Berberian Sound Stage

Is it a bad sign when you go to Wikipedia because you aren’t sure what the movie you’ve just watched is about? That’s what I did after watching Berberian Sound Stage. I gather from the reviews I’ve read that a lot of people think this film is a work of genius, which means maybe I’m missing something. Maybe.

Gilderoy is an English sound engineer who travels to Italy to work on a movie he thinks is about horses. Too late, he discovers that the film is a giallo (an Italian thriller with mystery and horror elements) about witches. Berberian Sound Stage is set in the 70’s – the heyday of giallo – and the sound is dubbed in later, which is why Gilderoy’s services are needed. Members of the tech crew wear black gloves, another tribute to giallo.

Gilderoy is a pro. He’s also a little middle-aged man who lives with his mom in the English countryside. He doesn’t understand the language, so when the Italians speak amongst themselves he thinks they might be talking about him. Sometimes they are. They’re also trying to cheat him out of his plane fare; at one point the producer lectures Gilderoy about the joys of working for free.

Berberian Sound Stage begins with two plots. The giallo’s plot involves witches, torture and murder. The producer has fits making his starlets scream convincingly because the director – who does nothing but party – chooses his girlfriends as actresses. This leads to a subplot about sexual harassment that casts Gilderoy in a sympathetic light, but that plot never goes anywhere.

Gilderoy spends his days making skillets hiss and smashing watermelons with hammers to simulate the burning and piercing of human flesh. Since Gilderoy is a sensitive soul this bothers him. Why he doesn’t just quit is unclear. At Berberian Sound Stage’s halfway point a third storyline unfolds, which is when the plot fractures and this movie falls apart for me.

There are many things to like about Berberian Sound Stage. The movie looks great, with a spooky, atmospheric vibe, and Toby Jones’ performance as Gilderoy is excellent. I found the behind-the-scenes stuff about 1970’s movie sound work mildly interesting. I like movies, but – aside from the writing – don’t care about how they’re made.

The problem with Berberian Sound Stage is the plot; by the end I had no idea what was happening. I do think that sometimes plot can be overrated, but another element of the movie needs to step up, and that doesn’t happen here. Like the dubbing in a giallo, where the moving lips and the voice coming from the mouth don’t quite mesh, Berberian Sound Stage never quite comes together as a movie for me.

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Temple Wood: A Quest for Freedom

 The first time I watched Temple Wood: A Quest for Freedom I figured I was missing something. So I watched it a second time. Now I’m thinking this movie’s mode of linear storytelling is a trap and Temple Wood isn’t supposed to make sense. For example: the Quest for Freedom part of the title means nothing in the context of the movie.

When Professor Martenson disappears his (graduate) student Martin decides to investigate, contaminating a crime scene and finding a book in the professor’s study about Temple Wood. Despite it being the 21st century, Professor Martenson writes using a dip pen. Martin himself uses a Walkman instead of an iPod. Could this be a clue?

For reasons I don’t understand Martin decides to visit Temple Wood. He treks to the town of Kilmartin, which is, as his landlady points out, an unfortunate name for him. Martin’s rented attic room is bright yellow and full of kids’ books and toys. Some of the movie’s imagery suggests that Martin himself is a child. There are also weird sexual images; the most disturbing sequence in this movie is sexual.

Martin enters Temple Wood, a stone circle covered in rocks. Was the site decommissioned by the ancients – or are they trying to imprison something? Beats me! Martin visits Temple Wood a second time that night in his dreams and sees a group of cultists performing a ceremony. He runs away from the cultists in a goofy-looking scene and then meets the Sunflower Man. I’m not sure if the Sunflower Man is supposed to be scary, funny, stupid, or all of the above. The Sunflower Man is surreal, which I like. The Sunflower Man is part of a dream, and dreams aren’t supposed to make sense.

The plot moves on, but it doesn’t really matter. In the end what we have is a hodgepodge of bizarre imagery: the Sunflower Man, a yellow room, a pair of shoes with the laces tied together and Martin waving his weenie around and yelling. It’s possible Martin is crazy. He sees people appear and disappear. He doesn’t interact with anyone but his landlady, whom he sees as a mommy/lover figure. Martin resembles a Lovecraftian hero in his total isolation. He wears a single set of clothes, carries around a copy of the Necronomicon and is a social outcast.

Temple Wood is short, about an hour long. I couldn’t figure it out, but I’m not sure that’s a valid critique. The movie may be satire, or perhaps it has a deeper meaning I’m missing. Maybe I should watch it a third time…

Definitely worth a viewing, but watch at your own risk!

