Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Ms. 45 and Black Narcissus - Don't Get in the Habit

Let me share a few thoughts while I have a little time to write.

The Lost World was quite a treat. The 1925 silent film pioneered stop-motion animation or claymation. The film is probably familiar to casual film goers because of its iconic images of dinosaurs. The second Jurassic Park shared its subtitle and a large part of its plot with this film.

The Lost World (1925)

Accompanying the film was the band Dengue Fever. A couple years ago, IndieFest or DocFest screened a documentary called Sleepwalking Through the Mekong about the band. Dengue Fever combines "Cambodian pop with surf, ska, psychedelia and funk." I don't even know what Cambodian pop and ska sound like but Dengue Fever has a pretty unique and appealing sound based on the performance I saw.

I still did not fully appreciate their soundtrack. Silent films are of a very specific period - 1910's and 1920's so I expect the soundtrack to match that period. Certainly, I may have been conditioned to expect a certain sound from silent films on television. Was every silent film scored with a Joplinish piano accompaniment? Some of the large scale films had full orchestras so who am I to say that Dengue Fever didn't do it right. I'm a guy that paid the admission and has a blog so that's qualifications enough in this day and age. I thought their music crescendoed at the wrong times, was uptempo at the wrong times, etc. I felt the music did not match the action in the film. I actually liked the music and am interested in hearing more of their songs but I didn't think their work was right for the film.

Dengue Fever


After a long period of anticipation, I finally caught The Beast Stalker and I was suitably impressed. The plot is fairly unoriginal and riddled with too many coincidences but it has a great villain which makes all the difference. Nick Cheung plays the bad guy - a man going blind due to a car accident that paralyzed his wife. To pay for her care, he becomes an assassin/kidnapper for hire. I appreciated his performance as he caromed between menacing a young captive, kicking ass on anyone that gets in his way and tenderly caring for his wife. There is a great car crash scene and the rest of the film is watching Cheung tear it up.

Nick Chung in The Beast Stalker


Was Last House on the Left (1972) the first film to feature the now ubiquitous fellatio-castration scene?


Ms. 45 (1981) by Abel Ferrara was an exploitation masterpiece. Reading some reviews and judging by the audience response, it appears this film is held up as a twisted but powerful feminist manifesto. The plot involves a mute woman that is raped twice in one day who turns into a vigilante. Over the course of the film, she goes from avenger to psychotic mankiller. I think that subtlety may have been lost on some of the more ardent womyn viewers.

I thought the film was a brilliant black comedy which benefited tremendously by scripting the eponymous character as being mute. Because she was mute, she never had to explain herself or orate the obligatory expository. Instead she was able to communicate exclusively through facial gesticulation; in particular, she had extremely expressive eyes. Zoë Lund (nee Tamerlis) was perfectly cast as Ms. 45. Ferrara pulls out every trick in the book to advance this simple revenge tale cum girl gone crazy. He gives Ms. 45 a jazzy, saxophone leitmotif whenever she dispatches a man to the afterlife. He plays with the audience by introducing the leitmotif but thwarting the anti-heroine. He introduces a nosy neighbor and annoyingly yappy dog as comic foils. Most skillfully, he directs Lund as she dismembers her first victim and stores the body parts in her refrigerator with great flourishes of black humor. The climax is one for the ages as Lund is dressed as a nun (at a Halloween party) when she goes on her final murderous rampage.

Zoë Lund in Ms. 45


The single most memorable scene for me in the past month was from Black Narcissus (1947). This melodrama about Catholic nuns in the Himalayas had brilliant technicolor for 1947. Deborah Kerr plays the Sister Superior. One of her nuns (Sister Ruth played by Katherine Byron) is slowly going insane. She lusts for the only white man within 1000 miles and she's convinced that Kerr is thwarting the love affair from blooming. Over the course of the film she buys a tight dress and applies eye shadow in a copious amounts. The end result is an evil looking harpie that has inspired horror film directors for generations. There is a scene where Kerr bursts in on Byron and discover her out of the habit that is played to the hilt. Also, the climactic scene involves Byron in full war paint sneaking up on Kerr as she rings a bell on the edge of a cliff.

Katherine Byron in Black Narcissus


Cannibal Holocaust (1980) - I've heard about it for years and it still holds it's own after nearly 30 years. Great soundtrack too. The film was the proto-Blair Witch Project; a mocumentary about a professor that recovers the film that a documentary crew shot in the deepest regions of Amazonia which is coincidentally the same place The Lost World was set. Rather than being vegan, chai drinking, NPR listening, pacifists, the documentarians rape, pillage and maim their way to what they hope will be an award winning documentary about alleged cannibals. Unwilling to let events unfold at their own pace, the four person crew spice things up with their own special brand of mayhem. By the end of the film, you are cheering on the cannibals as they rape, castrate and likely consume the four über-boorish Americans (they had to be Americans).

The film is disturbing not so much for the cruelties inflicted on the humans which I knew to be staged but rather the cruelties inflicted on the animals which are supposedly real. A sea turtle, a pig and a monkey are killed on screen and if what I read is accurate, the animals were actually killed. The director later apologized for the animal cruelty. The sea turtle butchering was especially hard to stomach. They chopped off the head, peeled off the shell and carved up the entrails. It was very hard to take.

Cannibal Holocaust

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