None More Obscure

In which the, occasionally unreliable, occasional series about films you’ve never heard of returns, loses track of its numbering scheme, and admits that “gems” might be pushing it sometimes.

MUTANT

Forbidden World by Indy Datta

The first time I saw the 1982 Corman cheapie Alien rip-off Forbidden World (aka Mutant aaka Subject 20) was as part of a VHS rental triple bill with The Evil Dead and David Lynch’s Dune.  This was over a weekend during which I was forced by some schoolmates to stay awake for 48 hours as an experimental subject to see how I would react to such sleep deprivation. In retrospect, it seems plausible that the weekend’s entertainment might have irretrievably blown my fragile little mind, which is where we came in, etc. Although I have always had a mild and deeply buried hankering to see Forbidden World again, I never got around to that until I won a copy of the UK DVD at a film quiz a couple of months ago.  Handily, the DVD is a pan-and-scan disc with freakishly grotty picture and sound quality that readily evoked the experience of that first viewing (a much swankier US Blu-ray is also available).

Forbidden World (the story of a genetically engineered mutant alien-human hybrid terrorising the isolated humans on a remote extra-terrestrial research station, based on a novel by E.M.Forster) was not the first of Corman’s Alien, er, hommages – and indeed it recycles sets from the previous year’s Galaxy of Terror, which were designed by James Cameron. It also pads out its meagre runtime in its opening minutes with space battle footage from another Corman production, Battle Beyond the Stars, cheerfully regardless of the fact that there is no narrative justification for it whatsoever. Also padding out the early going is a blippy flashforward of the whole plot of the upcoming film as the hero (intergalactic troubleshooter and cocksman Mike Colby, played by Jesse Vint) is awoken from hibernation by his gender-ambiguous robot sidekick, a device which is equally random and unjustified by anything else in the film, but which is also pretty damn cool.

And that’s a pretty decent summary of Forbidden World as a whole. You can treat it as an item of camp curiosity, and laugh at the dated or shoddy aesthetic choices (my favourite design element: the Pans People jumpsuits and plexiglass stiletto mules worn by the two female characters, including the “head of genetics” Dr Barbara Glaser played, both kit-on and gamely kit-off, by June “Jeannine from Spinal Tap” Chadwick), but the who-gives-a-fuck freedom of the Corman cheapie also means that there are moments that would be hard to imagine in a more mainstream or legitimate enterprise  – such as, for example, the frisson of delicious genre subversion when the two women (Dr Glaser and the buxom lab assistant, played both kit-on and gamely kit-off by Dawn Dunlap) decide that, if the rampaging mutant monster is as intelligent as it seems, then surely it can be reasoned with, if only the blood-crazed men would realise. However, it should be noted that (a) the scene in which they formulate the plan to negotiate with the monster takes place with them both naked and soaping each other down, and (b) [SPOILERS] that Dr Glaser gets tentacle-raped to death as punishment for her forward-thinking ways.

Where Forbidden World is most stimulating is when it occasionally manages to synthesise high camp and surprising formal boldness, such as this scene (NSFW! NSFW!) in which Colby and Glaser get it on, while being spied on by a sweaty audience-surrogate voyeur, soundtracked by a wailing space-sex-sax solo that director Allan Holzman incorporates into the diegesis of the scene in a really rather satisfying and amusing way (spoiled by YouTube’s choice of still).

I don’t say this lightly; if you don’t love that, I think we can’t be friends.

Siesta by Spank the Monkey

On paper, in 1987, Siesta must have seemed like a sure thing. Its director was Mary Lambert, moving on from her blockbusting Madonna videos to her feature debut. Its writer was Patricia Louisianna Knop, one of the creators of 9½ Weeks. Its star was Ellen Barkin, and who doesn’t love Ellen Barkin? There was only one real problem with Siesta, and that was virtually everything else. But despite that, it remains freakishly watchable.

It has an intriguingly noirish opening: stuntwoman Claire (Barkin) wakes up on a Spanish airport runway in a bloodstained dress, with no memory of how she got there. Gradually, she pieces together the events of the previous few days. It all started with Claire getting an attack of the yips shortly before a Death Valley skydiving stunt, and fleeing across the Atlantic into the arms of her former lover Augustine, a Spanish trapeze artist played by that acclaimed Catalan actor Gabriel Byrne.

