Wednesday, 16 August 2017

The Death Curse of Tartu (1966)

The Death Curse of Tartu was made in 1966 by Florida film-maker William Grefé and while it’s not one of the all-time great horror movies it is quite impressive for a production with the incredibly minuscule budget of $27,000. And it does entertain.

Archeologist Sam Gunter is heading off into the swamps of the Everglades to excavate an ancient Indian burial mound. Guide Ed Tison (Fred Pinero) and his wife Julie (Babbette Sherrill) have arranged to take a group of Gunter’s students (two guys and two girls) out to meet up with Gunter to assist in the excavation. Sam had set off alone in a canoe but the students have a couple of airboats.

There is a local legend that 400 years earlier a witch-doctor named Tartu had placed a curse on anyone who disturbed his burial place but of course no-one takes the legend seriously. It remains a joke until Tartu claims his first victim. His first victim, but not his last.

Tartu claimed to have the power to transform himself into wild animals and it is this power that will be awakened if the curse is invoked. This was a clever move by writer-director Grefé. It allowed him to have a supernatural monster but without having to do special effects. He could just use real wild animals, which was no problem since he had a friend who was accustomed to dealing with everything from anacondas to alligators.

The realisation soon dawns on the party of students that Tartu’s curse is a reality and to make matters worse their airboats have been wrecked and they’re stuck in the middle of the Everglades with the nearest help at least twenty-five miles away.

It’s a nice simple uncomplicated plot which Grefé happily admits was based on the legend of the curse of Tutankhamun. It allows for lots of action and terror.

The movie’s biggest asset is the setting. Being pursued by savage supernaturally empowered wild beats is not a good thing at any time but when you’re stuck in a swamp it’s a whole lot worse. Grefé uses the Everglades pretty effectively to heighten the apparent hopelessness of the situation and the swamp itself seems to be consciously malevolent.

The wild animal scenes vary in quality but considering the tiny budget most of these scenes work pretty well. They work because, as Grefé explains in the commentary track, they were all done for real. That’s no rubber snake that is supposedly squeezing the life out of one hapless character, that’s a real and very large anaconda and it’s very much alive. And the alligator chasing young Cindy (Mayra Gomez) is a real alligator and it’s not even a tame one and it really is a couple of feet behind her. How Grefé managed to persuade his performers, especially the actresses, to do such scenes is a mystery that not even Grefé can explain. Apart from being menaced by incredibly dangerous wild animals these lucky actresses also got to be tossed into stinking swamps (infested with deadly snakes) which must have been great fun for them given that they had no luxurious dressing trailers to head for afterwards - the nearest showers were miles away. These gals had plenty of pluck.

The Tartu makeup is pretty creepy as well, and the burial cave (created on a makeshift set in as storeroom) doesn’t look too bad.

There’s also a fun MacGyver moment.

Grefé wanted to introduce some movement and excitement by employing some tracking shots so he came up with his own technique - using canoes as dollies. It works very well.

A major highlight comes when in the middle of the swamp the students suddenly decide to have a beach party. Luckily these intrepid girl archaeologists remembered to pack their bikinis. You can’t do proper go-go dancing without your bikini. These youngsters can’t seem to decide which activity would be most fun - toasting marshmallows, go-go dancing or making out. Toasting marshmallows wins out. I’d have thought the two (rather pretty) girls might have been a bit miffed that their physical charms weren’t sufficient to keep their boyfriends amused.

The acting is variable but good enough for the kind of film this is. 

Something Weird’s DVD includes another Grefé horror movie made a year earlier, Sting of Death. Both movies are accompanied by commentary tracks in which Frank Henenlotter joins Grefé. The commentary track for The Death Curse of Tartu is as much fun as the movie. Extras include a couple of bizarre shorts as well. The Death Curse of Tartu was, surprisingly, shot in colour. The transfer is OK and quite acceptable given the rarity and obscurity of the movie.

The Death Curse of Tartu is enjoyable low-budget schlock. Recommended.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The Defilers (1965)

The Defilers, written and produced by David Friedman in 1965, is one of the better-known of the early roughies. The mainstay of the exploitation movie business had for several years been the nudie-cutie and Friedman and his partner Herschell Gordon Lewis had milked that genre for all it was worth. It was becoming clear that exploitation movies would have to move in a new direction. Lewis thought the answer was gore and he certainly had a great deal of success with movies like Two Thousand Maniacs! Friedman had his own ideas, for movies that would combine nudity and (mostly implied) sex with violence. 

Russ Meyer had already moved in that direction with his southern gothic melodramas Lorna and Mudhoney. Friedman wanted to push things a bit further. The sex and the violence would be intertwined, the sex would be kinky and the violence would be kinky and perverse. The Defilers was Friedman’s first serious attempt at the new sexploitation genre (which would become known as the roughie).

