Monday, November 05, 2007

Who needs Grindhouse? Another tasteful 2007 ad campaign flashback to the '70s: race, sex, bondage, slavery, southern Gothic -- and boxoffice poison. I reckon The Legend of Nigger Charley and Mandingo just wouldn't fly today!

Cinematic Atrocities: Songs That Have Outworn Their Welcome (for the timid), and Captivity Culture
(Captivity, Part Two)

  • For those of you who don't give a flying fig about the following, here's an amusing Tuesday afternoon link for you on the most over-used songs in contemporary movies. Enjoy.

  • For the rest of you, it's time to get wrapped up in Captivity...


    First off, it was a given I had to see Captivity -- not because it's a horror movie, not because of the notorious ad campaign, though those both helped.

    I had to see Captivity because Larry Cohen wrote the screenplay, and I never miss a Larry Cohen effort.

    Larry Cohen has been one of the most inventive, aggressive independent filmmakers in America for most of my life. He's been an iconclastic touchstone since he created two of the 1960s TV shows I loved -- The Invaders and Branded -- and a gravitational force since his run of films as writer/director turned the 1970s on its head again and again.

    Silent serial heroines suffered abduction, imprisonment, bondage and torture week after week -- including the ol' lash her to the sawmill sequence -- in the first decades of American cinema: The Perils of Pauline

    Where do I start? It was a drive-in double bill of Black Caeser and Hell Up In Harlem (both 1973) that woke me up to his rough-and-ready directorial efforts, and turned me on to star Fred Williamson. With the buzz that surrounded It's Alive (1974) in the horror zine scene, when I was booking the student film program at Johnson State College (1974-76) I made sure JSC showcased the area premiere of It's Alive -- the 16mm booker told me we were the first New England booking! It had been dumped onto 16mm before enjoying first-run theatrical play, an oversight Warner Bros. attended to after the film gained momentum, resurrected for mainstream theatrical venues months after we showed it at Johnson.

    Until the 1980s, it was almost impossible to see any Cohen film in a theater: I later caught up with his directorial debut, Bone aka Dial R.A.T. aka Housewife (1972) on 42nd Street, where I also saw Cohen's classic, genuinely subversive sf Second Coming epic God Told Me To (1976) under the title Demon (the ballyhoo was stenciled and painted onto sidewalks leading to the Deuce theater, catching the eyes of those pour souls who looked down to avoid the ad cacophony of Manhattan). In the spring and fall of 1982, I caught two of Cohen's films at first-run bargain-price matinees at the Rockaway Mall multiplex -- I, The Jury, which Cohen scripted, and Q, which he wrote and directed (reportedly to spite the producers of I, The Jury for taking that film away from Cohen) -- with my cronies Rick Veitch, John Totleben and Tom Yeates, and we loved 'em both. I rushed to see Q again two more times in the theater before its run was over, primarily for Michael Moriarty's astoundingly entertaining star turn as the down-and-out opportunist hero, and my first wife Marlene (then Nancy) O'Connor and I saw the insane The Stuff (1985) its opening weekend while visiting her parents in Lynn, MA -- big fun!

    Elisha Cuthbert as Jennifer Tree in the latest feature from a Larry Cohen story/screenplay (co-scripted by Joseph Tura), Captivity (2007).

    But it wasn't until the videocassette revolution and infiltration of backwoods Vermont in the mid-'80s that I could see one of my all-time favorite Cohen works, the take-no-prisoners agitprop biopic The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977). Video was the harvesting ground for Cohen's buried treasures: It Lives Again aka It's Alive II (1978), the oddball werewolf comedy Full Moon High (1981), the filmed back-to-back gems Special Effects and Perfect Strangers (both 1984).

    After that, almost all Cohen's films were direct-to-video gems you had to ferret for, but any port in a storm would do: It's Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987), the made-in-Vermont curio A Return to Salem's Lot (1987), Deadly Illusion (1987), the rather grueling final film for a skeletal Bette Davis, Wicked Stepmother (1989), and what became the launch of Cohen's urban kidnap/captivity series (with Eric Roberts as a Marvel Comics freelance cartoonist as its hero!) The Ambulance (1990). The last Cohen-directed feature that played theaters was Original Gangstas (1996), neatly echoing my first drive-in intro to Cohen's work via its reunion of the greats of the '70s blaxploitation cycle -- Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Paul Winfield, Richard Roundtree and Ron O'Neal -- in a typically erratic, raw Cohen confection. Beyond that, it's been TV -- See China and Die (1981), As Good as Dead (1995), and the recent Masters of Horror episode Pick Me Up (2006) -- that has provided Cohen a precious few venues to direct, along with a documentary I haven't seen, Air Force One: The Final Mission (2004).

