Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Writers: Pier Paolo Pasolini and Sergio Citti
Italy, 1975

Pasolini's infamous reworking of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom is set in the town of Salo in fascist Italy, where four wealthy, powerful men take their pick of local boys and girls and proceed to sexually abuse and humiliate them for the duration of the film. This includes some pretty disgusting scat scenes in the evocatively named "Circle of Shit" section of the film, the source of much of its infamy, and pretty much the only thing anyone talks about when it is mentioned.

This is a shame, because despite a lack of subtlety that verges on heavy-handedness at times, Salo is a powerful political work. The four wealthy men talk of the "true anarchy" of fascism, a political system that in its disregard for life and the rule of law has allowed them to pursue the limits of sexual cruelty. It is presented as a fundamentally immoral, chaotic ideology, a point that may be hammered home a little too much for some.

But while explaining the forces that allow fascism to attain power may need delicacy and subtlety, I'm not sure that examining the philosophy behind it does. It is quite plainly wrong, and showing its cruelties and twisted logic over and over is perhaps the best way of exploring this. Pasolini endeavors to rip fascism to threads rather than look at the psychology of its attraction, and the grueling repetition of themes building to the shocking final act is an approach of applaudable clarity and simplicity.

Salo's unpleasant, often stomach-churning scenes also serve to de-sexualise pornography. Similarities with the erotic fantasy popular at the time are cosmetic and ironic, from the cast of wealthy sexual adventurers to the opulent setting, while a dose of realism is injected - that the truth of sexual slavery and prostitution is abuse and rape, the victims exploited and vulnerable, the perpetrators inadequate and dangerous. It questions the softcore fantasy of the Emmanuel films and the intellectual erotica of The Story Of O alike, showing us that there's nothing sexy about an orgy organised by middle-aged men and populated by young prostitutes.

While not one of the Video Nasty list, Salo has an interesting history with the censors, victim, in the end, to the obscenity laws, under which it was cut mercilessly. The then head of the BBFC, James Ferman, objected to proposed cuts, which he though would "'destroy the film's purpose by making the horrors less revolting, and therefore more acceptable'". He described Salo as "one of the most disturbing films ever to be seen by the Board, yet its purpose is deeply serious... it is quite certainly shocking, disgusting and revolting - even in the legal sense - but it is meant to be. It wants us to be appalled at the atrocities of which human nature is capable when absolute power is wielded corruptly". The BBFC weren't always the bad guys.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

I Spit On Your Grave remake

Director: Steven R Monroe
Writers: Meir Zarchi and Stuart Morse
USA, 2010

This film was never going to be as good as the original, but there were enough questions around it to make it a must-see for me – whether it would be toned down or made nastier, would the rape scene be played down to concentrate on fun splatter in the revenge scenes, will it be updated to introduce contemporary mores on sexual violence. In a way I was looking at it as a barometer, a way to compare today's attitudes with those of the seventies. If that's the case things are looking pretty bleak.

After an extremely harrowing and graphic rape scene that includes the forced fellating of a gun, there is a point where the remake of I Spit On Your Grave could have achieved greatness. A local policeman answers Jennifer Hill's pleas for help, but on finding wine on her table and joints in her ashtray starts questioning her integrity. If he'd left here, leaving Jennifer no choice but to take matters into her own hands, this could have been a brilliant film. What better – and more simple – a way to update I Spit On Your Grave's central ideas? But instead it turns out the policeman is part of the gang, and he subjects her to an unwatchable act of forced sodomy.

Everything is much more explicit in the remake, it being quite clear precisely what act of forced sex is being performed when, unnecessary detail that is not only distasteful but clouds the straightforward simplicity of the original. This is followed by gory revenge scenes that stretch the boundaries of the imagination, ingenious and graphic, which despite being pretty much the nastiest I've seen on the big screen yet are light relief compared with the sexual violence of the first half.

This is what the remake of I Spit On Your Grave is about, setting a scene so appalling that you'll cheer the most horrific violence as the victim gets her revenge. It's pure entertainment, and lacks the serious heart of the original. Using rape to drive an irreverent piece of cinematic fluff is in very bad taste indeed.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Another Nasty on Ebay

Another original, pre-certification Video Nasty has surfaced on Ebay, this time Don't Go In The Woods. At £62.00 (so far!) it's not as outrageously expensive as SS Hell Camp was. Here's the seller's blurb -

"Here is an original pre-cert of Don't go in the woods on the video network VRO label. This was one of the films to be prosecuted under the obscene publications act in 1984. Bizzare and ridiculous film, but gory and entertaining nonetheless.

Sleeve is in good nick no rips or stickers.

Tape is not in such good shape. Top label has been ripped along the bottom egde where a sticker was removed. Surface is sticky with glue residue from the removal of sitckers. Spine label is present but is peeling back in a few places.

Playback is OK watched it from start to finish fine."

Thursday, 17 June 2010

I Spit On Your Grave

Director: Meir Zarchi
Writer: Meir Zarchi
USA 1978

I Spit On Your Grave is one of the most divisive and controversial Video Nasties, accused of exploitative misogyny by some but praised as a feminist masterpiece by others. The premise is simple and effective - a young woman taking a break in the countryside to write her first novel is gang raped by a group of local men, and goes on to exact her revenge by murdering them one by one.