Psychomania

The thing is, you can’t hesitate. If you don’t want to die you can’t have eternal life. That’s the premise of Psychomania, aka The Death Wheelers, an English horror movie that isn’t a horror movie at all. Yes, the name of the motorcycle gang is The Living Dead; yes, the members of that gang come back from the dead; no, it’s not a horror movie. More on that later.

Tom is the leader of a motorcycle gang called The Living Dead. Even though he’s all grown up now, Tom wears leather pants and a weird helmet and drives around with his motorcycle gang terrorizing the squares. He’s an overgrown child, the kind of kid who pulls the wings off flies. His mother is rich, which is why he’s not in jail.

But Tom wants more from life. His mom made a deal with a toad that gave her eternal life, and Tom wants in. Discovering that the way to immortality is to die, he drives off a bridge. The funeral is awesome. Tom’s biker pals prop him up on his motorcycle, which they put in the grave and then bury. Because it’s the early 70’s, one of the bikers sings a groovy folk song.

Tom doesn’t stay buried long. Back from the dead and endowed with supernatural powers,  he’s a bigger asshole than ever. It’s not long before Tom’s buddies all want in on the fun. Indeed, the best part of Psychomania is watching the creative ways they off themselves. Pretty soon The Living Dead live up to their name. The only party pooper is Tom’s girlfriend Abby. Instead of doing something cool like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute or throwing herself into traffic, she takes a bunch of pills and doesn’t die. Wimp.

Psychomania isn’t a horror movie; it’s a black comedy. Why do I say that? Well, that’s what I say when a movie is funny instead of scary or gory or upsetting. Psychomania is full of funny scenes, but my personal favorite is a reborn Tom revving up his motorcycle and driving it right out of his grave. Psychomania is an early 70’s film that with a bit of editing could be an episode of The Avengers. John Steed and Emma Peel would make short work of these bozos.

Vampyres

No naked people appear in the trailer for Vampyres, which is a miracle. This movie is British Eurotrash, although at this point it’s an open question whether Britain is even part of Europe. Vampyres‘ influences are obvious, but it’s way too explicit to be a Hammer production and doesn’t have the visual panache of a Jean Rollin extravaganza.

Vampyres is very ‘No Sex Please We’re British.’ Despite featuring lots of softcore sex, this movie is strangely ambivalent about its subject matter, orgies, bare breasts, lesbians and blood. There’s a scene where Fran and Miriam are drinking wine with that night’s victim, and the orgy is about to commence, and the girls kiss and the guy looks away. You signed up for the orgy, dude, what’s your hang-up?

Vampyres has plot elements but no real plot. Fran and Miriam pick up hitchhikers, kill them and drink their blood. Sometimes they have sex with them. Afterwards, they stage a car accident, carefully placing the bodies of their nude victims in their cars, because people in that part of England all drive naked.

In the opening scene a guy or girl wearing a weird hat (we only see the shadow) kills Fran and Miriam during sexy-time. See what I mean about the ambivalence? The hat is one of the many bizarre touches in Vampyres. We cut to Murray, a beefy middle-aged Englishman checking into a hotel. The elderly manager thinks he recognizes him, and Murray slaps that shit down fast.

The plot kicks into gear when Fran and Miriam bring Murray home to their abandoned castle. Murray does his best to live up to his billing as the male beefcake, saying things like – ‘see here. I find you extremely attractive’ – in a stern voice. You know, the kind of talk that drives a woman wild. Murray may be an older dude, but he gives it his all during the sex scenes. Yes, seeing the liver spots on his back during sexy-time sort of kills the moment, but perhaps the filmmakers determined Murray’s age demographic to be Vampyres’ target audience.

Murray wakes up in the morning with a nasty cut on his arm. During the course of the film, our hero gets weaker and weaker. That could be because he hasn’t eaten in days, or the hours having sex with a woman half his age, or maybe it’s the fact that Fran and Miriam are treating him like a human Slurpee. In one scene the lusty gals use Murray as a prop during their own lovemaking.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I watched Vampyres, but technically this is a horror movie. There are a few interesting elements. The girls kill with a knife instead of with their fangs. I’m not even sure they have fangs, although there is a good biting scene. The ecstatic frenzy in which Fran and Miriam kill and feed is the most interesting thing about this movie.

Anyway, no more hokey recommended or not recommended announcements. Vampyres is a bad movie. If you want to watch it for its historical significance or are in Murray’s age demographic, it’s available on Shudder!