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DVD Reviews for 1/19: Jess One Of Those Things

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful critic advises younger and more sensitive readers to skip over this week's column as it delves into DVD offerings more depraved and deranged than usual

One of the things that I like to do in this column is point you in the direction of some of those intriguingly off-beat titles that might otherwise escape notice in the wake of more highly publicized releases. Every once in a while, however, there is a release so obscure that it eludes even my reasonably fine-tuned radar until I come upon it in a store or find a listing for it weeks or months down the line. This week, I would like to call your attention to two such titles–the ultra-weird and ultra-kinky horror-sex odysseys “Macumba Sexual” (1981) and “Mansion of the Living Dead” (1982)–that were released last October by the fringe label Severin Films. These aren’t the greatest films ever made or even the best films to be mentioned in this week’s column. However, the mere fact that such oddities even exist today in the DVD market is something worth noting.

These films were the brainchild of Spanish director Jess Franco, one of the most decidedly unique individuals in the not-exactly-staid history of European exploitation filmmaking. Since 1959, according to IMDB, he has directed approximately 180 films under his name as well as dozens of pseudonyms. Although he occasionally flirted with respectability–at one point, he had something to do with the filming of Orson Welles’s abandoned “Don Quixote” project–most of his film were either B-level horror films, sex films of varying degrees of core or strange mixtures of the two. Although some critics–most notably Tim Lucas–have tried to make the case for him as some kind of auteur, the typical Franco film (at least of the ones that I have seen) tends to be a messy mixture of incoherent plotting, tatty production values and actors chosen more for their willingness to disrobe than their thespic abilities.

That said, there is no mistaking a Franco film for the work of any other filmmaker and when he is actually inspired to do more than go through the motions (as in 1971's “Vampyros Lesbos” and “She Killed in Ecstacy” and 1973's “Female Vampire”). At these times, the results are strangely hypnotic to behold in the way that they are about nothing so much as a filmmaker frankly indulging in his pet obsessions without letting anything–least of all coherence or commercial considerations–get in the way of capturing the images that he wants to see. (In this regard, one could compare Franco’s work to that of his fellow countryman Luis Bunuel or David Lynch’s current “Inland Empire,” though I wouldn’t recommend trying it for an extended period of time.)

The two films under discussion here are typical Franco frappes of sex, blood, hyperactive camera moves and outright weirdness. In “Macumba Sexual,” Lina Romay (Franco’s longtime wife, collaborator and muse) stars as Alice, a bored housewife disturbed by inexplicable erotic nightmares involving a mysterious black woman, Tara, who leads around two naked men on leashes as pets. A real estate broker, Alice is sent to work on a deal at the remote desert home of Princess Obango (American transsexual performer Ajita Wilson) and discovers that she is the spitting image of Tara. In fact, Obango is really Tara, Princess of Darkness and she has lured Alice out as part of a nudity-choked plan in which her spirit will possess the body of her guest and inhabit it for the next 300 years. I don’t want to spoil exactly what transpires except to quote the back of the DVD package, which promises “lesbian ecstacy, frenzied threesomes, bisexual orgies and beyond!”

As astonishing as it may sound, “Mansion of the Living Dead’ is even more bizarre, perverse and extreme than “Macumba Sexual.” In this one, a quarter of horny waitresses (including Lina Romay) go on vacation in the Canary Islands and check into a strange seashore hotel that they are told is virtually full, even though the only other people around appears to be the creepy hotel manager. Immediately, the four women pair off to indulge in their sapphic sides before they are lured, one by one, inside a nearby 17th century monastery and attacked by the devil-worshiping zombie Knights Templar lurking inside. When Romay goes in to investigate, it turns out that she is the reincarnation of a princess that the zombies sacrificed hundreds of years ago and that she may hold the key to their salvation. (If you ever saw the cult horror film “Tombs of the Blind Dead” and speculated what it might have been like with decidedly matronly-looking bisexual women thrown into the mix, this film might be the answer to your prayers.)

Like nearly all of Franco’s work, “Macumba Sexual” and “Mansion of the Living Dead” are simply not for most viewers. In this case, that is especially true because each one frankly references at least one of his earlier works–“Macumba Sexual” is a virtual remake of “Vampyros Lesbos” and “Mansion of the Living Dead” owes more than a bit of its surreal imagery to “Female Vampire.” In fact, I would venture to guess that 99% of those attempting to watch them–even those who have seen a Franco film or two in the past and have a better idea of what to expect–are likely to walk away confused, irritated or downright offended. However, those of you who suspect that you might be among that 1% might want to check these two discs out and investigate a world of filmmaking that you probably never even dreamed existed. Love them or hate them, the films of Jess Franco are the kind of things that no one who sees them ever forgets–no matter how hard they may try.

MACUMBA SEXUAL: Directed by Jess Franco. Starring Candy Coster (Lina Romay), Ajita Wilson, Robert Foster and Jess Franco. 1981. 80 minutes. Unrated. A Severin Films release. $29.95

MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD: Directed by Jess Franco. Starring Candy Coster (Lina Romay), Mabel Escano, Robert Foster and Eva Leon. 1982. 93 minutes. Unrated. A Severin Films release. $29.95


BEST OF HOOTENANNY (Shout! Factory. $39.95): This early-60's weekly variety show was designed to capitalize on the then-current folk music revival by showcasing performances by the leading names in the genre. Unfortunately, the decision to blacklist certain performers (such as Pete Seeger) resulted in many of those leading names choosing to boycott it instead. (The entire show would be cancelled after two seasons once the folk fad faded in the face of the British Invasion.) As a result, you won’t find the likes of Bob Dylan, the Kingston Trio or Peter, Paul and Mary on this 3-disc set but there are enough interesting performances (including an early appearance by Carly Simon as one-half of The Simon Sisters and some stand-up comedy from Woody Allen) to make it worth a look for unreconstructed folkies and fans of “A Mighty Wind” alike.

