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Wednesday, Jan 24, 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This week: A pair of perverted takes on technology and extortion.

Electronic Lover (1966)



Buried somewhere deep in the heart of Manhattan, a sadistic voyeur named “The Master” sends his sibling slave (who he refers to as “Brother”) out to spy on the ladies of New York. Hoping to catch them in flagrante delicto – in other words, naked and naughty as the day is long – Brother stumbles around the city with what looks like a vacuum cleaner attachment in his hands. Turns out, it’s a high tech camera, allowing the perv to pry into the privacy of the numerous nasty girls Master has his erotica eye on. As he aims his plastic probe into the windows of his prey, our technological Peeping Tom sits back in his burlap-covered bungalow and monitors the collection of lady lumps from a screen on his room-sized computer. When Brother mucks up and messes with the image, Master shouts out long, laborious monologues, peppering his rants with various demands for more, MORE, MORE!!! When the women get wise and confront him, Master goes all moist, proving that his dysfunction is more emotional than erectile. Indeed, he is an Electronic Lover, only potent when transistors and a ‘motherboard’ are involved.


In the annals of exploitation, it is hard to find a film as outrageously bizarre as Electronic Lover. Granted, it’s not as surreal as The Godmonster of Indian Flats, and can barely hold a craven candle to Confessions of a Psycho Cat or foreign freak-outs like My Baby is Black or When Men Carried Clubs and Women Played Ding Dong, but in contrast to the rest of the raincoat canon, this creepy peeper exercise is mighty malfeasant. Besides, any movie which features a man making out with himself (thanks to a well placed wall mirror) and relying on some simulated self-service to get his repugnant rocks off is already illustrating its grand depraved delusions. The sickeningly incestual conceit between Master and Brother – he of the wealthy erotic eccentricity, the other a mute doormat who prowls around town looking for lewdness – is accentuated by the random bits of babe burlesque, each of our well-known sleaze screen queens (including Uta Erickson and Linda Boyce) exposing their epidermis for the sake of some slick exhibitionist’s wet daydream. Since most of the movie follows along the thinnest clothesline of a plot – Master wants Brother to find the realistic replicas of his nightmarish fantasy fodder – director Jesse Berger does little more than offer up various vignettes of simulated slap and tickle.


Indeed, the best parts of Electronic Lover aren’t the groovy grindhouse gals going gonzo in their bare ass brazenness. No, the moments that will have your cinematic synapses in an uproar arrive whenever Master has one of his certified nutty nervous breakdowns. Desperate to find the vice in his icky internal visions, he yells at Brother in long, hilarious harangues that sound like outtakes from a pervert’s primal scream sessions. Face scrunched up like it’s smashed against a window, eyes wide open (the better to catch the profuse sweat flowing off the loathsome lothario’s face) and mouth mimicking a grimace, Master (played by nobody Mike Atkinson) could give Rev. Jim Jones a run for his Messianic madman money. So convinced he owns the world that he feels free to spy on it, Master makes the crucial mistake that most deviants do – he lets his lust dement and destroy his life. That’s why we buy the odd living arrangements, the frequent hallucinations, and the ending that twists everything onto itself until the narrative shouts “Uncle” and finally falls apart. One of those heralded “has to be seen to be believed” efforts, Electronic Lover is a brazen bit of binary ballyhoo.


The Spy Who Came (1969)



Harry Harris is one of New York’s finest – and slimiest – vice cops. When he’s not wowing his superiors with his evidence tampering skills, he’s “pumping” his suspects for potential information. One day, after several long hours of framing hookers, Harry heads off to a local bar to drown his sorrows. There he meets a very odd young lady, so robotic in her expressions that automatons are jealous of her rigidity. Turns out she’s a plant, a way to get Harry into the hands of a drug addled Arab sheik who wants to blackmail most of the UN. Seems they have pictures of Harry humping the citizenry, and will show them to the lawman’s future bride if he doesn’t cooperate. With the fuzz on his side, the Middle Eastern madman has that much more extortion emphasis on his possible targets. Naturally, Harry agrees, and soon discovers the unholy horrors of the operation’s white slave situation. Luckily, his boss finds out about the set-up and sends in a French detective from Interpol to help break up this cabal. The rest of the movie is made up of shots of women being whipped, stripped and clipped, all in hopes of being the bait for The Spy Who Came


