Incense for the Damned 1970 ***

1970 - Bloodsuckers DVD - PDVD_001

Aka Bloodsuckers aka Freedom Seekers. Another titling disaster, Robert Hartford-Davis’s obscure horror film doesn’t seem to know how to describe itself; none of these titles work better than the name of the book that provided the inspiration here, Simon Raven’s Doctors Wear Scarlet. That’s not a great title either, although it does slip in as a line of dialogue here, as Richard Fountain (Patrick Mower) prepares to address an Oxford college dinner. There is some kind of critique going on of establishment corruption, but Incense for the Damned is so scrambled, it’s a constant battle to get a handle on what’s happening.

Raven’s substantial body of work seems to have been consigned to the dustbin of history, but his narrative here seems to have borrowed heavily from the adventure stories of Dennis Wheatley. Fountain is a talented young man who has gone off the rails with drugs while ‘searching for his manhood’ in Greece; a group of friends enlist the help of a resourceful British consul (Patrick Mcnee) to rescue him, only to find that dark forces are at work. It’s a haggard structure that recalls The Devil Rides Out, but retooled with 1970’s hippy trappings.

It’s understood that the film has been re-edited and re-worked to the point the director disowned it; there’s plenty of evidence of two different films happening here, and neither of them working. Fortunately Edward Woodward turns up to deliver a half-time pep-talk about how ‘vampirism is a sexual perversion’ in a desperate attempt to connect the two separate narratives. Woodward’s character also jabbers on about men who can only make love with statues, which he says is called Pygmalion Syndrome, so it’s hard to know if he can be trusted or not.

The perennially august Peter Cushing turns up for a few scenes, but he’s literally in the wrong movie here; if Cushing thought the Blood Beast Terror was his worst movie, then one presumes he didn’t see this one because it’s absolutely awful, one that gets it’s seven-minute psychedelic orgy scene in early to fend of unwary viewers. And yet the influences (John Fowles’ The Magus), the photography of the Greek island of Hydra, and the subversive intent are all in place; there’s a decent film buried somewhere in there for genre specialists to exhume.

 

 

 

Hussy 1980 ****

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Post Star Wars, there was a brief period where there remained a vogue for adult film; not pornography, but serious-minded dramas which reflected the seedy side of life. Saint Jack, Atlantic City, Tales of Ordinary Madness are all quality films that followed on from the mainstream success of Emmanuelle, and reflected a desire to see believable characters on the screen depicted with a new sexual frankness. Matthew Chapman’s debut film Hussy, like most of the above mentioned films, was rapidly forgotten about post 1980, but now resurfaces to demonstrate that it’s something of a neglected classic, not least because it features brilliant performances, not just from Helen Mirren in the titular role, but from the whole ensemble cast.

Mirren plays Beaty Simons, a call girl who hangs around a bin-juice encrusted urban nightclub with other prostitutes, oblivious to regular, grand performances by disco pioneer Patti Boulaye, who seems to be previewing material for the Royal Variety Performance. Beaty has a past and a child, but still finds idealism enough to fall for chauffeur Emory (John Shea), who seeks to take her away from the squalor she lives in and share the similar squalor that he lives in. After some fairly raunchy sex scenes, the plot takes over as Emory fends off Max (Murray Salem) an outrageous gay criminal with a plan, while she bristles at the intrusion of her old pimp Alex (Paul Angelis) who moves in with them. Both Salem and Angelis give extraordinary, larger-than-life performances here, barely giving the leads any space to work. Indeed, the second half of the film hardly features Mirren at all, but focuses on a deal gone wrong that leads Max and Alex into a bloody mess.

Hussy is something of a blot in Mirren’s esteemed copybook, regarded by many as a crummy sex-movie that’s borderline exploitation. And yet, if you’re broadminded enough, it’s also a very good film indeed, and catching Chapman on his way up (a descendent of Charles Darwin, he later wrote Color of Night and Runaway Jury) while also giving Salem something substantial to do; he later wrote the screenplay for Kindergarten Cop. Shea has proved to be a dependable actor as well, making Hussy something of a hothouse for talent. If you can ignore the hideous 70’s décor, music and attitudes, it’s a powerful little B movie that’s worth braving the ignominy of having Hussy on your search history.

