ella; he’s also a bit more competent at the whole romance thing than the Frog.

Now, our heroes will only have to find a traitor inside of Scotland Yard (don’t trust the thin ‘staches and eyebrows), investigate a dubious night club, survive captivity and wait until so many of the film’s human red herrings have been killed off that there’s only one guy left who can be the Frog.

  
  
  

Watching the very first of Rialto’s Edgar Wallace adaptations (this early in the proceedings still keeping comparatively close to Wallace’s novel), it’s becomes clear at once why the cinematic Wallace krimis took Germany by storm. Compared to just about anything else the country’s cinema put out at the time, Der Frosch is pure pop cinema: a bit lurid (as lurid as you could possibly be in Germany in 1959, really, which isn’t that lurid, but certainly also not coy), a bit silly, delightfully pulpy, taking itself not too seriously, yet not walking into the trap certain later Wallace movies would enter where a film takes itself so little seriously that it can be read as self-hatred or self-destructive. It’s not the sort of film you’d expect coming from German cinema at all, especially not in 1959 when pop cinema as an idea didn’t very much exist over here and pop culture itself had entered the slow, sad years between 1959 and 1961 when it looked as if pop itself had only been a fad.

Mainly responsible for the film’s energetic (and energizing) effect is Harald Reinl’s direction. Though they roughly belonged to the same generation of filmmakers who started out in the biz in the 1930s and were therefore pretty damn old for being “pop”, Reinl’s style is quite different from that of his Wallace adaptation colleague Alfred Vohrer – until now the only krimi director I’ve talked about here or over at my home base. Where Vohrer likes his acting melodramatic and his directing zooming in the direction of the surreal, Reinl seems to be going for an updated serial effect, using the much better technical and financial state of his production to achieve a feeling of dynamism and intensity atypical of the usual ponderous German movie. Reinl uses a lot of separate shots for every scene, loves snappy and tight editing and is no friend of scenes going on for too long. The editing is especially effective when it comes to the action scenes. As you probably know, neither the 50s nor Germany are usually praised for their action choreography, but (if you can ignore the minor fact that fists don’t actually seem to connect with faces in Wallace land) Reinl and his editor Margot Jahn manage to actually make the action sequences exciting through the cinematic wonders of clever framing and speedy cuts.

Reinl’s no slouch in the atmosphere department either. There are some fine examples of moody (studio) night shots to be found whenever appropriate, with some stylish uses of high contrast light and shadow play you can describe as noir-ish without having to stretch things too far.

Ironically, all that visual beauty comes from a director whose filmography shows him as a pure work for hire guy who spent his time directing whatever was thrown at him – Wallace krimis, Heimatfilme, unfunny comedies, Karl May adaptations, some Erich von Däniken “documentaries” or even (later in his career) a would-be Roger Corman Poe adaptation. Directors like Reinl never get a fair shot at being taken seriously outside of our cult movie specialist world, as if the qualities of a director were defined by the commercial situation he works in, and not by what we see on screen. This isn’t to say that parts of the director’s output aren’t pure and simple crap – because man, they sure are – it’s to say that we should probably not decide the worth of a life’s work by looking at someone’s worst films.

The Horror!? (not to be confused with The Edgar Wallace Mystery Hour) is a weekly cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, an aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Der Todesrächer von Soho

a.k.a. The Corpse Packs His Bags
Year: 1972   Runtime: 76′  Director: Jess Franco
Writers: Jess Franco, Artur Brauner  Cinematography: Manuel Merino   Music: Rolf Kühn, Jess Franco
Cast: Horst Tappert, Fred Williams, Elisa Montés, Barbara Rütting, Luis Morris, Siegfried Schürenberg

A murderer with a very peculiar modus operandi haunts London. Concentrating on people visiting the fair city, he first packs his victims’ bags, then kills them with an incredibly precise knife throw.

Inspector Ruppert Redford (Fred Williams) – oh, the hilarity! – of Scotland Yard has quite a bit of trouble solving the case. I’m sure his trouble has nothing at all to do with him being a typical early 70s smartass playboy who just loves to let civilians do his job for him, like the (weirdly competent, obviously odious) comic relief photographer Andy Pickwick (Luis Morris) or his personal friend, the crime writer Charles Barton (Horst Tappert).