Unlike Electronic Lover, a film that constantly wants to remind you of the entire Master/Brother dynamic, The Spy Who Came sets up its storyline, and then quickly abandons it for more garish girlie gawking. Once we’ve established that Harry is a letch, that the Arab is insane, and that the broken down castle that acts as a hideout is really nothing more than Olga’s House of Shame minus Audrey Campbell, we settle in to enjoy what director Ron Wertheim has to offer. Sadly, it’s more of the scripted strip show routine, women baring it all for the sake of some salacious skin flicking. It starts when our entranced tart shows up at Harry’s favorite dive bar and begins seducing him. Her vacant stare must have some sort of aphrodisiacal powers, since our hero hops into bed with her PDQ. It’s only later than we learn that this is Harry’s miscreant MO. A funny scene has our villainous Arab presenting the police officer with photos of his dalliances, and actual film of his faux fornicating. No wonder he’s so willing to help out the criminal cause. Harry’s seed has been spread from one end of the Big Apple to the other.


Thankfully, the film fails to follow up on the whole UN/diplomatic immunity/international scandal plotting and instead turns into your typical episodic erotica. One of the highlights here is a sequence where a ‘sex slave in training’ is educated on how to pleasure a man. Practicing various positions – doggy, reverse cowgirl – to an instructional recording seems strange enough. Now add in her partner, a particularly bizarre looking male mannequin (complete with absent eyes and dislocated arms) and you’ve got some of the most hilarious sensual slapstick ever caught on celluloid. Our unknown actress deserves some kind of amorous acknowledgment for making feigned frigging with a wooden doll seem totally plausible. As for the rest of the narrative, it’s a deranged downward spiral into more nudity, more nonsensical plot turns, and a final action sequence that features our Arab antagonist naked, the worst armed guards in the history of criminality, and a bunch of toga wearing girls chasing a topless temptress as she tries to escape. Wow! Though the title is a tad too clever to actually link directly to the story, The Spy Who Came is still a sensational head scratcher of a film. Its purpose is as cloudy as its morals.


As they do every so often, Something Weird Video (via their distributor, Image Entertainment) unleashes these unknown exploitation gems on an already jaded fan base. Including lots of interesting supplements (trailers, archival short subjects, educational films and groovy grindhouse galleries) and the best tech specs available (in this case, 1.33:1 monochrome images and Dolby Digital Mono mixes) the leading company in taboo-busting temptations really delivers this time. Even the jaw dropping late ‘60s look at science (a surreal slice of Americana called “The Philosophy of Computing”) adds to the overall success of this strange presentation. While there are far more definitive examples of what made the skin and sin genre famous, Electronic Lover/ The Spy Who Came are two terrific bawdy brain busters. Each example of freakish flesh peddling is as crazy as it is carnal – for better and for worse.



Image Entertainment’s‘s DVD of Electronic Lover/The Spy Who Came was released on 23 January, 2007. For information on this title from Amazon.com, just click here


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Wednesday, Jan 24, 2007

“Pathologies of Hope,” Barbara Ehrenreich’s editorial in the most recent Harper’s, seeks to throw some cold water on the budding positive psychology movement (detailed in this NYT magazine piece), which she argues is basically a call to narcissistic selfishness, if not more useless self-blaming advice along the lines of Who Moved My Cheese? The “insight” of that slim pernicious volume is that change in business is inevitable and unstoppable (the dumbed-down version of what Schumpeter called “creative destruction”) and it is incumbent upon you not to ask why things are changing as they are but to meekly adapt to whatever they happen to be. Essentially you are powerless, the book reminds you, just a rat in a maze, so you should accept the fact that your betters are experimenting on you rather than seek an end to the cruelty. If you accept the inevitablility of the situation, you might just be happy within it.


It’s no accident that Martin Seligman, the guru of the positive psychology movement, is also credited with formulating the theory of learned helplessness, wherein subjects internalize conditions in which they are deprived of agency and come to feel they are incapable of doing anything meaningful. They blame themselves for things out of their control and think any action they will take will compound failure. This is basically the flip side of positive psychology, which also encourages you to see personal agency where you have none, but rather than developing negative momentum by assuming false reponsibility for bad things, you try to develop positive momentum by spuriously assuming unwarranted responsibility for good things. Some of the same misattributions that cause depression can also cause inexplicable baseless happiness (i.e. optimism); basically, emotional cause and effect are presumed to be reversible—we feel depressed or happy, and derive rationalizations for this afterward.


Of course, that is not how positive psychology is sold to its practictioners. Telling someone to simply pretend to be happy no matter what the circumstances is unlikely to be convincing. Instead happiness gurus emphasize doing good deeds (sending letters of gratitude, aggressively smiling at people) as these promote a feeling of positive agency—they give the fundamental attribution error something to work with. And you should discover what you are good at and shape your personality around that, to enhance the likelihood of flow experiences, of being “in the zone” and experiencing “mindfulness.”