The Man Who Loved Women 1983 ***

man who lovedA big studio flop back in the day, The Man Who Loved Women is a problematic film today, and there’s good reasons why Blake Edwards’ vehicle for Burt Reynolds is rarely seen or discussed. Few things date more quickly than sexual mores, and it’s arguable that Francois Truffaut’s original 1977 film was already obsolete by the time this remake occurred. Yet Reynolds and Edwards were coming off hot streaks, 10 was Edwards’ last big hit, and The Man Who Loved Women fails because of the unthinking hubris of the film’s makers.

The film opens, as no comedy ever should, with the funeral of the main character; literally hundreds of women rampage through the graveyard, attesting to the sexual prowess of LA sculptor David Fowler (Reynolds). We then flash back to see exactly what kind of love we’re talking about; Fowler loves legs, he loves bodies, he loves faces, so he’s a real lover of women, right? Well, actually, not; Fowler now seems like a real problem, a leech, a stalker, a man who has a juvenile view of life, and the film doesn’t do much to question that lifestyle. Instead, Edwards seems more intent on celebrating Fowler, with a slew of beautiful women (Taxi’s Marilu Henner, Kim Basinger as an insatiable Texan wife, Julia Andrews as a psychiatrist, Denise Crosby as his assistant) throwing themselves at his feet.

10 mixed middle-aged melancholy with Pink Panther-type sight-gags and pratfalls, but that formula wears thin here, as attempts at serious sexual commentary interspersed with laboured slapstick, notably Fowler gluing himself to a dog. Even worse, Fowler isn’t likeable when he talks about an ‘enduring appreciation for the women of the street’, in fact, he’s straight up repugnant in his comfortable chauvinism. The Man Who Loved Women is an interesting footnote for several big Hollywood talents, an over-ambitious folly that reveals the flaws in both men’s psyches; Edwards co-write this with his psychiatrist, while Reynolds seems to have acted several scenes in his own persona rather than his characters. This kind of self-analysis could have paid dividends, but a painful lack of self-awareness makes this a curiosity piece only.

 

 

Liquid Sky 1982 ***

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Liquid Sky sounded like quite an amazing movie when it first came out in 1982; aliens who invade New York to harvest the opiate produced at the moment of orgasm from beautiful clubbers? Sign me up, thought my 13 year old self, only to be somewhat stymied and baffled by the art-house, post-Warhol leanings of Liquid Sky itself. Don’t expect any aliens, in fact, there’s only a paper-plate flying saucer, and special effects are restricted largely to basic chroma-key which interrupt rather than illustrate Slavia Tsukerman’s sci-fi drama. The focus is not really sex, or sci-fi, but drugs, specifically heroin and cocaine, both of which seem to be widely popular in the slice of NYC rooftop club-land featured. Margaret (Anne Carlisle) plays both Margaret and Jimmy, two characters who get caught up in the alien’s enthusiasm for heroin; with glass shards appearing embedded in the heads of victims, who then vanish into thin air, it’s clear that there’s something allegorical going on, but Liquid Sky is too slippery to allow an easy definition. Whatever’s going on, the costumes are wild, the NYC club scene is well caught, and the print on Amazon Prime is surprisingly good; Liquid Sky has become a huge cult movie, and if you’ve never heard of it, broad-minded viewers will always find something outré in this weird and occasionally wonderful film.

Hustlers 2019 ****

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One magazine is going with ‘the most important film of the year’ for Hustlers, which would be a pretty damning condemnation of the inconsequential quality of much of the year’s films. Hustler feels like the latest reaction to the MeToo era, and creating crime movies with a ‘sisters are doing it for themselves’ vibe. With credits for both ‘Stripper consultant’ and ‘Wall Street Consultant’, at least the production has done some due diligence on the subject in hand, and it shows.