    A Man and His Monsters: Larry Cohen and some of his critters

    The consolidation of the major studios, the MPAA and theatrical distribution that squeezed true independents like Cohen and George Romero completely out of the system by the end of the '80s effectively relegated Cohen to where he started: scripting. As I mentioned, TV was his entry into the industry, via The Invaders, Branded and tons of freelancing for many TV series since his first sale to Kraft Mystery Theater in 1958. Before his directorial debut Bone he had scripted features like The Magnificent Seven sequel Return of the Seven (1966), El Condor (1970) and -- relevant to Captivity -- the 'steal the baby' suspenser Daddy's Gone A-Hunting (1969), from his own story, a taut thriller concept undermined by studio dilution of the unnerving premise and the polished, slack direction of Mark Robson.

    Also relevant to Captivity, and by far the most impoverished feature ever made from a Cohen script, was Cohen's first true exploitation screenplay, filmed (by director Joseph Adler) as the cheapjack shot-in-Florida atrocity Scream, Baby, Scream (aka Nightmare House, 1969), an entry in the '60s psycho artist sweepstakes (e.g., Bucket of Blood, Diary of a Madman, Color Me Blood Red, etc.) in which said whackjob kidnaps models and hacks up their faces to create deformed models for his twisted 'modern art' paintings (the crude makeup was by Doug Hobert, Florida actor, magician, filmmaker and makeup FX creator who also concocted the low-budget horrors for Sting of Death, Death Curse of Tartu, Flesh Feast and Blood Stalkers). To paraphrase the Captivity billboard that pissed everyone off: "abduction/confinement/torture/portrait painting."

    I decided not to get into the whole women-in-prison genre for this essay, but it's relevant -- and the ads were always sexist, violent and lurid, from the flashpoint -- Caged (1950) -- to the mid-'60s (Jess Franco's 99 Women) to the Roger Corman/New Worldmade-in-the-Phillippines opuses of the '70s like The Big Bird Cage. 'Nuff said!

    With the closing of the window for the production and theatrical release of Cohen's directorial efforts, Cohen returned to scripting as his bread and butter, scribing the terrific James Woods sleeper Best Seller (1987) among many others. Horror and exploitation fans savored his onoing writing efforts -- the Maniac Cop series (1988-93), Uncle Sam (1997), the excellent Misbegotten (1998, reworking key elements of Daddy's Gone A-Hunting), etc. -- but it was Cohen's script for Phone Booth (2002, its release delayed by the Washington D.C. sniper shootings of 2001-2 and thus inherently controversial) that rebooted Cohen's rep anew as an inventive high-concept writer, spawning the sale of his similar Cellular (2004) and, in the same urban menace mode, Captivity and Tremble (now in production).

    So that's the context of Captivity that mattered to me -- not the whole 'torture porn' controversy. Captivity is shot from a Cohen script, so I want to see it. Period.

    But what was the film everyone else thought they were going to see -- or, more to the point, were so eager to avoid, revile and pillory? Why would Joss Whedon sandblast a Larry Cohen script directed by Roland Joffe, film unseen?

    The weird thing is, the promo campaign for Captivity prompted an outcry that led everyone to assume Captivity was a sordid sex-and-torture exploitation movie -- 'gorenography,' as my buddy Chas Balun coined the term (for another unrelated movie, Aftermath, which I won't go into here).

    So, OK, let's get into that a bit -- the movie everyone
    thought was Captivity, film unseen.

    The
    Captivity everyone seemed to assume existed -- their projection of what the film might be, based on the March billboards -- was arguably pretty old hat, too.

    First, let's trace the American chronology. These phenomenon start somewhere and have a context beyond their immediate contemporaries, and I won't go aaaalll the way back to the Marquis de Sade. Let's back up, just a bit, and let's see where this goes.

    When the adult film industry of the early 1960s found that 'nudie-cuties' -- films relying entirely on nudity, sans sex or narrative, to draw audiences -- were running out of steam, the 'roughies' and 'ghoulies' arrived. 'Ghoulies' were launched with the first color gore film, Herschell Gordon Lewis's Blood Feast (1963), which I think it's fair to assume most Myrant readers know about. Along with the Hammer and European horror films of the late '50s and oddities like The Brain That Wouldn't Die, the so-called 'splatter' strain of horror begins with Blood Feast, emerging from the adult film industry (specifically, producer David Friedman) in need of something new to address the collapse of 'nudie-cutie' profits.

