Thursday, May 31, 2007



Six years before Just Jaeckin hit it big with his soft-focus, epic version of Pauline Reage's novel, The Story of O, this Belgian oddity was made. While it doesn't precisely follow the story put forth in the novel, it is blatantly inspired by the novel, referring to it by name.

The film introduces us to Michel, a young, rich man, who at the beginning of the film is throwing up in his kitchen sink during a wild, decadent, late-'60s party. We also discover that the last maid he had has quit, so a friend recommends he places an add for a live-in aid. Shortly after, shy, young Gisele arrives at the lavish apartment building while Michel is at work, finding a note on the door telling the new help to come in. Michel had specifically wanted an older aid, but after meeting Gisele is convinced to let her stay.

Gisele is introduced to Michel's wildly reckless lifestyle, and handles it almost completely apathetically, remaining virtually mute and vacant in response to all that's going on around her. She just keeps up with her duties and keeps to herself.

One night, Michel tries to have a conversation with Gisele, discovering that she had once lived with her aunt and uncle, but her aunt got jealous when her uncle was paying more attention to her than his wife. So Gisele has more or less "escaped" to the city, and whether or not this is an improvement or not is not exactly ever revealed.

After their discussion, Michel more or less rapes Gisele and Gisele ends up falling in love with him, never having received that sort of 'love' before. Michel tells her that she is going to be his "O," (irritatingly spelled out as "Oo" in the subtitles of the version I was watching) and he is going to teach her the ways of modern living and loving, vaguely explaining the narration that takes place in The Story of O.

Unfortunately for Gisele, Michel is no Sir Stephan. He doesn't have the same type of character as the main players in Reage's novel, rather, he's simply seeking new sensations, and his handling of events complicates the relationship.

The film itself is beautiful to look at in the same way the films that Radley Metzger made notorious through his company Audubon films; it's decadent, colorful, and an utter time capsule of how the rich and "liberated" lived at the time (at least according to the movies). And for a majority of the film one wonders if it's another simple cash in on the "rich people sex drama" that ends up terribly misrepresenting it's source material, but some of the turns it takes reveals it to be something more.

The Story of O was initially published in 1954, and, in the same way it became chic in the US to be seen catching a screening of Gerard Damiano's Deep Throat with your girlfriend/lover/wife, it slowly rose to a popular acclaim and it became very chic to have read the book, a topic of discussion often brought up at bourgeois dinner parties.

Though it's pure speculation on my part, I'm fairly confident in the idea that most of people who read the novel while it's popularity peaked didn't quite understand it. I don't say that in an elitist sort of way, rather I mean to imply that in the same way the general public don't understand the actual implications and ideas behind S/M, I'm almost sure that a core audience accepted it as purely 'shocking' titillation that just happened to be well written. But the idea in the novel goes much further than that-- it really recognizes O as an utterly liberated sexual being. Early feminist organizations protested the book and some critics still claim that, despite being written by a woman (the apocryphal Pauline Reage was eventually revealed to be Dominique Aury [aka Anne Desclos]), the book serves to do nothing but objectify a woman in the most blatant and powerful way possible. Which is more or less missing the point, because O is actually the character who has the most control in the novel, but the novel succeeds in showing O actually arriving at this point through a progression of events.

But enough about the novel, the film is relevant because it manages to show a misunderstood interpretation of the novel by a chic jet-setting member of the bourgeois. Michel, bored with having everything he wants, attempts to reenact the novel in order to spice up his sex life. But Michel replaces the implicit trusting power exchange that's present in actual S/M with testosterone fueled machismo. It doesn't help Michel's case that Gisele is utterly naive and virginal. The place that each finds themselves in, for a while, creates an illusion that sustains itself until Michel goes away on a business trip and Gisele spends the better part of a month with one of Michel's friends, Leni.

