Friday, December 15, 2017

Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key

Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key (1972)
Dir. Sergio Martino
Written by Adriano Bolzoni, Ernesto Gastaldi, Sauro Scavolini, loosely ripped off The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe
Starring Anita Strindberg, Luigi Pistlili, Edwige Fenech

As you know, I usually stick to period-accurate posters here, but I love this Arrow Video blue-ray cover too much to hide it from you.

YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY (or, YVIALRAOIHTK, as it’s affectionately known around these parts) has one major thing going for it, and you already know what it is. The best title of any work of art, ever, of any medium, any genre, any era.* You agree on that, I agree on that, let’s move on. But what does it mean, you ask? Wrong question to ask of an Italian movie. The answer is just that it’s a line from THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WHARDH (aka BLADE OF THE RIPPER), a 1971 giallo from the same director, one Sergio Martino (TORSO, ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN). What does that have to do with anything? Again, wrong question. The answer is nothing. What’s the right question? Wrong question again. There is no right question. The right thing to do is not to ask questions, and just acknowledge that it’s Italy and go with it.

What you’ll be going with in YVISLRAOIHTK’s case is something of a chimera; part giallo, part Edgar Allan Poe adaptation (particularly of his 1843 short story The Black Cat), part Postman Always Rings Twice erotic noir, and part freewheeling softcore romp. While mixing violence, gothic horror, crime fiction and lurid sex is so common it might as well just be called “Italian cinema,” YVISLRAOIHTK stratifies those impulses apart from each other to a distressing degree, resulting in a rigidly segmented narrative structure that almost feels more like an anthology film than a cohesive story. It’s a bit of an awkward beast, and there are definitely parts which are pretty tedious and plodding, but I gotta admit: the big reveal, when it finally arrives, is surprisingly strong, boasting a cornucopia of pulpy noir twists welded gracelessly --but effectively-- to Poe’s misanthropic poetry of misery. And giallo mainstay Edwige Fenech (STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER**, PHANTOM OF DEATH) is constitutionally incapable of keeping her clothes on, so once she shows up you’re unlikely to be too bored.

Yeah, you see what I mean.

She doesn’t show up for a surprisingly long time, though, considering she gets top billing. The story is mainly concerned with Irina Rouvigny (Anita Strindberg, Fulci’s LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN), the miserable wife of Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli, THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY, THE SEXORCIST [yes, that’s a real title, and it’s not even a porno***]) who, if I may be permitted to editorialize for just a moment, is a real piece of dogshit. He’s a abusive alcoholic writer obsessed with his dead mother, and spends most of his time holding debauched orgies where he humiliates his wife, racistly molesting his black maid (Angela La Vorgna, EMANUELLE AND JOANNA, a rogue non-Lara-Gemser EMANUELLE movie), nailing his former students, or just generally being a hateful fuckbag to everyone he encounters, with the sole exception of his beloved black cat, imaginatively named ‘Satan.’ When one of the many beautiful young women who are inexplicably having affairs with this irresistible catch of a man is murdered, he’s an obvious suspect, and becomes even more so after the maid is murdered and he gets Irina to help him cover it up.

So far so good for a standard giallo, but things take an unexpected twist near the start of the second act which pushes the plot in an entirely different direction-- especially once Oliviero’s sexually provocative French cousin Floriana (Fenech) shows up, and starts to systematically sleep with every established character and a few newly introduced ones, for reasons which are probably less than honorable. In fact, by comfortably the second half of the film, the most obvious elements of a giallo are entirely gone, replaced first a lengthy section of pretty much just different sex scenes, and subsequently with what turns out to be an agreeably nutso erotic noir with some wild twists, which even manages to generally hold together with some semblance of logic (I mean, compared to other sleazy noirs and giallos, not compared to reality. But still).

The first section --the standard giallo part-- is the worst, with one massively unlikable character, one passive victim, a good bit of cringy racism, and (SPOILER! what turns out to be a completely extraneous red herring killer -- the whole murder plot turns out to be completely unimportant and gets tidily resolved and forgotten about at right about the ⅓ point! END SPOILER). Once Floriana enters the picture, though, things pick up a bit as she brings a large dose of puckish chaos into the proceedings, while we’re left to guess at what game she’s playing. Fenech is certainly most known for being successfully naked, and she does not challenge that characterization here in any way, but I also note that she’s an unmistakably compelling screen presence, and her provocative, nebulous role is perfect for her to show off something other than her body. Her alert, calculating eyes and barely-submerged smirk bring some much-needed vivaciousness to a movie which up ‘til this point has trafficked only in one-dimensional downers.

