Most readers of this site will be well versed that musically the French are held in high regard as far as extremism is concerned. The likes of Blut Aus Nord, Deathspell Omega and Arkhon Infaustus have been flying that flag proudly and labels such as Seasons Of Mist and Osmose Productions are almost household names. As far as movies are concerned perhaps France would not be the first place you would think of for celluloid atrocities. Japan and The Far East could well be your first stop and of course there is Italy; a country with a fine legacy but one that is on the whole dead now as far as genre film making is concerned. France never fails to surprise and got me thinking about the rich heritage of movies from a country that perhaps is likely to be the one to genuinely unleash its ‘Le Fin Absolue du Monde’. Inspired by a couple of fresh and exciting new releases, I decided to take you on a journey through a brief potted and at times potted history of French Extremity. In doing so I have resurrected a couple of old reviews as well as some new ones. Viva La France.
Scalpels and Surrealism
The obvious starting point has to be 1929 when Luis Buñuel really bit the movie going public with the Salvador Dalí scripted Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog). Although only a brief 16 minutes in length, this surrealist masterpiece caused absolute outrage on an audience who had never seen anything quite like it before. Breasts are grabbed, priests are dragged along in a piano with the carcass of a rotting donkey, ants crawl from an apparent stigmata wound and of course there is that matter of the incredibly shocking eyeball slitting scene. This probably only got seen due to the fact that it was made prior to the Hays Code and before censorship became a real issue. However when it did Un Chien Andalou was banned internationally and is now considered a classic movie and used to shock unsuspecting film students on a regular basis.
Get an Eiffel of this!
Fast forwarding to 1960 it seemed that Dali had struck a chord with both eyeballs and surrealism on the release of Georges Franju’s Le Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without A Face). This is a movie that has been reinterpreted in many forms, most notably by Jess Franco in his gory evisceration Faceless (1988). Dr. Génessier, a brilliant surgeon has been experimenting on plastic surgery using dogs to graft skin from one to another. He is introduced to a medical professor whose daughter may well be in serious need of a bit of a face lift and at the same time local women are going missing. Although hardly a difficult film as far as putting two and two together this was another landmark of French cinema and a thriller that apparently had its audience “dropping like flies” on its original release. Rather aptly, in 2008 Eyes Without A Face was reissued on Second Sight Films.
It would be downright rude not mentioning the auteurship of Jean Rollin. Born in 1938 and working away right up until his death in 2010, this prolific director has been responsible for almost 60 fantastical movies. Mixing his palette like a painter, his heady vampire movies such as Le Viol Du Vampire (1967), La Vampire Nue (1970) and Le Frisson Des Vampires (1971) are masterpieces of visual excess. Surrealism features very heavily in the work of Rollin, nothing is quite what it seems and it is as if the viewer and indeed the cast are in a dream. Rollin is also responsible for peppering up his fables with mounds of gorgeous naked Euro flesh. His is a world where two naked orphans are chased by hip vampires and lovely babes pop nakedly out of grandfather clocks for absolutely no reason at all. His is a world where the lovely Briggitte Lahaie gets jiggy with a scythe in the unforgettable Fascination (1979) Although most renowned for his vampiric bite Rollin dabbled in hardcore partly to survive industry decline as well as everything from Nazi Zombies in Le Lac Des Morts Vivants (Zombie Lake 1981) and heady crime softcore potboilers like the delirious Sidewalks Of Bangkok.
The much respected Walerian Borowczyk, although Polish, was French-based and made many groundbreaking movies. Many of them were works of highly charged erotica including his historical trawl through bawdy history, Immoral Tales (1975) and nunsploitation epic Behind Convent Walls (1978). He had also proved himself a fantastic visionary director with the stunning and much overlooked medieval cautionary tale Blanche 1971. However it is probably La Bete (The Beast) made in 1975 which he will infamously most be remembered for.
