The Bottom Shelf: Frankenhooker, We Are The Flesh

Lucio Fulci, Frankenhooker and more in our round up of new horror Blu-rays and DVDs...

So, what’s your personal idea of hell? For this writer, it would almost certainly involve being chained down in the audience of an eternal live filming of Loose Women as Donald Trump waves a slice of tiger bread, forever just out of reach. Yours is likely to be similar, though it would have to be pretty grim indeed to come anywhere near Lucio Fulci’s 1981 career-best infernal vision and perhaps the definitive (obviously other than Little Nicky) cinematic depiction of eternal damnation, The Beyond.

The Italian gore icon behind such genre classics as Zombie Flesh Eaters and The House By The Cemetery offers ostensibly a zombie film set in the definitely not-a-gateway-to-hell Seven Doors Hotel, which our protagonist, Liza (Fulci’s star of City Of The Living Dead, Catriona MacColl) inherits. Blithely ignoring the historical lynch-mob murder of an artist for painting images of Satan and the like, plus the warnings of a blind psychic (always a bad move), Liza soon finds this to be even more of a kick in the recently-bereaved balls than inheritance tax.

So, the stage is set for increasingly grisly deaths (and a genuinely shocking moment involving a pet Alsatian), with hotel associates coming to varyingly sticky ends as Liza, along with her cynical doctor ally John (David Warbeck, another Fulci regular), try to get to the bottom of what’s going on. Of course, we know where this leads. There’s a surprising dearth of films actually set in hell (though you could argue the Entourage movie did just that); the glimpses Fulci allows here, in glorious HD, are a tantalising taster for what could have been a visionary full-length feature.

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Emiliano Rocha Minter’s debut as a director/writer, We Are The Flesh (out this month on Blu-ray after its limited cinema run), offers more of a hell-on-earth vibe as a teenage brother and sister (Diego Gamaliel and Maria Evoli respectively) wander a post-apocalyptic Mexican wasteland before stumbling upon a sinister older man (Noe Hernandez), who apparently spends his time wanking in the empty husk of a building. Don’t judge; with no TV anymore, what would you do?

Anyway, the memorably freaky Hernandez, amongst other things, is a fan of papier mache, so the three of them set about converting the place into some kind of messed-up giant cocoon/womb/crafts workshop where he indulges his other passion- egging his young wards on to ever-increasing sexual depravity. With echoes of the laugh-a-minute Irreversible and Threads, plus more penetrative sexual acts than your average Dogme film, plus even the odd bit of equally cheery necrophilia, Minter’s ferocious film pushes the boundaries of, well, everything, as our protagonists drag the viewer all the way down into a grief-hole of our own creation.

Answering once and for all the question (as if it needs answering) about whether a wall is needed between the US and Mexico (answer: a definite yes, based on this evidence), Minter simultaneously paints a wonderfully distinct world that should haunt the dreams of any right-minded individual.

As we fall further down the spiral, next up we have House Of Dust director Alejandro Daniel Calvo’s own take on the mental torture we put ourselves through following trauma, the slow-burning Doll In The Dark, out on DVD. Calvo invites us into the private grief of teenager Melanie Crow (played with just the right awkwardness by Bread Crumbs’ Amy Crowdis), who lives alone in the family home a year after her mother’s suicide, her only company being ‘Mor’, the home-made doll she uses as a surrogate mother.

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That’s all well and good, and we can forgive the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches spread with a kitchen knife, though Mel’s major malfunction is in giving the local idiot goth (Gotham’s Penguin, A.K.A Robin Lord Taylor), a dick with ears, the time of day. The sort of fool who carries around a dead bird (the actor just can’t get away from bird references) in a box and approaches strangers in the library to talk about Nietzche soon, thankfully, pales into insignificance in comparison to Mel’s delusions and proclivity toward conversations with her dead mum via the doll.

There are intelligent points to be made here about the grieving process (and the potential for so much more dodgy doll action), brought out through strong performances, Calvo’s subtle direction and less subtle script, though sadly the 73 minute running time means the whole shebang’s over before we really get started.

Just as bleak, though nicely leavened by an almost impossible level of camp, is yet another of that endless procession of sixties Vincent Price/Roger Corman collaborations, 1962’s Tower Of London, out on Blu-ray, in which Ol’ Vince gets another silly wig and goes all Shakespearian on our asses. Think of Chief Wiggum’s ‘shemales in the gazebo’ comment from The Simpsons and you’re about there.

Price plays a version of the famously hunchbacked King Richard III, who is spurred on to murder by his Lady Macbethish wife, and haunted by the ghosts of those he has wronged in his pursuit of power. Occasional directorial flourishes from Corman, notably during a suitably spectral Battle of Bosworth (ruined somewhat by Price clearly not being present!) serve as decent distraction from a plethora of shaky sets and many a Roger Moored-eyebrow from our would-be King of England. By no means A-grade Corman, Tower Of London is a forgettably fun mild medieval horror.