In case you needed any more hints that this is pretty intense, the subtitles ensure even deaf viewers won't be left out of the crackling suspense:

Even so, I cannot tell a lie, it’s plotless softcore nonsense for a very long time before the other shoe drops, made much worse because the giallo-negating twist is dropped so early, leaving you to wonder “what exactly is this movie about, anyway?” for an uncomfortably long time. It gets there, but it would be better to get there a lot sooner. 96 minutes isn’t absurdly long for a giallo, but it can feel that way this time unless you’re significantly more absorbed in basic nudity than I am capable of being at this point in my life. Still, particularly in the beautiful Arrow Video blu-ray, the film looks nice, boasts a pristinely perfect giallo score by Bruno Nicolai (ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, EYEBALL, CALIGULA [!]), and features exactly that groovy mix of art and trash that you’d want in something like this. If it reserves most of its eccentricity for the final act, well, it’s an act worth waiting for, right down to the long-simmering reveal of in what possible way Poe could have influenced this freewheeling tale of amoral cousin-fucking. For a normal human being, it would probably be unbearable, but to the giallo faithful… well, you knew you were going to have to see it from the title alone, so the fact that it’s borderline watchable is just icing on the cake. My vice should be obvious by this point, and if YVIALRAOIHTK isn’t exactly holding the only key, it at least manages to force the lock effectively enough.

One final note of interest: Towards the end of the movie as things are spiraling out of hand, Irina walks into a room to discover the word “vendetta” typed over and over obsessively on a typewriter. I’ve never read King’s 1977 novel The Shining, but I just learned from what I can only assume is a meticulously well-researched and soundly-sourced online listical that the famous “all work and no play make jack a dull boy” scene from Kubrick’s movie version is not in the book. Which leaves only one possible explanation: Stanley Kubrick was a lifelong fanatic for YVIALRAOIHTK and basically made THE SHINING as a loving tribute to the beloved original. That’s a fact, kids, write it down. 

*It is also the namesake of my friend Dan P’s anual horror movie marathon, YOUR VICE IS A HORROR MOVIE MARATHON AND ONLY I HAVE THE NETFLIX QUEUE.

**Also producer for the 2004 MERCHANT OF VENICE starring Al Pacino?

***Although from what I can gather online, it is also, like most Italian films, not exactly not a porno. IMDB calls it straight horror though, so we’ll stick with that.

The Discreet Charm of the Killing Spree

None apparent
Absolutely meaningless, and I love it
Very vaguely incorporates the one major plot point in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat, but at least it admits this in the credits
No, unless you count THE SHINING
Partial giallo, partial noir
Edwidge Fenech, to some degree her co-stars as well, all of whom had more than a passing association with the giallo genre (though they also worked in Westerns and, uh, “erotic comedies” and stuff)
Oh yeah
Cat attack, then attack on cat, then eventually counterattack by cat.
There’s an implication that there may be something ghostly going on, but its not explicit
Yes, Oliviero peeps at Floriana getting down with some dude in a filthy abandoned hayloft (did people not have beds or rooms back then?)
If you’re going to name your film YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY, I’m going to like it pretty much no matter what.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Incubus (not the Shatner one)

The Incubus (1982)
Dir. John Hough
Written by George Franklin, based on the novel by Ray Russell
Starring John Cassavetes, John Ireland, Kerrie Keane, Helen Hughes

Trigger Warning: The following review contains accurate information about a movie which you probably don’t want to know anything about, and may also cause you to question both my judgement as a filmgoer and the general state of my mental health. But it has John Cassavetes in it, so I’m going to go ahead and claim it’s art and make a principled stand that watching and reviewing it was the right thing to do as one of our great nation’s last true high-minded aesthetes. But seriously dawg, I’d skip this one if you’d be the type of person to get offended or upset about things which it would be entirely reasonable to get offended or upset by. I crossed that line long ago, but I’m definitely not better off for it and there’s no reason you should suffer the same fate. Sit this one out and watch a Frank Capra movie or something instead, you’ll be glad you did.

