Superhero Schlock: The Cat-Beast

Shehnaz Begum directed The Cat-Beast (Da Khwar Lasme Spogmay in its original title) and cast herself as the catlike avenger. Her feline tongue movements are unlike any other you’ve ever seen in a movie before and are so eerily mimicked even David Attenborough could be fooled into thinking we’re dealing with a genuine animal. Well, at least the sponsor of this film was subtle…

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Lady on a Train

Let’s celebrate the Avenue’s return with something topical and what is more topical on Boxing Day than a movie that takes place on Christmas? Christmas Eve, to be precise, but we’ll gloss over that for now.

Lady on a Train is a movie from 1945 that combines a whodunit with comedy and musical. Sounds like more than you can handle? Well, you’re not entirely wrong: it is more than a handful of elements for one movie and the scenes don’t always fit perfectly, but none of it bothers too much to spoil your viewing. The movie is built around Deanna Durbin, the classic actress who was cast throughout the late 30s and 40s for her good looks and dito voice. Say what you want about Deanna, but she was versatile enough to appear in any sort of movie, from film noir (Christmas Holiday) to musical western (Can’t Help Singing). In almost all of her 22 movies, Durbin performed at least one song and Lady on a Train is no exception, but we’ll return to that later.

The poster on the left is not from the movie, but from the mystery book it was based on. The author is Leslie Charteris, whom you might know from his books about The Saint. This movie starts with Nicki Collins (Durbin) reading a thriller on the train, when suddenly she sees a real murder being committed. The police don’t believe because she’s still carrying around Wayne Morgan’s book The Case of the Headless Bride and suggest she’d better go and bother the author (David Bruce) with her alleged murder story… which she promptly does, much to the dismay of Morgan’s fiancee. At first, Morgan doesn’t want to believe her and Nicki starts to investigate things herself, bumping into the family of the deceased (a cast including Dan Duryea and Ralph Bellamy). The family mistake her for a nightclub singer the deceased had an affair with, which doesn’t make the plot convincing, but is a handy step-up to have Durbin sing more than one song.

Overall, Durbin’s character is quite a sassy young lady. The poor man her father hired to look after her (played by Edward Everett Horton, a comedy legend from the 30s) definitely has his hands full and certainly can’t seem to go home unscathed after a hard day’s work. All in all, the character of Nicki Collins looks like a barely legal version of Nancy Drew. By then, Durbin had become such a darling of the silver screen that the seductive scenes in the nightclub songs might not appear too risqué, but I don’t think a genuine nightclub artist would’ve gotten away with sitting on someone’s lap and stroking his head in such a way the man’s girlfriend leaves the place with slamming doors.

Something contemporary this 1945 movie seems to be a distinct relative of is the series Castle: not only is there lots more “will they won’t they” atmosphere around than what’s actually being shown, it’s also one of the few shows that managed to find itself a niche where it doesn’t really matter if the story is believable or not. The twists and quirkiness suffice you keep you hanging until the end. And if that’s not enough, there’s a scene where Deanna Durbin is on the phone to her father (while she’s unaware there’s someone in the house who’s trying to get some evidence back). It’s a scene that is completely different from the rest of the film, but it’s Deanna Durbin and you’ll forgive her anything. Especially on Christmas Eve.

R.I.P. Kôji Wakamatsu

Once again, there’s no room for the planned and/or promised updates, as it’s time to pay tribute to a recently and suddenly deceased director. This time that’s even to be read literally, because Japanese cult director Kôji Wakamatsuwas run over by a taxi. Some

Violence without a cause
Violence without a cause

sources claim it was no accident as Wakamatsu had claimed he wanted to make a critical movie about the nuclear company Tepco. Of course, that’s only speculation at best, but how fitting an ordered execution would be for such a director.

