Thursday, October 27, 2016

Hubrisween 2016 :: V is for The Vampires (1961)

While clearing boulders from a field to make way for his plow by chucking them hither and yon, the mighty Goliath (Scott) is soon interrupted from this task, alerted that young boy is drowning in the nearby sea. (The lad might’ve been being attacked by some monstrous underwater mollusk but the shoddy print I streamed didn’t yield a whole lot here.) But while Ciro (Vitolazzi) is rescued and resuscitated, up the beach a spell their village is currently being overrun and massacred by a band of moorish pirates led by Amahil (Aikens). And the women they don’t kill are taken prisoner and forced onto their ships, including Julia (Ruffo), Ciro’s older sister and Goliath’s fiance.

And as they set sail for the island of Salmanak, the elderly are tossed over the side to the swarming sharks, while the younger and more nubile ladies are bled out a bit, with their blood collected in a golden chalice that Amahil takes to his master, Kobrak, whom we don’t see except for a gnarled and clawed hand as he accepts this blood sacrifice, which kicks up an evil wind so fierce and malevolent it frightens the hardened pirate away.

Meanwhile, Goliath and Ciro see the smoke from the burning village but arrive too late, find the bodies of their families, and piece together from the few survivors that these pirates were only interested in killing the men and stealing the women to be sold as slaves in Salmanak. And so, to Salmanak they go, where Goliath is a little stunned by the grim sideshows they encounter (-- one involving a greased pole and a bed of spikes) and an unnatural fear that seems to grip the locals. He also stumbles upon a slave auction and recognizes the women are from his village. All hell breaks loose, then, as the immortal insurance adjuster’s worst nightmare intervenes, rescuing Magda (Incontrera) from the block and reduces the town square to rubble.

Pursued by soldiers, the fugitives find refuge in the home of Kurtik (Sernas), whose alchemist lair is apparently littered with petrified corpses! Here, Magda gets them up to speed on what happened to Julia. Seems the beautiful maid not only caught the eye of Amahil, she’s also drawn the interest of Omar (Feliciani), the Sultan of Salmanak; and then there’s the Sultan’s concubine, Astra (Canale), who’s also trying to get her hands on the girl; as is Kobrak himself for myriad reasons, mostly for leverage against the legendary Goliath. 

And to add even more confusion it should be noted that both Amahil and Omar want to rid their homeland of the plague of Kobrak, which we’ll detail in a minute. But Astra is secretly in cahoots with the vampirish Kobrak, who fears an alliance by the others with Goliath could spell the end of his reign of terror, and so she does her best to secretly short-circuit this at every turn. (Just ask the Sultan’s rebellion-leaning grand vizier. Make that his “former” rebellion-leaning grand vizier.)

But all Goliath really cares about right now is getting Julia back and, as far as Magda knows, Amahil still has her, having separated her from the others on the pirate ship. Luckily, Kurtik knows where Amahil hangs out but Astra beats them to this cantina, kills the pirate, and secrets Julia away, leaving Goliath and Kurtik to deal with the palace guards she sics on them. 

Meanwhile, back in the sanctum sanctorum, Magda provides a massive plot dump when she peruses some of Kurtik’s ancient scrolls, which reveal the origin of Kobrak, an evil sorcerer, who is hellbent on world domination; and who lives on the fresh virgin blood of the captured women -- stock that will always need replenishing, hence his need of the pirates, and he turns all the conquered men into mindless zombie warriors as he amasses an army of the undead. 

Yeah, apparently, all those desiccated corpses around Kurtik’s lab are Kobrak’s victims he’s trying to restore but lacks a certain ingredient to finish the process. Unfortunately for Magda, her unearthed secret will die with her as Kobrak materializes out of the ether, an impressive sight as we finally get a full look at him in his GWAR-like armor, and slays her.

Meanwhile, meanwhile, despite his best efforts, Goliath is captured but easily breaks out of the palace dungeon and blunders into the Sultan and Julia, the latest addition to his harem thanks to Astra (-- as to what Astra’s grand plan is here, well, I’m open to suggestions). Here, the Sultan calls off his guards and has a parlay with the mighty warrior, wanting him to join his fight against Kobrak. Again, Goliath refuses, taking Julia and flees the scene, leaving the Sultan alone, making him a perfect target for Kobrak. And after he kills him, Astra alerts the guards, saying it was Goliath who killed their king and to bring him back dead or alive -- but preferably dead...

