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by Bill Gibron

9 Jul 2008

Guillermo Del Toro should be Peter Jackson. He should be sitting on a multi-billion dollar franchise, a few Oscars, and that rare combination of mainstream movie studio cred and overwhelming geek love. Granted, the Mexican maverick has gained a couple of these career accolades over the last ten years, his resume overflowing with awards, appreciation, and the kind of adoration reserved for rock stars. Heck, he’s become so powerful within the closed community of Hollywood that he managed to get a sequel made of his amazing Hellboy, even though the first film was no blockbuster, and there was no great grassroots groundswell to revisit the franchise.

When Columbia Pictures bailed, more or less dooming the director’s proposed trilogy, Universal came in and scooped up the series. At the time, it was seen as a major gamble. Even with his Blade II commercial rep and Devil’s Backbone/Pan’s Labyrinth aesthetic aura, Del Toro was not a guaranteed box office hero. In retrospect, it was a genius play on the part of the powers that be. In between greenlighting the return of everyone’s favorite cat and candy loving demon superhero, the Academy came calling, and so did Middle Earth. Indeed, Del Toro is now in preproduction to bring The Hobbit (as well as a follow-up linking film) to the big screen. For the next four years, JRR Tolkien will be his life, and just like the man who he should be, it will be a make or breakthrough for the filmmaker.

Like Jackson, Del Toro really doesn’t require the need of that famed work of fantasy literature to establish his true cinematic value. He is responsible for some remarkably visionary works, from the giant insect deconstruction of Mimic to the vampires as vultures/victims in his take on Blade. A love of old school horror has made him dabble successfully in the genre (Cronos) as well producing the brilliant ghost story by Juan Antonio Bayona, The Orphanage. An appreciation of comics brought him to Mike Mignola’s usual graphic novel, and always the outsider, Del Toro delivered a big screen action film without a major star (Ron Pearlman as the lead?) or well known marketing icon. Yet thanks to his undeniable passion and kid in a candy store scope, he evoked the best of what makes movies magic - the pure power in visuals. It has become his considered calling card.

Looking over Del Toro’s oeuvre, it’s clear that the image is everything. Take the genetically altered cockroaches in Mimic. Their ability to resemble humans, combined with the inherent terror of their oversized awfulness, makes them an endearing bit of macabre. Similarly, his Blade gave neckbiters a mandible to be wary of, while the first Hellboy filled the screen with all manner of heretofore unseen monsters. But it was his smaller films, his work in Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth that sealed the spectacle deal. From the unforgettable symbolism of the unexploded bomb in the children’s home courtyard to the Great Faun, its bent-back legs and elongated limbs suggesting an ancient folklore façade, Del Toro definitely believes that a picture is worth a thousand words - and a million narrative possibilities.

With Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, the man’s imagination machine goes into overdrive. It’s a movie that literally fills the screen with optical eye candy. The moment our hero’s father figure - Trevor Bruttenholm - tells the story of the truce between mankind and magic (illustrated in a stop motion puppetoon style that suggests the very best of George Pal), we know we’re in for a major treat. That things only get better from here is a testament to Del Toro’s constantly churning creativity. Doors are complex puzzle boxes, rock formations the humanoid gateways to other worlds. Even when he applies a standard physical F/X motif to his work (the mesmerizing Troll City), we can sense the purpose and playfulness in his stratagem.

Some suggest that Hellboy 2 has too much visual splendor, that it allows excess to overwhelm both its sensible and supernatural approaches. Actually, this is not a criticism so much as a reflective and rather damning disclosure. The reason most people feel that the film offers too much in the way of wonder is because so many so-called fantasies are absolutely bereft of same. The sequel may play like Ghostbusters on steroids, but Del Toro isn’t doing anything that his fanbase hasn’t complained about and then embraced for the last ten years. The Star Wars prequels were some of the busiest, most CGI-laden examples of overindulgence ever, and yet no one is giving George Lucas grief for his images (his casting choices and script writing, on the other hand…).

