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Saturday, Jan 20, 2007


The title alone should have horror film fans drooling in undeniable anticipation. It encapsulates almost everything about the genre that fright fiends love. Then, when you happen upon a synopsis of the plot, the schlock circuits inside your macabre mentality blast into overdrive. A superhero serial killer battling a mad scientist who wants to overthrow the planet by turning the populace into zombies? Where do I sign up? Well, the answer is imprinted all over Caleb Emerson’s motion picture madness. With his second feature film, Die You Zombie Bastards!, this Massachusetts moviemaker is out to recapture the glory days of bad b-movies, a canon covering the campy classics of the 1950s up and through the VHS variables of the ‘80s. And the results are ridiculous – and absolutely hilarious.


The story does indeed start out bizarre, and then gets even stranger. After decapitating a group of hunters in the woods, murderous madman Red Toole (a spectacular turn by actor Tim Gerstmar) goes home to his weird wife Violet. After a little corpse grinding of their own, she presents him with a present – a homemade hero kit, including a red suit, big yellow rubber boots, and a cape made out of human flesh. How thoughtful. Meanwhile, a trio of sex bomb scientists tries to locate the legendary Amphibious Guy, a sea creature noted for his unusual genital prowess.


Unfortunately, they instead run into newly exiled alien uberlord Baron Nefarious, and he turns the girls into zombies. It’s the skuzzy spaceman’s goal to conquer the world, using his living dead device to turn the entire planet into walking corpses. Once he sees Violet, the Baron decides to kidnap her as well. Lost without the love of his life, Red dons his outfit, takes to the streets, and slowly makes his way to the desperado’s island retreat. Along the way, he must battle horny Swedish sluts, consult a Jamaican jinn, and decipher the stunted English of rockabilly legend Hasil Adkins. If he does, he will defeat Nefarious and get his vivisection-loving Violet back.


Like The American Astronaut, Rock and Roll Space Patrol: Action is Go, or the bravura Bleak Future, Emerson is definitely functioning within his own idiosyncratic space, a self-helmed universe where evil alien villains live in overdone mountaintop hideouts, sexy scientists explore exotic locales for a well endowed creature from the hack lagoon, and mass murderers make love among various and sundry severed body parts. It’s a place where local legendary slashers don coconut masks, and Rastafarian sages spend their time divining fortunes from their bathtub. It is also a land of penises – lots and lots of penises. For some reason, Emerson is obsessed with the male member, giving us multiple examples of fake phallus to laugh/cringe over during the course of the film. Yet the movie never feels overly gratuitous or sleazy. Instead, all the scatology is presented like a series of sketches in a Middle Schooler’s assignment notebook.


Such a spoof-a-riffic approach may bother some, especially those who hate for their favorite cinematic categories to get all tangled up and tacky. Yet Die You Zombie Bastards! is so expertly realized, so perfectly set within its own insular world that its not long before you forget all the movie type muck-ups and simply enjoy the entertainment being offered. Emerson is an expert deconstructionist, always finding the easiest way of taking the piss out of a situation. When our amiable anti-hero, the spree killer turned crime fighter Red Toole, speaks to the police, he puts on an air of thespian authority that’s so arch it’s richly insane. Similarly, when Nefarious goes on his rogue-mandated rants, he brings the kind of broad mannered mania that convinces us he really wants to rule the world. Since the actors clearly understand what Emerson is after, and share his peculiar view of how plot and personality are created, we witness a kind of cinematic symbiosis, a coming together of subject and approach that gets better and better as the movie motors along.


Indeed, Die You Zombie Bastards! never stops striving to bring something new to the terror title lampoon. When a Swedish bartender tells her story of Olaf, the nasty cheese demon who attacks young women with his breast wrecking fondue, the manner in which Emerson envisions the situation – first person POV shots, skinny imp arms stirring the lava-like fromage with insidious glee – sends us over the edge into pure dopey dada enjoyment. Similarly, the mandatory last act melee finds Red battling Nefarious while zombies take on robots, ninjas and some hilariously disobedient dog men. It’s a shame that more filmmakers don’t fill their films with as much imagination as this stellar satiric celebration. Granted, some of if can easily grow grating (the dominating dick jokes, in particular) and some may feel that, toward the end, Emerson repeats himself instead of striving for new narrative ground, but overall, we appreciate Die You Zombie Bastards! for what it aims for more than the targets it sporadically misses.