Next up, we break from horror though still head straight back into the darkness and a world of prostitution, violence and, yes, more familial tragedy, in the form of one of Blaxploitation’s classics, Gilbert Moses’ 1974 release, Willie Dynamite, on Bluray.

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The Wire star Roscoe Orman dons the pimpiest pimp outfits imaginable as the titular ambitious young criminal swaggering his way to sexy profit no matter what the consequence, as feisty social worker Cora (Diana Sands) stands in his way whilst also standing up for his ‘girls’. Orman is suitably colourful both in look and arrogant showiness as our antihero’s journey toward redemption rolls on to a great score by Shaft composer J.J Johnson.

With far less in the way of story and more in the way of, well, mammories, this month also brings with it the debut releases on Blu-ray from new imprint Maison Rouge, the double bill of softcore smut that is Vampyros Lesbos director Jesus Franco’s 1975 effort Female Vampire (A.K.A the more to-the-point The Bare-Breasted Countess) and Helga, She-Wolf Of Stilberg, Patrice Rhomm’s 1978 lovingly ripped-off take on Naziploitation ‘classic’, Ilsa, She-Wolf Of The S.S.

Loosely tagged as erotica, though more like ‘unintentional horror comedy’ in the case of Female Vampire, and ‘rape Cell Block H bullshit’, both films feature plenty of 70s hair (male lead ‘taches aplenty and the same goes down below), lesbicentric hijinks and barely-there production values.

The French-Belgian Female Vampire follows the mute Countess Irina Karlstein, played by director Franco’s real-life wife Lina Romay, who has developed an intriguing new technique for extracting the life essence of her victims: yep, oral sex. This makes for endless seduction scenes, less and less clothing and even less acting as Romay basically shags her way around Europe, gyrating nonsensically against her partners’ stomachs, gyrating nonsensically against a vaguely phallic bedpost and gyrating nonsensically against one of those person-length posh pillows you sometimes see. Bloody death follows her everywhere, as do smug guffaws. Presumably the hardcore supersex version Franco also released is less chucklesome, though these daft moments lend the production a certain charm.

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Less charming, though also employing the talents of distinctively sleazy/brilliant synthmeister Daniel White (in fact, it sounds like he’s reused the same score here), Helga, She-Wolf Of Stilberg is definitely (definitely) not a Nazi film, though is purely coincidentally about a similarly authoritarian military state with a penchant for copycat uniforms and where critics of the regime are kept in work camps.

Barbarian movie staple Malisa Longo is the icy female commander of the Stilberg camp, who meets her match when rebel leader’s daughter Patrizia Gori is captured. Scenes of rape and domination are joined by a revenge twist, with Rhomm’s camera lingering a little too long for comfort.

With all these pretend Nazis out of the way, actual Nazis are the order of the day in Maison Rouge’s sister label, Black House’s first release, Jean Rollin’s 1981 obscurity Zombie Lake, also out this month on Blu-ray. With a dash of undead tomfoolery thrown into the mix for good measure, vampire movie specialist Rollin branches out to the less articulate killers, rolling out the requisite gratuitous nudity, cheapo gore and composer Daniel White seemingly trying his luck a third time with what sounds suspiciously like the same score once again.

When members of a small French village start getting chomped on by undead Nazi soldiers killed by the resistance and dumped in a picturesque local lake, the Mayor (played by Jesus Franco’s regular Dr Orloff, Howard Vernon) and his assistants decide to investigate. Making for all the usual shambling violence you’d expect, what marks Rollin’s sometimes gloriously silly film out is a brilliantly under-explained plot involving the one good soldier/deado who opts not to off his still-living daughter. The power of love apparently is capable of overcoming anything, including an inhuman lust for feasting on the flesh of the living.

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As if this blog hadn’t already featured enough scantily-clad exploits, our last film of the month sees a return to the whooers, as Frank Reynolds would put it, in the form of Basket Case director Frank Henenlotter’s good-natured 1990 splatter classic Frankenhooker, getting a DVD re-release on Arrow.

Funny-faced Street Trash star James Lorinz stars as one Jeffrey Franken, by day, a New Jersey Gas and Electric employee, by night, a mad scientist working on creating his perfect spliced human. When his girlfriend Elizabeth (Patty Mullen) ends up with something a little worse than Minor Women’s Whiplash, Jeffrey tries to put her back together again, problem being there’s “not enough of you left to fry an egg with”.

So, this means the cheerful recruitment of unwitting prostitutes to make up the missing body parts as Jeffrey’s sexist side comes to the fore and things start getting out of control. As with all Henenlotter films, limbs, blood and tits fly around willy-nilly, lines as good as “I’m plunging into a black void of madness: do you want a sandwich?” are par for the course and general lunacy sets in. One of the best comeuppances you could hope for in a horror comedy caps a brilliantly silly romp.