Aware of what is occurring between Michel and Gisele, Leni gives Gisele a copy of The Story of O to read so she can understand what's going on. And while Gisele still insists that she loves Michel, she seems to actually understand his motivation in terms of the more degrading acts he insists upon. And after the two reunite, the relationship grows sour. Gisele is no longer the virginal, naive girl that she was when Michel left, as Leni served to actually introduce Gisele to a more modern life. Gisele begins to stand up to herself and doesn't obey Michel's every whim.

And Michel becomes somewhat crushed by this discovery; the fact that his "slave" is no longer in a position of ignorance, and he doesn't know how to handle it. He tries to win her old self back by acts of cruelty and violence, but Gisele cannot shed the knowledge she has gained. Finally, within the last minutes of the film, Michel finally finds his epiphany, and finds himself understand that he has been ridiculous, and that he really honestly loves Gisele. And it is a beautiful realization, but an unwanted one.

Like I mentioned before, until the direct inclusion of The Story of O in the narrative of the film, I simply thought the film was a terribly weak and misguided attempt to cash in on the popularity of S/M in high society sex dramas (think Radley Metzger's The Image [aka The Punishment of Anne] or various scenes and incidents throughout the films of Max Pecas and Jose Benazeraf). However, once the connection is drawn between the popularity of Reage's novel and the character of Leni pointing out that Michel is just bored and looking for sensation, everything comes together in a cohesive whole.

That's not to say the film is perfect; the narrative flow is flawed and the progression of time is unclear. If it weren't for different outfits that the characters wear one couldn't tell that the day had even changed, let alone an extended period of time. There are also some extemporaneous details that are interesting additions to the sets of the film, but add little to the actual content (for example, a large book of Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux's work is very clearly displayed in one scene). However, that can be overlook as there are also some very nice details that actually serve to subtly add to the plot, such as a large poster in Michel's kitchen of the 1966 French film Qui êtes vous, Polly Maggoo? The William Klein film served as a "satirical art house movie on mid-sixties French society" (description taken from Wikipedia). It's interested that this is included, as the inclusion more or emphasizes that the commentary on the popularity of S/M and how it is constantly misunderstood in popular culture was utterly intentional. This is interesting as the general audience of the chic, escapist erotic dramas were people who wanted nothing more than sensation.

So all in all, despite it's flaws L'Etreinte is what I imagine to be a dead on critique of popular culture's assimilation of "outsider" sexual fetishes/practices. Aside from it's social commentary, the characters that decorate the film are very attractive, and the wonderful interior decorating is enough to keep a fan of modern industrial design fully entertained.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


aka Shitsurakuen: jôbafuku onna harakiri

It may seem odd that I'm taking time to review what is ostensibly (from my understanding, at least) a fetish film. In fact it may even seem counter productive; the purpose of any fetish film or video is not primarily to achieve any sort of art outside of the fetish as depicted. The films and videos make no effort to appear to a general customer, rather they are tailored to the specific, niche audience that spends time waiting for the films that will fill their specific desires.

Lost Paradise is one of six seppuku videos produced by Right Brain Video in the early 1990s. I have no idea how they sold, whether or not they were actually intending to be sold alongside more general AV releases or if they were more specialty gore videos (the early 90s were also the time when the infamous Guinea Pig movies got their start and notoriety). So while I'm not sure of the exact purpose the videos served, for the purposes of this review I will treat the film as a specialty fetish video.

What little plot exists in Lost Paradise can be explained briefly; a woman in militaristic garb walks down a hallway. This image is alternatively cut between with a man standing in front of a fire. After she walks down the hallway, the woman sits down and begins to partially disrobe, revealing the top of her panties and her breasts (which, from what I understand, is a regular element of a seppuku video, which is partially why I'm assuming it's fetishistic intentions), and begins fondling her stomach. Eventually she pulls out a knife and partially wraps it in clothe, and inserts the knife on the left side of her stomach, eventually pulling it all the way across. As the knife slowly progresses, following large splays of blood, her innards begin to fall out while she continues to painfully and ecstatically moan. Eventually, she dies. Shortly after a man walks into the room, starts shouting (the copy I watched was not subtitled so I'm unsure of any relevance to the video as a whole that the dialogue may or may not have) and then shoots himself in the head. After the camera lingers on the two dead bodies from above, a fade out occurs and we see a new woman, also in militaristic garb, carrying a whip as an older man crawls before her. Fade out to credits.