No, what makes Del Toro’s tapestry so dense and daunting is its connection to tradition and old world mythology. You see, films like Hellboy 2 and Pan’s Labyrinth rely on a knowledge of legend and fable as a means of making sense of their often symbolic substance. When a city sized Elemental attacks our gun-wielding Hellspawn, its purpose is not just to destroy. No, it wants to reclaim the natural order, the delicate balance that once allowed it to live in harmony with all others. Similarly, the faun is not testing Ofelia by having her fight any particular set of creatures. Each of her challenges represents a step in the maturation process, a point of reference that will make her last act sacrifice seem majestic, instead of meaningless.

All of Del Toro’s nightmares and dreamscapes work this way. The villainous Prince Nuada doesn’t want to simply destroy all humans. He wants them to understand the pain they’ve inflicted on the otherworldly realm. His goal is both nasty and noble, which makes his efforts both ghastly and somewhat valiant.  As with many characters in the Del Toro canon, the complexity fills many functions. A champion is never pure, the wicked never wholly so. Evil comes in a compelling visage, while good can always screw up and shift the eternal equilibrium. Beyond the way they look and they way they fight, the most fascinating element in a Del Toro movie remains how he can turn the tiniest of pixies (the Golden Army‘s beguiling Tooth Fairies) into the most voracious of horrors.

That is why he should be Peter Jackson. That is why he should - and probably will - share the New Zealand auteur’s place among the vaunted visionaries of our generation. For both of these amazing men, vistas come with a value, an unspoken price to be paid by the protagonists who populate them and the antagonists who want them destroyed. For both, story is simply a place to put characters, a chance to allow narrative to strengthen personality and illustrate inclination. For both, technology is the canvas, not the brush. It’s the mind that does all of the heavy inventive lifting. For them, cinema represents the ultimate expression of man’s inspired soul, a picture book as philosophy, film as a force of fate.

In the years to come, we’ll be the lucky ones. We’ll be able to relate our accounts of coming across Dead Alive for the first time, or seeing Pan’s Labyrinth with a paid audience (and not a dry eye in the house). We’ll recall the interviews which made madness sound sane and personal daring appear cautious. Most importantly, we’ll rejoice in seeing the very boundaries of an important artform stretched to their very limits, redefined, and then put back for others to enjoy. And we’ll recall the moment when Guillermo Del Toro moved from the fringes to the front row, bringing his own overflowing mind’s eye with him.  If he’s not already Peter Jackson, he should be. On the other hand, here’s hoping he stays forever himself. He’s pretty great the way he is.

by Bill Gibron

8 Jul 2008

One hates to be brash about it, but just what in the hell happened to Roberto Benigni? For most Americans, their first chance to witness this one time witty whirlwind work his ferociously funny magic was in either Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law or Night on Earth (where his non-stop verbal barrage confession to a dead priest was priceless). He crafted a few foreign film feasts that Western audiences responded to with favor and fiscal approval (The Monster and Johnny Stecchino). But after a three-year hiatus, he went and did something absolutely deadly to his livelihood. He returned to the big screen with an awful piece of offal that stained the memory of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust. This concentration camp as comedy club kiddie circus was called Life is Beautiful and as a “love it or hate it” historical hemorrhoid it should have been the final word from this overly earnest buffoon.

Unfortunately, critics and money paying people had to go and sanction his misguided vision by making it a box office hit and awarding the dork two undeserved Oscars. And as the proverbial saying goes, a monster/demon/Pandora’s box was born/unleashed/opened. Five years, $45 million dollars (that’s more umpteen billion lire than Italia has a right to spend on anything, including gelato or Prada) and an unhealthy dose of national pride later, Benigni unveiled Pinocchio, his latest cinematic cesspool, on an unsuspecting world. It’s the kind of overreaching retch inducing drivel that only a semi-competent filmmaker with carte blanche, unlimited artistic license and bocce balls the size of the Coliseum could conceive.

Never mind that, just a year before, Stephen Spielberg (with a little spiritual guidance from Stanley Kubrick) reworked the story of Pinocchio and his desire to be real into a parable about childrearing, playing God, and the responsibility and burden of love in the future shock masterpiece A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. And who cares that Disney’s 1941 cartoon classic, while not 100% on point with everything Collodi, is considered by most to be the House of Mouse’s most gripping and gorgeous production.