To be fair to Redford, one has to admit that the case is rather complicated, seeing as it not only involves the strange murders, but also a shady doctor (Siegfried Schürenberg) with more than just one secret, his lovely assistant (Elisa Montés) with a secret of her own, a drug ring peddling a drug thrice as potent as heroin, various bombings, one or more revenge plots, and Barton’s secret. Not unlike Redford (who will solve his case by going where Pickwick tells him to, and being obnoxious), I lost track of the plot about halfway through the movie, and never was quite sure what was going on in some of the plot lines, so it’s difficult to blame him.

Say what you will about German producer impresario Artur “Atze” Brauner’s attempts at jumping on the successful Edgar Wallace adaptation wagon by making a contract with Wallace’s son Bryan Edgar Wallace that allowed him to use the younger Wallace’s name and the often very fine titles of the man’s books and make completely unrelated films out of them, but the man did show good taste when it came to the international co-operations late in his film cycle. After having co-produced Argento’s Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Brauner hired beloved auteur Jess Franco for his next Bryan Wallace movie, Brauner’s second version of Wallace’s Death Packs A Suitcase.

  
  
  

Now, I have gone on record saying that I generally prefer Franco’s more personal films – at least when we’re talking about his work of the 60s and 70s – to his attempts at making more conventional genre movies, but Der Todesrächer von Soho (which translates as “the death-avenger of Soho”, and no, the word “Todesrächer” does exist in German as little as “death-avenger” does in English – it’s just a lovely case of the sort of random composite noun the German language loves so dearly) turns out to be an exception to the rule, and may in fact be one of my personal favourites among Franco’s films. It’s probably because Franco might not have been allowed to indulge himself in his erotic obsessions as heavily is Franco fans are used to – well, beyond a very short nightclub sequence and a lot of women wearing boots, anyway – but does indulge heavily in his love of pulp and a visual and narrative style that have come down through the serials (on the visual side, of course combined with the man’s usual tics and enthusiasms).

While Der Todesrächer doesn’t work at all as a straight pulpy narrative (what with it having a plot so byzantine my first viewing didn’t even leave me with an understanding of the knife-thrower’s motives, even though I guessed his identity without much trouble with his first appearance on screen), it’s a virtual feast of classic pulp, serial, and krimi clichés as seen through the slightly skewed but loving perspective of Franco. The whole film is basically Franco shooting classic poses of the genres he’s working in from his favourite weird perspectives and through glass tables while a pretty hip soundtrack by Rolf Kühn (with some contributions by Franco himself) plays, pretty obviously having a lot of fun with it and for once not even trying to achieve transcendence through boredom. In fact (and genre-appropriate), Der Todesrächer is as fast-paced and sprightly as a Franco movie gets, with nary a minute where nothing exciting or at least interesting is happening on screen, making this one a Franco movie that’s much easier to appreciate than his more self-indulgent films. How could I not appreciate Franco having fun in this way?

As much as I love Franco, I usually do not use the word “exciting” to describe any of his films, but Der Todesrächer von Soho is an exception to that rule too, working as a timely reminder that Franco could be versatile if a given project interested him enough.

German viewers will probably have another reason to look fondly, or even with mild astonishment, at the film, for its use of Horst Tappert is quite an eye-opener. Here in Germany, Tappert is primarily known today as the star of the long-running (I thought about eighty years, Internet sources speak of only twenty-four) cop show Derrick. The show’s complete run of 281 episodes was written by Herbert Reinecker whom you also might know as the writer of Rialto Film’s Edgar Wallace cycle (and yes, Tappert was in some of those too, and quite lively at that). Unfortunately, Reinecker’s attempts at a more psychological crime show only resulted in a show as visually dead, emotionally and intellectually dull, and politically conservative as anything I’d care – or rather not care – to imagine, and drove Tappert to performances that would be cruel to call “wooden”, for even pieces of wood have feelings that can be hurt. Having grown up with Derrick, and somewhat forgotten Tappert’s part in the earlier Wallace movies, it came as a real shock to watch the actor here, about two years before he started on the show that was to make/end him, smiling, acting, even over-acting, and possessing an actual physical presence like, well, an actual human being, outplaying the film’s cops film character with effortless charisma. It’s quite a thing to behold, though not enough for me to ever want to revisit Derrick.