The first shots of the movie show pulsating horses cocks and gushing vaginas just before the equine love scene is shown in surprising detail. Sure this was a scene in a stud farm but it must have really surprised unsuspecting audiences back in the day. The plot is pretty simple, at a chateau the head of a French family is preparing for the marriage of his son Mathurin de l’Esperance (Pierre Benedetti) to the soon to visit Lucy Broadhurst (Lisbeth Hummel). This marriage must take place within certain times and ways to fulfil a will and due to this there is a backdrop of all sorts of family feuds simmering away.
There is a forest which Lucy discovers on the way with her stuffy aunt and one that hints at magic and arcane delights as the fairytale aspect of the film begins to unfold. At the chateau there are a number of things going on, the son it seems is reliant on his father and a simple man who although knowing about the breeding of horses has little idea about human relationship, there is a visiting priest with his two angelic choirboys and the nymphomaniac daughter played by the gorgeous dreadlocked Pascale Rivaut who is bonking the black servant at every opportunity and the bed-frame when he is called away. To say this is a house overflowing with sexual tension would be an understatement.
Lucy and Mathurin’s meeting does not go well and he is drunk over dinner making a fool of himself. Lucy goes to bed and embarks on some deep finger bush gardening with a rose used for masturbatory pleasure (I kid you not) and falls into a fevered dream. In this the fairytale and legend of the area revolving around Romilda de l’Esperance (Sirpa Lane) is retold. A beast lurked in the forest and Romilda disappeared, it turns out that the beast pretty much drowned her in his beastly fluids and we see it stalk and splash her with the most amount of seminal fluid seen in a monster movie ever. Not wanting to put too finer point on things she pretty much fellates the beast to its own death and runs gaily off never to be seen again. Back from her dream Lucy has her own destiny with the beast but will she have such a lucky escape.
Obviously the inspiration here is an X-rated Beauty And The Beast, and if this is what you set out to see you will not be disappointed and will be laughing long and hard (pun intended) during this classic.
Needless to say on release there was plenty of controversy surrounding the movie and it was banned for a phenomenal 25 years by the BBFC in England. Nouveaux Pictures finally released this on DVD in 2001 uncut and it was also shown for the first time in years at the cinema here (and went down a storm when I caught it at a double bill with Ai no Korīda at The Everyman in Hampstead back then). This is well worth a watch and a giggle and even if you think it’s beastly stuff the female cast run round naked most of the duration.
In the jungle, the quiet jungle…. The audience sleeps tonight
Most of the films I am writing about here are good; Cannibal Terror (Terreur Cannibale 1981) is not one of them. This reached a certain notoriety hitting the dreaded Video Nasty list, joining 73 other movies banned by the Director Of Public Prosecutions in the UK. It was the Italians ruling the roost of the list with some brilliant zombie and cannibal bloodbaths by the likes of Fulci and Deodato. The word cannibal genre was heavily hit due to the fact that you cannot really have non gory flesh eating movies (not that anyone told that to the makers of Welcome To The Jungle (2007)). Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Ferox (1981) defined the genre, Apocalypse (1980) took the cannibals out of the jungle and into the streets, and Cannibal Man (1973) an intelligent Spanish giallo underwent a name change from The Apartment On The 13th Floor and got lumped in with the others. Then there was this piece of shit.
Jess Franco got blamed for making this but it was actually directed (badly) by Frenchman Allain Deruelle, although writer Julio Pérez Tabernero has also been blamed so this is sort of an uncertain French / Spanish co-production. Some totally inept thieves kidnap an annoying girl from her rich car manufacturing parents and decide to (as you do) go and hide out in a cannibal infested jungle. Where this is in relation to France is uncertain although borders are crossed. A buxom guide ignores her own advice of not wondering off when their jeep overheats and is quickly sliced, diced and eaten without rice, garlic or even French mayo for seasoning. The gore here is detailed with plenty of animal guts and entrails being munched on, the cannibals (Indians) are not so convincing and have a hard time trying not to laugh at the stupidity of it all. Some of them even sport sideburns for Christ’s sake. Well as you would guess the jeep starts up no problems and gets the gang to their hideout. One of them ties their host’s wife to a tree and rapes her and her husband later ties him to the same tree, whistles the cannibals who very much appreciate the free lunch.