Hustlers follows on from Oceans 8 (awful) and Widows (better) as a number of female star names join forces to make a buck and beat the system, with various male antagonists in their way. Based on an article and taking some inspiration from a real story, writer/director Lorne Scafaria’s film doubles-down on the bitches-get-riches formula, keeping the stakes small and realistic; Constance Wu from Crazy Rich Asians is Oliver to Jennifer Lopez’s pole-dancing Fagin, teaching her how to dope strip-club clients with a mixture of Ketamine and MDMA while the girls cleans out their bank accounts. Of course, their clients are Wall Street scumbags, so Hustlers feels that the victims deserve all they get, and it’s only when Wu’s character shows mercy to one client that things fall apart. Hustlers does seem to have a sociological statement up its sleeve; that women, given the chance, will be as greedy as men; paying granny’s medical bills is the initial motivation, but funky expensive shoes and handbags prove to be the real undoing of Lopez’s gang.

Much as I Tonya took the clichés of the Scorsese gangster movie and revitalised them by having a female point of view, Hustlers is a female-version of Goodfellas, the fun is watching a gang come together and fall apart due to greed. Pop stars Cardi B and Lizzo have brief cameos to add value, and Usher manages a brief cameo as himself in which he manages to enter a nightclub and say his own name, pretty much the level of achievement that might be expected of a five-year old in a nativity play. But Wu and Lopez have lots to do, and they do it with great style; Lopez’s dancing is pretty sensational, and she’s got her career back on track here after the hilariously awful Second Act. The punchlines can be summed up in two lines the two lines; ‘’ Hurt people hurt people’ and ‘motherhood is a mental illness’. Hustlers looks at women, greed, crime and money, and it’s an absorbing mix of Goodfellas and Flashdance; a big hit is one the cards, and deservedly so, it’s a big, flashy, entertaining movie that poses a few interesting moral questions alongside the handbag porn.

Salome’s Last Dance 1988 ***

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As well as a peerless acting career, Glenda Jackson has had a second act as a politician, serving as a Labour MP in the UK parliament before retiring to act again in 2015. As she takes to the stage in a 1882 brothel in Ken Russell’s film, surrounded by topless models and portly men in leather thongs, it’s easy to see how her political and theatrical goals might look similar; anyone wondering what other strings British MP’s have to their bows should pay close attention. Decadence, as it often is with Russell, is the subject; Oscar Wilde (Nickolas Grace) retreats to a bordello to watch various creatures of low morals perform his banned play Salome, which is reproduced here in full, translated by Russell’s wife Vivian. Stratford Johns, beloved tv detective turned unlikely muse for late-period Russell, makes an arrogant Herod, and Imogen Millias-Scott plays Salome in a off-kilter way; her striptease is given a non-binary twist by Russell using a man as her body double to sting any potential voyeurs. Salome’s Last Dance is a hard film to sit through, consisting largely of monologues which have gained a certain mustiness over time. But the costume and staging are as imaginative as might be expected; Russell was a creative force, and it would be nice if the fan-boys who scramble over his most salacious work (The Devils, Tommy) showed some interest in this difficult, but surprisingly melancholy and mature take on the methodical literary madness of Oscar Wilde.

The Lair of the White Worm 1988 ***

The decline and fall of Ken Russell would make a film in itself; once the enfant terrible of British cinema, he ended up making films in his nursing home. The Lair of the White Worm is a very strange late entry from the end of his peak; the 80’s saw him venture across the pond of the excellent Altered States and the oddball Crimes of Passion; returning to Blighty saw him head back to the literary path with Frankenstein creation story Gothic and this adaptation of Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm. Both film have enough baroque imagery to qualify as horror films, although the sight of Peter Capaldi pacifying the giant worm with his bagpipes is likely to create sleepless nights with mirth. Capaldi’s Angus Flint is one of a ground of excavators who come across a giant skull on an archaeological dig; could the mysterious Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), who seduces boy scouts in her spare time, know anything about the giant worm it suggests? And does Lord James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant) realise that his family have a history of slaying giant beasts? Russell’s use of chroma-key effects to create weird hallucinogenic montages of Bacchanalian tableau is hit or miss, but the cast all seem game for a ludicrous adventure that’s part Dr Who, part Nigel Kneale, and mainly Ken Russell, having fun with the production design by finding worms, snakes and all kinds of visual motifs for his story. The Lair of the White Worm was less than popular on release, but it’s gained a deserved cult following; the star names involved should draw a crowd to streaming services, and even if they don’t want to remember this film, it’s use of classic British mythology gives it a unique, decadent tone.