Ehrenrich, a cancer survivor who was infuriated at the constant injunction that she needed to have a positive attitude about her situation to get better, is having none of this. Pretending that positive thinking can magically make miracles happen and remove all obstacles from life seems to her a dangerous illusion, not merely because it detaches a person from reality (“should I assume, positively, that no one is going to cut in front of me or, more negatively, be prepared to brake?”) but because “it seems to reduce our tolerance of other people’s suffering…. If no one will listen to my problems, I won’t listen to theirs: ‘no whining’ as the popular bumper stickers and wall plaques warn.” In other words, positive psychology undermines the effects of sympathy that Adam Smith, et. al., found so fundamental to the healthy functioning of a society otherwise fixated on self-interest. If Ehrenreich is right,  positive psychology instructs people to ignore the impulse to understand other’s feelings and instead impose on them your positive mood by force—like Rousseau suggested, you will force them to be free. As a more-contemporary philosopher bitterly noted, “Mellow out or you will pay.”


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Wednesday, Jan 24, 2007

If you think that headline’s a little over the top, peep these articles and then tell me that the RIAA and its major label backers aren’t looking to the courtrooms for some quick money as their sales revenues are drying up.  As has been pointed out many times (but still not often enough), they need to spend more on tech innovation and less on litigation if they wanna stick around.


- Music industry threatens ISPs over piracy


- Universal, MySpace set for landmark battle


- Squeezing Money From the Music


- Music downloads in downward trend


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Wednesday, Jan 24, 2007


Usually when the chamber of commerce for some region wants to promote its business friendliness, they put in a multi-spread insert with glossy photos of smiling natives and supplicant political leaders next to scenic vistas and colorful graphs and charts and that sort of thing. And usually some paragraphs of indigestible business speak are inserted to convey the impression that the region knows how the game is played and can speak the lingua franca.


But for this ad, from this week’s Economist, the country of Macedonia has taken a decidedly more straightforward approach. This looks the kind of ad you’d ordinarily see selling used cars or office space, not a nation. Not just a business haven; it’s business heaven! My favorite part is the pencil checking off the outline of the nation on the map, as if a CEO is sitting there studying the European map like a fiendishly diabolical Diplomacy player, deciding finally, “Macedonia? Abundant cheap labor and Wi-Fi? Check!” There’s almost something appealing about this ad’s bluntness, the useful checklist for would-be outsourcers.  There’s no shame, no lip service at all for the victims of globalization. Since the ad was slipped in the middle of a long special section about how justified exorbitant CEO pay really is, perhaps all parties involved assumed no one who didn’t share these values—no one who wouldn’t be appalled at the way just how little the average worker makes is proudly trumpeted as as a benefit—would notice it.


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Tuesday, Jan 23, 2007


Horror films, by their very nature, function as escape in the most primal of forms. They offer a chance for an audience to sit back, relax, and allow their instinctual sense of distress to overwhelm and startle them. As the dread grows thicker and more palpable, the body begins to shed its inhibitions and warrants. By the end of the saga, with the climax pushing the blood and adrenaline through the body at an alarming rate, the entire internal circuitry is alive! Then the lights go on and there is relief. There is catharsis, release, and a dispersion of pent-up emotions and feelings. It is a kind of therapy. It is a daredevil thrill ride. It is a throwback to the very essence of our humanity.


More times than not, the fright flick is a simple statement, a competition between killer and victim, between monster and mankind, for control of who lives and who dies. Occasionally, important social topics can be tossed into the ghouls and goblins. The Exorcist is more about the growing disconnect between single parents and terrifying teen angst than channeling a challenge by Satan. Hellraiser showcases the ultimate betrayal within a marriage—a wife seeking comfort in the bloody, zombified corpse of her husband’s brother. Even something as recent as 28 Days Later wants to warn us about the poisons within—the out-of-control military, animal experimentation, human rage—more than shocking us with the living dead dynamic.