So even with a bionic ear probing the farthest reaches of the pop culture galaxy, it’s hard to imagine that a single sound in favor of another trip down Growing Nose Boulevard was warranted or needed. But not according to the Italian scallion. Apparently, most Mediterraneans think Uncle Walt welched on his warrants when he turned their country’s folklore into a slick, saccharine exercise in show tunes. They wanted to see the real Pinocchio. They wanted to feel Collodi’s words come alive and longed to see someone interpret his political and social satire skills in the ways only a native Neapolitan or son of Sicily could. And the boot nation took one look at the man who made the systematic slaughter of millions of undesirables look like a very special episode of The Little Rascals and said “Si!”

Indeed, it is Benigni’s intent with his new Pinocchio to do for the classic piece of Italian children’s literature what Peter Jackson did for Tolkien’s Ring trilogy, or the KBG did with most of Russian history. It wants you to forget Disney’s little animated massacre of their much-loved marionette and mandates you embrace its new reconfigured and retooled fool. On the surface, Benigni has succeeded in spades for what he set out to do. He has created a lavishly stunning, sweeping story of the little wooden doll’s many adventures on the road to boyhood and has kept integral as many of Collodi’s original ideas as possible. And that means a decided readjustment for those who are novice to the native Pinocchio.

This version of the firewood friend is not a newborn naïve simpleton open to the world experience. Instead, he is a brash and bratty blowhard, speaking first and learning the consequences later. It means that the threats, the evil possibilities and dark penalties that the original puppet had to face (catching on fire, hanging, drowning) remain intact, keeping all the grim in the non-brothers fairy tale. It’s even episodic, like the original purpose of the author’s efforts (before it became a book, it was serialized for months). But what most Pinocchio purists will applaud, aside from the literal translation and attention to detail, is the overall look of the production. Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio is a drop dead gorgeous work of dazzling art and set design that, unfortunately, acts like the proverbial sparkles on a dog flop.

Indeed, this is one retelling of the classic children’s story that feels inert, unappetizing, and downright revolting. And the saddest part about the putrid Pinocchio is that in its original Italian language version, the movie is an incredible artistic masterpiece of cinema, pure and simple. Benigni creates images, compositions, and set piece moments that surpass anything he’s filmed before or is likely to capture in the future. More than once you will literally have your breath taken away by what you see. Like those unbelievably beautiful Pageant of the Arts re-creations where actual human beings are used in combination with makeup, sets, and effects to remake the great masterworks live on stage, Pinocchio uses movie making of the highest order to bring the make believe world of the little wooden puppet to life on the silver screen.

With the creativity and skill of Cinecitta Studios to the brilliant camera and lighting work of Dante Spinotti, and the genius production design of Danilo Donati (a Fellini favorite), Benigni has done the next to impossible and created, as a filmmaker, a kind of living lithograph, both a tribute to and a technological time capsule with the look, the feel and the style of old artisan illustrators. Sequences where Pinocchio crosses the countryside to find Gepetto, wanders a wooden glen, or climbs a rock along a stormy beachhead to signal the old woodcarver are unbelievable. Even better are moments of quiet quaintness: the look of a village, the delicacy of a butterfly, and the regality of rain. From the mind-boggling lushness of the green grass to the colorful chaos of Playland, Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio is hands down one of the best looking imaginative statements as a movie ever made. Too bad then that all this luxurious trapping is for a total travesty.

For you see, in no uncertain terms, Pinocchio the film is awful. Incredibly bad. Disconcertingly terrible. The juxtaposition of unbridled beauty with offensive onscreen antics makes this film a rotten rollercoaster ride into repugnant ridiculousness. Frankly, there is only one reason why the movie does not work, cannot work, and will not work to save its sawdust. And it’s a one-word answer as well: casting. Benigni, not content to make a movie that surpasses many of the most artistic visions of his far more celebrated colleagues, expands his hyperactive hubris and hires himself and his wife to star in the movie.

Never before in the history of the word “miscasting” has a case of nonsensical narcissism and nepotism totally doomed a film. Now, some can argue that even though she looks like she’s moments away from an untimely death, the wrinkles, waddles, and bags under her eyes do not diminish (greatly) Nicolleta Braschi’s ethereal qualities. But the fact of the matter is that she’s too damned old to be the Blue Fairy. Granted, there is no age specification to play an enchanted entity, but she seems so tired, so dragged out and disheveled that she’s more like a fairy grandmother than godmother. And since her doting husband loves to hold his camera on her haggard face for long, loving close-ups, we get plenty of time to make our own inner plastic surgery suggestions (a little eye work, chin tuck, etcetera).

