Tuesday, June 4, 2013

#27: Katie's Passion

Drive In Movie Classics
Disc 7: Side B

A brief glance at the synopsis for Katie’s Passion might lead you to expect some cheap, sexploitation-style thrills from this tale of a young woman’s descent into the world of prostitution. After all, this is the Fifty Pack, semi-disreputable institution of talking monster trucks, voodoo exorcists, men in gorilla suits and other unrefined cinematic entertainments. And yet, like the potentially seedy Black Hooker before it, Katie’s Passion turns out to be a sincere and somewhat sobering look at gender and class. Not only that but it was directed by Paul Verhoeven in his Dutch-language, pre-giant-space-bugs days--so it‘s got some talent behind the camera.

It’s the late 19th century. To eke out even the most rudimentary existence--so some helpful onscreen text explains--families are fleeing from their homes in the countryside to the big city. One such family is the Tippels, who we first see huddling under a dockside shelter from the rain, waiting to board a ship to Amsterdam. “You’d soon be rich if you’d put those girls to work,” the captain tells the father, leering in the direction of Katie (Monique van de Ven) and Mina (Hannah de Leeuwe).

Soon after arriving at their new home--a basement-level hovel that floods during a rainstorm--Katie finds a job at a wool-dying mill. “Blood,” she cries in bewilderment upon discovering the chemicals in the dye have burned through the flesh on her hands. “Under my nails,” she says, “it’s bleeding.” The look of stupefaction on the actresses’ face, as though she’s never seen something as mundane and awful as her own blood, turns what might otherwise be a throwaway moment in the film to one of genuine horror. We’re witnessing the loss of innocence, and the cruel laughter of Katie’s fellow workers makes it all the more harrowing. It’s reminiscent in some ways of the famous locker room scene in Carrie and Sissy Spacek’s near-existential terror at her own unexpectedly unfamiliar body.      

Later that same day, Katie winds up in a scuffle with the other women at the mill and is promptly fired. From there, she finds work as an errand girl for a small haberdashery, whose clientele include a local brothel. Here, at the brothel, Katie experiences another moment of disillusionment when she comes upon her older sister Mina, who it turns out has been turning tricks since the family’s arrival in Amsterdam. Mina convinces Katie to let one of the brothel’s elderly customers fondle her in a darkened room, and it isn’t long before Katie, too, is turning tricks for a living.  

The third act focuses onthe relationship between Katie and Hugo (an impossibly young Rutger Hauer), a wealthy banker and a regular at the brothel, who takes a liking to Katie. He buys her fancy clothes, teaches her how to ride horseback and, in one poignant scene, takes her out to an upscale restaurant with a menu so extensive and convoluted it seems to befuddle, delight and frighten Katie in equal measure.

Eventually, Hugo offers Katie a house of her own if she agrees to remain his mistress once he marries a proper and respectable girl. Katie, realizing the terrible superficiality of this life, flees Hugo’s mansion and stumbles, confused, through the darkness. The camera suddenly reveals a parade of the working class, marching determinedly down the narrow streets of the city as they sing and wave banners in protest of poor working conditions. Katie finds herself swept up in their mass, singing along with them. Abruptly, the parade comes to a halt. A row of policemen blocks their way. Shots are fired into the crowd. Torches are tossed back at the police. Bodies fall on wet cobblestone. Frantic, the crowd scrambles. It’s during this thrilling sequence Katie’s Passion becomes something remarkable, though not for reason of plot: The Verhoeven of the solemn period piece has receded and for a moment or two we're given a glimpse of the ridiculously kinetic director to come. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

#26: Invasion of the Bee Girls

Drive In Movie Classics
Disc 7: Side B

Invasion of the Bee Girls begins like an abstract, blank-verse visual and auditory poem: We see a shot of a weedy, junk-strewn motel parking lot. Suddenly a piercing, overdubbed scream is heard. Cut to a middle-aged maid in one of the motel’s dingy rooms standing, horrified, over a man’s corpse, the bluish-gray hue of which seems otherworldly and decidedly wrong. Police sirens are heard in the distance. An incongruously funky score, almost mocking in its idiotic vigor, kicks in. The title flashes on screen: Who are these bee girls, we wonder, and what do they have to do with whatever it is we just saw?

For a low-budget b-movie, it’s a rather artful and avant-garde open--disorienting and slightly subversive in the way it seemingly strips away all motivation and meaning. Or maybe it’s just an incoherent, poorly-edited mess. Whatever the case, there’s something oddly compelling about it all, a sense of the unearthly invading the everyday that the film loses once the plot commences.

Neil Agar (genre vet William Smith) arrives from the definitely-not-made-up, totally-real-sounding State Department of Security to investigate the mysterious death. Turns out the victim, Professor Grubowsky, worked at the Brandt organization, a government-sponsored research facility where the late professor was involved in bacteriological warfare experiments. His lab assistant Julie Zorn (Victoria Vetri) tells Agar this before confessing she was with the professor at the motel the night he died.

“What happened?” asks Agar. 

“We balled and we balled and we balled,” Julie tells him, “until he dropped dead.”