The whole thing lasts about 34 minutes, and really, doesn't amount to much on a surface level. The video work is utterly amateurish; and by that I mean that you can literally tell that there is somebody behind the lens that you (being the viewer) are currently looking through, which is slightly distracting, but something that one can more or less get used to. It is also not the type of thing that would be championed by gore hounds; it's very slow paced, and the gore is blatantly faked.

But those things really don't matter to me; rather, it's something that the video got me thinking about that was interesting. As I was viewing the film as a fetish video (I suppose as opposed to a gore video), the whole idea of representation became particularly relevant. To the fetishist, it doesn't matter that the camera work is below par and the whole ordeal looks utterly faked-- what matters is that the idea that the fetishist is interested in is blatantly presented. And it's this that lead to me considering the fabrication of the ideas in these videos-- I would presume that those who make the videos have to more or less share the fetish themselves, at least for their videos to achieve any sort of notoriety within the filmmakers target niche. So really, watching the video is like watching a process, and what comes out of a process; the concept of the entire ordeal is utterly on display within the frame.

Naturally, I didn't hate the video. The music, done by the director Masami Akita (which is more or less the reason I bothered to track the video down in the first place-- which, by the way, at least some of the tracks in the video are from Music for Bondage Performance) perfectly echoes what is displayed on screen. It's interesting for me, as a fan of harsh noise music, to see what happens when an image is directly juxtaposed with the sound, as I often find the soundscapes themselves create quite a mental visual image. The musical selections that Akita chooses are some of his subtler, "low grumbling" pieces, which while being more or less omnipresent throughout the video, crescendo and consciously insert themselves periodically throughout the duration, and it is through these moments that it becomes apparent that Akita is primarily a musician; he shows an utter understand of how the music he creates actually works. Another thing that I found of interest was the ritualistic nature of the events, and then my reaction of placing ritual in a fetish context. It is very methodical, and very planned. It's unfortunate that the camera woman is somewhat inept (although, alternatively it could just be that a lower-end video camera was being used), because a sublime beauty within the ritual is indeed lurking, but the videography does absolutely nothing to reveal it.

I should note, however, that there are elements of the film that are going over my head. The sequence of events at the beginning of the video (the *thing* falling off the woman's boots and then the man burning these same unidentified *things*) and the end (the man who enters and shoots himself in the head) are beyond anything I can comprehend, due to either my lack of familiarity with esoteric symbols that are either cultural or specific to the fetish, or also probably in part to my lack of knowledge of the small about of dialogue that's present. So the film could be something more than I'm relating it as, but from my viewing experience, this is what I can respond to.

In conclusion, as a film itself Lost Paradise is nothing special, nothing even noteworthy really. It's as a process, as a moment of ritualised fetish, that the video transcends what it actually is and becomes something worth talking about. And because of that, because of the ideas that it confronted me with, I can honestly say that it's interesting.

Friday, May 18, 2007


A few years ago, when Barrel released their marvelous special edition DVD of Last House on Dead End Street, it was seemingly all that genre fans and magazines could talk about. There was tons to read about the history of the film, tons of back story, and a countless number of people claiming LHODES as the most disturbing film ever made. But for some reason, despite it's welcoming into what could be considered a horror "canon," Last House... has rarely been mentioned since then. Originally released in May of 1977, this year, 2007, marks its 30th anniversary. Also, this year marks the sad death of its director, Roger Watkins, who was also responsible for several brilliantly atmospheric hardcore films made between the late 70s and 80s.

The plot of the film, at least in it's current viewable version, is large inconsequential to the grand guignol set pieces that give the film the reputation it has. In fact, it can more or less be summarized in a single sentence: Terry Hawkins gets released from prison and, mad at the world, decides to start making and selling snuff films to take revenge on the world and contribute to a sense of moral decay. But not surprisingly, that simple of a reduction overlooks everything that makes the film worthwhile.

