International Horror Film Review: Zombie Lake (dir by “J.A. Lazer”)


Oh, Zombie Lake!

I approach this 1981 Spanish-French film with some trepidation because, while it’s undeniably one of the best known of Eurocine’s low-budget horror films, it was also directed by one of my favorite directors and, by most accounts, it was not an experience that he particularly enjoyed being asked about.  He did not care for this film and (spoiler alert) his name was not J.A. Lazer.

In fact, for several years, it was assumed that this film was actually directed by Jess Franco.  And while it’s true that Franco was originally hired to direct Zombie Lake, he left the project because he said the budget was too low to execute his vision.  Consider that.  A budget too low for Jess Franco!  Franco left the project and went on to direct Oasis of the Zombies.  Apparently, the film’s producers did not understand that Franco had actually left the project because, on the first day of shooting, they were shocked to discover that they didn’t have a director.  In a panic, they called another fiercely independent horror director and asked him to come direct the film.  Jean Rollin agreed.

By his own account, Rollin only had a few days to prepare for shooting and since he had already made a classic zombie film called The Grapes of Death, he didn’t worry too much about trying to do anything too spectacular with Zombie Lake.  He simply filmed whatever scenes were required for the day, played the minor role of doomed police inspector, and, six days later, Zombie Lake had been filmed.

As for the film itself, it takes place in a French village that appears to be exclusively populated by cranky old men and naked young women.  There’s a lake nearby.  Despite seeing (and tossing aside) a big sign with a skull and crossbones on it, one of the naked women decides to go for a swim.  This apparently awakens the green Nazi zombies who lives at the bottom of the lake.  Soon, the zombies are randomly emerging from the lake and killing villagers.  The town’s mayor (Howard Vernon, of all people) is concerned.

It all links back to World War II, when the members of the French Resistance (led by the mayor) gunned down a squad of Nazis and dumped their bodies in the lake.  Somehow, this led to the Nazis coming back as zombies.  One of the Nazis had a daughter with a French woman shortly before he was killed.  Despite the fact that he was killed in 1943 and the movie clearly takes place in 1980, his daughter is only 12 years old.  That’s the type of film that Zombie Lake is.

Watching the film, you can tell why Rollin wasn’t particularly interested in claiming any credit for it.  It’s a messy film, largely because the green zombie makeup keeps washing off whenever the zombies have to emerge from the waters of the lake.  As for the lake itself, the underwater scenes were clearly shot in a swimming pool.  Beyond that, there’s not really any logic as to why the zombies keep emerging from the lake.  Whenever it’s plot convenient, the zombies suddenly emerge and attack anyone who has recently undressed.

Howard Vernon in Zombie Lake

And yet, there are some good things about Zombie Lake.  (Shut up, there are too!)  For instance, it’s kind of charming how each actor cast as a zombie brings their own interpretation to the role.  Some of them walk slowly with their arms outstretched.  Others move a little bit stiffly with a thousand yard stare.  Some of them just casually stroll around, doing their business.  As well, we’re so used to assuming that any character played by Howard Vernon is going to be decadent and sleazy that it’s kind of fun to see him playing an outright hero here.  Finally, even the frequent nudity is so gratuitous that it actually become rather humorous.  One could easily use Zombie Lake to play a drinking game.  Whenever anyone takes off their top, drink!

Finally, even though this was clearly just a film he did for the money, there are a few instances where Rollin’s signature style manage to peak through.  For instance, when we first see the Mayor’s office, the camera lingers on all of the historical artifacts on the wall.  The fact that one of the zombies has cloudy memories of his former lover and only wants to see his daughter actually works a lot better than you might expect, largely because that seems to be the only storyline that Rollin — with his fascination with memory and history — seems to really care about.

Zombie Lake is a mess and certainly not representative of Rollin’s best (or more personal) films.  But I still kind of like it.

International Horror Review: A Virgin Among The Living Dead (dir by Jess Franco)


This 1973 Spanish-French-Italian production’s title is both its greatest strength and also its greatest weakness.