    Bondage, abduction and torture scenarios defined the 'roughies' (aka 'nudie-roughies' or 'nudie-kinkies') like The Defilers (1965). These were the other side of the tough adult exploitation film coin: in The Defilers, two horny young men hungry for kicks kidnap a sexy blonde (Mai Jansson), imprison her in a their basement and use her as a sex toy. Director R. Lee Frost, who escalated the 'roughie' into the realm of the Nazi concentration camp with Love Camp 7 (1967), helmed the film with blunt ferocity for its era, and it's here that the template for Captivity arguably lies. The success of The Defilers and similar fare tapped the grisly appetites previously fueled by the underground bondage & sex market (Bettie Page photos, Eric Stanton comics, etc.) and mainstream newsstand men's adventure and detective magazines, not to forget the ugliest of the tabloid newspapers -- including the original National Enquirer, which was genuinely horrific, graphic stuff in the early '60s.

    But before similar abduction 'roughies' like The Animal (1967; "He made her an animal... now all he needed was a leash!") were common "one week only" fodder for adults-only nabes, drive-ins and grindhouses, filmmaker Joseph P. Mawra (All Men Are Apes, Shanty Tramp) hit real boxoffice success with White Slaves of Chinatown (1964), which introduced the sadistic dominatrix Olga Saglo (Audrey Campbell). Working for an unnamed urban crime syndicate, Olga reveled in white slavery, selling narcotics (including peddling to school kids) and cruel torture in her makeshift basement dungeon, shattering the spirits of kidnapped young women to make them into prostitutes and drug pushers. This grotty shithouse of a movie -- shot in black-and-white and essentially improvised sans script or synchronized sound dialogue, its soundtrack dominated by purple-prose narration and public-domain classical music, lending the whole an uncanny surreality -- was a huge international hit in the adult film circuits. Mawra instantly concocted two sequels the very same year, Olga’s Girls and Olga’s House of Shame, just as crudely made as White Slaves of Chinatown but with a higher torture and atrocity quotient.

    Snip-a-dee-do-da, snip-a-dee-day: Castration in the opening minutes of the equal-opportunity offender, Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS (1975)

    These, too, were hits, well outside of any mainstream movie theatrical market; nevertheless, they played for years, and Campbell's cruel dominatrix became an underground icon. The Village Voice named her "the most talented performer to come up through exploitation film" in 1972; three years later, Campbell's successor, Dyanne Thorne, was making her mark on the set of Hogan's Heroes playing Olga's spawn Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (1975) for producer David Friedman.

    So outrageous was Ilsa's wedding of sex, gore, bondage, torture and Third Reich/Holocaust trappings that Friedman removed his name from the credits ("Herman Traeger" supplanted his credit) -- which is saying a lot. I mean, Friedman, the man who produced Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs, Thar She Blows, The Long Swift Sword of Siegfried and co-founded the first association of adult film producers and distributors, didn't want his name on Ilsa. The high point and nadir of the 'roughies' had arrived, in one movie. That said, this wasn't hardcore XXX turf: it was 1970s Grand Guignol, theatrical in the extreme, its offenses staged illusions.


    Meanwhile, back in the '60s, two additional genre paths have to be traced in this tormented tapestry.

    In Japan, desperate low-budget producers and a new generation of hungry young filmmakers founded pinku eiga (literally, 'pink film') in the early 1960s, a black-and-white fusion of post-WW2/early '60s angst, soft-core sex and sometimes extreme abduction/bondage/rape/torture scenarios. These were the Japanese equivalent of the 'roughies' with their own distinctive cultural spin and sharp edges, more sadoerotic and sociopolitical in nature than the American genre; pinku eiga were rarely seen, spoken of or written of in Western culture until the late 1990s. I wrote an article on the pinku eiga for my column for the short-lived Fangoria companion newsstand zine Gorezone back in 1990, and editor Tony Timpone rejected the piece, saying "no one has heard of these, no one has seen them, and nobody cares" (I'll be publishing this article for the first time ever in the upcoming Gooseflesh book for Black Coat Press.) C'est la vie, a missed opportunity.

    Koji Wakamatsu's Taiji Ga Mitsuryosuru Toki (The Embryo Hunts in Secret, 1966)
  • For more on the pinku eiga, visit this Bright Lights article, which does a pretty solid job of providing an overview, incorporating the sources I've cited above.

  • I'd first read about pinku eiga in accounts of one of the first international experimental film festivals in the late 1960s. Koji Wakamatsu's Taiji Ga Mitsuryosuru Toki (The Embryo Hunts in Secret, 1966) was screened and the audience went berserk, attacking the screen and forcing the showing to be stopped. The story was simple: typical of the earliest pinku eiga, an emotionally troubled societal outcast abducts and abuses a young woman, to a tragic end. The misogyny of the film outraged Western viewers, even underground film viewers, and Wakamatsu's comments that many such films were being made in Japan failed to change anyone's mind. Wakamatsu himself had made a number of them, starting in 1963 (with Amai Wana/Sweet Trap and Hageshi Onnatachi/Savage Women), and continued to do so into the 1970s (his 1969 Yuke Yuke Nidome No Shojo/Go, Go Second Time Virgin and 1972 Tenshi No Kokotsu/Ecstasy of the Angels are the titles most readily available to North American viewers, thanks to Image's domestic 2000 DVD release).