OK! So, for everyone still here, I feel I need to begin by acknowledging that this is my second movie 
in a row which is just in inexcusably bad taste, and I’m worried that it’s starting to seem like I watch 
nothing but skeezy rape flicks. I assure you, nothing could be further from the case! Both this and 
EVIL DEAD TRAP were just random things I threw on without knowing anything much about them,
and by sheer coincidence they both ended up being skeezy rape flicks. Sometimes it just happens 
that way! I’m sure it happens to you all the time. Now, let’s have no more soul-searching about the fact 
that the genre I’ve spent my life studying is so replete with indefensible content that any random two 
movies back-to-back might very well lead us here.

This is very possibly that thing the kids today call problematic, but the bigger problem for the world, 
obviously, is that it’s also just a bad idea from an entertainment perspective. Let’s face it: rape is not 
as fun as murder. It’s just a bummer. Why isn’t murder a bummer too? I dunno bud, but it’s true. 
Nothing kills the good vibes of a wholesome serial killer splatter flick like suddenly dropping some
nasty rape scene in there. It’s no fun, and it’s not as cinematic either; if you show it in lurid detail, 
it’s probably going to be exploitative and repellent, but if you tastefully cut around it, it’s just visually 
dull. Neither option acquits itself well to a visual medium or a good time at the movies. 

THE INCUBUS, at least, takes the bold stance that rape is traumatizing and bad, so hey, look on the 
bright side, it could have been worse. But it sure ain’t any fun to watch. Which is especially inimical 
to this particular film, because of the arguably unwise genre structure it brings to the topic of serial 
rape. There is, of course, a subsection of rape-revenge movies (most notoriously I SPIT ON YOUR 
GRAVE) which present long, graphic rape scenes, but with the arguably good intention of depicting
women rebounding from this trauma and recapturing control of their lives by way of violent revenge. 
And there’s also a strain of movies which use rape and brutality as a way to cultivate our feelings of
apocalyptic hopelessness about the wretchedness of mankind (and men in particular). See: VIRGIN 
SPRINGS, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, SALO. These movies can be tough to watch, but I think 
most people would probably agree that they earn their high level of sadism by taking the subject 
seriously and using it to artistically explore subjects of great pain and relevance.

THE INCUBUS, unfortunately, isn’t one one either of those two categories, a fact which I could have 
probably guessed right off the bat, given that the first line of dialogue is “you bitch!” (and the second 
is, “biiiiitttccccch!”). Instead, it’s your standard sleazy mystery-killer-on-the-loose setup, except (and 
before you continue, remember: I warned you) with brutal rape with a gigantic wang being the method
of murder and John Cassavetes inexplicably being the lead. So it’s a slasher, but with rape. 
Not… great. There is, of course, also a pretty rich tradition of rape movies which are just indefensible,
leering exploitation (not trying to point fingers here, but… like 60% of Japanese movies, and also a
healthy cross section of sleazy euro-horror from the late 60’s and 70’s.*) Thankfully INCUBUS is 
not like that either; the structure makes it more or less unavoidable to show us the “kills,” but they’re 
at least treated as grueling, unpleasant affairs, resolutely unsexy and mercifully absent of any leering
nudity (in fact, for what we’re watching, they’re positively tame in terms of visual content).

So in that sense, this is a little more palatable than it could be. But not much. The subject matter is 
just way too unpleasant to be fun, but way too ludicrous to even remotely make a play for being taken 
seriously, stranding it unsalvageably in the no-man’s-land of B-movie entertainment. And truth be told,
it wouldn’t exactly be a top-tier slasher even without the --shall we say exotic?-- details about the killer.
It’s a little bit stodgy and dry, actually, probably the result of director John Hough’s (THE LEGEND OF
HELL HOUSE, ESCAPE FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN) relative dearth of experience with slashers. 
We actually encountered Hough earlier this year in his kid’s horror film WATCHER IN THE WOODS
which shares with this one a similar vaguely dreamy atmosphere and unrushed pace, but is much
better suited for that tone than THE INCUBUS, which by all rights ought to be a meat-and-potatoes 
exploitation slasher.

And I mean, it is a meat-and-potatoes exploitation slasher in structure; there’s a mystery killer stalking 
and murdering local teens, and for some reason it’s up to local doctor John Cassavetes (possibly 
over-beloved indie director of A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, FACES and THE KILLING OF 
A CHINESE BOOKIE, but more recognizable in front of the camera from his acting work in 
ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE DIRTY DOZEN) to unmask the murderer and put a stop to the terror. 
That plot would describe untold hundreds of movies from the 1980s alone, and that similarity is
fundamental, not just superficial. And yet, the details here are decidedly on the strange side.