Born Gordon Merrill Werschkul, Gordon Scott was working as a lifeguard at the Sahara Casino in Las Vegas when he was spotted by a Hollywood talent agent in 1953. And due to his amazing physique he was soon signed by producer Sol Lesser to replace Lex Barker as Lord Greystoke in Tarzan's Hidden Jungle (1955). It was Lesser who changed his last name to Scott, feeling Werschkul sounded too much like [Johnny] Weismueller, who served the role well in eleven films from 1932 to 1948, and gave us his legendary war-hoop. Scott would continue with the role through a series of five films and patched together TV pilots, slowly morphing the character from the inarticulate man-ape to the more educated version which was more in-line with author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ source novels.

Tiring of the role but finding himself typecast, Scott pulled up stakes and headed to Italy at the behest of his friend and fellow body-builder, Steve Reeves, who was making a name for himself in a series of muscle-man epics like Hercules (1958) and The Giant of Marathon (1959), which spawned a ton of spin-offs and cash-ins. And for Romulus and Remus -- released in the States as Duel of the Titans (1961), director Sergio Corbucci wanted Reeves to play both brothers who united Italy and founded the city of Rome but Reeves balked and suggested they bring in Scott instead. 

The very same year, Scott would star in two Maciste films: Samson and the 7 Miracles of the World (1961) and Goliath and the Vampires a/k/a The Vampires (1961). Now, Maciste was an Italian folk hero whose cinematic history dated back to the silent era, which was later co-opted into the sword and sandal and styrofoam boulder peplum-boom of the 1960s before it petered out, replaced by the Spaghetti Western. In most instances when these films were imported, the American distributors would rename the character, calling him Hercules, the Son of Hercules, Samson or Goliath.

Scott does a pretty good job with the character, too, bringing the muscle and the mayhem as Goliath and Julia escape into the desert, survive an extended DEEP-HURTING sandstorm, and once more have their hash saved by Kurtik when they stumble upon the cave of the Blue Men -- a bunch of knights decked out in costumes plundered from the set of The Undersea Kingdom (1936), who are indeed blue, as Goliath and the Vampires takes a gonzo left turn from hybrid horror and sword and sandal epic to sci-fi. How? Well, let's begin with how Kurtik keeps referring to Kobrak’s army as robots. He’s also managed to capture Astra in the interim and extracts the location of Kobrak’s secret lair by threatening her with some spiffy go-motion sock-puppet monsters. But once he gets that info, Goliath refuses to let Kurtik kill the prisoner, a decision he will come to regret and rejoice in that order.

See, while Kurtik heads off to do … something, and Goliath leads a battalion of Blue Knights into a spooky primordial forest to flush out Kobrak, Julia is left alone to guard Astra, who quickly turns the tables and then takes her prisoner by a short-cut, apparently, to Kobrak’s lair. The villain then sucks all the life out of Julia, turning her into one of those unliving statues. And did I mention he also sent his army of “robots” into the woods, who quickly rout the Blue Knights, killing all of them, including Ciro, and capture Goliath, who is now set to be converted into one of those mindless automatons by making him a pendulum inside a giant bell? (Just roll with it.) Ah, but here Astra pays her debt by supplying him with wax to plug his ears, allowing him to survive the constant bell-whacking; and so, the treatment doesn’t stick and Goliath engineers his escape, taking Julia’s stiffened body and the antidote with him.

Back in Kurtik’s cave, the good wizard is pleased to see Goliath return safely, and doubly-pleased when presented with the antidote. But as he’s about to open the flask and apply it to a stiffened body, Astra implores him to stop, saying it's a trick and he’s about to release poison gas. Wait, you ask. Where did she come from? Eh, it doesn’t matter, I guess, as Goliath answers these accusations with a tossed spear, which Astra catches with her abdomen. And then things really twist up in a knot when another Goliath shows up, carrying the body of Julia.