The reason for the success, the power, of the film lies in the fact that it exists in somewhat of a void of pure, abject horror. There are no characters in the film that one can feel any pity for, every character is utterly despicable. Even Terry's victims are awful people, one of the men's wife getting dolled up in black face in order to be whipped by a man while party guests laugh in glee and clap. This is the world that the characters are situated in. It's hopeless, dirty, and very bleak.

I mentioned that the film in it's current viewable state has a plot holes the size of Texas, but this could, and very likely is, due to the fact that the only available version of the film is 74 minutes long, whereas supposedly, somewhere in a New York film archive, a 175 minute version is sitting. One cannot even imagine what exists in the other 100 minutes of film, but I think it's safe to assumed that the plotholes would be filled. The main plot hole being simply that the audience is never shown any progression between when Terry hooks up with the "producer" of his films and when Terry gets overly screwed by the producer, which leads to the films utterly memorable climax. All we can currently see is more or less the first meeting between Terry and the man, and then Terry's backlash. While it is a shortcoming overall, there are more than enough redeeming factors to the film that make it worthwhile.

Nowhere else in cinematic history has such an abject void existed so successfully. Virtually everything that occurs serves to disorient, confuse, terrify or disturb the viewer. What really makes the film work so well are the bizarre small touches that decorate the film and bewilder the audience; the masks that Terry has his 'girls' where during films, the fake head arbitrarily placed next to the head of a victim as she is dismembered, the black face the woman wears while being whipped, and the climactic deer hoove that the producer is forced to fellate during his final moments. As a whole, they literally add up to not much, but their placement and subtlety (and unexpectedness) force these objects and displacements to become signifiers that signify that something is very, very wrong.

It is for this reason that the film is an utter success; it's a remarkably no-budget film that exists not within the realm of the 'so-bad-it's-good,' but rather exists as pure atmosphere. The story isn't necessary; if all the viewer could see was the film with it's remarkably perfect score, no dialogue or voice overs, the exact same affect would be achieved. It may be very obvious that when Watkins made the film he was intending to play into the Manson phenomenon (particularly invoked by Terry's girls chanting things such as "Terry will solve everything, Terry will remove your fear"), as well as the conceptual idea of snuff that was closely linked to that incident. But what Watkins truly succeeds in doing is cinematically constructing the idea of the "other," that which is deeply terrifying to humans. The "other," in this films case, is a nihilistic, utterly abstracted snuff film director, and the nihilistic, utterly abstract content of his snuff films. And it is truly terrifying.

But, as it naturally often does, with the terror comes a sense of beauty. The aforementioned signifiers that further separate reality from this filmic world are sublimely remarkable. From a purely aesthetic sense, divorced of any political context, a white woman, nude, with significantly overplayed black face on being repeatedly whipped while party guests clap and laugh is a very, very powerful and beautiful image. Same goes for the use of dollar store masks that repeated create the surreal sensations of Terry's snuff films; they're separate from reality, another layer upon what is literally happening (and using a mask is both obvious and genius in this case), and create beautiful images.

Another thing that works wonders for the film is the abandoned university building that a majority of the film is shot in. Brilliantly empty and decrepit, it creates a sense of physical space that perfect matches the metaphysical space implicit in the abject horror of the void.

So, while the film does suffer serious short comings in terms of plot, it's highly irrelevant to the success of the film. Undoubtedly if the plot were better thought out and actually there it would do nothing but extend the ideas of the film even further, pushing it possibly into the realm of something that would be far more notorious. But as it stands, it's still a sublimely beautiful piece of atmosphere decorated with utter desperation and nihilism.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


After my initial viewing of Daughters of Darkness several years ago, before I had fully identified myself as an utter film enthusiast, and before I had figured out the exact type of film that would become my favorite (being the types of films I've discussed here), I realized that what I had just watched was an intelligent, beautiful, astounding masterpiece. I was blown away by the impact that the film had on me, but I wasn't sure why. Up until that point my film viewing history has consisted of mainly watching average horror movies and canonical art house fare; this movie turned out to take the best from each 'genre' and combine them so perfectly-- it was this movie that lead to me seeking out more "art house horror movies," it was this film that (thankfully) lead me to where I am today!

