Capsule Reviews: June 10 – 14

The Wasp Woman (Roger Corman, 1959) – 2/5

Quickie cash-in fueled by the runaway popularity of the previous year’s The Fly. By locating his action in a cosmetics empire run by a middle-aged female fashion icon obsessed with cracking the secret to eternal youth, Corman establishes a scenario ripe for social satire…and then largely drops the ball, content to settle for cheap-o rubber masks and normative horror schlock-shocks.

The Howling (Joe Dante, 1981) – 3.5/5

Dante’s follow-up to Piranha (1978), also scripted by indie stalwart John Sayles, channels that film’s in-jokey sensibility into a more straightforward horror narrative. The lupine-themed laughs (Big Bad Wolf cartoon, Wolf brand chili, Allan Ginsberg’s Howl) and film historical references (characters named after famous horror directors) are cleverly handled, landing more often than missing the mark. The horror effects – including the set-piece werewolf transmogrification – remain impressive. Dante’s eye for off-kilter shot composition and primary-color-infused lighting is unerring. On the other hand, not enough is made of The Howling’s primary location – an Esalen-type commune known as The Colony – and its attendant New Age, self-help rhetoric.

King and Country (Joseph Losey, 1964) – 4/5

Losey lends the film a moody, muddy atmosphere. Set in the trenches of WWI, and thus covering (literally and thematically) ground similar to Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war classic Paths of Glory (1957), King and Country details the plight of a simpleminded private (Tom Courtenay) undergoing court-martial for desertion, defended by an upper-class captain (Dirk Bogarde) who, at first, has nothing but contempt for his client. Eschewing the rather schizoid affective register of Kubrick’s film (reflected, no doubt, by the clash between Kubrick’s grim pessimism and the idealistic histrionics of producer/star Kirk Douglas), Losey’s ends pitilessly, as Bogarde must get his hands dirty delivering the coup de grace pistol shot because the firing squad has bungled the execution.

Billy Budd (Peter Ustinov, 1962) – 3/5

Ustinov served as producer/co-writer/director/star for this solidly assembled, unassuming adaptation of the Herman Melville short novel that also introduced Terence Stamp in the title role. Robert Ryan dominates the film as Claggart, the locus classicus for that dangerous combination of intellect and cruelty. Ustinov and Stamp (who was Oscar-nominated for the role) hold their own. Features the luminous black-and-white Cinemascope photography of Robert Krasker (who also shot, among others, The Third Man [1949]).

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011) – 4/5

Full-length review forthcoming.

I Saw the Devil (Kim Ji-Woon, 2010) – 2/5

Like an infernal Rube Goldberg contraption, Kim Ji-Woon’s latest dispenses mayhem, carnage, torture and retribution with the regularity of a clockwork mechanism, albeit a stylishly constructed one. Revenge films routinely select between two approaches – either they emphasize the emotional vacuity and dissatisfaction engendered by the act of vengeance (as, for instance, in the excellent Revanche), or else they glorify and wallow in that same violence (see just about the entirety of Tarantino’s oeuvre). Devil wants to have its grue-soaked cake and eat it too: Serving up a veritable smorgasbord of atrocities ranging from Achilles-tendon-slashing to its own private cannibal holocaust, the film nevertheless has the temerity to meekly (and literally) assert Nietzsche’s famous dictum: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” Maybe it should be pointed out that a modicum of style and quisling ethical precepts cannot begin to justify a nearly two-and-a-half hour running time.

Salon Kitty (Tinto Brass, 1976) – 3.5/5

Brass – who made his career putting the ass in class – visits Visconti territory in this Grade-A Nazisploitation romp set in a Berlin brothel staffed by a bevy of lady spies. Ken Adams – fresh from Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) – contributes the eye-popping set designs. Brass draws on a pan-and-zoom aesthetic, especially in the scenes involving grotesque bordello-based tableaux vivant, he clearly derived from The Damned (1971), a fact further reinforced by the presence of Ingrid Thulin and Helmut Berger, the incestuous mother-son duo in Visconti’s film.

Road Games (Richard Franklin, 1981) – 3/5

Writer/director Franklin followed up his enjoyable Carrie-derived chiller Patrick with this inverse homage to Spielberg’s Duel, told from the viewpoint of long-haul trucker Pat Quid (Stacy Keach), who grows increasingly paranoid about the driver of a green van that keeps turning up on his trans-Australia trek, suspecting the man’s involvement in a series of grisly murders. Along for the ride is Hitch (Jamie Lee Curtis), her name a clear indication of Franklin’s (along with Duel’s) debt to the maestro, who plays along with Quid’s growing suspicions, leading to a series of plot developments straight out of Rear Window (1954). The film’s ironic coda owes as much (thematically, at least) to Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961) – 4/5

Constructed like a rather noirish detective film, Victim stars Dirk Bogarde as a prominent London barrister (and closeted homosexual) who finds himself embroiled in a blackmail scheme and vows to track down the culprits. Homosexuality was then illegal in England (legally sanctioned eventually in 1967) and these laws were commonly known as “the blackmailer’s charter.” Dearden does an especially fine job limning the pervasive, pernicious influence exerted by common views of homosexuality as masculine weakness and moral rot, as well as the consequent repression and concealment necessary among the gay community. Not surprisingly, given its controversial subject matter and unflinching depiction, the film was screened in very few theaters domestically, owing to the stringent strictures of the Production Code.

About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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