She’s not as decrepit as Carlo Giuffre, who plays Gepetto like he has both feet and a buttcheek already in the grave, nor is her look as hopelessly hackneyed as the hirsute mutton chopped chumps Fox and Cat. But if this were the magical entity the robotic David ended up finding at the bottom of the ocean, he’d have every right to return to Dr. Know and ask for his credits back. The bigger problem with the film, in a nutshell and case, is the aged, balding Benigni. Instead of addressing the fact that the agitated hambone only has one acting style (let’s just call it “energetic”) and he’s about as childlike as a colonoscopy, the dumbass does what his ego dictates and before you know it, the whisper thin five o’clock shadowed adult stick figure with a body that would make pre-pubescent gymnasts jealous is playing a puppet.

The minute Gepetto puts the finishing gouges on this man-sized marionette (even if his look is more Collodi correct) and Roberto’s bratty blathering starts to stream of conscious, we understand just why this movie is going to implode like a star on supernova. It’s not that he’s bad as the lying, inconsiderate selfish puppet, it’s just that he looks like a badly dressed kid’s party clown from Cirque du Soleil. The movie’s rationale for how a matured adult male can play the enigmatic wooden being is simple: like the Emperor’s New Clothes or Bush’s Foreign Policy, the film figures that the more people on screen who simply agree that he’s a load of lumber, the sooner the audience will accept it. So everyone constantly refers to Roberto as a puppet.

They recognize that he is one automatically, even though there is no attempt to make him even remotely puppetlike: no makeup wooden joints, no stiff body movements, nothing but a strange white pancake powder effect on Roberto’s face that makes him resemble an emaciated Bob Dylan on the Hard Rain tour. With his non-stop chattering and deranged dolt in a duncecap appearance, Benigni single-handedly destroys Pinocchio. He is so enraptured in what he is doing for his native mythology that he’s too blind or busy to see how incredibly irritating and irrational his performance appearance is. And it is fatal.

There are other things about Pinocchio that don’t quite work, that seem out of place and insular for something supposedly so universal. The exact nature of the Blue Fairy is never explained. She is capable of turning day into night, but seems genuinely hurt when things she could obviously control (Pinocchio’s donkey fate) cause her concern. Pinocchio’s wild mood swings and erratic decisions also grow tiresome after about ten minutes. Collodi obviously meant this as an allegory about learning to grow up responsible and trustworthy; that message is only beaten about your head and shoulders a hundred times, but we never get the feeling that Pinocchio actually grasps this idea. He’s more like Pavlov’s dog: Gepetto’s desire for a cup of milk a night has basically force labored the notions of caring and concern into the woodenhead’s higher memory functions.

It’s not just the mixed tone of tirades, mock terror, and tinsel that kill this film. We also have unnecessary moments that seem inserted only to up the manipulative melodrama factor. When Pinocchio sees the fairy’s grave and understands that it is he who killed her, the copious tears the trite Timbertoes explodes into seem more than over the top. And the last-minute donkey deathbed scene is a complete piece of calculated cry creator. There is no need for the asino to show up here, as by this time we assumed a similar fate for the jackass. From the complete waste of the Cricket character (who we don’t expect to be Jiminy, but we also don’t expect to be so stiff and dull) to the anti-climatic fish rescue, Pinocchio has the distinction of being the first lavish production that feels like it took ten years to create and ten minutes to script.

The beauty of the visuals and the complexity created in the individual’s imagination could compensate the viewer with a movie they won’t soon forget. And yet, there he would be, the only puppet client of the Hairclub for Men with prostate issues. It’s only fitting that the failure of Pinocchio falls on the sloping shoulders of its megalomaniacal mentor: it proves that, given enough film, a faux genius will hang himself every time.

by Bill Gibron

7 Jul 2008

Ferrell, Baron Cohen, Apatow take on Sherlock Holmes From the Official Press Release:
Comedy superstars Sacha Baron Cohen and Will Ferrell will team together for a Columbia Pictures comedy based on the renowned characters Sherlock Holmes and Watson, with Baron Cohen taking the role of the master detective and Ferrell as his partner in solving crime, Watson, it was announced today by Doug Belgrad and Matt Tolmach, presidents of Columbia Pictures. The screenplay will be written by Etan Cohen (Tropic Thunder). Judd Apatow and Jimmy Miller will produce.

