Sunday, June 23, 2013

Fantomas (France, 1932)

The 1932 version of Fantomas is far from the first film to feature the celebrated French antihero, though it is, as far as I know, the first sound film to do so. Based on the first Fantomas novel by authors Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, its first half takes the warmly familiar form of an “old dark house” thriller, and as such requires no knowledge of Fantomas lore to be casually enjoyed.

We begin with a group of silly rich people who are stuck in a remote castle, the property of one Marquise de Langrune (Marie-Laure). As we join them, they are working themselves into a right dither discussing the exploits of the shadowy master criminal Fantomas, and have managed to convince themselves that they are surely his next target. Fortunately, there is one among them with the common sense to point out the unlikelihood that, out of all the dithering rich people in France, Fantomas would settle upon them. Then another counters by pointing out the priceless necklace worn by the Princess Danidoff (Anielka Elter) and the fact that their hostess is poised to make a million dollar cash transaction that very night with Lord Beltham (Jean Worms) and they are back to dithering. Then, as if summoned like the Candy Man, a note appears from Fantomas decreeing that one of them will be murdered at midnight that very night. And I don’t’ need smell-o-vision to know that this quavering lot are now totally shitting themselves.

As well they should, as, come midnight, Fantomas, clad in a black mask and body stocking, appears in the Marquise’s bedroom and strangles her. Making off with her cash, he then attacks the Princess and Lord Beltham, who both appear to recognize him. The Princess faints and, shortly thereafter, after a cursory examination by a visiting doctor, is proclaimed to have “hysterical catalepsy”, thus necessitating we wait for her to come to before finding out if she really knows Fantomas’ identity. Soon thereafter, Fantomas’ nemesis, Inspector Juve, shows up on the scene, having also been summoned by a note from Fantomas. He and his bumbling assistant then make the rounds of the place, discovering all manner of hidden doorways and secret corridors, before officially declaring Fantomas escaped.

With this episode closed, Fantomas then veers from the gothic mood of its first act into more straightforward procedural territory, with Juve making his rounds and collecting evidence that brings him ever closer to learning Fantomas’ identity. Played by Thomy Bourdelle, Juve is far less of a figure of fun here than he would be in Andre Hunebelle’s farcical Fantomas films of the 1960s, where the character was played by the beloved comedian Louis de Funes. Still, something about the smug self regard displayed by Bourdelle’s Juve tells us that we are being invited to root for Fantomas, a flamboyant foil to the arrogance of authority, not to mention rampant upper class twittery. It also should be noted that one of the defining aspects of Juve’s character, throughout the series, is that he is again and again proven incapable of catching Fantomas.

Fantomas was directed by Pal Fejos, a Hungarian born director who, not long before, had done a stint in Hollywood, helming a string of pictures for Universal. He also, before that, studied under Fritz Lang. That tutelage seems to have served him well in Fantomas, especially in the shadowy, jump scare-ridden confines of its opening scenes, which are satisfyingly expressionistic and moody. Yet Fejos also proves himself a steady hand in the film’s second half, which is comparatively sunny and action packed. A car race and a climactic fight involving a lot of broken furniture, in particular, are lensed with a lot of verve, suggesting the breakneck, go for broke aesthetic of an old Republic serial.

To those familiar with the Fantomas mythos, I doubt that it will count as much of a spoiler (and to the rest of you: spoiler) that, at the end of Fejos’ Fantomas, the arch criminal manages to slip from the clutches of the authorities. A resolute Juve swears to catch him next time and, indeed, Fantomas itself seems poised to go another round. After all, Louis Feuillade’s series of silent Fantomas serials lasted through five entries. Nonetheless, it appears that Fantomas wouldn’t again receive feature treatment until 1946, when Marcel Herrand and Simone Signoret would go through the paces of introducing the character all over again to cinema audiences.

Since then, Fantomas’ screen incarnations have returned at periodic intervals, like a passing comet. In fact, it seems that we’re due for another one any day now (despite the proposed version from Silent Hill’s Christophe Gans running aground not too long ago thanks to a recalcitrant Vincent Cassel). Whatever version does come, however, we can count on it being a lot louder, more violent, more winkingly self referential and CG filled than Pal Fejo’s statelier take on the subject. Consider this pleasant little film, then, a sort of vaccine against what’s to come.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Prae Dum, aka Black Silk (Thailand, 1961)

Ratana Pestonji’s Prae Dum has been described as Thailand’s first film noir. The fact that it kicks off with a monk lecturing us about karma might also make it the first Buddhist noir. Typical of Pestonji’s work, the film, while modest, is still technically miles ahead of most of what was coming out of Thailand at the time, thanks to the director’s insistence on using 35mm film and synch sound, both of which, even in 1961, were far from the industry standard in that country.