On the one hand, it’s impossible to forget a title like A Virgin Among the Living Dead.  It’s a title that mixes both horror and sex, which are two things of which audiences simply cannot get enough.  On the other hand, this is a a Jess Franco film and the title — which is so blatant and over-the-top — sounds like it could almost be a parody of Franco’s “unique” style of film-making.  If you were coming up with a fake Franco film, you would probably give it a title that sounded a lot like “A Virgin Among the Living Dead.”  A Virgin In The Castle of Dr. Orloff, perhaps.

Interestingly enough, Franco absolutely hated the film’s title.  It, and quite a few other titles, were slapped onto the film by distributors who were apparently unconcerned with the fact that the film was not meant to be one of Franco’s typical, give-me-my-paycheck exploitation films.  Franco’s title for the film was Night of the Shooting Stars, which is a bit bland but perhaps also a bit more honest.  Incidentally, the film was also released under the titles Christina, Princess of Eroticism and The Erotic Dreams of Christina, which again were titles that Franco disliked.

In the version I saw (and, admittedly, there’s several versions floating around), it’s never even stated that the film’s frequently unclothed protagonist, Christina (Christina von Blanc), is a virgin.  When compared to the other decadent members of her family, she certainly is innocent.  For instance, she doesn’t drink blood or engage in strange purification rituals.  When the cheerfully cynical Uncle Howard (Howard Vernon, because this is a Franco film, after all) plays a waltz while another member of the family is dying upstairs, Christina is properly shocked.  But, at no point, is Christina identified as being a virgin.

In fact, Christina is rather uninhibited, nonchalantly greeting strangers (and a rather creepy servant, played by Franco himself) in her underwear, sleeping naked in a room with an unlocked door, and later casually skinny dipping in a nearby swamp.  (When she’s informed that two wide-eyed townspeople were watching her from a nearby hill, she shrugs it off.)  Perhaps she’s meant to be an Eve-like character, unaware of sex or her nudity until she eats from the tree of knowledge.  Am I giving too much credit to Jess Franco?  As is often the case with Franco, it’s hard to say.

As far as the film itself goes …. well, the plot isn’t always easy to follow.  Christina has come to her family’s ancestral home for the reading of her dead father’s will.  Her father hanged himself and, though he’s dead, he keeps showing up.  Christina immediately discovers that the other members of her family are collection of rogues, eccentrics, and blood drinkers.  She also eventually learns that all the members of her family are the living dead and that they’re all worried that Christina will make them leave the estate.  Or are they?  Is Christina just dreaming all of this or is it really happening?  Is the Queen of Night really coming to claim everyone’s soul or is that just a part of Christina’s hallucinations?

A Virgin Among The Living Dead features all of Franco’s usual directorial quirks.  The story rambles.  Franco alternates between scenes of surreal beauty and scenes of almost indifferent framing.  At times, the score is hauntingly ominous and then, at other times, it sounds like it was lifted from a 70s porno.  Christina comes across as being a beautiful blank but Howard Vernon is memorably perverse as Uncle Howard and all the members of the family are amusingly decadent.  For once, though, all these quirks work to the film’s advantage, creating a surreal dreamscape that truly does seem to exist in a land between life and death.  A Virgin Among The Living Dead truly does become a work of pure cinema, one in which the the visuals and the mood become the narrative as opposed to the film’s story itself.

Franco may have hated the title that was slapped on it but this is actually one of his better films.  Unfortunately, how you react to the film will probably depend on which version you see.  There are several floating around, some of which feature hardcore inserts that were filmed by other directors.  There’s another version that features extra zombie footage that was filmed by Jean Rollin.  The Redemption Blu-ray features Franco’s cut of the film, with no hardcore or extra zombie footage.  That said, the scenes that Rollin shot are included as an extra.  Personally, I like Rollin’s zombie footage but, at the same time, I can also see how its inclusion would have destroyed the film’s already deliberate pace.