    Ah, well, see, then things got rough: Yuke Yuke Nidome No Shojo/Go, Go Second Time Virgin

    In articles and reviews, Japanese film scholar (and experimental filmmaker) Donald Richie began to mention these films, writing in his introduction for Audie Bock’s Japanese Film Directors (New York, Kodansha, 1990, p. 9), the "West knows nothing of these pictures, nor should it." By then, the pinku eiga had expanded from the insular heterosexual kidnap/rape/suicide and/or murder scenarios of the early '60s to embrace straight, gay, bi and all sexual orientations and practices.

    David Desser’s Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988) offered the first book in English to explore this shunned, rarely exported genre. About Wakamatsu's notorious The Embryo Hunts in Secret, Desser wrote, "...the film is still disturbing to a Western viewer, the alienation effects insufficient to overcome our emotional distaste for the action. Rape and sadomasochism predominate in the pink film and roman [romantic] porno as compared to American, and especially European "soft-core" films which feature lushly photographed… lovemaking. …It is difficult to believe any audience can truly enjoy this film..." (pp. 100-1) Obviously, Richie and Desser were unaware of the escalating nature of the 1960s roughies and the Olga films that were immediate contemporaries of the early pinku eiga, and in fact pre-dated Wakamatsu's Embryo Hunts in Secret. Now, there are many articles and books on the genre (see Jack Hunter's Eros in Hell: Sex, Blood and Madness in Japanese Cinema).

    There was no need to look to far, nor would they have had to visit 42nd Street or grindhouses to find similar American fare. The same year The Embryo Hunts in Secret had provoked an adventurous underground film festival audience to savage the screen, William Wyler's adaptation of John Fowles's bestselling novel The Collector (1966) was playing in mainstream theaters everywhere. The plot: an emotionally troubled societal outcast (Terence Stamp) abducts and abuses a young woman (Samantha Eggar), to a tragic end. In fact, it's arguable that the Fowles novel was the springboard for The Defilers.

    A year earlier (but after the release of Fowles novel), the same studio -- Columbia Pictures -- had released the Hammer Films shocker Fanatic in the US as Die! Die! My Darling! (1965), cross-pollinating the imprisonment/bondage/torture scenario of Fowles's novel (the film was based on another novel by Anne Blaisdell) with the geriatric Gothic subgenre launched by Robert Aldrich's popular Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962): an emotionally troubled fundamentalist widow (Tallulah Bankhead) imprisons and abuses a young woman (Stefanie Powers), to a tragic end.

    Though nasty, violent and disturbing for their time, neither film was as explicit as the roughies or pinku eiga of the same decade, which, in turn, predate the hardcore sexual revolution of the early '70s, and hence are 'softcore' by nature.

    The point is, though, the "abduction/confinement/torture/termination" scenario spelled out on that Los Angeles billboard that prompted such outrage was unreeling on American screens, to mainstream and adult theater audiences, forty years ago.

    Captivity's acid-bath is horrific, but take a gander at Joe Blasco's makeup for Ilsa's venereal disease experiments, 32 years ago! Blaaaaaagh!

    Since then, we can skip like a stone over the successors, permutations and imitations, from made-for-TV movies that were broadcast in the '70s to hardcore XXX features to mainstream failures (Tattoo, 1981: an emotionally troubled tattoo artist -- Bruce Dern -- abducts and abuses a young woman -- Maud Adams -- to a tragic end) to sleepers (Demon Seed, 1977: a frustrated computer abducts and abuses a young woman -- Julie Christie -- to procreate) and The Cell (2000, an obvious precursor to Captivity and more graphic in its horrors, with a psychic component and imaginative staging of the serial killer's delusions) to hits like Kiss the Girls (1997, from James Patterson's bestseller, a scenario awfully close to Captivity, except it's presented as a police procedural suspenser).

    So -- what's the big deal? Yes, these are nasty films, big and small, ongoing battlefields in the gender and culture wars. Why was Captivity such a detonation point?

    (Continued tomorrow -- finally, Captivity! The Movie!)

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    2 Comments:

    Anonymous Perry said...

    "No one has heard of these, no one has seen them ... and nobody cares!"
    Only you, Bissette. I remember when we were all gaga over Ilsa ... wasn't that around the time of Bloodsucking Freaks?

    11/06/2007  
    Blogger SRBissette said...

    Yep, though I'd seen the first Ilsa on 42nd Street before we screened it on video years later. Bloodsucking Freaks was indeed another 'verboten' attraction of that era -- and arguably pushed the envelope further. It's a race to the bottom, really.

    11/07/2007  

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