Saturday, 15 March 2008

The Witch Who Came from the Sea

Director: Matt Cimber
Writer: Robert Thom
USA 1976

From rape to castration on the ever-cheerful videonastyproject blog! As well as the aforementioned emasculation, group sex, paedophilia and laughably small quantities of Class C drugs abound in this low-budget 1976 indie, but it is by no means the trash the censors apparently thought.

The title is from Botticelli’s "The Birth of Venus", a witch born in the sea of the water-borne sperm of a castrated god. A reproduction of the painting adorns the wall of one of the sleazy men the heroine, Molly, castrates throughout the film as she moves through the poisoned idyll of California beach life.

"The Witch Who Came from the Sea" is a blunt, direct, overtly feminist film. The exploitation genre’s usual disregard for acting and character development in this case works in the film’s favour, with Molly as a cipher for an entire sex’s revenge on the latent need for dominance in male sexuality. The supposedly liberal sexual mores of the time are exposed as a male-centric confidence trick, as any sexual aggression on the promiscuous Molly’s part is answered with snarled exclamations of “bitch”, “cocksucker” and most regularly and memorably, “cunt” – but Molly is no victim, and everyone gets their comeuppance.

It’s interesting that Molly’s sexual conquests never cross the line into rape – instead, their sexism is in the context of love play, their grinning faces oblivious to the offence they are causing. It isn’t one-dimensional either, tenderness often preceding and following outbursts of misogyny. In a refreshing role-reversal, it’s the men who are the lost, fucked-up, delicate little flowers in this horror movie. Molly turns on the men in what is presented as a Jackal and Hyde transformation, which we learn from flashbacks is a consequence of sexual abuse she suffered as a child. This underdeveloped idea is used to drive the film's plot, but has the side effect of presenting male violence as an ongoing constant in Molly's life, and by implication the female experience.

Like pretty much every other film that will feature on this blog, the good bits are interspersed with sections of plodding dialogue, and its rich ideas are underpinned with clichéd, tedious plotting. But no matter. The Witch Who Came from the Sea is an unusual and powerful piece of work. Although there are a couple of disturbing scenes, it is remarkably gore-free and intelligent. That the BBFC banned a film so obviously attempting – and succeeding – to question the liberal sexual mores of its time is a damning example of the conservative, reactionary institution it once was.

On the other hand, without the allure of the banned label this film could well have sunk into obscurity like many other low-budget grindhouse films of the nineteen-seventies. The Video Nasty label gives The Witch Who Came From the Sea a notoriety it doesn’t deserve, but may well end up giving it the audience it does.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Banned again?

Last month saw the introduction of a private members bill by Conservative MP Julian Brazier to allow MPs to override BBFC classification decisions, with the old Video Nasty list in mind. It all seems pretty irrelevent until you see he has considerable support on both sides of the Commons, and even recognition of sorts from Gordon Brown who "expressed his concern" about the availability of the films according to the Guardian.

In an article for the Cornerstone Group, Julian Brazier MP drags up the discredited media scare stories surrounding the Jamie Bulger murder case, and more unusually an episode of the BBC TV drama "Casualty", but also touches on the controversial subject of depictions of rape in cinema. In light of a recent spate of sexualised murders in the UK, this is something worth looking at.

Whether onscreen sexual violence influences men to rape or not - and most evidence says it doesn't - banning films that depict it is effectively banning artisitic exploration of the subject. Films like Irreversible, I Spit On Your Grave and The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael approach the subject in ambiguous, challenging ways absent in other areas of the arts. Unfortunately murder, rape and violence are part of our lives, and as such need to be addressed as a subject.

That Julian Brazier doesn't understand the subtleties of horror cinema, no doubt through disinterest, is fair enough. But I can never understand the mindset that forms an aggressive opinion on something without taking the time to research and understand it.

Don't Look in the Basement

Director: SF Brownrigg
Writer: Tim Pope
USA 1973

It's difficult to know where to start this blog -- I've seen a few of the films from the Video Recordings Act 1984 list already, but feel it would be cheating to write reviews years later without watching them again. On the other hand, as anyone who has watched much low budget exploitation cinema knows, sitting through some of them twice would be akin to torture.

So I've decided to compromise, and review the last Video Nasty I saw before drawing a line under my previous viewing and starting again, repeats and all. Funnily enough this happened to be a film I wouldn't have minded sitting through again.

"Don't Look in the Basement" is a 1973 film by maverick Texan director SF Brownrigg. Set in a lunatic asylum complete with a domineering matriarch head nurse, the film aimlessly follows a handful of patients before delivering a twist that makes the whole thing worth while.

For a number of reasons "Don't Look in the Basement" is perhaps the ideal film to start this blog with, being a great example of what gives exploitation cinema its appeal. So low budget it appears to have been filmed exclusively in someone's house, this constraint nevertheless creates a sense of claustrophobia that fits the subject matter perfectly. The amateur actors have a great laugh playing the lunatics, and there are some funny over the top performances.

But the most interesting thing about "Don't Look in the Basement" is that deep inside there is a serious arthouse film trying desperately to burst out. Out of necessity, young directors of the time often dressed serious work in gore and blood to get financial backing and a viable release. In the case of "Don't Look in the Basement" this is laughable -- tame, hurriedly made gore scenes have been tagged on at the beginning and end, and when its status was finally reviewed by the BBFC in 2005 the film was only awarded a 15 certificate. The film's original title, "The Forgotten", has a resonance lost on backers who changed it to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Not to say the film isn't challenging to watch. Much of it is rambling and pointless, with most of the dialogue seemingly inserted just to fill time (which it quite possibly was). A misogynist streak typical of the era ruins a lot of the humour, and the acting is of course atrocious. However, the ideas behind the film, claustrophobic atmosphere and obvious passion with which it was made make "Don't Look in the Basement" a film worth seeing.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

The Project

In 1984, the British Conservative government banned scores of horror films under the Video Recordings Act in response to a media orchestrated moral panic. They became known as Video Nasties. Good sense was gradually restored, and since the mid 1990s most of these films have become available again. There are 73 Video Nasties in all, and I aim to watch them all.