As stated before, it’s important to have actors who comprehend the crackpot conceits of the movie’s main motives. Without a cast ready to go along for the goofball ride, you end up with artistic elements battling at cross-purposes. Gertsmar does his utmost to fill out even the most ancillary role (he plays several here) and Geoff Mosher is masterful at capturing Nefarious’s clueless confusion. As Violet, the cannibal bride and loony lover of Red, Pippi Zornoza is far funnier when she’s not chewing up the scenery. In her initial scenes, she’s so over the top that we tend to dismiss her. But when Nefarious tries to taunt her during a pre-matrimony meal, the gal’s callous comeuppances are classic. Perhaps the most surprising turn is offered by ‘70s/‘80s porn idol Jamie Gillis. Mr. Meat Puppet plays Stavros, a kind of guardian angel/fairy oddfather for Red’s fantastic voyage. Instead of going for camp or cool, Gillis actually makes his supernatural sage a three dimensional entity, something we miss when fate steps in and turns things tragic.


But for many, the appearance of outsider rock god Hasil Adkins will be the butter on this terrific stack of puzzling pancakes. Old, doughy, and equiped with songs about such standard sonic facets as bacon and eggs (no…seriously), Adkins adds that dive bar David Lynch lunacy to the film, kind of like a rancid Roy Orbison with an entire back catalog of psychosis to draw from. His scenes one on one with Gertsmar are great, especially when you see the actor struggling to get the musical muse to make some sense. Like a detour into a visit with Satan’s personal songstylist, Adkins’ appearance is priceless – and even a little sad once we learn his unfortunate real life fate. It’s the final cherry on this silly sundae overloaded with luscious ice cream craziness and ribbons of fully f**ked up fudge.


Companies like Image should be proud of providing quality queerness like Die You Zombie Bastards!, especially when they give viewers a chance (via commentaries and featurettes) to learn a little about this kind of project’s production history. Once we witness the Herculean effort put in by Emerson, his company, and his more than happy to help crew, we see the signs that something special is about to be created. No one enjoys the process of independent filmmaking this much and doesn’t end up making a minor motion picture masterpiece. In this case, Caleb Emerson manages the full classic cult creation. While 2007 has barely begun, it is clear that, come 12 months from now, Die Your Zombie Bastards! will find its way onto some year end ‘best of’ list. Those who don’t cotton to this kind of lo-tech treat are missing something very extraordinary. More than surpassing its inferential moniker, this is definitely a movie to “die” for.



Image Entertainment’s‘s DVD version of Die You Zombie Bastards! was released on 16 January, 2007. For information on this title from Amazon.com, just click here


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Friday, Jan 19, 2007


All right, so it’s not the most accurate depiction of the rise and fall of the seminal punk band The Sex Pistols ever committed to film. Granted, both the brutal documentary The Filth and the Fury and the group’s own aborted big screen effort The Great Rock and Roll Swindle do a much better job of fleshing out the dynamic between drummer Paul Cook, guitarist Steve Jones, bassists Glen Matlock and Sid Vicious, and singer John “Rotten” Lydon than this mostly fictional biopic. Still, in an era inundated with mindless hair metal, when the DIY spirit of the ‘70s seemed a million greedy greenbacks away, rebel filmmaker Alex Cox parlayed his Repo Man cache into a chance at recreating Britain’s infamous bad boys and their import to the era. Part love story, part affectionate look at how punk purged an industry of its dinosaur daftness, Cox traded truth for social symbolism and created a three chord masterwork.


Instrumental in the film’s stunning success are the performances. Yes, this is the movie that introduced Gary Oldman to most of the world, the former UK TV fixture finally getting a chance to strut his amazing acting stuff across the Cineplex for all to see. His version of the stoic, slightly dim Sid Vicious is all party boy put-ons and little child terrors. Treating the moments both on and off stage as situations unfairly complicated by people, drugs, obligations and incompetence, Oldman locates the individual behind the icon, and watching him shift between the two is one of Sid and Nancy‘s major delights.