Then there are horror films that work on our psychology, playing with the possibilities and concepts we’re comfortable with, only to twist and subvert them. Directors as diverse as David Lynch, Dario Argento, and David Cronenberg have all fashioned fear out of the circumvention of normal human understanding, from the disgusting dissertation on parenthood known as Eraserhead to the doctors-as-doppelgangers delirium of Dead Ringers. Yet when it comes to being the king of cranial corruption, Georges Franju has no equal. In 1959—while American movies were focusing on monsters and atomic mutations—Franju was inventing the modern mindf*ck fright film. Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans Visage in the native tongue) is one of the landmarks of horror for everything it does, and for all the things it avoids. With the grisly story of a surgeon obsessed with restoring his daughter’s disfigured face, one would expect a gruesome, blood-soaked saga of body snatching, evisceration, and sin. But Eyes Without a Face is a far more complicated and cogent film than that. It wants to discuss issues inherent in both science and the parent/child relationship, as well as focus on forging forceful fear factors.


On the most fundamental basis, Eyes Without a Face is Frankenstein without the monster. Or maybe, it’s more of an incidental look at the creation of a modern Prometheus in parenthood. It’s definitely a tale of science perverted and ego outsized. In the cold, clinical, but still highly compassionate personage of Dr. Génessier, Franju sets up the first of several strict juxtapositions, a directorial device utilized to create both tension and torture. Here is a man well known for his charitable work, and a clinic that has a remarkable success rate with its curative powers. But there is indeed much more to this measured man of science. There is the secret chateau, the foreboding home that hides his most hideous secrets. As he heals the sick, he lies to the police. As he prescribes sedatives and salves, he’s cutting up college girls in his hidden lair. On the outside, he has the smart, serene look of a man of learning. On the inside, he is a raging torrent of disappointment and deranged desire. Between the doctor and Louise, the serene servant who also commits the most heinous of crimes, we have two villains who possess none of the necessary nemesis elements of fright films past. Both Louise and Dr. Génessier give off the aura of human empathy and settled sanity. But when thrust into the painful passion of helping the mangled Christiane regain her face, this couple becomes a study in startling contrasts. Using friendship, familiarity, and force, they befriend and then butcher young women, performing sick acts of surgery for the sake of a single goal.


The centerpiece of Eyes Without a Face is the mid-movie operation sequence, a riveting and revolting slice of slaughter that must have sent the crowds scurrying in the early ‘60s. The step-by-step, slice-by-slice removal of a young woman’s face is violent and vicious enough to make Ed Gein and his cinematic counterpart, Leatherface, extremely happy. Though it’s realized in Franju’s black and white cinematography, it still has the ability to sicken and unsettle—especially when Génessier grabs that long metal prod and starts systematically loosening the flesh from the female’s basic bone structure. By the time we close in to see the skin mask removed in an agonizingly languid take, Franju has accomplished his goal.


A basic reading of the plot would suggest some manner of mean-spirited melodrama, a soggy story of a devoted dad trying everything humanly—and inhumanely—possible to help his child. But Franju wants you to understand just what such devotion means. Though we witness the drugging, the mortifying mutilation of dogs (only suggested, not actually shown), and the laser-sharp focus on his medical objectives, we don’t really understand just how hideous Dr. Génessier’s calling really is until we watch him tear off a human face. When we learn that this is one of several attempts to address his daughter’s disfigurement, the undercurrent of alarm is enhanced. This is a man who will stop at nothing and who will do anything to restore his child. We need to see just how outlandish and extreme his methods will become. Thanks to one of the most ghastly scenes in modern movie macabre, we get the disturbing idea.


Who Dr. Génessier is and what he stands for are all part of Franju’s overriding conceit for Eyes Without a Face. As the title more or less suggests, this is a film concerned with identity and the lack thereof. The entire narrative uses the theme of identification, of who people are and what they are made of, to craft a dissertation on the importance of such a point of personal and professional reference. Looking at all the aspects of the film—the doctor who appears to be a charitable godsend, but actually spends his nights in serial killer-like mayhem; the police who make a living out of deciphering the identity of washed-up corpses, only to try and connect them to specific crimes; the housekeeper who plays both benefactor and assassin—we see that Franju enjoys the double layer of meaning within his characters and circumstances.


Everyone in the film serves double, or even triple purposes. Louise is nurse, confidante and co-conspirator. The ex-fiancé Jacques is business partner (he works with Dr. Génessier), lost lover, and aid to the police. Perhaps in Christiane and her father we have the clearest examples of cross-interpersonal purposes. Dr. Génessier feels guilt as a father, healer, surgeon, specialist, and driver (he caused the accident that disfigured his child), and uses a persona of strict gravity to hide his inner contempt. Christiane is a monster, a maiden, and a victim. She is a vital human being and a shamed shadow of her former self. She’s a reminder of the good times of the past and a constant source of criminally inspired culpability to those she lives with. It is this battle between bickering and battling human personalities and personas that gives Eyes Without a Face a great deal of its uneasy psychological weight. We never know whom we’re going to meet when a particular character arrives onscreen. And this is one of the reasons why the film is so effective in its casual creepiness.


