Barbarella (1968) …Both porny and corny

I had formed very few expectations of Barbarella before watching it. The snippets of half-formed ideas I had about the film were based on the enduring image of Jane Fonda floating around in zero gravity in a state of undress (I figured it was a bit porny?) and the notion of it being a 1960s space romp (I figured it was a bit corny…) I was right on both counts.

Barbarella was based on a comic strip of the same name and directed by Frenchman Roger Vadim. The film has a European feel to it (just look at the credits) – several of the supporting actors have their voices dubbed. The basic premise is that Barbarella is sent on a mission by the President of the Earth to locate the elusive Doctor Durand Durand (the second ‘d’ is silent and band stole its name from the film. I kept expecting Simon Le Bon to stroll on screen in his Wild Boys gear, he wouldn’t have been out of place…) Earth is now a peaceful place, and Barbarella must find the doctor in order to ascertain that his positronic ray has not fallen into the wrong hands. To be honest, Barbarella does not follow a very coherent plot (as you’d expect when so many different people worked on the story and script) but that’s not really the point of the film.

To me, the film had a warm and disarming fairy-tale vibe to it. I was particularly reminded of the Wizard of Oz (1939), with a heroine who stumbles from one perilous situation to another, attempting to keep up her positive mental attitude while meeting a variety of strange characters along the way and somehow coming out on top. Some of her winningly childish (but somehow ‘meta’) statements also put me in mind of Dorothy, “What’s that screaming? A good many dramatic situations start with screaming…”

As a film, Barbarella trades on a lot of the big lofty 1960s ideals of peace and free love, while also knowingly parodying these ideals. Pygar, the blind angel, is almost completely blissed out as he delivers with glorious conviction that “an angel is love”. Barbarella wears a variety of sexy outfits, but while wearing her “furs”, she gets her tail stuck in the door of her ship. The merciless 1960s aesthetic is established from the opening titles which dance around jauntily as if they’re at a Bert Bacharach concert. There’s also Barbarella’s multiple costume changes and her opulently fur lined space craft, controlled by a well-meaning and rather effeminate sounding on board computer. As the film progresses, it also becomes clear that no one can travel anywhere without the swinging 60s ‘go-go’ music firing up.

It was clear watching this film where all of the design ideas from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) had come from once You Only Live Twice (1967) had been sucked dry. With her tight space-age outfits, knee high boots and blonde bouncing curls, our erstwhile heroine is every bit the fem-bot in looks. Only Barbarella’s secret weapon is not her jubbly-guns, it is her innocence. Though a very sexy film, Barbarella as a character is unaware of her own sex appeal and is totally unashamed of her body or her sexuality. The film is a playful romp, made with all the sexual self-awareness of a cheap blue movie – in one scenario, Barbarella’s spaceship breaks down and the mechanic who repairs it for her teaches her how they have sex on his planet. There is also a scene where Barbarella encounters a broken angel, Pygar (played by John Phillip Law), suffering a crisis of confidence. One night in the nest with Barbarella is enough of a boost to restore Pygar his power of flight.

This rampant sexuality at times make you feel as if you are watching Carry On in Space – particularly the Excessive Machine – a contraption designed to torture our heroine with ecstasy until she dies in the throes of ultimate pleasure. There’s also an incompetent resistance leader known as Dildano. The high camp and the tongue in cheek humour feels very much like a foreshadowing of Flash Gordon (1980).

Barbarella was released the same year as Kubrick’s often worshipped 2001: A Space Odyssey. While I appreciate thoughtful and convoluted science fiction, I also recognise that thoughtless and convoluted science fiction also has its place. Barbarella is enjoyably silly, refreshingly unpretentious and heart-warmingly frank.

Watch this film or I’ll melt your face.

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Bad films need love, too III: Mazes and Monsters

Mazes and Monsters was directed in 1982 by Steven Hilliard Stern. It is based on a novel by Rona Jaffe, very loosely inspired by real life events as written about in The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III, by investigator William Dear.