“Let’s go to lunch,” says Agar.

Meanwhile, the bodies continue to pile up. Hoping to stave off panic, the local police and medical community hold a meeting for the town’s residents in what appears to be a rundown American Legion. “There are three points of uniformity I’d like to bring out and underline for you,” Capt. Peters (Cliff Osmond)--just one of many large-headed, black-haired, mustachioed men in the cast--tells the crowd. “One: All the victims have been men. Two: All the men have been residents of Peckham. And third: They’ve all died apparently--I’d like to stress the word apparently--by over exhaustion during the act of sexual intercourse.”

This pronouncement only elicits derisive laughter from the crowd; but when one of the doctors suggests abstaining from all sexual activity until the mystery is resolved they turn outright hostile. “Nobody’s gonna deny me what little pleasure I get from screwing my old lady,” cries one balding, beefy citizen who turns up dead a few short scenes later.

While the movie seems to be aware of its own ridiculousness--thanks to a somewhat tongue-in-cheek script by author and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer, who would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award for adapting his 1974 novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution to the big screen--it loses the artistry of the first few minutes amid sluggish and repetitive plotting. That is, until the very end, when Agar discovers the female staff of the Brandt organization have been fusing their cells with those of the queen bee and mating in a primeval frenzy with the male population of the town--or something like that.

The big reveal doesn’t make any sense, but the climax, set at the bee girls’ futuristic-looking hive, is well-staged by director Denis Sanders, achieving a sort of exquisite weirdness. Lights blink crazily upon the surface of sinister-looking lab equipment. Vaguely-scientific bleeping sounds are heard. The bee girls surround one of their new recruits and slather her body in a thick white substance, cocooning her. The recruit is then locked in a small chamber, the interior of which is soon swarming with hundreds of bees. The recruit is engulfed. When she emerges from the chamber the other bee girls--most of them bee women in their mid-thirties--peel the white substance from her body as ethereal music plays on the soundtrack. She is transformed, bearing the black, inhuman eyes of her kind. Soon Agar will rush in, smashing the equipment and killing the monsters in predictable and inevitable b-movie fashion. This is how a movie like this must end--but for a few brief moments Invasion of the Bee Girls takes on the quality of something better than itself, something richer and more mystical. It’s an abstract poem again, all subtext, implication and possible transcendence.  

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

#25: Shock

Drive In Movie Classics
Disc 7: Side A

The movie begins with Janet (Anabel Shaw), waiting at a San Francisco hotel for her husband, Lt. Paul Stewart (Frank Latimore), a prisoner of war returning home after two years. She soon falls asleep and dreams Paul is pounding on the door of the hotel room, trying desperately to get in. Frantic, Janet runs towards the door, which, in typical nightmarish fashion, seems to grow further and further away. By the time Janet finally reaches it, she has shrunk. She is hardly bigger than the doorknob and cannot open the door. Paul is stuck on the other side, unable to get in. The dream ends, but a strong sense of absence and anxiety lingers.

Janet wanders out onto the balcony for some fresh air. Through the window of the room opposite hers she sees Dr. Richard Cross--an impossibly young Vincent Price--arguing with his wife Margaret. “I’ve decided to ask you for a divorce,” he tells her. Margaret refuses, threatening to expose his adulterous ways to the papers. Enraged, Cross goes full-on Clue and clubs Margaret to death with a candlestick. Janet faints in fright. When Paul finally arrives, he finds Janet on the couch, silent and petrified. In a very noir-ish twist of fate, Dr. Cross himself is called upon to examine her. 

“What do you think caused it, doc?” asks Paul.

“It’s hard to say,” muses Price in that faintly menacing, slightly ironic, vaguely lisping way of his. He looks out on the balcony, suspecting Janet may have witnessed the murder. He convinces Paul to let him take Janet to his remote, countryside sanitarium for further study. What follows is a seemingly endless succession of scenes in which Dr. Cross skulks into Janet’s room, hammers his fist on her bedside table and prods her with questions, forcing her to relive the night of the murder and in this way determine how much she knows. When Janet suddenly recognizes her doctor as the murderer, Cross sets about trying to convince the woman that she’s insane.

“Your mind is sick and getting worse,” he tells her. “You wouldn’t want your husband to see you in that condition. He doesn’t even want to see you like this. You’re losing your mind,” he says. “Losing your mind.”

While these scenes have a certain queasiness to them in the way Dr. Cross abuses his role as an authority figure and care provider, they also grow a bit repetitive. In fact, the film loses momentum almost as soon as the action shifts to the sanitarium, a setting which should be steeped in anxiety and paranoia but which--excepting a tense scene involving a thunderstorm and a bug-eyed escapee from the mental ward--becomes rather dull and stagnant. If only the rest of the film had been able to capture the tension of that early dream sequence, which plunges our heroine into a world of post-war uncertainty where her very sanity, less than five minutes into the picture, seems to be in question. Sure, it's a bit derivative of the famous dream sequence in Hitchcock's Spellbound, released a year earlier; but it's still effective, lending a certain ambiguity and psychological depth to Janet that the character loses the longer Shock confines her to bed, an inert and passive victim.