(And, of course, it goes without saying that I’m opposed to producers inserting extra scenes into any film, especially when that footage wasn’t directed by the original director.)

Anyway, A Virgin Among The Living Dead never reaches the existential heights of Female Vampire but it’s still one of Franco’s “good” films.  Even if he did hate the title….

The TSL’s Daily Horror Grindhouse: Faceless (dir by Jess Franco)


FacelessPoster1988

Whenever it comes time to review a film like 1988’s Faceless, movie bloggers like me are faced with a very important question.  Which name should we use for this film’s prolific director?  The director was born Jesus Franco Manera and, for a very small handful of his 200+ film, he’s actually credited by his full name.  However, for the majority of his films, he dropped the Manera.  Sometimes, he is credited as Jesus Franco and then other times, the director’s credit reads Jesse Franco or just simply Jess Franco.

Myself, I usually prefer to go with “Jess Franco,” because it just seems to go with his “never give up” style of filmmaking.  At the same time, it seems rather appropriate that Franco is known by more than one name because he was a director with a many different personas, occasionally a serious artist, occasionally a subversive prankster, and sometimes a director-for-hire.  Franco was a lover of jazz and his films often had a similarly improvised feel.  Sometimes, the results were, to put it lightly, not very memorable.  But, for every Oasis of the Zombies, there was always a chance that Franco would give the world a film like Female Vampire.  The imdb credits Franco with directing 203 films before his death in 2013 but it’s generally agreed that he probably directed a lot more.  A lot of his films may not have worked but the ones that did are memorable enough to justify searching for them.

Faceless is Franco’s take on Eyes Without A Face, as well as being something of a descendant of his first film, The Awful Dr. Orloff.  All three of these films deal with a doctor trying to repair a loved one’s disfigured face.  In Faceless, the doctor is Dr. Flammad (Helmut Berger), a wealthy and decadent Paris-based plastic surgeon.  One night, while out with his sister Ingird (Christiane Jean) and his nurse and lover Nathalie (Brigitte Lahaie, the former pornographic actress who appeared in several of Jean Rollin’s best films, including the brilliant Night of the Hunted), Dr. Flammad is confronted by a former patient.  Flammad botched her operation so the patient tries to get back at him by tossing acid in his face.  However, Ingrid shoves Flammad out of the way and ends up getting splashed by the acid instead.

Now disfigured, Ingrid spends her time hidden away in Flammad’s clinic and wearing a mask.  Flammad and Nathalie start to kidnap models and actresses, searching for a perfect face.  Flammad’s plan is to perform a face transplant, giving Ingrid a new and beautiful face.

Needless to say, a face transplant is not a simple thing to do.  In order to get some advice, they go to the mysterious Dr. Orloff (Howard Vernon) and Orloff directs them to a Nazi war criminal named Dr. Moser (Anton Diffring).  Now, if you’re not familiar with Franco’s work, the scene with Dr. Orloff will probably seem like pointless filler.  However, if you are a Francophile, you will feel incredibly relieved to see Howard Vernon suddenly pop up.  When it comes Franco’s films, a Howard Vernon cameo is usually a good sign.

Flammad’s search for the perfect face is complicated by the fact that his assistant, the moronic Gordon (Gerard Zalcberg), keeps accidentally killing and otherwise damaging all of the prospects.  As the bodies continue to pile up, Nathalie even points out that there’s “too many dead bodies” in the clinic.

(Of course, Nathalie isn’t doing much to solve that problem.  When the film got to the moment where Nathalie plunged a syringe into one troublesome patient’s eye, I ended up watching the movie between my fingers.)

Eventually, Nathalie kidnaps a coke-addicted model named Barbara (Caroline Munro).  Flammad thinks that Barbara might finally be the perfect face that they’ve been looking for but there’s a problem.  (Actually, two problems if you count Gordon…)  Barbara’s father (Telly Savalas) is a wealthy industrialist and he wants his daughter back.  He hires an American private investigator, Sam Morgan (Chris Mitchum, looking a lot like his father Robert), to track her down.

