Sunday, November 14, 2010


USA/1973/Directed by Curtis Harrington

Directed by one-time experimentalist filmmaker Curtis Harrington, The Killing Kind remains one of the best examples of early-seventies sick sinema. The film borrows its ideas and themes from a number of sources - most notably Psycho - and blends them into a strong psychological thriller that is murky and dark without being relentlessly depressing.

The film opens on a deserted beach, where a group of male youths are enjoying their pack rape of a young tease named Tina (Susan Bernard, the pretty little imp from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!). Although Terry (John Savage) is an unwilling (and unable) participant in the activities, he is the only one who is charged for the crime, and ends up spending two years in jail. Upon his release, he returns to live with his mother (Terry Southern) in an old, moody boarding house filled with mostly elderly women for tenants.

Almost immediately, we can see that the relationship between Terry and his mother is a little bit off-kilt. He calls her Thelma instead of ‘mom’, they kiss each other on the lips, she fondles his hair playfully, and they indulge in physical wrestling matches. Although Harrington never fully exploits it, there is an obvious sexual tension between mother and son, and the performances by Savage and Southern are terrific, and the chemistry in their scenes together strong and electric.

The Killing Kind is a film filled with ugly, repressed characters. When a frustrated neighbour (the wonderful Luana Anders) visits Terry at night, she tells him “It must feel wonderful….being raped. I wouldn‘t have told on you”. Oddly enough, it’s Terry who emerges as one of the film’s most sympathetic characters - even though he degenerates into a sadistic, psychotic killer, he seems as much an oedipal victim as a brutal monster.

What little humour is present in The Killing Kind is extremely black in tone. Terry and Thelma work themselves into fits of laughter talking about how one of the elderly boarders died after having a seizure and falling into the frozen foods cabinet at the local supermarket. In the words of Thelma: “She became a frozen stiff”. In another surprise sequence, when pretty young Lori (future Laverne & Shirley star Cindy Williams) tells Terry to “Loosen up”, he responds by trying to drown her in the swimming pool!

By the end of the film, we realise that Terry’s time in jail have had little to do with his present state of unbalance. The character he has become is what he was always destined to be, probably since early childhood. His killing of Tina and the female lawyer he holds responsible for putting him behind bars doesn’t purge him of his homicidal rage. It merely opens the floodgates to his true self, and he soon turns his attentions to the innocent Lori.

A film deserving of more praise than it currently receives, The Killing Kind was for years only available on long out-of-print VHS, until finally being released on DVD in 2007 by Dark Sky Films in a nice, uncut anamorphic widescreen print (along with an interview with Harrington recorded not long before his death).


Copyright John Harrison 2010

Saturday, November 13, 2010


USA/2010/Directed by Robert Rodriguez & Ethan Maniquis


In 2007, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, perhaps the ultimate ‘fan boy’ directors of the past 15 years, teamed up for Grindhouse, their valentine to all those gloriously tacky, often violent and always sexy drive-in exploitation double-bills of the 1970s. Unfortunately, the finished film turned out to be little more than an interesting misfire, amusing and enjoyable but one that could have - and should have - been so much more.

But one clear highlight of Grindhouse (in its original cinematic format) were the fake trailers shown at the beginning of the film and in-between the two features (Planet Terror and Death Proof). In particular, the faux trailers for Eli Roth’s sick slasher Thanksgiving and Rodriguez’s revenge actioner Machete garnered great audience reaction and were singled out as being worthy of expansion into features.

While we’re still waiting for Roth to come through, Rodriguez (along with co-director Ethan Maniquis) has answered the call by turning his two-minute long Machete trailer into a 104 minute ballet of outrageous and highly stylised comic book violence. Low on plot, high on splatter, tongue planet firmly in cheek.

Machete (Danny Trejo) is a former Mexican Federale, now an illegal immigrant doing day labour jobs on the streets of Texas after he is left for dead (and his wife is killed) by slimy drug lord Torrez (Steven Seagal, pilling on the pounds and sporting an hilarious toupee). Reluctantly, Machete accepts an offer from spin doctor Benz (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate McLaughlin (Robert De Niro) a corrupt Senator. The expectant double-cross sees Machete on the run, hacking his way through the bad guys with everything from weed whackers to surgical instruments and seeking help from a sultry taco slinger and leader of a rebel group (Michelle Rodriguez), his Padre brother (Cheech Marin), and the sexy immigration agent Sartana (Jessica Alba, who has the distinction of being both the film‘s worst actor and it‘s best-named character). Also along for the ride are Don Johnson as a trigger-happy border vigilante, make-up effects maestro Tom Savini as a hitman and Lindsay Lohan, who seems to have every one of her vices and exploits etched on her 24 year-old face and spends most of her scenes drugged-out or naked, before donning a nun’s habit and going postal (in what is either a smirk at Lohan’s public persona or just a simple nod to Zoe Tamerlis’ character in Abel Ferrara’s 1981 classic Ms. 45).

Naturally, this being a homage to low-grade seventies sinema, the film has a washed-out look, with deliberate scratches and jumps, retro fonts on the opening credits and some funky porn music on its soundtrack (not to mention a pretty silly nod to the famous bionic sound effect used in The Six Million Dollar Man). But while Rodriguez clearly has a genuine affection for the cinema that inspired Machete, and it shows his commitment in that he went ahead with the film even after the box-office failure of Grindhouse, there is still something disappointingly fake about the movie. Perhaps it’s all the blatant CGI violence, so over-the-top at times that it actually becomes quite tiresome. Or maybe it’s because these films weren’t made to be shown in suburban multiplexes filled with bratty designer-clothed kids and the latest Harry Potter epic playing next door. They were made to be watched as the bottom feature on an all-niter at the suburban drive-in, or in grotty, musty shoebox cinemas that have stained screens and play hardcore porn films every other day.

Maybe it’s because you just can’t make ‘em the way you used to, no matter how sincere you might be.

Still, if you can deal with the film’s forced hipness, Machete, anchored by the presence and raw charisma of 66 year-old Trejo in his first starring role, offers up enough visceral thrills to make a passable time-filler, best enjoyed with a couple of friends and a few cold beers. But it’s no substitute for the real thing.

Copyright John Harrison 2010