The film primarily takes the form of a charming little cautionary tale about the dangers of playing Dungeons and Dragons (without actually calling it that for risk of being sued). It’s the mid-eighties and hysteria about imaginative role-playing games are rife; fuelled by several high profile and totally unrepresentative incidents with very little to do with the actual games themselves. Such was the eighties cultural awareness of tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) and their possible effects that they are referenced in many books and films of the time such as Neal Stephensen’s The Big U, published in 1984, where University students wage secret fantasy wars under the grounds of the campus.

In terms of the vast majority of the acting performances, the music and even the basic storytelling, Mazes and Monsters is pretty ropey, even I can tell that. However, the actors manage to take the film seriously enough to make the story engaging, and I find the reoccurring and heavy handed use of the song ‘Friends in This World’ strangely captivating.

At the start of the film, Robbie Wheeling (played by a startlingly young Tom Hanks) is being driven to a new university by his parents, for a fresh start. As she says her goodbyes, Robbie’s mother makes him promise that he won’t “play that awful game anymore”. Despite his best efforts, however, Robbie is badgered into playing Mazes and Monsters by his new found friends at a dorm room party. There’s Daniel, the jock with a soul, played by David Wallace; Kate, who Robbie becomes romantically involved with and who is the narrator of Rona Jaffe’s novel; and Jay Jay, played by Chris Makepeace, who wears a variety of strange hats and owns a mynah bird called Merlin.

When Jay-Jay decides to take the game from out of the dorm rooms and into the local caverns, the shift in table-top gaming into something which feels physically much more real, complete with costumes and props, clearly becomes too much for Robbie. To him, the imagined foes become real and he starts to believe that he is his Mazes and Monsters alter-ego, the robed Holy Man, Pardieu. Whoever thought LARPing could be so psychologically treacherous?

As it turns out, however, Robbie already has issues. He misses his brother, Hall, who ran away from home and is haunted by him in his dreams (in sequences with all of the quality you would expect from a 1982 made-for-TV movie). Gradually, as he becomes more and more Pardieu, and less Robbie, he breaks off his relationship with Kate in favour of the celibacy required of his role; then runs away himself on his own quest to find ‘The Great Hall’.

For me, the story is a Don Quixote parable, tragically sad in that, to his friends, Robbie has gone mad and his youth has been wasted. However, Robbie is also, arguably, inhabiting a reality far more fantastic and inviting than actual reality; you can hardly blame him for taking refuge where he is. The film, whether deliberately or not, raises those tantalising questions about whether it is better to be happier in insanity or miserable and sane.

There has been some cruel criticism about Hanks’ performance in this film, particularly his emotional breakdown in the penultimate scene when he momentarily comes to his senses. I would refute this; given that this is a very early performance from Tom Hanks (he is even more gawky and naïve in this film than in Big), and in a film he may have secretly felt was a little dodgy in its writing and content, I think he still gives the performance his all. Yes, Tom Hanks looks and sounds weird when he cries, but when you compare this scene to something like the truly tear-jerk ending of Captain Phillips, it becomes evident that what we are seeing is just Hank’s ‘crying acting’. Besides, everyone looks and sounds ridiculous when they cry. The more surreal aspect of this scene is the fact that it heavily features the Twin Towers (or ‘Two Towers’ as Robbie/Pardieu dubs them in homage to Tolkien.) What is even more chilling is the fact that Robbie wishes to leap from them; almost in retrospective bad taste when you take into account the role that Hanks would later play in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011).

It’s not clear from watching this movie if the film-makers are actually trying to change hearts and minds about the dangers of gaming; I suspect they’re indifferent. What is emphasised by the film’s ending, instead, is the importance of friendship in the face of adversity – and surely that’s always a nice thing. I will simply close by saying that if anyone is ever looking to make a sequel of this glorious masterpiece, I have a great idea – and the fan fiction to prove it. Thanks for reading.

Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992)

It happened. With aid from my glamorous assistant, I managed to get hold of the sequel to Waxwork; the wonderfully named Waxwork II: Lost in Time. Clearly, the sequel completes the grand vision begun in the first film, as it is again directed and written by Anthony Hickox. In the sequel, however, Monika Schnarre replaces Deborah Foreman as the female lead, Sarah. Apparently Foreman turned down the role. This is only really a shame because the narrative of the second film carries directly on from the first, replaying the original ending then showing Sarah and Mark escaping the blaze in the eponymous Waxworks and clambering into a taxi – where the actress playing Sarah now has hair about four times longer than the previous actress (never heard of wigs, people?) Also, she has a completely different face. The events of the night also appear to have aged Mark by four or five years, but now I’m just being picky.

As their wax-related night-time adventures have drawn to a close, Mark drops Sarah home. Here, the audience are given a reasonably interesting insight into her back-story; she has an abusive stepfather waiting for her at home (their relationship clarified by the fact that she calls him “stepfather” in a seamless piece of exposition.) This scene is not the most subtle piece of character-driven cinema, but is nevertheless a clear attempt to add another dimension to Sarah’s character.

Sarah’s adventures are far from over. The severed wax hand of David Warner’s villain from Waxwork, the ‘does-what-it-says-on-the-tin’ character named ‘Waxwork Man’ has followed them home. The wax hand (keep up, keep up!) brutally kills Sarah’s stepfather with a succession of hammer blows to the head and she is left with the body and the blame. There is however, no evidence, because she has forced the disembodied, murderous hand down the garbage disposal. Yes, I love this film.

Surprisingly, Sarah’s defence hearing is not going well and Mark volunteers to help her out. They visit the home of his godfather, Sir Wilfred (in a role reprised briefly by Patrick Macnee) and discover that he has left them a message… he somehow magically cued up his projector to start when they somehow, also magically I assume, gained access to his home. Sir Wilfred reveals that, seeing as he must now be dead, he has left everything he owns to Mark.

After a cute Alice in Wonderland reference involving moving chess pieces and stepping through mirrors, Mark and Sarah find themselves amongst Sir Wilfred’s legacy; a variety of strange artefacts which amount to the audience as relics of horror pop culture; there’s even a blood-spattered ‘Jason Voorhees’ style hockey mask.

Then Mark finds the time-door opener and has the notion that they could use it to re-enter the waxwork exhibit and bring back some evidence to help Sarah’s case. However, a door opens up before them almost straight away, and this is where the films involvement with waxworks ends; about fifteen minutes into the hour and three-quarters long movie.

After some dodgy special effects to signify the main characters falling through the very fabric of time and reality itself, Mark and Sarah land in a very different place. One of the more endearing touches is that Mark and Sarah’s outfits and overall look changes in each location they visit; Sarah even occasionally forgets who she is, becoming part of the story so that Mark must always talk her back around to their mission. The first stop is the home of Baron von Frankenstein, played by Martin Kemp with an accent that sounds like a strained Schwarzenegger impression, and who looks like he is having a whale of a time.

Waxwork II: Lost in Time feels very much like you are watching a writer-director make the exact film he wants to make, albeit in pastiche. The times and places in which Mark and Sarah find themselves are not real places or even real points in history, they are essentially well known moments from the horror genre; including Godzilla, Nosferatu, Dawn of the Dead, Jekyll and Hyde and even Alien. Hickox takes every opportunity to shoot versions of scenes from films or stories he has clearly always wanted to try; it’s as if he’s stapled several disparate ideas for films together and, although you can most definitely see the holes, the whole (sorry!) is still greater than the sum of its parts.