Actually, it’s not that much of a problem.  It quickly turns out that Sam is kind of an idiot.  Plus, since he’s American, nobody in Paris wants to help him.  A Paris police inspector orders him to go home, yells at him for always chewing gum, and then adds, “You are not Bogart!”

And things only get stranger from there…

Faceless is one of Franco’s better films, a mix of over-the-top glamour (Faceless was filmed in Paris, after all) and grindhouse sleaze.  Though there is a definite storyline, the film still feels like an extended improvisation, with characters and plot points coming out of nowhere and then disappearing just as quickly.  If we’re going to be totally honest, the film is kind of a mess but it’s a glorious and stylish mess, one that is never less than watchable.

One of the great tragedies of American politics is that Chris Mitchum has twice been defeated when he ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives (though he did come close to winning in 2014).  Not only would it be great to have Robert Mitchum’s son as a member of Congress but it would be even better to know that our laws were being written, in part, by the star of Faceless.  Unfortunately, Chris is sitting out the 2016 election.  Hopefully, he’ll reconsider and file for at least one office.

Run, Chris, run!

Lisa Marie Does 6 Trailers In The Snow


I was so happy today and it didn’t  even have anything to do with the movies, either!  Early this afternoon, I was watching my cat twitch in his sleep (he has very violent dreams, apparently) when I happened to look out my bedroom window and you know what I saw?  Snow!  “Yay!” I yelled, waking up the cat. 

Now, I know that everyone else in the country gets a blizzard every other month but I live in Texas so snow is kind of a big deal to me.  I jumped off my bed, threw my Hello Kitty robe on, and went running down stairs.  I threw open the door, ran out to the front porch, and then slipped and fell right on my backside. 

My neighbor stared at me from his yard.  “Are you okay?” he asked. 

“Yay!”  I replied, “it’s snowing!”

He nodded and then went, “Better hope those power lines don’t ice over or we might be without electricity.”

At that point, I resolved to never speak to my neighbor again.

So, I was very, very happy but now, the snow’s gone.  It’s moved along to Arkansas and Mississippi.  Now, the only thing falling rom the sky is freezing rain and the roads will probably be really icy and scary when I’m going to work tomorrow.  So, as I sit here all kinds of pantsless with a big purple bruise on my ass, I’m cheering myself up by putting together the latest installment of Lisa Marie’s Favorite Grindhouse and Exploitation Trailers.

1) The Dunwich Horror

From 1970: Dean Stockwell kidnaps and brainwashes Sandra Dee and he’s doing it all in the name of all mighty Cthulhu.  This is actually kind of a fun film as long as you can get the image of H.P. Lovecraft spinning in his grave out of your mind.

2) Curtains

I’ve never seen this 80s slasher film but I’ve read about its troubled production on various web sites.  I’m kinda embarrassed to admit it but I actually get scared when I see this trailer.  First off, that mask is disturbing.  And secondly, that doll…

3) Black Belt Jones

Fortunately, even if this world does occasionally give us a demon doll, it can also give us a Black Belt Jones.  I loved the trailer as soon as I saw Gloria Hendry shooting the dishes…

4) Frightmare

From Peter Walker, comes one of the greatest British horror films ever made.  It’s all about cannibalism, psychology, and fire place pokers.

5) Faceless

Jess Franco has directed close to a thousand films and approximately 12 of them are worth watching.  This is one of the lucky dozen, a remake of Eyes Without A Face.  The film gave Brigitte LaHaie her best role outside of the films of Jean Rollin and it also co-stars the great Caroline Munro.  And since it’s a Franco film, Howard Vernon plays a character named Dr. Orloff.  Plus, its got that cute little panther animation at the start of the trailer.

6) Electra Glide In Blue

Finally, it’s up to Robert Blake to restore some order.  This is actually a fairly interesting little movie as long as you realize that it’s such a 70s film, it might as well be wearing a suit with lapels stretching all the way to the end of the shoulders.