Similarly, Chloe Webb captures the demented desperation of the nauseating Nancy Spungen in brash, bitchy spades. Anyone familiar with this groupie’s terrifying true story will instantly see how Webb has softened, perhaps even salvaged the smack addicted slag. Behind all the tirades and temper tantrums, the sloppy sex and starf*cking facets, is a little girl that just wanted to be Barbie. Too bad about the bruises.


But there are other actors in this film, unsung heroes whose supporting work really anchors this occasionally out of control experience. Primary among the brilliant ancillary champions is Andrew Schofield, perfectly channeling Johnny Rotten’s rejection of all things phony and ‘boring’. Even his singing captures the frontman’s confrontational commentary style in ways that defy mere dramatics. The fact that everyone here, from Schofield to Oldman handled their own onstage vocal chores makes the tricky transformations that much more powerful.


Perhaps the most potent – and problematic - portrayal though is that of David Hayman as the master manipulator Malcolm McLaren. Having long lived off the reputation that he more or less manufactured the Sex Pistols like a mean-spirited, malfeasant Monkees (he even had the band cover the Pre-Fab Four’s “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone”), most historians now consider ‘Malcey Walkey’ a jaundiced joke, a sinister and shrewd businessman who used and abused a group of disgruntled youths to line his pockets. In Hayman’s hands, such huckster slickness is more or less absent. In its place is a hard working Svengali who balances propaganda with personality to guide his boys along the profits and pitfalls of the UK music scene. For many, it’s the most artificial note in a movie made up of rumors, legends, myths and innuendo.


Even with all the amazing music and pristine performances, this is still Cox’s film, and his visual style and narrative drive is nothing short of astounding. There are sequences here that rival the best that cinema has to offer in their artistry and effectiveness. For instance, after the band has broken up and Sid is stationed in Paris, trying to jumpstart a solo career, McLaren gets the stunning idea of having the tone deaf talent warble the Frank Sinatra standard “My Way”. Recreating the controversial film clip for the song (once only visible via the SNL exploitation oddity Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video), we see Oldman recreate the performance, move for move.


But there’s a single shot, a moment right before Vicious pulls out a gun and pretend assassinates the audience, where Cox’s captures everything Sid and Nancy stands for. Shot at an angle looking downward, the actor framed perfectly among the brightly lit stage, Oldman’s gawking glance, filled with both contempt and confusion, staggers us with its heartbreaking humanness. It’s as if, buried inside this talent free emblem of Britain’s desperate decline, is a real young man who simply wants to be understood. Dazed by the faux adulation provided by the extras, Vicious breaks out his pistol and begins firing. It’s a major moment in the movie, Sid’s last real defense of himself. After this, heroin and the harrowing situation with Nancy will spiral out of control, leading to the controversial conclusion that still haunts his legacy…and this film.


For many, the death of Nancy Spungen was not unexpected. She was a walking nightmare, a cruel, callous woman who chewed up and spit out people with a studied, egotistical abandon. Many view her as the true manipulative force in Sid’s life, and Cox makes no bones about jumping on that blame bandwagon. Spungen is constantly shown pushing Sid closer and closer to self-destruction, egging him on with as many calculated comments and confusing controls as possible. By the time the movie makes its third act descent into the couple’s lamentable life in New York, the pair become a composite, a collective of track-marked arms, collapsing veins, and interpersonal inevitability. As portrayed here, Sid kills Nancy as part of an accidental action. Rendered emasculated by her constant nagging, their supposed suicide pact falling apart, our puzzled youth lunges at his lady, knife poised to satisfy her self-absorbed whine.


Defenders of Vicious have often pointed to this conclusion as the final nail in the Sex Pistols’ sad saga, a tale about talent tripped up by forces outside the greater group dynamic. Some have even suggested that Cox got it wrong, that the couple’s copious consumption of drugs had more to do with Nancy’s death (let’s just say it has something to do with sex, smack, drug dealers and a lack of cash) than some trumped up decision to die together. Such a sense of eventual destruction does seem to permeate every fiber of this film, from the first moment Sid sees Nancy to the infrequent times when the pair are happy and having fun. They just appear destined to be driven to the dark side by each other’s longings and lackings. In the end, it really doesn’t matter if Sid and Nancy accurately portrays the story of the Sex Pistols. After all, the movie’s not named after the band now, is it?