The movie focuses on working stiff Tom (Tom Wisawachart), who is in love with Prae (played by Pestonji’s daughter, Ratanavadi Ratanabhand), a young widowed mother who has been in mourning garb so long that her neighbors have taken to calling her “Black Silk”. Tom strikes one as not being the sharpest tool in the shed, and is so fixated on financial gain that he seems incapable of thinking outside the master-slave relationship he enjoys with his boss, the nightclub owner Seni (Senee Wisaneesam). As such, he readily goes along when Seni recruits him in a plan to take care of two hoods to whom Seni is indebted, and even agrees to Seni’s suggestion that he bring Prae along as subterfuge. In the event, the innocent Prae ends up paying witness to Seni’s violent murder of the men and is traumatized as a result. Seni then complicates matters further by faking his own death in order to pose as his twin brother and collect on his own insurance policy. Sharing in the spoils, Tom and Seni live swell for a while, until Seni starts to fear that Prae will not maintain her silence, at which point the two enact a cruel scheme to kidnap her infant child.

As with many old Thai films, most of Prae Dum takes place under the bright sunlight -- something that it appears is in no short supply in that corner of the world -- with those few times it does switch to a nocturnal setting marking a dramatic transition. Pestonji directs with such a cold matter-of-fact-ness that it becomes its own form of stylization. The manner in which he shoots his sets is doggedly symmetrical, stagey and straight on, often with his subjects crowded into one side of the frame. The lead actors perform with a flatness of affect that suggest automatons marching through the story’s karmic paces. Furthermore, the director shows a fixation with process that has him maintain an unblinking camera where others would cut away (at one point, the reading of a trial verdict might fool you into thinking you’d stumbled onto a Thai version of CSPAN). All the while, Pestonji employs the uniquely sedate rhythms of classic Thai cinema, leaving plenty of room for silence, stillness and contemplative space.

At Prae Dum’s conclusion, karma does indeed come calling for Tom, at which point the opening’s Buddhist monk returns to give us a final admonition about the importance of taking responsibility for one’s own actions (something Tom, who continues to insist he was only following his boss’s orders, seems constitutionally incapable of doing). This emphasis on moral instruction would seem to put Prae Dum at odds with the fatalism of classic film noir, which is by no means meant to suggest that the film’s merits are dependent upon it being shoehorned into a familiar genre. In fact, Prae Dum went on to be one of the first Thai films to see international release, playing at the Berlin Film Festival in 1961, and is today considered one of the touchstones of the country’s national cinema -- with Tears of the Black Tiger director Wisit Sanatieng calling it “the film that remains my single major influence”.

Yet, for an outsider viewing it today, Prae Dum seems to assert its authority more through hypnosis than audaciousness. It’s something of a strange ride, alternately haunting and sleepy, and like a lot of classic Thai cinema, seems to be grabbing hold of you, ghost like, through the ether. At the same time, in a world where steady wage slavery is no less promoted as a desirable trade in for personal integrity, its simple lesson is nonetheless worth heeding.

Friday, June 14, 2013


On Monday night, The Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit finally got around to something we've long been threatening to do: a watch- and tweet-along to Harinam Singh's masterpiece of unintentional anti-cinema Shaitani Dracula. For most of the participants it was their first time seeing the film, and you can literally see the innocence sloughing away from them as you read along, by the end leaving them hollow eyed and bereft of comforting horizons. This is what we do for fun, folks. Read a full transcript of the proceedings here.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

El Vampiro y El Sexo (Mexico, 1967)

One of the Mexican film industry’s worst kept secrets is how, during the 1960s and 70s, its B movies were sometimes spiced up for export with nude and softcore content that never would have flown past the censors at home. Probably the most well known of these “sexo” versions is Night of the Bloody Apes, the English dubbed cut of El Horripilante Bestia Humana, a Rene Cardona “Wrestling Women” type film that made its stateside debut augmented by copious T&A, riotously fake but nonetheless disgusting gore, and some bloody footage of an actual surgical procedure. More notorious, however, is the nude version of another Cardona film, Santo en el Tesoro de Dracula, which was retitled El Vampiro y El Sexo -- primarily because it is the rare Santo film with titties in it, and also because, for most of the time it has been known to exist, it has been near impossible to see. That is, UNTIL NOW…

As Santo films go, the non-sexy El Tesoro de Dracula is unremarkable but not awful. For me, the best thing about it is that, in it, Santo invents a time machine that runs on the scientific principal of reincarnation. Santo also has one of his best comic relief sidekicks in Percito (Alberto Rojas), who, despite acting like Jerry Lewis, looks like a Mexican hipster version of Flavor Flav, right down to his giant dollar sign medallion, and whom Santo treats with undisguised contempt throughout the entire picture. Fortunately, these elements all remain in El Vampiro Y El Sexo, as this version has no other agenda than to add sexiness to what has already been provided.

As El Vampiro begins, Santo’s pal, the nuclear physicist Dr. Sepulveda (Carlos Agosti), is pitching Santo’s latest invention to a group of his scientist friends. They scoff, as well they should. The time machine, which Santo claims will dematerialize a person and rematerialize them in a past life, remains untested due to Santo being unable to find the proper subject, whom he describes as “a young person, preferably female”. All of this makes Santo sound like he conceived of the whole idea while on the receiving end of an especially tight choke hold. Still, the Silver Mask is nonetheless butt hurt by the rejection, causing his girlfriend, and Sepulveda’s daughter, Luisa (Noelia Noel) to take pity on him and volunteer for the job.