"dues cerveses si us plau"

This is just the first of a series of berserk decisions by the casting department, as anyone who ever padded out the cast of a bad 80s movie turns up to say hello. Grace Jones? At a point where it looks like the plot has run out of crazy, she suddenly appears wearing a rat in her hair. Alexei Sayle? His rapist cabdriver is probably the nadir of his Will Work For Food years. Julian Sands? He’s there too, acting as only he can, i.e. not in the slightest. Claire encounters all of them and more on her way towards the jaw-dropping climax, about which I’ll say nothing except that the guy who ripped it off a decade later made a better job of it.

To be fair to all the above – except for Sands, who’s awful on such a cosmic level it can be seen from space – most of the faults of Siesta can be blamed squarely on Patrice Chaplin’s source novel. To adapt it for the screen you’d have to totally commit to its insanity and pretentiousness, and Lambert and her crew happily go for it. The film has the superficial sheen you’d expect from a video director’s first feature, but underpinned with some ingenious choices in the editing, playing Nic Roeg-style tricks with chronology and visual rhymes. And there’s a lovely score, written by Marcus Miller and performed by Miles Davis. It takes the cod-Spanish riffing of Miles’ Sketches Of Spain, marries it to the electronic textures he was experimenting with on Tutu, and generates the emotional pull that the story’s simply too daft to create on its own.

Siesta fails because of over-ambition, and I’d rather have over-ambition than the alternative any day. It’s just a shame that Mary Lambert’s been sucked into a series of dull horror pictures ever since. Most recently, she directed Mega Python Vs Gatoroid for Syfy, and no failure deserves that level of punishment.

La Residencia by Gareth Negus

house_that_screamed_poster_02

La Residencia (aka The Finishing School, aka The House That Screamed) is a 1969 Spanish horror film written and directed by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador.  If you know his name, it’s likely for his later Who Can Kill a Child?, which has escaped true obscurity through a DVD release and a remake (Come Out and Play, 2012).  That, or the fact that he devised the quiz show 3-2-1.

The film starts in the late 19th century with 18 year old Teresa (Cristina Galbó) being delivered to a boarding school. It is run by Madame Fourneau (Lilli Palmer), who explains that her school “specialises in students whose character can be… difficult.  In order to bring them back to the right path, I must run this establishment with a firm hand.”  This firm hand sometimes holds a whip, which gets used even on students with whom, it is implied, she has an inappropriately close relationship.  She is aided by head girl Irene (gleefully played by Mary Maude), who seems to be treating her school career as practice for a future job as a sadistic lesbian prison warden.

Also at school is the Head’s teenage son Luis (John Moulder-Brown, who also starred in the not-as-obscure-as-it-used-to-be Deep End at about the same time).  He is strongly discouraged by his mum from having anything to do with the students: “None of these girls are any good.  By the time they come to me they are already marked… You need a woman like me!” If you think this might not be the way to raise a well-adjusted young man, you’d be right.

Ibáñez Serrador was already familiar to Spanish audiences for the TV series Historias para no dormer, which helped him raise a hefty budget for his feature debut.  The film looks good; the school sets are reminiscent of the Gothic horrors of Hammer and Mario Bava, and the two on-screen murders are stylishly shot.

Weighed against that, there are some curious narrative choices: the ostensible heroine, Teresa, is off screen for a lot of the time, and her meeting with Luis is skipped over completely.  Some may find the sexual repression angle to be rather overcooked (the scene that intercuts a sewing class with a student’s woodshed assignation with a local youth may provoke giggles).  And it has to be said that the identity of the killer is pretty guessable.  But this is an atmospheric film that deserves to be better known.

Sadly, a decent copy is hard to find.  Cheap and nasty region 0 copies can be purchased online for pennies, usually in budget box sets – these are often in the correct aspect ratio, but with occasional small cuts.  An apparently uncut, though cropped, version is on YouTube.  Fingers crossed that a nicely restored, complete version will see release some day.