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Thursday, Jan 18, 2007


Finally, SE&L has a new Friday format in place. Instead of focusing exclusively on the premium channels and the Saturday evening ‘event titles’ they feature, we will scan the weekly offerings to highlight a few independent and outsider efforts as well. This way, you don’t have to stick with the frequently mediocre mainstream selections. Instead, you can venture out into the realm of documentaries, classics, horror and foreign films to discover a preferred tele-visual repast. For the week beginning 19 January, here are the small screen possibilities:


Premiere Pick


Walk the Line


Boy oh boy does Tinsel Town love actors who can sing and dance. Indeed, critics went crazy for this Johnny Cash biopic, with most noting how honorable it was to see leads Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon singing the songs in their own voices. Similar to Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter (but unlike Jessica Lange in the Patsy Cline drama Sweet Dreams) the result was an Oscar for Witherspoon, serious consideration for Phoenix, and a decent box office run. Frankly, there is much more to this movie than a couple of younger generation Hollywood superstars warbling a collection of country and rockabilly classics. Both leads do something that’s rare in a cinematic biography—they get to the true heart of their celebrated counterparts. (20 January, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices


Big Momma’s House 2


Following Eddie Murphy’s formula for failing career rehabilitation, former blue comedian Martin Lawrence dons drag once again to portray that infamous obese black woman. Nothing more than a poorly concealed cash grab. (20 January, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Libertine


Johnny Depp puts on the period garb (yes—AGAIN! ) to play the 17th Century poet The Earl of Rochester. Overloaded with debauchery and attempted era authenticity, many found this to be a repugnant trip into the past. (20 January, Starz, 9PM EST)

The Longest Yard


Adam Sandler steps into Burt Reynolds shoes, and shows why, as an action hero, he should stick to comedy. Featuring Chris Rock and support from the former ‘70s box office king, it’s a genial if generic effort. (20 January, Showtime, 9PM EST)


Indie Pick


New York Doll


One of the best experiences a viewer can have is going into a movie cold, not knowing anything substantive about a story, and coming away mesmerized and moved. This is the experience most film and music fans will have when visiting this heroic and heartbreaking documentary. After moving to LA, director Greg Whiteley discovered that Arthur “Killer” Kane, bassist for the infamous New York Dolls, had survived decades of drugs and self-indulgence to become a fellow Mormon. Determined to tell the story of his rise and fall from star to street person, Whiteley learned that the Dolls were planning a reunion—and wanted Kane onboard. It resulted in a journey back to his rock roots, and for the director, a devastating portrait of a fragile human being rebuilt. (22 January, Sundance, 9:30PM EST)

Additional Choices


The Devil’s Backbone


In the first installment of what may end up being a fantasy meets Fascism trilogy, Guillermo Del Toro looks at an orphanage where both the ravages of war, and a solemn boy ghost, haunt the very walls. (20 January, IFC, 5:25PM EST)

George Washington


When their actions turn fatal, a group of children in an impoverished small town band together to cover up the incident. While it sounds simple, writer/director David Gordon Green’s morality tale is a complex, spellbinding wonder. (21 January, IFC, 3:10PM EST)

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg


Featuring an original score by Michel Legrand, this charming French musical (almost every conversation is set to song) reminds us that romance can be as weird and whimsical as an all singing spectacle. (25 January, Sundance, 7:15PM EST)

Outsider Option


Bubba Ho-Tep


Bruce Campbell deserved an Oscar nomination for his turn in this brilliant genre deconstruction. Playing a nursing home patient who may or may not be the real Elvis Presley (an impersonator plays an important part in the backstory), he brings a real emotional depth to what could have been a wholly craven caricature. After meeting up with Ozzie Davis’ JFK (don’t ask…) the duo battle a soul sucking mummy who has decided to target the elderly and infirmed. While horror fans will lap up the numerous scare sequences, what’s striking here is the acting ambitions of Campbell and Davis. These two bring a kind of humbling humanity to their otherwise over the top persona, and make this one of the best independent films ever. (21 January, IFC, 3:45PM EST)