The film will re-team Baron Cohen and Ferrell after their collaboration on the 2006 box office hit Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.  The Sherlock Holmes characters by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will inspire the screenplay, which will use the works as a starting point for the comedy.

This is either inspired, or insipid. Guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Mamma Mia Gets Website Upgrade Just in time for the opening of the new musical, Universal launches a new online “experience” featuring games, widgets, and quizzes. While buzz is definitely building for this theatrical smash (the members of ABBA even reunited on the red carpet at the recent Swedish premiere), there’s still time before the 18 July opening to click through and enjoy.

Watchmen Get a New Video Blog For many, Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the Alan Moore comic is a true test of fanboy endurance. While the movie isn’t scheduled to open for another nine months (March 2009), the information coming out regarding the production is beyond enticing. It’s sizing up to be a major motion picture event. For those who can’t get enough moviemaking minutia, UGO has access to the latest video blog entry. You can check it out here. (UGO)

Seth Rogen Talks Green Hornet, Pineapple Express and More With his latest comedy about to open, Moviehole tracked down the Superbad/Knocked Up star and got him to spill the beans on several upcoming projects, including his take on the superhero genre and a possible sequel to one of his biggest hits. (Moviehole)

Friends Movie a Go…and then Gone? You can thank - or curse - the ladies of Sex and the City for this bit of studio back and forth. With the amazing success of the TV show turned big screen blockbuster, it’s only natural that other favored series would get the greenlight. After a couple of the cast members suggested they would be open to a reunion of the popular sitcom for a Cineplex spin, Warner Brothers was quick to quash such speculation. Maybe the negative response from fans fueled their decision…or the lack of signed contracts among an already cash-flush company. Who knows, but it’s apparently off…for now. (IGN)

Bend It Like Beckham Director Has New Brit Teen Comedy After the big screen version of Dallas fell apart, filmmaker Gurinder Chadha has gone and adapted Louise Rennison’s novel Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging for her next project. The Scotsman had a chance to speak with the 48 year old Indian auteur, and her insights into Hollywood and cinema are interesting indeed. (The Scotsman)

Juno Team Reitman/Cody Prepare Their Next Project Talk about unreasonable expectations! Jennifer’s Body is the latest collaboration between Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody, the pair responsible for last year’s sleeper hit about teen pregnancy. With Reitman only producing this time (Girlfight’s Karyn Kusama will direct), the dark horror comedy with a rock and roll edge will have a lot to live up to. It will be interesting to see if it can. The Globe has more. (The Globe)

DVD releases of Note for 8 July

Batman Begins: Limited Edition Gift Set
The Future is Unwritten: Joe Strummer
Hard Times at Douglas High
Little Girls: Read the SE&L Review HERE
The Ruins: Unrated: Read the SE&L Review HERE
Superhero Movie: Read the SE&L Review HERE
The Tracey Fragments

Box Office Figures for Weekend of 4 July

#1 - Hancock: $107.6 million
#2 - WALL*E: $33.9 million
#3 - Wanted: $20.8 million
#4 - Get Smart: $11.2 million
#5 - Kung Fu Panda: $7.5 million
#6 - The Incredible Hulk: $4.9 million
#7 - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: $3.9 million
#7 - Kit Kittredge: An American Girl: $3.2 million
#9 - Sex and the City: $2.4 million
#10 - You Don’t Mess with the Zohan: $1.9 million

Films Opening This Week:

General Release:
Hellboy 2: The Golden Army - Guillermo Del Toro is back with his second installment of a planned trilogy revolving around everyone’s favorite demon turned paranormal warrior. Expect a bigger budget, bigger vision, and bigger box office this time around. Rated PG-13

Meet Dave - Eddie Murphy is an alien spacecraft piloted by…Eddie Murphy, and a crew of diminutive extraterrestrials. Could be good, considering it was co-written by Bill Corbett of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fame. It could also be garbage, considering Murphy’s recent big screen comedy record. Rated PG

Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D - Brendan Fraser takes on the Jules Verne classic, that has been, per Hollywood SOP, “reimagined” for modern audiences. There’s also the 3D angle, for those not interested in another kid-oriented action adventure. Rated PG