A’yep, the first Goliath was really Kobrak in disguise. Thus and so, we get a pretty spiffy doppelganger dust-up until the real Goliath rips the fake facade off of Kobrak’s face, revealing the greatest luchador vampire mask of ever. And as Kobrak tries to flee, Kurtik tosses a magical hand grenade at him, and with a fiery explosion, the evil one is dead, making one wonder why the hell Kurtik didn’t just do that in the first place. Anyhoo, with the real cure delivered, Kurtik is able to restore Julia and the others, reveals himself to be the true Sultan of Salmanak, whose first order of business is to erect a statue of the man who saved his kingdom.

Wow. Well, that was pretty nuckin’ futz. Written and co-directed by Corbucci along with Giacomo Gentilomo, Goliath and the Vampires is one of the strangest and grisliest peplum movies I have ever seen. It also makes little sense in spots, with massive leaps in plot-logic, quantum shifts in character motivations (-- yeah, I’m looking right at you, Astra), and a lot of action and plot twists missing from the screen altogether while other meaningless scenes and subplots go on and on and on and on and on. I mean, we could’ve been watching Kurtik capturing Astra instead of watching Goliath and his girl lost in that interminable sandstorm but, nooooo! But this might not be something lost in translation but could very well be the fault of American International, who weren’t afraid to stick foreign films into a Cuisinart to fit what they thought audiences would swallow easiest. 

And on that same note, adding even more fuel to this insanity is the schizophrenic soundtrack, which I think is mostly the work of Angelo Lavagnino but with a few Les Baxter spazz-jazz cuts mixed in, most notably a fairly modern sounding belly-dancing sonata. Considering the disparate sources, kind of amazing how well it all works.

Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) is an obvious influence as is Corbucci’s signature nihilism and high body count, which he would expound upon further in his westerns, Django (1966) and Navajo Joe (1966). The opening village massacre even rivals the one from Hercules, Samson and Ulysses (1966). And aside from the Gorgon in Medusa vs. the Son of Hercules (1963) Kobrak is probably my favorite all-time peplum villain. An impressive sight visually both in his armor and out of it, he proves a worthy opponent with his magics and astral-projection. I love his modus operandi of bleeding out his women prisoners and converting the men into a desiccated army of faceless zombies. (Again, kudos to the costume designer.) The scenes in the fog-enshrouded forest when his army materializes piecemeal, marching forward in unison to the beat of the soundtrack is some top-notch stuff. And when they quickly rout the Blue Knights, setting most of them on fire, is the stuff of nightmares.

Speaking of nightmares, many a film like this has been ruined by saddling the hero with a kid sidekick. Here, not only does the kid sidekick die, he dies most horribly by doing the exact opposite of what the hero told him to do, secretly tagging along on the raid. And his death meant nothing, living long enough to tell Kurtik that his men were dead and Goliath has been captured, to which Kurtik merely shrugs and says, yeah, we’re basically screwed.

The film was produced by Dino de Laurentiis, meaning there was plenty of money to be spent on the production, which resulted in a lot of amazing sets, most of which Scott destroyed quite spectacularly, especially his escape from the dungeon of the palace, where he uses a disgorged pillar as a battering ram. The extended fight sequences are well staged, and there were a lot of them, even employing a little wire-fu to give Goliath’s punches a little more impact.

This was a first time viewing of Goliath and the Vampires, and while I kinda gave up on the plot as it constantly kept pretzling itself and got mired down by a couple of subplots that could’ve been easily flushed altogether, I found it to be visually impressive and highly enjoyable with the villain and production design kicking it into my top five peplums encountered thus far. Again, you wouldn’t think bringing Gothic horror to this kind of pecs ‘n’ fists-fest would work but it does. 

And before I finish this review up I will once more plead the case for someone out there to make an effort to rescue these features from the hell of Public Domain and release restored copies of these peplum movies in their original aspect ratios so we can finally flush the chopped and cropped and washed-out TV and video prints that litter this world wide web once and for all. Because I, for one, feel this gonzo genre deserve to be seen and seen properly. Like most flash in the pan genres, most were pretty terrible but some were pretty good. Some of them were even pretty great, like Goliath and the Vampires.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 22 down with just four more to go!