BORDER RADIO (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): In this quirky 1987 obscurity from co-directors Allison Anders, Kurt Voss and Dean Lent, a musician robs a club that owes him money and high-tails it to Mexico while his wife and some friends try to track him down. Although admittedly kind of a mess, partly because of the ultra-low-budget and partly because of the way that the project developed during the shooting, it does have its charms and, more importantly, it stands as a memorial to the glory days of the 1980's indie-rock movement (the soundtrack is studded with shoulda-been hits and the cast includes X’s John Doe and Dave Alvin of The Blasters) as well a reminder of the early and innocent days of the American indie film movement before the success of “sex, lies and videotape” changed the landscape forever.

DIE YOU ZOMBIE BASTARDS! (Image Entertainment. $19.99): I have no idea what this could possibly be but I do know that whenever I have an opportunity to list a title along the lines of “Die You Zombie Bastards!,” I will take it without hesitation.

EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH (Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment. $28.98): Superstore employees Dane Cook and Dax Shepard battle each other in an effort to win both the title honor and the heart of new cashier Jessica Simpson. All this and Andy Dick too–I can’t believe that I, not to mention most of the moviegoing public, somehow passed on catching this during its brief theatrical run last fall.

GRIDIRON GANG (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.95): Yeah, it is another by-the-numbers film in which a rag-tag group of misfits (in this case, a bunch of gang-bangers locked up in a juvenile facility) learn to pull together and work as a team for a common goal (in this case, form a prison football squad) while under the care of a sympathetic adult who wants to help them better themselves (in this case, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). And yet, thanks in no small part to the solidly convincing performance by Johnson, this particular take was actually pretty good despite the predictability of the material.

MOUCHETTE (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): Although the late French director Robert Bresson is generally regarded as one of the all-time great filmmakers and while I understand intellectually why he is revered so highly, I have never quite seen the appeal of his sternly austere works myself. That said, this 1967 effort depicting the unhappy day-to-day life of a poor 14-year-old girl is, along with “Pickpocket” and “The Trial of Joan of Arc,” one of his best works and arguably the most accessible for general audiences. However, be warned that this could well be the most depressing movie ever made involving children and yes, I have seen “Snoopy, Come Home.”

LA MOUSTACHE (Koch Lorber. $29.98): In this quirky French head-spinner, a man impulsively shaves off the mustache he has sported for years and not only does no one seem to notice, his wife and close friends insist that he never had one in the first place. That is only the start of this decidedly odd film that you most likely never even got a chance to see because of the grim state of theatrical distribution for most foreign-language films today. You should definitely check it out because it is a pretty engrossing tale, it features the equally engrossing Emmanuelle Devos as the wife and because when the inevitable American remake comes along, you can brag about how that one just doesn’t compare to the original.

THE PROTECTOR (The Weinstein Company. $29.95): In yet another display of the quiet respect that they demonstrated with their handling of numerous Jackie Chan and Jet Li titles while at Miramax, Harvey and Bob Weinstein took the film “Tom Yum Goong,” martial-arts star Tony Jaa’s follow-up to his international hit “Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior,” and “improved” it by chopping it from 108 minutes to 81, slapped on both an utterly anonymous title (which was the same one used by one of Chan’s ill-fated early attempts to crack the U.S. market) and a “Quentin Tarantino Presents” banner and then dumped it in theaters without showing it to the very critics that had largely embraced “Ong-Bak” a year earlier. Perhaps in a tacit acknowledgment that this strategy might have been flawed, this DVD set contains both the original version as well as the U.S. cut-down. Regardless of which version you watch, the film is silly but reasonably entertaining and contains what may have been the single most impressive non-“Children of Men” Steadicam shot of the year–without going into too much detail, imagine what “Enter the Dragon” might have been like in the hands of Brian De Palma.

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE–THE BEGINNING (New Line Home Entertainment. $28.98): Aside from an occasionally amusing turn from the reliably over-the-top R. Lee Ermey (and even he wears out his welcome after a while), this pointless cash-in prequel (which pretty much kills any possible suspense regarding who will live and who will be reduced to hamburger) to the equally repellent 2003 remake was so ugly, boring and pointless that even the most easy-to-please gorehounds found themselves shunning it in droves.

THAT’S SO SUITE LIFE OF HANNAH MONTANA (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $19.99): As I do not watch the Disney Channel on any regular basis (though I keep scanning the listings in the hopes they will one day show “Condorman” again), I couldn’t even begin to explain this mash-up special involving characters from three of its most popular shows interacting with each other. However, if you have a ten-year-old in your house, I suspect they will probably be able to fill in the blanks for you.

UNDISPUTED II: LAST MAN STANDING (New Line Home Entertainment. $19.98): For reasons that I am at a loss to explain, someone has produced a direct-to-video sequel to Walter Hill’s sadly underrated 2002 exploration of the prison and boxing movie genres and given it a subtitle taken directly from another sadly underrated Hill film. On the bright side, if this succeeds, I just might be able to get the backing for my own spec script for “Streets of Fire II: Supernova,” a sci-fi/musical/action epic featuring Mandy Moore as Diane Lane, James Spader as Michael Pare, Rick Moranis as Rick Moranis and Angela Bassett’s head atop Robin Tunney’s body as Amy Madigan.

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originally posted: 01/19/07 18:25:16
last updated: 01/28/07 11:15:56
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