Monday, October 13, 2008

Classic Horror

If you haven't visited lately, you really should. All month long, the site is profiling obscure international horror films -- shining a light on overlooked gems from beyond the U.S. Last week, I made a guest appearance to review the 1976 Spanish film Who Can Kill a Child? This week, the site is focused on German horror and I got into the spirit by watching two mid-century German exploitation films. I thought I'd post an "unofficial" review here....

In the late 1950s, Wolfgang C. Hartwig was West Germany’s answer to David F. Friedman – a slick exploitation producer with no artistic aspirations. That made him one of the most reviled members of his film community and a pioneer of Europe’s simmering cinema of sex and violence. Two of Hartwig’s early films have achieved long-lasting cult status among horror fans – the 1959 mind-bender The Head and the comparably mindless Horrors of Spider Island (1960).

The Head (the original German title, literally translated, is The Naked and the Devil) revolves around a mad scientist named Dr. Oog, played by the subtly menacing Horst Frank. Oog – like many a respectable mad scientist – spends his days in a darkened lab, talking to the disembodied head of a former colleague. After hours, he lurks in a sleazy nightclub, ogling a strip-tease dancer named Lily and hatching plans to graft a crippled nun’s head onto the dancer's voluptuous body. The film becomes especially twisted when Lily’s boyfriend unknowingly falls in love with the new hybrid, and the beautiful Monster (I like to think of her as “Re-Animatrix”) wonders aloud what she has become: “Which is my past – the past of Lily’s body or the past of my head?” It's a moment that's almost worthy of David Cronenberg.

One wonders what it must have been like to see this outlandish film in West Germany in 1959, when there was little to compare it with. Certainly there were antecedents: Robert Wiene’s The Hands of Orlac (1924), Erle Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1932), Curt Siodmak’s Donovan’s Brain (1953), Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), and countless mad science movies featuring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. But, as Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs point out in their book Immoral Tales (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995), this was one of the first European films to mix flesh and blood so overtly – setting the trend for Hammer and its many imitators. According to the authors, “this demented epic totally revolutionized the severed head sub-genre.” While it might be a bit of a stretch to refer to a “severed head sub-genre” in 1959, the film undoubtedly paved the way for Eyes without a Face (1960), The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962) and They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1966), as well as a bevy of sordid Euro-horrors in the following decade. This influence alone guarantees the film some status among horror fans, but The Head also stands on its own due to a genuinely surreal atmosphere – part German Expressionism (the lab and the nightclub are both equally shadowy) and part erotic obsession (the camera leers at Lily’s body just as lovingly as Oog does). Watch it alone at 2AM and see if it doesn’t get your imagination wandering.

Less inspired, but no less memorable, is Hartwig’s Horrors of Spider Island (a.k.a. It’s Hot in Paradise). The film stars Barbara Valentin, “the West German Jayne Mansfield” who appeared briefly in nightclub scenes in The Head, as Babs. A sleazy Hollywood producer named Gary hires Babs and eight of her saucy friends to travel to Singapore with him, for some kind of “dance performance.” Fortunately for Gary, their plane goes down and they all become trapped on a remote tropical island. Unfortunately for Gary, the island is already inhabited by a giant spider creature that transforms him into a hairy - and apparently lovesick – mutant.

From the moment the weary female castaways discover a fresh water spring on the island – and begin moaning in ecstasy as they bathe themselves and each other – it’s clear that the film aspires to be nothing more than mindless male fantasy. Before long, the girls are complaining about the “frightful heat” on the island, and shedding clothes as they vie for the affections of the last man on earth. Gary, feeling morally challenged, wanders off in the middle of a thunderstorm, and gets bitten by a laughably cheap (but still somehow creepy) spider. What’s interesting is the way this story plays out. The “monster” begins stalking the girls, but he never attacks them – he is simply a hideous voyeur. Nevertheless, when Gary’s appearance causes one of the girls to fall from a cliff, the bikini-clad women hunt him down with torches – like the angry villagers in Frankenstein. Suddenly, all that sexual tension turns into violence.

For all of its potential, Spider Island is not as moody or as erotic as it could be. Only a handful of images (the thunderstorm; the angry villagers) will stay with horror fans and even fewer of the buxom women will make the intended impression. By far the most striking thing about the film is the horrific dubbing and the mind-numbing English dialogue (“A dead man in a huge web… Oh Gary.”). Still, the film is not without its own peculiar charm – for better or worse, they just don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Chances are relatively good that any contemporary viewer who goes out of their way to watch a cheap 1960 monster movie called Horrors of Spider Island will get what they are looking for. Happy hunting.

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