I mean, it’s weird enough that it stars Cassavetes, who, even a little under a decade away from his
death from alcoholism, is way, way too good for this kind of crap (presumably its primary appeal to
the actor was to add further complication to Le Tigre’s song which queries if he’s a “Genius,
Misogynist, Messiah, Alcoholic?”**). When I saw his name in the credits I figured they’d drag him in
to get his name on the poster and appear in one or two scenes as Father Exposition or the
mostly-unseen villain who gets to make one scenery chewing speech at the end, but nope -- he’s 
absolutely the main character, gamely appearing in scene after scene as if this is a totally normal
movie to appear in. I’m not gonna claim he’s giving the most soul-searing performance of his career,
but he’s certainly not phoning it in, this is definitely real acting, and in fact, it’s one of those times when 
a performance may be so good it’s kind of detrimental to the movie it’s in; he keeps reacting to this 
ridiculous premise with such complicated, evocative expressions bursting with complex inner life that 
I kept figuring he had to be in on it or know more than he was telling, or something. But nope, it’s just a 
regular boring protagonist role like any of these movies would have, it just turns out one of his 
weaknesses as an actor is playing a part this banal with the appropriate degree of dull woodenness.

Anyway, it would be weird enough if it was just a low-grade slasher that starred John Cassavetes for
some reason, and that’s already setting aside the basic even weirder fact that anyone thought it 
would be even remotely acceptable to make a movie where the premise is “it’s a slasher movie where 
the killer murders women by raping them with his giant dong.” But then it also complicates things by 
adding a supernatural angle, suggesting that the “killer” is some kind of psychic-ly manifested monster 
(yes, there is a monster suit at the end, but don't get your hopes up, you see it for about three seconds).
Which springs from the subconscious mind of a local kid. Whose mother was executed as a witch. 
So yeah, there’s also a subplot about historical witches and witch-hunting. And then there’s this whole 
weird meta-thing where one of the murders happens in a movie theater, and then there’s a whole 
subplot about police politics and jurisdiction and suppressed town history and all kinds of other weird 
crap which obviously has no business being in a movie like this. It’s kind of all over the place, plot-wise.

Which is really a polite way of saying, “this was obviously adapted from a somewhat rambling novel by 
someone without a lot of experience writing screenplays,” which, wouldn’t you know it, turns out to be 
exactly the case. As weird as it is that there’s a movie this bizarre and disreputable, it’s even more 
shocking to hear it was adapted from a book --  a published book, in hardcover and everything!-- written 
by Ray Russell (the screenplay was written by a “George Franklin” with only one other TV movie to his 
credit***). Russell wrote the novella and screenplay for MR. SARDONICUS, the Roger Corman Poe 
adaptation THE PREMATURE BURIAL and the William Castle gimmick comedy ZOTZ!, but was 
probably more influential as the senior fiction editor at Playboy magazine from the 50’s to the 70’s, 
where he cultivated young talents like Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, 
and Charles Beaumont, aside from publishing his own work (he even won the prestigious World 
Fantasy Award in 1991 for his horror fiction!). Everyone seems to agree he was a real nice guy who 
helped the careers of some literary greats, but between working at Playboy and writing this, it’s hard 
not to wonder if he maybe didn’t have the most enlightened outlook about women imaginable. The 
gender politics here are absolutely off the charts weird, particularly considering the ending, wherein 
(SPOILERS: it turns out the bitchy ice-queen female journalist [Karrie Keane, SPASAMS and a lot of TV] 
that Cassavetes inevitably wins over… was actually the Incubus all along! She’s the one who’s been 
transforming into a demon and raping women to death. In fact, all the villains in the movie are women
--as are the victims-- and the male detectives turn out to be bungling, useless failures) That’s so 
absolutely batty that it just screams for you to try and find some kind of metaphor in it, but I sure can’t 
figure out what it could possibly be. END SPOILERS)

In fact, I wondered if maybe the book was actually a sly satire on men’s unhealthy fixation with male 
virility that got lost in translation to screen, but it sure doesn’t seem that way; reviewer Will Errickson 
of writes of the novel:

"More and more women are attacked in gruesome yet quite competently written 
scenes of sexualized violence. What makes these readable, for me at least, is 
that they don’t carry the skeevy, sinister air of voyeurism that some later horror 
writers allowed to seep into their prose describing the same sort of thing; Russell 
doesn’t write like he’s secretly getting off on his scenarios. Sure, they’re tasteless 
and unsettling, but that’s par for the horror course."