Additional Choices


Curse of the Demon


Dana Andrews, and one incredibly creepy evil spirit, dominate this story of an ancient curse and the paranormal scientists who must defeat its unearthly effects. Featured as part of Rob Zombie’s TCM Underground presentations. (21 January, TCM, 2AM EST)

Night of the Comet


One the ‘80s best, this combination of teen potboiler and end of the world zombie-thon has some interesting things to say about the end of the world—and how adolescents deal with it. Great effects and post-apocalyptic atmosphere. (21 January, Flix, 10PM EST)

Rollercoaster


Back when Sensurround was an over-hyped gimmick (basically, a set of humungous woofers stacked inside a wooden box), this was its biggest hit. In truth, it’s nothing more than a cat and mouse thriller with the title amusement at the center. (24 January, Encore Drama, 2AM EST)

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Wednesday, Jan 17, 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: Doris Wishman gives us two nudist colony classics.


Blaze Starr Goes Nudist (1962)



Screen star Blaze Starr (who, oddly enough, only made a couple films) is tired of the grind of Hollywood and the celebrity lifestyle. She is also tired of lugging around two, huge bowling ball-sized breasts in a series of elaborate chestical infrastructures. She wants to get away from the pressure. She wants to get away from the endless nightclub appearances and pasty fittings. And she especially wants to get away from her greasy agent/fiancé/manfriend, if only to avoid getting oil stains on her fashionable gowns. After accidentally seeing a nudist camp film, she is captivated by the lifestyle, and before you can scream “don’t let them out,” Blaze is running around a local sun worshipper resort, under the shoulder boulders blowin’ in the wind. And there she falls for camp director Ralph, a swarthy tree stump in oversized shorts who seems to appreciate Blaze for her less…obvious assets.


Quite frankly, this movie is comically disorienting. It is not because director Doris Wishman moves away from her standard nudist colony film format and tries something new. Far from it. Doris is in perfect form here, shooting lamps on tables during conversation, and looping dialogue in over shots of people with glasses or phones covering their mouths. And it’s not because the nudists here are any more or less attractive. It’s the usual grab ass bag of beautiful people and those who should never, ever be shown clothed in public, let alone sans pants or panties.


No, there is something more devilish going on here, more fiendish and frightening. Honestly, the feeling of unease exists because of Ms. Starr’s chest…her mounded mammaries, her incredibly goofy gazongas. There is just something…how should it be said…freakish about them. Odd. Weird. Disturbing. By the time Blaze made this film she was far from the salad days of her early Burlesque career. And she obviously visited a back alley plastic surgeon to get her hooters to properly lift and separate. Unfortunately, she must have visited a passageway near a lunatic asylum, because some demented doc saddled our red headed beauty with a set of jugs so substantial that even a skilled milkman could not contain them. They sit on her clavicle like two misshapen reflecting garden orbs, and pounds of pancake makeup, literally, are swabbed all over them in a mad attempt to make them look less manufactured. Part of the fun of Blaze Starr Goes Nudist comes from serious contemplation of just what the hell is going on with her bust. Or what it resembles. Heads of genetically mutated cabbage? Overdeveloped Jiffy Pop popcorn? Pink Balloons stuffed to bursting with cottage cheese? It boggles the brain pan.


In the DVD department, Something Weird Video gives Blaze Starr Goes Nudist an absolutely gorgeous transfer, with only minimal scratches or age defects. The color is vibrant, especially in the all important flesh tone area. For extras, we get some archival footage of Ms. Starr in all her early blazing glory that intensifies the obtuse qualities of her new, late in career, cinematic bosom. We are also offered the “generic” trailer for the film. There is no title mentioned or offered, so that various permutations could be dubbed in later, to suit audience taste (or perhaps to fool the rubes into thinking they were going to see something different). It’s a true scarcity when a film can offer a bit of bare bawdiness, and address serious issues surrounding breast enlargement and enhancement procedures. Blaze Starr Goes Nudist does for silicone and saline what Doris Wishman does to cinema and directing: turns them into a puzzling, entertaining enigma.