Nudie-cuties had almost always been made in colour. Roughies would almost all be shot in black-and-white. This was a deliberate choice, being intended to give the grungiest and sleaziest feel possible. The Defilers is most certainly one sleazy little film.

Carl (Byron Mabe) and Jameison Marsh (Jerome Eden) are two young men who devote themselves to pleasure. They seem to have an unlimited supply of women. But women are no longer enough for Carl. Even drugs are not enough. Carl wants kicks. Real kicks. He’s not sure at first exactly what he means by this but we do get some early hints that it’s likely to involved violence and the violence is likely to be directed at women.

Carl’s father is wealthy but he’s completely unreasonable - he actually expects Carl to work. Carl is of course shocked and appalled but really it’s only to be expected. His father is a square, and Carl hates squares. It’s also pretty obvious that Carl feels helpless and humiliated by his dependence on his father. Carl gets ordered about by his dad so he likes the idea of ordering other people about, he likes the idea of humiliating other people. 

Carl has set up a secret little hideaway in one of his father’s warehouses. It has a bed and a bathroom and that’s about it. It’s rather sad really but Carl is very excited about it. He has plans for it. He manages to persuade one of his girlfriends, Kathy, to check out his hideaway. She is clearly unimpressed, and quite mocking, and she then starts to lay down the law to him in a thoroughly humiliating manner. At this point Carl snaps. He decides the girl needs some discipline and he proceeds to administer a good spanking. It turns out that the girl enjoys the spanking even more than he does! He’s certainly not going to date her again but he has discovered how to get those kicks that he craves.

His next plan is more ambitions. He and Jamie will kidnap aspiring actress Jane Collins (Mai Jansson) whom they encountered a few days before. She’s from Minnesota, nobody in LA knows her, nobody will even notice her disappearance. Keeping her as a slave should provide lots of kicks. Carl is thoroughly pleased with the whole setup but Jamie is not so sure it’s a good idea after all. He’d agreed because he thought it was kind of like a prank, that Jane wasn’t really going to be hurt, that they’d release her after a day or so and everybody would agree it was just a bit of light-hearted fun. The trouble is that Carl doesn’t see things this way and he seems like he’s crazy enough to keep the girl captive indefinitely.

Well, I did tell you it was a very sleazy movie. It’s not that the violence is all that graphic but it’s the nastiness behind it that is disturbing. In fact it’s very disturbing at times. 

This is also an incredibly politically incorrect film. Of course if you’re into political correctness you’re probably not the sort of person who’s going to be attracted by the weird and delightfully twisted world of 60s sexploitation cinema.

Byron Mabe is genuinely worrying and creepy as Carl. He manages to persuade us that Carl is capable of pushing things way too far. It’s not a subtle performance but this is not a subtle movie. Mabe was hired as a grip but when the lead actor froze up on camera on the first day Mabe volunteered to play the part. It proved to be a stroke of good luck. He inhabits the role in an effectively scary way.

Jerome Eden as Jamie gets to do some actual acting. Jamie is accustomed to going along with whatever Carl wants to do. Jamie likes kicks as well but he does have limits and Carl is starting to worry him. Eden’s performance is actually quite effective. Jamie isn’t an overly sympathetic character but he’s not all bad. The various girls were obviously cast to some extent for their willingness to shed their clothes but they’re all quite competent.

The most surprising thing about this movie is that it’s rather well-made. It has a coherent plot. Friedman’s script provides some real drama and director Lee Frost translates that script into a fairly professional looking film. The pacing is good, with a low-key early phase before the craziness and the tension start to build. The sexual material might not be to everyone’s taste but it’s handled skillfully and it’s certainly erotic in its own twisted way. The two lead actors are not only solid they also play off each other extremely well. The girls are attractive and their acting skills are quite adequate. For a movie shot in five days on a budget of $11,000 it’s pretty impressive!

Something Weird’s DVD release pairs this movie with an earlier Dave Friedman offering, Scum of the Earth. There are plentiful extras, the highlight being Friedman’s audio commentary. Friedman was always wonderfully entertaining to listen to. The extent of his knowledge of the exploitation movie business was positively terrifying.

The Defilers works rather well as a movie. It largely defined the direction in which the roughie would go for the next few years. If you’re in the mood for a good old wallow in sleaze it delivers the goods. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Dracula's Daughter (1936)

It took, incredibly, five years for Universal to come up with a sequel to their 1931 mega-hit Dracula. By the time Dracula's Daughter was ready for release in 1936, after seemingly endless script rewrites and production delays, Universal’s financial woes had come to a head and the Laemmles had lost control of the studio. Dracula's Daughter came in well over budget and well behind schedule. It was a very very expensive film (by Universal’s standards) and unfortunately much of the budget was wasted due to production delays and bad decisions. 