That would pretty well describe the movie, too, though the “competently” part is a low bar to clear for 
this genre. It’s, you know, shot respectably enough, all the scenes are in focus, most of the dialogue 
is audible, and it more or less clearly conveys the story it’s trying to tell. That by itself is enough to 
put it comfortably in the top 50% of slasher ever made on a purely technical level. There’s nothing 
here amateurish enough to declare it “incompetent.” But truth be told: even with its crazy tasteless 
premise, meandering magical backstory, intriguing John Cassavetes performance, and off-the-wall 
gender politics, “competent” is about the most effusive I’m able to get about it. Despite everything, it 
manages to be dull and uninspired more than scandalous and button-pushing. As much as I appreciate 
its efforts to avoid turning into an appalling skin flick, this basic premise is fundamentally way too 
outrageous to make a play for respectability, and not independently compelling enough to be worth 
overlooking its flagrant line-crossing.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention: there's an extended cameo by the British hair metal band Samson (featuring a pre-Iron-Maiden Bruce Dickinson) in the form of clips from the 1981 Julian Temple double-music-video short film BICEPS OF STEEL, which is for some reason being shown in a movie theater. Why, I do not know, but it's pretty awesome-looking and apparently metaphorically tells the story of the biblical Samson via the tale of a "mystical super-roadie who fights evil orange-jumpsuit-wearing bouncers stopping a rock and roll crowd from having a good time." I can't help but notice it looks way better than this movie.

If it was ever going to work, it probably needed to embrace its inherent tastelessness and go
full PINK FLAMINGOS to find some kind of zen state of campy transgression. Japan might 
have been able to pull it off, I dunno, but it’s hard to imagine how. Or why. When it comes
down to it, the biggest problem with THE INCUBUS, (other than a disappointing lack of spoken 
Esperanto) is that it may just not be a story worth telling. It’s weird, but it’s just not all that 
interesting -- even its inherent unpleasantness lacks a coherent enough point of view to sufficiently 
buoy it as a story. At the end you’re left with a lot of stuff that sounds wild on paper, but doesn’t 
add up to very much of a movie. A lot of baggage in search of a plot.

But hey, maybe the book is better.

*And I’m not even necessarily talking about thoroughly disreputable grindhouse affairs; plenty of classy prestigious films films from this period also contain what today read as shocking rape scenes played for sex appeal. The one that really springs to mind is BLOW-UP, which offers the hero of the film sexually assaulting a woman apropos of nothing, apparently as a fun diversion from the tense central plot. Hitchcock's MARNIE too. So it’s not just the FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED’s of the world.

** This definitely adds credence to the “misogynist, alcoholic” charge more than the other two, but goddam, he’s an arresting and intriguing presence even in garbage like this.

*** I can neither confirm nor deny that this George Franklin was the NFL running back from the late 1970’s or the guy famously convicted and eventually exonerated based on bullshit regression-hypnosis testimony who was probably (but not certainly) one of the inspirations for REGRESSION, nor can I definitively confirm those guys are different George Franklins. But whatever the case, George Franklin, whoever he was, only wrote two screenplays, and based on this one I think that was for the best.


The Discreet Charm of the Killing Spree

He is The Destroyer. Pretty generic, unless you 
wanna count the rest of the text on this poster as 
Yeah, they not only talk about it but include the famous
Fuseli painting.
Yes, of Ray Russell’s 1976 novel
I guess killer-with-a-gimmick, but there is also a slight 
dusting of creature feature and possession movie
John Cassavetes
John Ireland?
Yeah, Cassavetes checks out his daughter while 
she’s showering nude with the door opened, which the 
movie seems to think is totally no big deal as long as 
he shakes his head philosophically as if to say “nope, 
can’t have sex with her, haha!’

Fortunately the rapes themselves are blessedly free 
of any leering nudity.
Pretty much the whole movie.
Quite the opposite, an innocent cat gets a newspaper 
thrown at it for no reason
Seems like it
Some talk of witchcraft in the town’s past
One of the victims survives, but is mentally too traumatized 
to discuss anything or speak aloud for do anything except 
gobble the drugs her male caretakers dose her with to keep 
her calm (and presumably take extensive stock of the 
yellow wallpaper)
Only a little bit of the killer’s POV
There are lots of books in the world, and you should 
really adapt pretty much any of them other than this one.