August - Josh Hartnett stars in this indie effort about two brothers desperate to keep their company afloat. The title refers to the month before 9/11. From thre director of XX/XY. Rated R

Garden Party - An attempt at an Altman like portrait of disaffected individuals floating through an LA landscape of drugs and depression. Sounds like perfect Summer movie fare, huh? Rated R

by Bill Gibron

6 Jul 2008

Sometimes, you have to wonder what goes on in a marketer’s head. Let’s say you have a good movie - granted, a niche genre effort, but a good film none the less. Now, you know that most critics are going to crucify it, demeaning what it stands for merely because of the type it represents (in this case, horror). And from past experience, you are aware that this kind of narrative appeals to a certain sort of audience, one that needs to be ballyhooed right up front in order to earn the maximum opening weekend returns. These movies don’t have legs, and you understand that. So it’s now or never; pile on the hype and hope for the best.

by Bill Gibron

6 Jul 2008

In the annals of exploitation, Bob Cresse remains more myth than man. While other kings of the grindhouse see their names celebrated as part of cinema’s history, the University of Miami educated ex-carny with a penchant for weaponry and Nazi paraphernalia stands as a singular, unexplainable enigma. A pure hustler, Cresse worked his way through the traditional Tinsel Town channels (messenger, low level executive) until he decided to go independent. Yet so little has been written about him personally that he’s become an afterthought in the conversation, a figure whose reputation suggests respect, but whose actions and accomplishments indicate something far more reprehensible.

Genre scholars have often referred to the fireplug producer as a man who never met an actress he didn’t want to whip, and his filmic fetishes - bondage, discipline, sadism, and degradation - remain the trickiest of proclivities (for Cresse, both personal and professional) to defend. Yet there is much more to his oeuvre than motion picture masochism and a flare for the extreme.

Many fail to realize that Cresse helped fuel the growing Mondo craze with his 1963 production Hollywood’s World of Flesh. Later, together with his longtime cohort and collaborator Lee Frost (together they ran the notorious Olympic International Films - motto: “Art for the Sake of Money”) they would expand on the style with Mondo Bizzaro and Mondo Freudo (both 1966). His famous feud with David F. Friedman, Mighty Monarch of the Exploitation film, led to a glorious battle of softcore wits. When the mind behind The Defilers and Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood trilogy made a bawdy Western (Brand of Shame), Cresse rushed his own smut-laced oater into release (Hot Spur - 1968).

Always looking for a way to make a buck, the maverick also copied industry trends and other’s successful schemes. Back when censorship was constantly challenging the validity of sex and violence onscreen, the grindhouse guides tried everything they could to avoid persecution (and legal prosecution). One semi-successful ruse was bringing foreign films over from Sweden and France to the United States, redubbing them into English, and positioning them as high brow, arthouse fare. The air of sophistication and international distinction made the rampant nudity and adult content more palatable to those looking for prurient interests and illustrations.

Thus Little Girls entered Cresse’s life. In retrospect, it seemed like an oddly perfect fit. The mannered morality tale about wealthy young ladies losing their inhibitions away from the prying eyes of their distance, disinterested parents had a seedy subtext (the gals would end up blackmailed by a desperate club owner and her hired stud), a recognizable underpinning of perversion (we get beatings, teen lust, and some not so subtle incest), and lots of nubile, naked bodies. It was everything the raincoat crowd mandated. It also mimicked the ongoing sexual revolution expertly while offering cold hearted members of the coat and tie Establishment enough finger waving precaution to make it appear conscientious. 

The story centers on four school girls. Their kittenish curiosity in the ways of wantonness ends up backfiring when their supposed friend Bismuth sells them out to club owner Dani and her hunky employee Mike. As scenes of debauchery and degradation play out, we get innuendo and insinuation, the black and white image giving everything a definitive, monochrome morality. As with any tale of innocence defiled and principles perverted, Mike has a moment of clarity, and decides to end the extortion. Of course, it helps that he’s fallen for Elena, one of the trampy targets. In the end, it’s Dani, not her ‘students’, who pays for their crimes.