The Horror!? is a weekly cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, an aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Die Blaue Hand

a.k.a.: The Blue Hand / Creature With the Blue Hand / The Bloody Dead
Year:
1967    Runtime: 84′  Director: Alfred Vohrer
Writer: Herbert Reinecker  Cinematography: Ernst W. Kalinke   Music: Martin Böttcher
Cast: Klaus Kinski, Harald Leipnitz, Carl Lange, Diana Körner, Siegfried Schürenberg, Albert Bessler
(This write-up concerns the original German cut of the movie, and not that abomination some cruel American producer created out of it and random horrible inserts later on.)

Dave Emerson (Klaus Kinski), descendant of a formerly rich family, is sentenced to a nice little holiday in the establishment of local shady psychiatrist (so untrustworthy he’s even wearing a monocle, for Cthulhu’s sake! in the 60s!) Dr. Mangrove (Carl Lange) for killing the family gardener.

Nobody cares much that Dave has insisted on his innocence in the murder throughout the trial, or that the evidence against him is pretty circumstantial, least of all his “loving” mother Lady Emerson (Ilse Steppat).

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Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame

a.k.a. Di Renjie
Year:
2010    Runtime: 124′  Director: Tsui Hark
Writers: Chen Kuo-Fu, Chang Chia-Lu  Cinematography: Parkie Chan Chor-Keung, Chan Chi-Ying
Music: Peter Kam Pau-Tat   Cast:
Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Li Bing-Bing, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Deng Chao,
Carina Lau Ka-Ling, Richard Ng Yiu-Hon, Teddy Robin Kwan

China in the 7th Century, during the Tang Dynasty. To commemorate her crowning as the first (and, unfortunately, last) Empress of China, Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) has commissioned the building of an unpleasantly gigantic statue of the Buddha pretty much next to her palace grounds. Her rather dictatorial policies have left the Empress with a lot of enemies, so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when trouble hits her construction project.

Two of the people responsible for the building of the Godzilla-large statue are killed. More surprising than the fact of their death is the way the men die – spontaneous combustion. The deaths may very well have been caused by the victims’ moving of some magical pieces of script hanging inside of the statue, but the Empress is only prone to superstition when it suits her, and stays sceptical. After her chief chaplain (as the not exactly trustworthy subtitles call him) visits her in form of a talking deer and mutters an imprecise prophecy, the Empress decides that the stars ask her to put the mystery into the hands of Judge Dee (Andy Lau).

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The Amazing Mr. X

a.k.a. The Spiritualist
Year:
1948    Runtime: 78′  Director: Bernard Vorhaus
Writers: Muriel Roy Bolton, Ian McLellan Hunter, Crane Wilbur  Cinematography: John Alton
Music: Alexander Laszlo   Cast: Lynn Bari, Turhan Bey, Cathy O’Donnell, Richard Carlson, Paul Faber, Virginia Gregg

Stinking rich Christine Faber (Lynn Bari) has lost her beloved husband Paul (Donald Curtis) two years ago in the sort of car crash that can only be described with the adjective “fiery”. Though Chris has a new beloved in form of the horrifically boring and prosaic district attorney Martin Abbott (Richard “Wooden” Carlson), and a marriage proposal is in the air, she hasn’t really come to grips with Paul’s death. So it’s not that much of a surprise when Chris one night thinks she hears a voice that might very well be Paul’s – or might just be the sound of the waves hitting the beach close to her villa – calling out her name. On the beach, she doesn’t find Paul’s ghost, but rather a smarmy guy calling himself Alexis (Turhan Bey) who works on her with a highly practiced psychic spiel full of things no stranger could know about the woman.

At first, Chris is still wavering between fascination and scepticism, but a horrible nightmare, or rather a vision full of barely disguised wedding anxiety (which seems perfectly natural when one is to wed Richard Carlson some time in the future), puts Chris over the edge, so she decides to visit Alexis in his “professional” capacity. A few tricks later, Chris is a regular customer of the psychic, a fact neither Martin nor her younger sister Janet (Cathy O’Donnell) are too happy with once they find out.

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