Sugar by Matthew Turner

Sugar film

Writing-directing team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck followed up 2006’s Half Nelson (a significant step on The Ryan Gosling Path To Glory) with Sugar (2008), a charming and moving drama that skilfully blends sports movies, immigration dramas and coming of age movies, while nimbly avoiding all the usual clichés associated with those genres. Then-newcomer Algenis Perez Soto plays Miguel ‘Sugar’ Santos, a 19-year-old pitcher from the Dominican Republic who’s selected to play in the US Minor Leagues. After undergoing spring training in Arizona, he joins a Single-A team in Iowa, where he’s billeted with a baseball-loving host family (Ann Whitney and Richard Bull as ‘Los Higgins’) in their farmhouse. As the film progresses, Sugar struggles with various cultural and language barriers and the pressure on him builds when his pitching starts tofalter.

Fleck and Boden’s finely crafted script manages to hit all the emotional beats associated with its various genres without ever descending into cliché or sentimentality – for example, there’s no climactic Big Game, no showdown with Evil Bullying Racists and no scene where Sugar or one of his teammates gets killed in a fight /addicted to drugs or whatever. Even a storyline with the Higgins’ Bible-bashing granddaughter (Ellary Porterfield) having a crush on him doesn’t play out the way you might expect. Instead, the film flirts with those ideas (there is a sequence, for example, that could easily have become a fight in a bar with racist rednecks scene) but opts fora refreshingly realistic approach that gives the film a documentary-like feel. It’s also blessed with a terrific central performance from Perez Soto, who has very little dialogue but an incredibly expressive face – he can do more with one look of his eyes than most actors manage with five pages of dialogue. In addition, Andrij Parekh’s cinematography is sumptuous throughout and the film manages to be deeply moving by the simple expedient of having characters be nice to each other. For my money, this is a minor masterpiece (it was my favourite film of 2006) and deserves to be much more widely seen.

Slayground by Blake Backlash

Slayground

I wish I could tell you that Slayground deserves your attention because it is a curio: a British film based on one of Richard Stark’s Parker novels. A film that shows you Mel Smith dangling on the same family-tree as Lee Marvin in Point Blank. The plot – in which Parker (decently played by Peter Coyote) is pursued by a shadowy killer from the States to Blackpool Pleasure Beach – does have something of the fatalistic feel of the novels. Nearly everyone dies. But it doesn’t feel like something that came from the pen of Richard Stark. The Blackpool scenes have a grubby off-season authenticity. But it doesn’t feel like a gangster-film from the same country as The Long Good Friday or Get Carter.

What Slayground does feel like is an 80s film. Or an 80s VHS cassette with a tacky and lurid cover. It came out in 1983 and it doesn’t run for much longer than 83 minutes. It has a pleasingly chilly electronic score by Colin Townes that pulses under the film like a paranoid suspicion you’re going to die alone in an uncaring world. It is one of those 80s films – like The Hitcher or the first Terminator movie – where the villain is so merciless and unstoppable they acquire a kind of supernatural power. And as they close in the film starts to occupy an unsettled space somewhere between a thriller and a horror film.

In Slayground the villain is Costello (I had to look that name up on imdb, it’s mentioned once in the film, if at all) the hitman hired to take-out Coyote and his crew, after a botched heist results in the death of a girl whose father is rich and eager for revenge. We never see Costello’s face in the film, he’s a shadow and a voice (Welsh actor Philip Sayer doing Southern-gentleman-gone-to-seed). He kills one of the crew in his chicken coop. Many chickens die and so does the bloke’s dog, who ends up dead in his dead-master’s lap, the two of them tarred and feathered. The scene is unpleasant – afterwards you have the taste of blood, dog-hair and chicken-shit in your mouth. The director, Terry Bedford, worked as a cameraman on Jabberwocky and he films murders in a surreal, feverish way that owes something to early Gilliam: odd angles and cuts that leave gaps in the action. It’s close to bad – there’s little genuine tension in the film – but it does give those scenes a nightmarish quality.

And the whole film is like a nightmare: it’s mostly dark all the time; many of the details of what’s supposed to be happening don’t make much sense; it’s kind of hard afterwards explain to other people; Mel Smith is in it. And, like a nightmare, it’s difficult to remember with any clarity… but at the same time, it leaves you with an itchy sense, one that you’ll never quite shake-off, that something bad happened.

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