Nude on the Moon (1961)



Jeff is a sexually frustrated scientist who pumps all his testosterone into space travel and a planned trip to the Earth’s satellite with the Professor, an arch associate with well-marbled hair. Unbeknownst to our obsessed lunar loon, his incredibly fertile secretary Cathy is willing to let him juggle her moon rocks - anytime, any place. Well, as with most plots involving far-fetched ideas, a relative drops dead and leaves Jet Jeff Jaguar enough greenbacks to search for intergalactic cheese whiz. So he and the Prof drop by Buck Rodger’s rummage sale, purchase some silly space togs, and blast off into the Milky Way. Being the first men on the Moon, they claim the scientific discovery of the ages (and something that Neil Armstrong would, oddly enough, never mention): everyone on the planet is nude, playing volleyball and/or sitting on rocks. Jeff immediately falls for the Queen, who resembles his undersexed secretary except without all those annoying Playtex accessories. Will Jeff stay with his newfound moon doll? Or will he return to earth, and teach Cathy about docking and re-entry?


Those who believe that Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek set the tone for serious science fiction are completely wrong. Doris Wishman, well known for her future shock foresight and space sensibilities, made many a male want to wander into the heavens in order to boldly grope what no man had groped before with Nude on the Moon. This is one of the best of the Doris Wishman nudist camp classics. It maximizes the inherent weirdness of Wishman’s unreal directing style with the indubitably bizarre surroundings of the only South Florida nature lover’s resort that looks like a combination Mayan spa and Morlock granary. Add to this grindstone as grindhouse plenty of wrinkled and sun-leathered bodkin bearers and several semi-striking model/actresses, apply pipe cleaner antennae, and you can tell ILM to kiss your asteroid. The result is a true alien landscape, one that seems recognizable and yet completely exotic and unsettling.


As for the all-important moon mission footage, Doris didn’t require complicated computer animation or difficult optical effects. Just borrow Captain Video’s backdrop and impose a flaming tampon over the vast cardboard galaxy to simulate a rocket launch. Shazam! Instant outer space opera! You don’t need Kubrick and his heavy handed 2001 philosophizing when Doris can offer the “feel” of galaxy surfing without any of the unnecessary realistic effects shots or talking computer pontifications? You may not rendezvous with Rama, but you will definitely feel spaced out.


As one of the earlier DVD releases from Something Weird Video, Nude on the Moon offers a spectacular full screen transfer but little else. The additional archival short subject is nothing more than a fake lunar landscape and a middle aged burlesque queen exposing her aurora borealis for the world, and the leering moon men, to see. Aside from the trailer and some poster art, that’s it. However, one can actually imply a special feature, if one wants. Wishman was one of the few exploitation directors to understand the importance of musical underscoring, since she wasn’t going to be bothered with frivolous soundtrack items like dialogue. So one can sit back and enjoy the brassy be-bopping, hip, happening lounge lizard strip show meets The Man with the Golden Arm style of cosmopolitan cool urban jazz constantly playing in the background as an imagined additional audio track of the isolated score. And the theme song is just the ginchiest. Nude on the Moon is the perfect kinky DVD cocktail. It takes a fifth of flesh, a splash of Angora sweater bitters, some rocket fuel, and just a hint of va-va-va-voom, and creates a truly intoxicating interstellar highball. It may not unlock every secret of the universe, but it does explain why Darth Vader is doing all that heavy breathing.


Image Entertainment’s‘s DVD Double Feature of Nude on the Moon and Blaze Starr Goes Nudist was released on 9 January, 2007. For information on this title from Amazon.com, just click here


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Tuesday, Jan 16, 2007


When one looks back at the golden days of Hollywood, back before big business turned the industry into a cash machine hell-bent on making every opening weekend the most important aspect of filmmaking, there was one name that guaranteed spectacle and larger than life entertainment. With a canon, both as producer and director, that ranged in subject matter from the circus (1952’s The Greatest Show On Earth) to the high seas (1958’s The Buccaneer), the Wild West (1937’s The Plainsman) to the frozen tundra of Canada (1940’s North West Mounted Police), Cecil B DeMille made movies for and of the masses. Known for his casts of thousands, his attention to historic detail, and sets that usually dwarfed his performers, DeMille guaranteed that moviegoers got their money’s worth, understanding that people could see all the everyday world they wanted right outside their own back door. To DeMille, movies were invented to tell the really oversized stories, to create the myths and the mystery that kept seats filled and box office registers ringing—especially when having to compete with the variety of vaudeville and the growing popularity of the newest home-based novelty, radio.