Goliath and The Vampires (1961) Ambrosiana Cinematografica :: American International Pictures / EP: Dino De Laurentiis / P: Paolo Moffa / D: Sergio Corbucci, Giacomo Gentilomo / W: Sergio Corbucci, Duccio Tessari / C: Alvaro Mancori / E: Eraldo Da Roma / M: Les Baxter, Angelo Francesco Lavagnino / S: Gordon Scott, Leonora Ruffo, Jacques Sernas, Gianna Maria Canale, Rocco Vitolazzi, Mario Feliciani, Vanoye Aikens, Annabella Incontrera

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Hubrisween 2016 :: U is for Ulzana's Raid (1972)

Our brutal morality play begins in the desert of southwest Arizona circa the late 1880s, where, after having his fill of mistreatment by crooked government agents, a Chiricahua warrior named Ulzana (Martinez) steals some horses and goes off the reservation with nine other braves. Following in the footsteps of the great Geronimo, Cochise, and Victorio, his intentions are to raise all kinds of hell in a series of retaliatory strikes on white settlements. When word of this breakout reaches Ft. Lowell, the response by Major Cartwright (Watson) is perhaps a little too cautious and measured when he only sends out two riders to warn the area settlers that an Apache war party is on the move.

One of these messengers is attacked at a watering hole, who screams for his captors to just kill him when he’s taken alive, well aware of what the Indians are capable of in the ritualistic torture department (-- which we’ll be seeing first-hand as the film progresses), meaning he is destined for a very painful and very protracted death. This readily explains why the second rider, while escorting the wife and son of an immigrant farmer who refused to leave his home to be ransacked by “a bunch of drunks” first abandons his charges when Ulzana attacks them on the trail back to the fort, but turns back to help -- this help being a bullet in the head for the woman (-- thus saving her from the Apaches), and an attempt to get away with the boy. But when his horse is shot out from underneath him, the trooper puts his own gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger, leaving the boy to the whim of the Indians -- after they’re done playing keep-away with the dead soldier’s extracted liver that is.

When the riders don’t return, Cartwright decides to speed up the departure of the planned patrol charged with bringing Ulzana in, dead or alive. Again, the response is rather tepid under the circumstances as the Major only allows a small patrol under the command of an inexperienced officer, Lt. Garnett DeBuin (Davison), to pursue such a small war party. This is noted by the grizzled civilian scout, McIntosh (Lancaster), a veteran of many Indian campaigns, who makes no bones over the near impossible task at hand, made that much harder by the army’s apparent indifference.

Led by McIntosh and his friend and fellow scout, Ke-Ni-Tay (Luke), an Apache who knows Ulzana, the patrol soon finds the bodies of the rider and the woman he killed. The son of a preacher, who feels a lack of Christian understanding toward the natives is the root cause of the mutual animosity, DeBuin is horrified by the scene, and is even more horrified when McIntosh explains what happened, complementing the dead soldier on his valiant service for saving the woman from a fate worse than death. What he can’t explain is why the Apaches left the boy behind alive and unharmed, which forces DeBuin to whittle down his small force even more so several troopers can escort the lone survivor back to the fort.

Meantime, that farmer (Swenson) who refused to abandon his homestead is Ulzana’s next target. After killing his dog, the Apaches lay siege on his cabin, which the farmer has buttoned up pretty good. And after trying and failing to burn him out, the Apaches seemingly abandon the attack. The reason? A distant bugle blowing a charge, meaning the cavalry has arrived in the nick of time. The grateful farmer gives thanks to the Almighty for deliverance as he abandons his fortified refuge, not realizing his thanks were a tad premature as this was all just a ruse to draw him out, where his final fate is definitely out of Divine hands...