Dracula's Daughter was not a particularly lucky movie for Universal but it is an exceptionally intriguing sequel. This is not just a rehash of the original Dracula story. There are some original and provocative ideas. In some ways it can even be regarded as a more interesting film than Dracula.

The movie opens with Dracula having just been staked by Von Helsing (for some unknown reason the Van got changed to Von for the sequel). Von Helsing is still on the scene when the police arrive and he is duly charged with the murder of Count Dracula. 

Sir Basil Humphrey at Scotland Yard would prefer not to proceed with the charges against the mild-mannered professor but he has little choice. Advised to retain a good KC Von Helsing instead asks to be defended by his former student, eminent psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger). The case against Von Helsing pretty much collapses when Dracula’s body disappears.

Dracula’s body had been stolen by the Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden). She is the Dracula's daughter of the film’s title and she is referred to as such but it’s fairly clear that she is not the Count’s biological daughter (and there’s a further clue later in the movie that supports the theory that she’s not literally his daughter). While it’s not quite explicitly stated it’s obvious that she was one of the “brides” of Dracula. We are told that Dracula turned some of his victims into vampires by giving them his own blood to drink and presumably that was the case with Marya Zaleska.

What’s interesting is that the Countess is a very reluctant vampire. She hoped that Dracula’s death would free her from the curse of vampirism. She now hopes that perhaps psychiatry may be able to help her by giving her the strength and willpower to break the hold that Dracula still exerts over her from beyond the grave. This is the first movie to play with the idea that vampirism might perhaps be a form of psychiatric disorder, or possibly even a type of addiction, or that the link between a vampire and his “brides” might be more a matter of will than blood. These are ideas that have been explored countless times since in both literary and cinematic vampire tales but Dracula’s Daughter deserves credit for being the first to do so.

Garth suggests to the Countess that a person can often defeat a psychological craving by deliberately exposing himself to it. An alcoholic can learn to overcome his craving by surrounding himself with liquor. This suggestion by Garth turns out to be disastrously poor advice and has tragic consequences when the Countess tries it for herself.

The Countess is increasingly desperate to escape her vampiric destiny and she grows more and more convinced that only Garth can help her. If he won’t do so willingly then she knows how to force him to do her bidding. She will force him to follow her back to Transylvania. The stage is set for a dramatic climactic confrontation but unfortunately the ending is rather rushed.

Gloria Holden looks strange and exotic and in fact she looks exactly how one might imagine a lady vampire would look. She’s slightly and subtly strange in behaviour as well as appearance. Her performance is crucial and it works.

Irving Pichel is nicely creepy as her faithful manservant Sandor, who seems to understand the Countess’s predicament (and its hopelessness) more fully than she does. Otto Kruger is very professorial. Marguerite Churchill has fun as his spirited aristocratic assistant Janet. Edward Van Sloan is much too bland and much too dull as Von Helsing.

The movie’s visual style is impressive. Director Lambert Hillyer and cinematographer George Robinson don’t go overboard with the gothic trappings. This is a movie that moves back and forth (very effectively) between the gothic world of vampires and the modern world of science and technology.

The idea of vampirism being linked to sexuality, or more specifically to unhealthy or dangerous sexuality, had been around for as long as vampire tales had been around and it had been a central feature of most stories dealing with female vampires. The idea is there in Johann Ludwig Tieck’s 1800 story Wake Not the Dead, it’s there in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1797 poem Christabel and it’s there in a big way in Sheridan le Fanu’s classic 1871 novel Carmilla

Which of course brings us to the most notorious scene in Dracula's Daughter, in which a young woman is lured to the Countess’s studio to pose for a painting and is drained of blood almost to the point of death. The scene certainly does have the feel of a seduction, enhanced by the fact that the girl has partially undressed in order to pose. 

So is Dracula's Daughter the first lesbian vampire movie? Well, there’s there is that one notorious scene (and perhaps one other scene), but those scene certainly can be interpreted in that way without stretching things too far. There is however another possible interpretation. The Countess longs to escape from her unnatural existence and to live as a normal woman. As a result she might well feel considerable jealousy and hatred for other women who can live normal lives, and experience love in a normal non-vampiric way. Her attitude towards Janet tends to support the idea that she might be motivated by hatred of women rather than by lesbian passions.

It’s also obvious that when the Countess attacks a male victim the attack is to some extent a seduction.

My copy of this movie comes from the old Dracula Legacy Collection DVD set. It’s an excellent transfer. 

Dracula's Daughter is an intelligent, ambitious and somewhat complex horror film and is perhaps the most fascinating of Universal’s vampire movies. Highly recommended.