It is shot in the summer in a wooded, rural area of Connecticut, luscious but empty and eerie. The film style is spacious and restrained, with no music and only minimal, functional dialogue. This pared down approach is possibly due to budgetary constraints but works, giving the film an uncanny, dreamlike feel that compliments the slow build up to the first scenes of violence.

The violence takes the form of the prolonged gang rape of the central character, Jennifer Hills, in what is by far the most disturbing part of the film, the later revenge killings cartoonish in comparison. In the British version, cut by seven minutes, these scenes are abstracted somewhat, and though difficult are just about watchable. The same can't be said of the uncut version, which is very tough going indeed. The differences are interesting and reveal a little about how we cope with the way violence is portrayed - in the British version most of the violence is in close-up. Watching the original US version, it seems that a lot of the scenes that have been removed show the victim and attackers from enough distance to fit everything in the frame, a graphic approach that allows no escape.

The subject matter is of course controversial and a minefield to portray, its treatment in other films ranging from infallible in The Accused to repulsive in Death Wish 2. I Spit on Your Grave's treatment resides with the former, its unflinching directness humanised by Camille Keaton's portrayal of a woman whose independence offends her attackers, a group of losers who go on to rip all the dignity and strength from her in an act of mindless violence. The reassertion of her power in the revenge scenes isn't as nuanced but does spell out a strong moral stance for the film, one some commentators have gone so far as to call feminist.

It isn't clear whether this is really the case. Director Meir Zarchi said he was inspired to make the film after helping a real-life rape victim and experiencing the frustration of her dealings with the police first hand, which could be seen as a vigilante rather than feminist approach. Jennifer Hills' revenge is also just a logical path for a thriller to take, and a premise this simple hardly needs political roots. Against this is Keaton's intelligent performance and the film's willingness to tackle such a difficult subject head-on.

I'm not sure how much intention matters though when the result is this good. The clear, simple style paradoxically makes an enigmatic and complex film that has been debated over since its release. It's an example of a horror film doing an important job, presenting a controversial situation in all its terrible detail and leaving the viewer to untangle the moral ambiguities it raises. I Spit On Your Grave isn't as technically accomplished as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or as groundbreaking as Cannibal Holocaust, but its content makes it every bit as important.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

The Killer Inside Me

Michael Winterbottom's new thriller The Killer Inside Me has generated a fair bit of controversy due to its graphic depiction of violence against women, seeing it accused of misogyny by Charlotte Higgins and distasteful sensationalism by David Cox, while being applauded for its honest potrayal of domestic violence by Hadley Freeman. The film split Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode on their Radio 5 Live show, with Kermode defending its honesty while Mayo rather impressively threw Winterbottom by accusing him of misogyny in a live interview.

It is a problematic film, mainly because it seems to miss the point. While its main subject matter appears to be violence against women, apart from two brutal scenes and a bit of psychopath childhood background stuff the film concentrates on how the central character evades capture. This sort of thriller plotting makes the film work as a viewing experience but has absolutely nothing to do with the violence at its core, and indeed belittles it.

It is difficult to work out whether Winterbottom is trying to say something about violence against women and failing, or filming a straight thriller story with a nod towards it for controversy's sake. That there is some ambiguity should preclude any moralising, but the violence depicted is so appalling and the masochistic attitude of the victims so odd you feel Winterbottom has an obligation to at least provide some reasoning. This isn't forthcoming in either the film or his rather evasive interviews.

Monday, 30 November 2009

I Spit On Your Grave to be remade

I wondered what would be next after The Last House on the Left was remade but never thought it would be controversial rape revenge movie I Spit On Your Grave.

I've made no secret of I Spit On Your Grave being one of my favourite Video Nasties, with its powerfully presented but ambiguous message sparking much-needed discussion of a difficult subject, so am a bit sensitive to a mess being made of it in pursuit of easy profit. It's hard to see the reasoning behind a remake until you consider the revenge murders of the second half and how the film could be changed considerably to concentrate on them - as seems to be hinted at by director Steven Monroe in an interview on - while the harrowing and unflinching rape scene of the first half could probably be dropped from the film altogether. While arguably missing the point this would at least be a different film, and one I'd be interested in seeing.

But I'm jumping ahead. Who knows what kind of remake Monroe will eventually come up with. In the meantime I'll get a review of the original, in both its cut and uncut incarnations, up on the site.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Feminist Exploitation

Kira Cochrane - who is called on so often by the Guardian to give a feminist perspective on horror films I'm hoping she'll be converted to the genre one day - writes about "feminist slasher" Jennifer's Body in today's edition. Unfortunately it sounds pretty unremarkable and not particularly feminist, despite the credentials of writer Diablo Cody, director Karyn Kusama, and indeed lead actress Megan Fox. I agree with Cochrane that a film really needs some sort of political subtext to become feminist, not just a few ballsy female parts, which often counter-productively reduce characters to femme fatale stereotypes anyway.

Cochrane lists a few interesting-sounding exploitation films she considers feminist, but I was disappointed to see no mention of The Witch Who Came From the Sea. Shall I send her a copy, or do you think that would look a bit weird?