The girl’s parents go A Team and along with assorted characters who pop up out of nowhere, run around the jungle (scrubland or wherever the hell this was filmed) in a rescue mission which involves much stalking and little action. I could tell you what happens at the end, as if you are stupid enough to (like me) sit through this you really won’t give a flying one what happens at the end anyway. The little girl may be rescued by the cannibals, the thugs may ‘get all the pain and suffering that was coming to them’ and everyone else could live happily ever after, but that would be stupid wouldn’t it????
Cannibal Terror is available uncut on DVD and is just like the budget; cheap and unlike the stars of the film it wont set you back an arm and a leg (sorry).
Tentacles Of Whorror
From one of the dumbest films of a particularly dumb bunch to hit the Video Nasty list to one of the most intelligent, and certainly the strangest. Directed by Polish filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski in 1981, Possession was a joint French and German co-production although interestingly enough a movie never to get a German release. Partly a horror movie, partly an arthouse film and also strongly a drama, this is like Kramer Vs Kramer remade by the devil.
Featuring two of the strongest central roles you are likely to see in a film and driving along the pace and narrative with sterling performances we have embittered couple Mark played by award winning actor Sam Neill (fresh from his Omen trilogy) and Anna played by French actress Isabel Adjani. He has just finished up a job as what is hinted at a secret agent and goes home to try and pick up the pieces of his crumbling marriage. Anna is a little on the demented side (that’s putting it politely) and poor son Bob is caught right in the middle and is obviously affected by it all. Mark discovers that Anna is having an affair with Heinrich (Heinz Bennett) as the couple constantly argue. He trashes a café and goes crazy for three weeks, she slices herself with an electric knife, he slaps her around and she wanders into the street covered in blood and causes accidents (the normal kitchen sink drama). Heinrich when we meet him is a dislikeable philosophical, zen bullshit, karmic kneejerk sort of guy, but is also (unfortunately for Mark) quite good at martial arts.
Set amidst the crumbling backdrop of Berlin with the wall providing a constant background, the scenery here is fantastically impoverished and decrepit. We discover that Anna has been two timing both of the other men and has a flat in a really seedy area after Mark sets one of the worst private detectives seen in a movie on her heels. On investigating he discovers some sort of seething mass in the apartment but quickly gets a bottle slashing his throat from Anna for his troubles. Various other characters pop up including schoolteacher Helen also played by Adjani, just to add to the confusion, Heinrich’s batty mother, as well as the detectives male lover who also sets out to discover what is in the flat.
In one memorable scene Adjani goes crazy in a dank dark wet subway, smashing milk over the wall, and foaming at the mouth before having what seems to be a miscarriage. The superior Carlo Rambaldi special effects make this all the more memorable. This scene is difficult to watch due to its protracted length and the sheer hysteria of the character, however in later years and as discussed in a review further down the line we will see this is not the most gruelling scene of its nature in French cinema, but perhaps Irreversible (2002) is paying homage to this movie.
In essence Anna’s new lover is revealed to be a tentacular horror perhaps as the back of the case states ‘a love of her own creation – a monster from her id’. This is perhaps open to severe interpretation though and is one of the moot points that bashers of this movie are keen to rubbish. Nothing really does prepare you for the final insane reel of this movie and it will leave you feeling shocked, although it may well take a few views of the movie before you finally think you have grasped it.
I have seen as many negative reviews for this film over the years as I have positive ones. Personally I absolutely love it and could pick a huge array of films that I would consider have referenced it including Hellraiser (1987), Xtro (1983) and Baby Blood (1990 – to be discussed in part 2 of this article). Zulawski is a creative director and uses the camera to great effect, just watch the scene in the café where Anna and Mark sit at different tables to discuss what is going on in their relationship and see how the lens interacts between them.
Although removed from the BBFC hit list a long time ago and even having been shown complete on BBC2 some fifteen years back it was a really long time before the film finally became available to the UK DVD market in 2010 in an uncut format via Second Sight Films. For a long time the only way of seeing this was via the old VTC label video cassette or various truncated versions including a ridiculous 80 miniute version, which must have been a completely baffling viewing experience.