And when it came to the sacred in scope, the holy in histrionics, perhaps no one excelled in the telling of the ultimate legends carved out of The Bible than DeMille. Over the course of his fifty years in show business, he made at least half a dozen films with religion as its overriding theme, including the classic The Ten Commandments, Samson and Delilah, and, naturally, The King of Kings. Treating these tellings as testaments to his own personal faith, and formulated to follow the scripture as closely as dramatics would allow, DeMille fueled his fanciful preaching with opulent sets, incredible effects, and carefully crafted, flawless filmmaking. The results were regal in their resplendence, luxuriant without being decadent, and filled with as much meaning and message as possible. Certainly, some efforts were better than others, but there is no denying how direct, forthright, and inspiring his films could be. Indeed, DeMille was on of the few filmmakers who could fill his frame with the actual sense of God’s omnipresence, power, and grace.


The King of Kings is an example of such sensational storytelling. It is cinema at its most artistic. It is also moviemaking at its most basic and effective. There are no massive overriding themes or brave symbolism to overshadow the situations. This is a simple, straightforward saga (the last few days in Christ’s life) told with skill and obvious sentiment. Like seeing a series of prayer cards come to life, or witnessing a literal imagining of imagery from the Gospels, The King of Kings is a somber, sobering experience in overall mood and atmosphere. DeMille designs his film like a Bible reading, highlighting passages to propel his narrative, and quoting chapter and verse to solidify his sacrosanct purposes. All throughout he hints at standard iconography, creates his own new vibrant visuals, and manages to dig down deep into the very core of Christ’s time on earth. Naturally, this means miracles (the curing of the blind, the raising of the dead) but instead of turning this title into some sort of misguided magic act (The Ten Commandments can occasionally be faulted as being too effects-heavy), DeMille keeps this a very personal, very profound look at Jesus, the man.


Compared to other versions of the life of Christ, DeMille’s reinvention is marvelous and quite moving. He knows the command in the parable and prophecy contained in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and builds off their fundamental narrative strengths to compel his story. His compositions are carefully constructed, used to accent the spiritual nature of each scene while keeping us connected to the characters. The King of Kings is really remarkable in its tone and talent. DeMille barely makes a wrong move here, picking the parts of Christ’s life that synchronize seamlessly into the overall significance of His life and works. The plot points out problems to be overcome, moral issues to be addressed, and Jesus is presented as the emblematic response, a period on the end of all ethical statements that solidifies the soundness of his teachings. Jesus is never shown as being too strong or overly passive, only using his command when absolutely necessary. But he is also shown drawing on his more humble vulnerability to make God a personified, approachable person. Unlike other Christs who seem, pardon the pun, holier than thou, DeMille’s Messiah is a completely three-dimensional entity, a near perfect epitome of consecration in human form.


This is not to suggest that The King of Kings is faultless. While the imagery is among the best ever created, some of the liberties taken by story scribe Jeanie Macpherson may confuse even the most learned Christian. Those who know their Bible should not expect The King of Kings to be historically, or even contextually correct. For example, Judas Iscariot is portrayed as a king-making Jesus wannabe, living an impossible existence in his master’s substantial shadow. We constantly see actor Joseph Schildkraut (who is very, very effective, by the way) rubbing his hands together and flaunting his ego as he tries to sway some attention the Iscariot way. His retrofitted relationship with Mary Magdalene seems like a cheap meet-cute way of getting the famed religious figure in with Jesus at the beginning of the narrative. It’s almost as if DeMille needed to present Christ with a scoundrel more viable than a poorly described member of his disciples who would end up betraying his master for thirty pieces of silver. From a short sequence where Judas tries to “cure” an insane child, to the final confrontation with the Council where he practically begs for audience sympathy, the new and improved Judas Iscariot will be, perhaps, the sole sticking point for Biblical purists.