Once she has donned her shiny time travel suit and traveled through the swirly peppermint center of Santo’s time portal, we find that Luisa is somehow the reincarnation of a fictional character from the novel Dracula. Instantly clad in a see-through nightie, she lands in the late 19th century bedroom of her ancestor Luisa Soler and is overcome with the vapors. Downstairs, her father, Professor Soler (Jorge Mondragon), consults with the Germanic Professor Van Roth (Fernando Mendoza) about her condition. It seems she is showing symptoms similar to those of several other women in the village, one of whom, Luisa’s friend Mara, has taken to appearing as a mysterious “Lady in White” and biting small children. And then Aldo Monti of Santo y Blue Demon contra Dracula y el Hombre Lobo shows up in the role of “Count Alucard” and we begin to get the picture.

And if the significance of that name escapes you, let me help you out:

Seriously, one wonders how many iterations Dracula toyed with before settling on that backwards pseudonym. Was it before or after he tried spelling his name with anarchy symbols on his trapper keeper?

Anyway, so, yeah, Luisa, unknown to her loved ones, is under the sway of the Prince of Darkness – which means, in El Tesoro de Dracula, that he is slowly draining her blood, but, in El Vampiro y El Sexo, that he does so only after fondling her naked boobs a whole bunch. Dracula also has a sextet of brides whom he has hidden away in a crypt somewhere, and these conform to vampire canon only to the extent that you’d be willing to accept Blaze Starr as a wraithlike creature of the night. These are seriously top heavy women we’re talking about, making it less remarkable that they appear topless to such a great extent than that they are even capable of wearing tops at all.

By the way, throughout all of this, Santo, Percito, and Dr. Sepulveda are watching all of the action transpire on a black and white television that somehow allows them to watch things that happened in a distant, pre-technological age. In other words, this means that Santo is sitting on his ass watching the first half of El Vampiro y El Sexo roll perplexingly by just like we are. Unlike us, though, Santo is a man of action, and events ultimately take a turn that demand his involvement. This occurs as El Vampiro y El Sexo continues to follow the template set by the original Dracula, with Professor Van Roth preparing to put a stake through the vampirized Luisa’s heart. Santo zaps her back into the present day post haste, freeing up the film to become a more prosaic Santo adventure for most of its remaining running time.

From here on out, Santo becomes locked on the idea of uncovering the vast ancestral treasure he heard Dracula speak of during the time he was just watching El Vampiro y El Sexo on TV (and, to his credit, he admits that part of his reason for wanting to do this is to prove to those asshole scientists at the beginning of the movie that he was right). The key to finding it are coded symbols found on a medallion and ring that adorn Dracula’s corpse, which complicate things once a mysterious figure called the Black Hood ends up in possession of the ring. It turns out, however, that one of the Black Hood’s minions is a wrestler by the name of Atlas (Victor Manuel Gonzales), and the two sides agree to settle the matter in the ring. This leads to one of the rare instances in which an elongated wrestling sequence in a Santo movie actually moves its plot forward. Once the matter is settled, Dracula briefly returns to touch on Noelia Noel’s boobs a bit more before being vanquished.

My understanding is that among the final hurdles to us all basking in the glory that is El Vampiro y El Sexo were the legal efforts of Santo’s son, El Hijo del Santo, who feared that the film, if unearthed, would besmirch his dad’s good name. While I respect his sense of filial duty, having seen the film, I don’t think he has that much to worry about. For one thing, at no point in the film does Santo appear in any actual proximity to a naked woman, making it conceivable -- although I don’t know how likely – that the edits could even have been made without his knowledge. Secondly, when compared to the more conspicuously sleazy Night of the Bloody Apes, El Vampiro y El Sexo comes off as relatively innocent, replacing that film’s troubling misogyny with an adolescent boob fixation that is at worst a little annoying and embarrassing coming from grown men.

As for me, while calking some of the cracks in my Santo scholarship, finally seeing El Vampiro y El Sexo didn’t turn out to be much of a touchstone event, though I’m nonetheless glad to have it behind me. Granted, more such lucha films turned sexo are rumored to exist, which means I might be treading this ground again sooner than good sense would recommend.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Silent but deadly

For the past few weeks, The Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit has been welcoming Summer with visions of ice, sleet, hail, and permafrost. Beth and I have already both covered Gaddaar, The Horror!? and EXB have covered yetis both Earth and space born, and Tars Tarkas, bless his heart, has written reviews of movies with "bikini" in the title. Now, to keep things comfortably below zero, I've just posted over at Teleport City my review of Sergio Corbucci's The Great Silence, not only a movie with a LOT of snow in it, but also one of the greates Spaghetti Westerns of all time. Bundle up and check it out, won't you?