Visuals are also very important to Eyes Without a Face. Indeed, it can be argued that this film is more of a throwback to older, silent film ideas in which imagery told the tale more effectively than words. Franju wants to create specific icons, images that will stand out and resonate beyond their moment in the film. He knows they will taint issues and individuals later on. Once we’ve witnessed the hideous handiwork of the doctor, we begin to worry for all other female characters who show up in the film. When Christiane has a sole, soft-focus moment where her real, fractured face is revealed, her deteriorating mental state suddenly comes into crystal clarity. All of her oddities, the late night phone calls and spectral-like glides around the house, start to make sense. As a masked mirage for most of the film, Christiane’s camouflaged face, a delicate and pristine creation of porcelain doll plainness, leaves an incredible impression. As we see the blank beauty and manufactured polish, we start to wonder if this entire enterprise is not some mad delusion. When she is temporarily “cured” and given a new, flesh façade, Christiane is hauntingly similar to the mask she’s been wearing. She is less than human, a nearly flawless flower that her father is desperate to preserve.


The performance by Edith Scob, a combination of grace and ghoul, is one of the most amazing elements of Eyes Without a Face. Spending most of her screen time behind an expressionless plate, she must convey all her emotion through her eyes and her body movements. Lithe, limber, and very laconic, Christiane troubles her home like a pretty poltergeist; a sad, simple shape longing to be normal again. It’s these pictographic elements that make Eyes Without a Face so memorable, moving the movie beyond the basic scare tactics of horror films.


From the surgical set piece to the clever use of a montage of photographs to illustrate Christiane’s disintegrating post-operative face, Franju was ahead of his time with Eyes Without a Face, both as a storyteller and as a visionary. In 1959, most horror films were dealing with outrageous elements and even more illogical circumstances to sell their scares. No one, save for Hitchcock, was looking at horror from a serious, adult format. But Franju obviously understands how much power there is in treating his subject with deep and abiding respect. From a narrative standpoint, his film is a study in simple construction and plotting. We see a crime at the start of the story, and then it is connected to Génessier (although not how you think). Then we move through the entire murder/mutilation angle before the third act action draws its denouement.


Directorially, Franju never cheats the audience. Everything is out in the open in Eyes Without a Face, never thrust to the background or hinted at in suggestion. Surely the film has its secrets (the experiments with the dogs are only hinted at), and obviously not all the horror is played out immediately. But what Franju is attempting is to drag the fright film out of the realm of the supernatural and the bizarre and frame it within the everyday world of contemporary France. There is never a desire to blame all the badness on spirits or demons. Franju knows that man is the ultimate evil in the world, and it is via the hand of the human that all the wickedness and destruction occurs. It is easy to blame acts of debasement and immorality on unseen entities bloated with the power to pervert. It is another thing all together to see and champion said tendency toward sin in one’s fellow man. This is what Eyes Without a Face is illustrating. We may be able to act without impunity, or a “face,” but our souls (which our eyes are the windows into) will always know our betrayal.


It is this matter-of-fact, straightforward approach in combination with horribly misguided motivations that makes Eyes Without a Face one of the classics of contemporary horror. It is a building block, a stepping-stone between the Universal idiom of beasts and baddies and the modern notions of terror around every real-world corner. It lays the foundation for numerous innovations within the genre as it utilizes old dark house Gothic parameters to meet its needs. Though some may consider it tame by the Raimi / Romero/ Argento standards of blood and guts, its mixture of the beautiful with the baneful, the gorgeous with the grotesque, is more unsettling than any overblown gorefest.


Though Georges Franju was working within a well-known format in his native France (Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the famous writing duo behind Diabolique and Vertigo, crafted the crime story here) he was also attempting to expand the movie macabre, moving it out of the unreal regions of life and existence and into the concrete jungle of the actual world we live in. From its moody, magnificent look to an ending that suggests both destruction and rebirth, Eyes Without a Face is a monumental achievement in the arena of psychological horror. It shocks as it soothes, simultaneously confronting and comforting us. It is that rarity from the early part of cinema’s history, and yet it resonates more readily with a present-day audience than perhaps it did with individuals in its time. After all, back in the late ‘50s, we were mostly unaware of the evil going on right under our noses. Today, we practically wallow in it. Eyes Without a Face is a fascinating, frightening experience.


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