No one could argue with the acting, however. As stated before, Schildkraut is amazing, less mannered than you would expect in the vain, villainous Judas role. Indeed, the hyper-serious nature of the story seems to have inspired DeMille to pull back a great deal on the typical silent movie Method acting. Usually so arch and over the top that modern audiences balk at the horrible hamminess of it all, The King of Kings contains some of the most naturalistic, normal performances in any religious epic. The rest of the cast is very powerful indeed. H.B. Warner essays the lead role of Jesus Christ with a near ideal depiction. Never too pious to isolate the audience, but never resorting to the kind of intense humanism that hampers other portrayals of Christ (especially Jim Caviezel’s gut wrenching Christ in Mel Gibson’s Passion, or Willem Dafoe as the emotionally tortured Savior of Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation).


Unlike other versions of this prophet and religious leader, DeMille is more interested in the deeds than the man, and it is left to Warner to center and suggest the inner sanctity of Christ’s unending love. And he does so brilliantly. From Ernest Torrence’s big bear of a disciple (Peter), to Rudolph Schildkraut’s (Joseph’s Dad) piercing portrayal as Caiaphas, we never once feel like we are watching one of those hoary old classics were people are playing it large and lumbering. There is more subtlety than show-off during this stirring drama, and it is one of the reasons why The King of Kings succeeds so well.


Still, some may seem put off by a silent film that takes a very picturesque, anglicized version of the Christ’s passion. DeMille is not trying to affect some kind of radical rethinking of the story of Christ. No matter what later genealogy or archeological findings would warrant, the director envisions his Jesus a Caucasian white male, traditional close-cropped blond hair framing a face full of noble virtue. Well-trimmed beard in place and eyes alive with deep inner warmth, there is never a moment when Warner doesn’t look 100% the part. But not everything DeMille does is mired in the mundane. In order to keep the cinematic aspects of the film fresh and forceful, DeMille does have some marvelous tricks up his sly sleeves. In a scene where Jesus drives the Seven Deadly Sins out of Mary Magdalene, the director uses a wonderful optical effect to have the horrible, harmful harpies surround their victim. By applying some splendid double exposure, we see several actresses made up to be grotesque decadent demons draping the figure of Mary. As expected, Jesus normally has a luminescence around him, a glorious glow that separates and sanctifies him for the audience. A bit with the Devil’s temptation is spectacle at its most amazing, and the ending is equally effective, filled with the kind of pre-CGI physical effects that used to be the studio system’s bread and butter. Once you’ve witnessed the quaking of the earth and the renting of the temple vestment in The King of Kings, you’ll immediately understand that DeMille was determined to make us believe in the truth of this tale.


DeMille also trusts the inherent narrative in the Bible (Judas jerry-rigging aside) to carry his story, and when he stays true to its tenets, The King of Kings is remarkably powerful. Naturally, there will be those who wonder if DeMille is as guilty as Mel Gibson for portraying the Jews as a bloodthirsty cult of stereotypes bent on feeding every negative image the world has ever had of Hebrews. The answer is no. DeMille takes a decidedly tame position on both the High Priest Caiaphas and the Romans (who ridicule Jesus, but don’t beat him with anywhere as near the insane fervor of Gibson’s gratuitous guards). Some could point to a few hackneyed actions or caricature-ish faces that fill out the crowd scenes, but one never gets the feeling that DeMille was out to condemn a people for the death of the Savior (this could also be the reason for the retrofitting of Judas). True, the crimes they pile on Christ seem stupid, and the decision to put him to death does derive out of a pathetic power struggle amongst a corrupt set of Council members, but the overriding idea is that Jesus’s untimely end is preordained, and that we are merely witnessing the motions that needed to be gone through to reach the resplendent Resurrection goal.


Since DeMille is a master storyteller, both from a production and a directorial standpoint, the end result is a movie that truly moves you with the spirit of its sincerity. Though Gibson’s modern marriage of mise-en-scène with emotion and message would present a far more potent set of cinematic pictures, The King of Kings is equally evocative for far less boastful reasons. DeMille believes the Bible is the greatest story ever told and he is willing to work within the parameters it provides to tell his tale. He then carefully casts his creation, manages the tone and the flow with expert efficiency, and finds just the right visual cues to bring it all back home in Heavenly respite. Inspiring and insightful, The King of Kings is classic old school theatricality at its most monumental. It truly lives up to the regal reputation of the individual it champions.


 


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