When folks try to find the roots of the Revisionist Western they usually point to the anti-heroes and protracted violence in the Italian Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s but I think it can be traced back further than that and the source is definitely domestic. After World War II, with the proliferation of television, film studios began cutting their B-Units to offset the loss of tickets sales. And with that, the Western kinda dried up, leaving the genre a parched tumbleweed of its former self on the big screen. However, in an ironic twist, the Western absolutely flourished on TV, becoming a dominant ratings winner. Taking notice, these very same studios started warming up to the genre again, giving them bigger budgets, adult themes, historical authenticity, and a sense of spectacle that, essentially, gave the Western A-picture status.

So, long before Sergio Leone really blew things up in the 1960s, American Westerns were already deconstructing and re-envisioning themselves with the efforts of Andre de Toth, Jack Arnold (-- who was known mostly for his creature features in the 1950s but made some excellent westerns with Audie Murphy, too), and especially Budd Boetticher, working with a revitalized Randolph Scott for a string of fantastic features, and Anthony Mann, who teamed up with Jimmy Stewart for a series of dark psychological and highly nihilistic tales of the old west.

I think 1950 was a watershed year for Westerns and they really came of age with the release of Henry King’s The Gunfighter and Mann’s Winchester ‘73. For his part, Mann brought a stark and brutal film noir flavor to the genre and sucked all the romanticism out of the stock characters, situations and landscapes. The heroes were flawed, the villains charismatic but irredeemably vile, and the heroines were a different kind of damaged goods. This paved the way for Boetticher’s Seven Men from Now (1956), Ride Lonesome (1959), and The Tall T (1957), which is one of the penultimate deconstructions of the genre and served as inspiration for Leone.

As the 1960s progressed, the Western kept evolving, becoming an effective template for thinly disguised allegories for racial tensions and the current conflict in southeast Asia, holding a mirror up to the audience and forcing them to watch man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man based solely on culture, color and Creed, with director Ralph Nelson making the most hay out of this with the excellent Duel at Diablo (1966) and Soldier Blue (1970). And as we moved into the 1970s, audiences were asked to reevaluate as to who was really the bad guy when it came to confrontation between Cowboys and Indians, epitomized best by Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970).

And yet there are just too many tales of murder and torture and cannibalism as the Native Americans fought with each other long before any European settlers arrived that would make your skin crawl. And this aspect, too, started to show up in westerns in the late 1950s, making them kind of a primitive version of torture porn in the likes of Chuka (1967), Shalako (1968) and Cry Blood, Apache (1970).

Which brings us to Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid (1972), which proves an excellent and timeless treatise on American foreign policy, whether we’re talking about Vietnam or the current prolonged engagement in the Middle East, where there isn’t a whole lot of difference between the dubious circumstances that bred an Apache war party than that which created ISIS. And those whose policies caused this then send in forces that are ill-prepared and ill-equipped to fight an elusive and almost undefinable enemy in an awful and just as dangerous hostile environment, making them nothing but hopeless and hapless crusaders with no real hope of victory, just players in an endless circle of self-perpetuating punitive action, retaliation, violence, and mass casualties.

General Philip Sheridan once said if he owned Hell and the deserts of the southwest, he’d rent out the desert and live in Hell. And in thess environs, at least in the beginning, DeBuin listens and adheres to the advice offered by his grizzled Sergeant (Jaeckel) and McIntosh; not pushing the horses to exhaustion, and to stop thinking like a soldier and start thinking like an Apache, no easy task, if he wants any chance of the mission succeeding. But as the mission drags on, DeBuin finds one atrocity after another committed by Ulzana and his anger starts to get the better of him, and then he stops listening altogether when they reach the homestead of the duped farmer and find his body tied to a tree where he was slowly roasted to death over an open fire. And when Ke-Ni-Tay tries to explain the motivations of the enemy and why they are so cruel, saying they do it to gain the victim’s power, and more suffering equals more power, this does not compute at all with DeBuin’s Christian conscience.

And so, as his agitation grows, DeBuin starts making mistakes, which almost gets them all killed when Ulzana manages to send his horses ahead and outflanks the patrol on foot, managing to get behind them. Luckily, McIntosh sniffs this ploy out and manages to derail these efforts by capturing the enemy horses when they tried to circle back around them, killing two of Ulzana’s men, including his son (-- who had a captured bugle in his possession), in the process. And when his men try to mutilate the corpses in retaliation, DeBuin stops them and orders them buried.