Absurd (original title: Rosso Sangue -- released with 2m 32s cut in 1983)
The Anthropophagous Beas
t (original title: Antropophagus -- released with approximately 3m of pre-cuts in 2002)
Axe! (original title: Lisa, Lisa -- re-released uncut in 2005)
The Beast in Heat (original title: La bestia in Calore) (Banned outright)
The Beyond (original title: E tu vivrai nel terrore - L'Aldilà -- re-released uncut in 2001)
Blood Feast (re-released uncut in 2005)
Blood Rites (original title: The Ghastly Ones) (Banned outright)
Bloody Moon (original title: Die Säge des Todes -- released with 1m 20s cut in 1993)
The Bogey Man (original title: The Boogeyman -- re-released uncut in 2000)
The Burning (re-released uncut in 2001)
Cannibal Apocalypse (original title: Apocalypse Domani -- released with 2s cut in 2005)
Cannibal Ferox (released with approximately 5m of pre-cuts plus 6s of additional cuts in 2000)
Cannibal Holocaust (released in 2001 with 5m 44s cut to remove all scenes of animal cruelty)
Cannibal Man (original title: La Semana del Asesino -- released with 3s cut in 1993)
Cannibal Terror (original title: Terror Caníbal -- released uncut in 2003)
Contamination (released uncut in 2004 with a 15 rating)
Dead & Buried (re-released uncut in 1999)
Death Trap (original title: Eaten Alive -- re-released uncut in 2000)
Deep River Savages (original title: Il paese del sesso selvaggio -- released with 3m 45s cut in 2003)
Delirium (released with 16s cut in 1987)
Devil Hunter (original title: Il cacciatore di uomini) (Banned outright)
Don't Go In The House (released with 3m 7s cut in 1987)
Don't Go in the Woods (released uncut in 2007)
Don't Go Near the Park (released uncut in 2006)
Don't Look in the Basement (original title: The Forgotten -- released uncut in 2005 with a 15 rating)
The Dorm That Dripped Blood -- re-released with 10s cut in 2001)
The Driller Killer (released with cuts in 1999 - re-released uncut in 2002)
The Evil Dead (re-released uncut in 2001)
Evilspeak (re-released uncut in 1999)
Exposé (re-released with approximately 30s cut in 2006)
Faces of Death (released with 2m 19s cut in 2003)
Fight For Your Life (Banned outright)
Flesh for Frankenstein (re-released uncut in 2006)
Forest of Fear (original title: Bloodeaters) (Banned outright)
Frozen Scream (Banned outright)
The Funhouse (released uncut in 1987)
Gestapo's Last Orgy (original title: L'ultima orgia del III Reich) (Banned outright)
The House by the Cemetery (original title: Quella villa accanto al cimitero -- re-released with 33s cut in 2001)
House on the Edge of the Park (original title: La casa sperduta nel parco -- released with 11m 43s cut in 2002)
Human Experiments (released with 26s cut in 1994)
I Miss You, Hugs and Kisses (released with 1m 6s cut in 1986)
I Spit On Your Grave (original title: Day of the Woman -- released with 7m 2s cut in 2001)
Inferno (re-released with 20s cut in 1993)
Island of Death (original title: Ta Pedhia tou dhiavolou -- released with 4m 9s cut in 2002)
Killer Nun (original title: Suor Omicidi -- re-released uncut in 2006)
The Last House on the Left (released with 31s cut in 2003)
Late Night Trains (original title: L'ultimo treno della notte -- released uncut in 2008)
Living Dead At Manchester Morgue (original title: Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti -- re-released uncut in 2002)
Love Camp 7 (Banned outright)
Madhouse (original title: There Was a Little Girl -- released uncut in 2004)
Mardi Gras Massacre (Banned outright)
Night of the Bloody Apes (original title: La Horripilante bestia humana -- released with approximately 1m of pre-cuts in 1999)
Night of the Demon (released with 1m 41s cut in 1994)
Nightmare Maker (Banned outright)
Nightmare in a Damaged Brain (re-released with pre-cuts in 2005)
Possession (released uncut in 1999)
Prisoner of the Cannibal God (original title: La montagna del dio cannibale -- released with 2m 6s cut in 2001)
Revenge of the Bogey Man (original title: Boogeyman II -- released with additional footage in 2003)
Shogun Assassin (re-released uncut in 1999)
The Slayer (re-released uncut in 2001)
Snuff (released uncut in 2003)
SS Experiment Camp (original title: Lager SSadis Kastrat Kommandantur -- released uncut in 2005)
Tenebrae (original title: Tenebre -- re-released uncut in 2003)
Terror Eyes (original title: Night School -- released with 1m 16s cut in 1987)
The Toolbox Murders (released with 1m 46s cut in 2000)
Twitch of the Death Nerve (original title: Reazione a catena -- released with 43s cut in 1994)
Unhinged (released uncut in 2004)
Visiting Hours (released with approximately 2m cut in 1986)
The Werewolf and the Yeti (original title: La Maldición de la bestia) (Banned outright)
The Witch Who Came From the Sea (released uncut in 2006)
Women Behind Bars (original French title: Des diamants pour l'enfer) (Banned outright)
Xtro (released uncut in 1987)
Zombie Creeping Flesh (original title: Virus -- released uncut in 2002)
Zombie Flesh Eaters (original title: Zombi 2 -- re-released uncut in 2005)

Info courtesy of Wikipedia.