Sir Wilfred makes a reappearance later on in the film as a raven. This makes absolutely no sense at all, but does provide the audience with sufficient nonsense to enable them to sew the fragments of the plot together. Sir Wilfred, in raven form of course, explains that what Mark and Sarah have stumbled upon isn’t in fact a series of doors into different times, but “God’s Nintendo game” – a battle between good and evil where the results have disastrous effects on the real world. Although this would seem to make aspects of the plot make more sense, it also invalidates other aspects, so it’s not worth thinking about in too much detail. Neither is the notion that Mark has been especially selected by God to be some sort of holy Time Warrior.

Most of the second half of the film takes place in a fantasy version of a strangely kinky Medieval court, complete with; oddly jarring early nineties dance music, occult practices, bondage wear, men wearing too much make up, the notion of brother-sister incest and exotic dancers. It’s worth sticking around for.

This sequel plays up the comedic-gore element even more than in the first film, thus clarifying my initial confusion as to whether or not the violence in the first film was even supposed to be humorous. In this second film, people get their eyeballs and brains shot out across the room from the very head in which they reside. In another scene, an alien taps a tentacle against someone’s back to get their attention before removing their space helmet and causing their head to explode. My favourite moment of light-hearted grossness, however, is the poor fellow who has casually been strung up in a haunted basement with his entire ribcage exposed and goes on to suffer a series of slapstick indignities, taking it all in a calm and gentlemanly manner.

There are also some interesting cameo appearances; such as Max Caulfield of Grease 2 (1982) fame, Kill Bill’s (2003) David Carradine and a very brief, blink-and-you’ll miss it appearance from Drew Barrymore in the scene which gives far more than just a nod to Nosferatu (1922). It was also lovely for a Star Trek: The Next Generation nerd like me to see Marina Sirtis in anything which gets her off the Enterprise for a change. Hickox himself even has a cameo as the King’s Officer (he also guests in the first film as the English Prince, a friend of the Marquis de Sade.)

The final delight (or the final nail, depending on how you see it) of the film comes with some unpredictably offbeat end credits; a rap seemingly commissioned especially for the film. I’ll say no more, I’ve already said too much…

There is a brief exchange in Waxwork II: Lost in Time that sums up the entire ethos of the film – and those involved in its making – perfectly. “You don’t think we should prepare all this a little more, do you?” Sarah asks her companion nervously. “Don’t worry, it’s going to turn out fine,” Mark replies to her dismissively… And for the most part it does.

Bad films need love, too Part I: Waxwork

Bad films need love, too… and you know what? When you give them a chance, they’ll love you back. Today’s offering is 1988’s Waxwork, directed by Anthony Hickox.

A waxwork museum randomly appears on an American suburban street and its proprietor is David Warner, billed as ‘Waxwork Man’. In a dubious American accent, he engages with a couple of supposed schoolgirls, played by women old enough to know better, and invites them to a special midnight show.

The opening in particular is laden with strange, spoken aloud inner monologues, featuring slightly clumsy contextual information for the audience’s benefit. The characterisation so eccentric that the initial dialogue makes you feel like you’re watching a David Lynch movie. It’s one of those films you think is aware of its own stilted awfulness, but at times you start to doubt your own judgement.

When the young gang of friends (four or five of them, I don’t know, I’ve just watched it for the third time and they still all look much the same and they keep moving around) enter the waxworks for the first time, they are ushered into a foyer where they wait awkwardly for their evening’s entertainments to begin. The door then soundlessly swings open, seemingly by itself.

“Sh*t, it’s the old door opening by itself scene” exclaims one of them, in knowing reference to the genre. The camera then reveals that the door has in fact been opened by a tuxedoed little person, and the feeling that we might be watching a lazily made Lynch film continues.

And so our young group of teens peruse the exhibits. The waxworks are quite obviously played actors trying not to breathe too hard or wobble too much, but that’s okay. As soon as the unwitting victims stray into the waxworks exhibits, they enter the storyworld being depicted in them, new personas, costume changes and all.