Knowing Ulzana will need more horses now, they head for the nearest source but, again, get their too late and find a homesteader hung upside down on a fence and burned alive. They then find his wife tied to a wagon, alive but extremely brutalized. And since the Apache would normally rape a captive to death, McIntosh feels this is Ulzana scheming again, figuring DeBuin would send her and an escort back to Ft. Lowell so he can ambush them for their horses. Managing to convince DeBuin of this, they decide to lay their own trap with McIntosh leading a small party back toward the fort to draw Ulzana out while DeBuin hangs behind, waiting for signs of battle to swoop in (hopefully) in time. All of this hinges on Ke-Ni-Tay finding and taking out the probable look-out Ulzana has spying on them and DeBuin not jumping the gun once (and if) Ulzana takes the bait.

With Ulzana’s Raid director Aldrich kinda comes full circle. One of his first features, where he also happened to team up with Burt Lancaster, was Apache (1954). From there he was probably most famous for the brilliant neo-noir, Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and the hagsploitation classic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962). In between there were a lot of westerns and war pictures, including The Dirty Dozen (1967), where the director employed a strange concoction of blunt violence and nihilism with a cynical edge where manly men did manly things with women merely a means to an end.

The screenplay was written by Alan Sharp, which was based on an actual Apache uprising in 1885 that lasted for two months and resulted in the deaths of 38 people in Mexico, New Mexico and Arizona, all the while pursued fruitlessly by the U.S. Cavalry. Inspired by John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Sharp hoped to “express the malevolence of the world and the terror mortals feel in the face of it … The Ulzana of Ulzana's Raid is not the Chiricahua Apache of history, whose raid was more protracted and ruthless and daring than the one I had written about. He is the expression of my idea of the Apache as the spirit of the land, the manifestation of its hostility and harshness."

And the execution of this “winner-takes-nothing parable” where “noble motives lead to disastrous actions” is striking. Davison is quite brilliant as DeBuin, whose angst and moral breakdown as he’s told to “stop hating and start thinking” are palpable as his earnest but ultimately foolhardy sentiments are stripped bare. Lancaster, who was instrumental in getting the picture produced, is equally excellent as the too old for this and seen too much McIntosh. He understands the Apache by admitting he knows nothing at all. (“Never argue with an Apache over horseshit.”) He knows what Ulzana might do, and that’s it. And while his guesses have played out well enough so far, sticking with the theme, the film ends in a massacre for both sides, with Ulzana taking the bait and attacking McIntosh’s party in a canyon. And as both sides are whittled down to nothing, DeBuin blunders to the rescue too late, bugle blaring, alerting and allowing Ulzana to escape for the moment, leaving it to Ke-Ni-Tay to pull all their hash out of the fire.

If Ulzana’s Raid has one minor flaw it’s that it never really addresses Ke-Ni-Tay’s allegiances. He is McIntosh’s friend, they trust each other implicitly, and that’s as far as it goes. And with McIntosh mortally wounded and DeBuin ineffective, it falls to Ke-Ni-Tay to finish Ulzana’s raid once and for all, bringing his reign of terror to an end. But is it really the end? Or is that circle I mentioned earlier just completing another circuit, now poised and ready to go around again once the next batch of natives escape from the reservation and this starts all over again and again. That is what the audience is left with at the end of this movie. A brutal, relentlessly bleak, and so maddeningly pointless in its moral ambiguity, with an ever escalating body count, if that doesn’t make this a horror movie, then I don’t know what it is.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 21 down with only five more to go!

Ulzana's Raid (1972) The Associates and Aldrich Company :: De Haven Productions :: Universal Pictures / P: Carter DeHaven, Harold Hecht, Burt Lancaster / AP: Alan Sharp / D: Robert Aldrich / W: Alan Sharp / C: Joseph F. Biroc / E: Michael Luciano / M: Frank De Vol / S: Burt Lancaster, Bruce Davison, Jorge Luke, Richard Jaeckel, Joaquín Martínez, Karl Swenson, Douglass Watson
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...