The plot of the film is an elaborately constructed fever dream, and much more rewarding when it unfolds for the viewer unexpectedly, so I won't go into too much detail here. The film begins by introducing the viewer to Stefan and Valerie, a young couple who were recently married after not knowing each other for very long. The two are traveling from Switzerland to England so Valerie can meet Stefan's "mother," but end up staying in Ostend before they leave. In Ostend, they stay at a decadent, large, and empty hotel, and before long a mysterious woman by the name of Elizabeth Bathory and her assistant Ilona end up in the same hotel.

As soon as the mysterious women arrive at the hotel, the tension that has thus far been building between Stefan and Valerie almost explodes; Valerie is insistent upon Stefan's mother knowing about his marriage, but Stefan seems to be terrified by his mother and her "aristocratic" values. The Countess also seems to have an intense interest in the young couple, as as the days and nights unfold her motives appear more and more specific.

On a day trip to neighboring town, Stefan and Valerie encounter a crime scene decorated by passerbys-- the body of a young woman has been found, dead, without a trace of blood. As the body is carried to the ambulance Stefan becomes utterly entranced, violently pushing Valerie aside when she asks him to leave. The body is the fourth found in the area, all of the bodies utterly drained of blood. Whether or not the Countess Bathory, with her heritage leading back to the sadistic Erzebet Bathory, has anything to do with the deaths becomes clearer as the film progresses.

The film ends up becoming a magnificent vampire film with hardly any of the motifs that repeatedly pop up in most vampire related flicks. Kumel masterfully throws in a few symbolic signifiers to implicate the Countess as a vampire, but the weight of the story doesn't rely on mere gimmicks. The film is deeply saturated in colors, mostly consisting of the deep red (everywhere from clothing to cars to the lips of Delphine Seyrig's Countess) and an epic blue (the sky, the ocean bordering the hotel). The contrast between the two primary colors is utterly striking, and helps to visually extend the tension that is present in the plot.

The film also contains very little cut scenes, choosing instead to linger on the situations that are occurring, coupled with brilliant tracking shots that reveal more and more details and clues to the film as they move along. The visuals are also accompanied by a brilliant score from François de Roubaix that is both sexually swanky, tense, and atmospheric at the same time. It matches the visuals so perfectly that I couldn't even begin to imagine any other music with what's on screen.

But aside from a brilliant plot, sense of visuals, and musical score, the element that makes this film stand out so far above many is it's tone and sense of atmosphere. For an example of a single scene that elevates the movie to an utter masterpiece, look no farther than the scene in which Stefan and Valeria return from Bruges, which serves as the initial introduction between the young couple and the Countess. Sitting in an elegantly upholstered arm chair, sipping a turquoise martini, the countess eventually moves behind Stefan, sensually rubbing his chest while the two intensely recount the details of the story of Erzebet Bathory-- the camera slowly zooms in, interrupted only by Valerie screaming "Stop!" while the music heightens-- the scene alone is worth the price of admission, so to speak.

There are countless subtleties to the film that not only heighten the atmosphere, but also extend the psycho-sexual story of Stefan and Valerie's relationship into something truly worthwhile. The film, in actuality, has the relationship more at it's core than the vampires that help to extend these ideas. It's almost safe to say that the vampires are symbolic, but doing so would over look much of what makes the film a success.

This film is truly deserving of a more serious study (for instance, I haven't even touched upon the issue of masculinity and Stefan's "mother"), and one day I hope that study gets written, whether by me or someone else. Until then I will leave you with this, hopefully inspiring those who have yet to check out the film to give it a chance, and possibly to give those who have only half-heartedly seen the film to pay a lot more attention.

For more information on Jean Ferry, screenwriter for the film, head on over to Ombres Blanches for a detailed overview of the authors life.