Tony (played by Dana Ashbrook) is the first of the friends to be sucked into one of the waxwork exhibits. His immersive experience takes the form of a werewolf encounter, featuring John Rhys-Davies delivering some joyful ham-acting as the werewolf.

Next up is China (Michelle Johnson) who wanders unwittingly into a Dracula-eque tableau. This section is most notable for the best ever delivery of the phrase, “Steak tartar… ah yes, steak tartar”, as well as the moment where China’s persona is reunited with her fiancé, tied to a table with his leg whittled away. Evidentially, that’s where the steak tartar came from. There’s also the lovely moment where the vampire brides, during a showdown in the cellar, are impaled on champagne bottles and corks explode through their undead bodies.

China and Tony’s friends, Mark (Zach Galligan, best known for playing Billy in Gremlins) and Sarah (Deborah Foreman) realise they have gone missing, eventually, and approach a disillusioned chain-smoking Inspector Roberts for help. Robert’s highlight is when he is snooping around the museum and takes a sample of one of the figure’s skin; presumably to reassure himself that it really is just made of wax. Trying to get a victim’s waxy piece of cheek into an evidence bag deftly with his pocket knife, he gives up and just chucks it in by hand.

When the Inspector fails to assist in any meaningful way, Mark’s asks his wheel-chair bound Godfather Sir Wilfred “Call me Wilfie”. It’s truly lovely to see Patrick Macnee (John Steed of The Avengers to you) in this tongue-in-cheek role, which is less Austin Power’s Basil Exposition and more The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Dr Scott. Sir Wilfred reveals that the waxwork owners are in possession of eighteen objects, which once belonged to eighteen different corrupt wrong-uns, each of whom now must claim a soul in order to for some sort of ritual to be complete (it’s explained very quickly and the finer details are glossed over). Anyway, what Wilfie foretells is, “The voodoo end of the world” – and clearly this needs to be stopped, by preventing those exhibits who have not yet claimed their victims from doing so.

The DVD for Waxwork proudly states that it is an eighteen certificate which “Contains strong bloody violence, some sexual.” The violence? Exploding vampires, trodden on heads, someone being unconvincingly ripped in half, ancient Egyptian mummies dribbling black juice onto people’s faces. The special effects are dodgy; it is the fact that it these gory spectacles have that plastic eighties falseness that make them unsettling. The “sexual” being referred to on the DVD cover is the mousy, withdrawn Sarah’s foray into the wonderful world of the Marquis de Sade (who is far more charming and pirate-like than Quills, or actually reading anything the Marquis wrote, would have us believe). This set-piece marks the start of the film’s glorious finale.

This film only gets better and better as it goes on. To explain more would be to spoil so many treats you have coming your way. I haven’t even had time to mention my favourite character, Jenkins, Mark’s butler, who turns out to be a little more than he appears, or the German lecturer at the teen’s school, complete with his uncontrollable Dr Strangelove hand.

In a moment of fourth-wall smashing, tongue-in-cheek knowingness, David Warner as The Waxwork Man coolly mutters in the audience’s vague direction, “They’ll make a movie about anything these days.” And thank goodness they will. You can’t help but think that the final scenes must have influenced Night at the Museum somewhere along the line, and round off the entire film’s imaginative storytelling (that’s not a kind euphemism, it really is imaginative). Weighing in at 93 minutes, Waxwork is a good length; it’s certainly over before you get restless enough to look at your watch. By the time the odd choice of end credits music is blaring out, “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” , you will be spontaneously having a bit of a dance, even if you’re not totally sure why.

I was delighted to discover that this film has a sequel, Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992), and with the same writer/director, Galligan reprising his role as Mark and Patrick “John Steed” Macnee back as Sir Wilfred. Clearly this unwillingness to let go of Waxwork and ride its legacy like a comet’s tail by making a sequel four years on, is testimony to its greatness. I hope to be watching and reviewing this film very, very soon. I’ll bet you can’t wait.