Unlike their American counterparts, Europeans frequently used sensuality and lust as reminders of social responsibility and political unrest. Little Girls reflects this by having all the parents indirectly approve of their daughters’ dirty deeds. In fact, the plans of the conniving Dani backfire when no one cares about the scandalous photos they are sent. One stepfather even decides the situation excuses his attempted rape of his own child. With Cresse supplying the voice over narration (as well as an inserted S&M sequence - more on this in a moment), we get that slightly smug, holier than thou feeling about the entire premise. While a movie like Little Girls wants to celebrate the hedonistic horniness of its heroines, it also does a dandy job of putting them right back in their supposedly underage place.

Since he merely picked up this production for distribution, Cresse had no input in how the movie was actually made. But it’s clear he used his newfound ownership interest to exercise a little editorial control. His creation of the narration aside, the movie feels overly simplified, reduced to basic plot points and lots of scenes of faux fornication. Unlike the Mondo movies he imported, elements here appear truncated, reconfigured, and purposely repositioned. When two characters retire to a movie theater for some private time, the onscreen action features a well hidden Cresse (his back and balding head give him away) giving former pin-up and Whisky a Go-Go dancer Michelle Angelo the once over. Breasts tied up in restraining ropes, there are endless shots of this model being abused, beaten, and objectified.

Many of the movie’s more scandalous moments were also right up Cresse’s alley. One of the first trysts takes place in a cemetery, half-naked heroine and her pick-up crawling out of a freshly dug grave in post-coital satisfaction. Another customer demands his paramours strip, and then slap each other silly. Perhaps the most repugnant moment occurs when a blond bimbette, described as “just over 14”, slinks up to a deviant sitting at the top of a ladder, his grinning mug and filthy slicker opened suggestively. After a few more minutes of seduction, the girl’s head disappears into the coat’s hemline. 

One aspect of Little Girls that Cresse clearly had no control over is the performances. Most of the actresses are very good, coming across like naughty versions of their new wave counterparts. At other instances, the talent takes on the air of a sketch comedy parody, overwrought emotions ruining the film’s more subtle sophisticated atmosphere. The script does take chances, hinting at pedophilia, suicide, and a last act brawl that pits our remaining victims against the callous bitch who would sell their soul (and skin) to save her business. In classic exploitation style, matters between vixen and villain are handled with brazenness and a brutal sense of comeuppance.

Had their not been the connection to Cresse, had the movie simply arrived on American shores as yet another example of international envelope pushing, Little Girls would have had little impact. But what made men like this as infamous as they were ingenious (and waving guns in the faces of deadbeat distributors doesn’t count) is the way they turned the formulaic and familiar into something filthy. Even without the added scene, this movie would have been sleazy. Cresse’s contribution strips away the veneer of propriety to show the effort for what it really is - 66 minutes of breasts, butts, and balling.

It still doesn’t explain the man, however. Maybe nothing truly can. He viewed himself as a rebel, a hard nosed ball buster of a businessman who treated his friends like fools and his competitors like casualties. Harry Novak, famed producer of such movies as Kiss Me Quick and Wham, Bam, Thank You Space Man once referred to him as a “criminal” claiming his volatile temperament frequently failed him. This was especially true one fateful day. While walking his dog, Cresse saw two men beating up a woman. Stepping in to stop the situation, he proceed to threaten them with his trusty handgun. Turns out it was a pair of policeman roughing up a local prostitute. Provoked, they shot Cresse, and then killed his canine companion for good measure. The resulting seven-month stay in the hospital depleted all of his money (he was uninsured). He would eventually die of a heart attack in 1998.

Little Girls may now appear like a blip on Bob Cresse’s professional radar, and he will probably always been known as the miscreant German commandant in Love Camp 7, or the Jonathan Winters channeling Granny Goode from House on Bare Mountain. Indeed, many of his acting turns (The Erotic Adventures of Zorro - 1972, The Pick-Up - 1968) were more memorable than his movies. As a screenwriter he was routine and as a humanitarian he was humiliating. But Cresse will always be one of exploitation’s more intriguing characters, and his participation in Little Girls is proof of his position as the genre’s unsung agent provocateur. He should be better known. Sadly, it seems like he’s destined to remain an elusive, contradictory legend. 

//Mixed media

The Horrors, the Horrors, or Get Your Halloween On

// Short Ends and Leader

"This bevy of B or Z horrors upclassed to Blu-ray will help you get scared the old-fashioned way.

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