When these pages belonged to a cult review site, DV, Wakamatsu’s filmography was mentioned and discussed. One of the most overused expression was fitting for him: you either hated or loved him. Smutty pornographer to some, bleak observer to others, his movies didn’t leave most members unmoved. And whereas it’s true that some of his work was little more than pornographic (especially in the 1980s), the same could be said for Jean Rollin or Jess Franco, directors who did get to keep their medals of cult directors.
Make no mistake, The embryo hunts in secret (1966) is extreme cinema. Basically, it’s like watching a woman who’s constantly tortured by a man. Like Fifty Shades then, but bleaker, less eroticising and more stylistic. Well, a lot more stylistic.

Kôji Wakamatsu directed so many movies – his IMDb profile, which may not even be complete (but it’s hard sifting through the movies with countless titles) – clocked off at 105 titles. That’s more than a hundred titles for a director who didn’t do anything between 1997 and 2003, or indeed skipped a couple of other years too. By contrast, he managed to complete ten titles in 1964. (He debuted in 1963, at the age of 27.)

Go go, second time virgin
Go go, second time virgin

No wonder then that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish which movie you’re watching. There are so many and most carry his cinematographic style. When asked why his body of

work was often repetitive, the director answered: Because the basic theme is the same, because all my films deal with the same primal element – the fight against authoritarianism, the individual hate and revenge against authority and repression. That hate and revenge explode in lust and violence. Is this bad?”

Wakamatsu was also a producer and even made some of his fame there, being the executive producer of In the realm of the senses, Oshima‘s erotic classic. Oshima is a lot more known and a little less extreme than Wakamatsu, but if you like Oshima’s work, there’s a chance you’ll like Wakamatsu as well. (I had to think of Oshima’s Naked Youth a.k.a. Cruel story of youth the first time I watched a Wakamatsu movie.)

For a lot of Wakamatsu’s work you’ll have to rely on the internet as most of his movies aren’t out on DVD anywhere else than Japan. A couple of movies were released in the US,

Shinjuku mad
Shinjuku mad

such as the excellent Go, go, second time virgin or Ecstasy of the Angels (both Image) or The notorious concubines (SWV). If you manage to catch Italian channel RaiTre, the often excellent Fuori Orario is currently showing a weekend long of movies as a tribute to the late director. On the internet, MUBI has a page on him with more than 20 films which he either directed or produced.

To me, Wakamatsu’s work are more political than erotic, no matter how much sex there is in some of his exploitation movies. (Then again, I’ve only seen ten of his films, that’s less than 10% after all.) The low budget he often had forced him to limit locations, but it helped to make his films claustrophobic. His style allowed you to understand his movies even if you can’t speak a word of Japanese (check). One of his films is called Violence without a cause, which neatly sums up Wakamatsu’s body of work. You can find a lot of clips from his movies on YouTube, but I’ll leave you with the opening scene of Ecstasy of Angels, which shows Wakamatsu didn’t need sex or violence to know where to point his camera to.

“I don’t think much of critics, so naturally they don’t think much of me either.” (Kôji Wakamatsu, 1936-2012)

Horror Europa

Halloween is upon us and even channels which never deal with horror may want to pre-empt their schedule for one night of spine-chilling movies. Here in Belgium, the public network has a threesome of movies planned for Halloween night: The Thing from Another World, The Body Snatcher and Rubber (which seems an odd choice after two B&W classics). BBC Four doesn’t do anything special on the 31st of October, but one day earlier you can catch Horror Europa, a 90-minute special with Mark Gatiss.

“Actor and writer Mark Gatiss embarks on a chilling voyage through European horror cinema. From the silent nightmares of German Expressionism in the wake of World War I to lesbian vampires in 1970s Belgium, from the black-gloved killers of Italy’s bloody Giallo thrillers to the ghosts of the Spanish Civil War, Mark reveals how Europe’s turbulent 20th century forged its ground-breaking horror tradition. On a journey that spans the continent from Ostend to Slovakia, Mark explores classic filming locations and talks to the genre’s leading talents, including directors Dario Argento and Guillermo del Toro.”

Seems like an appointment you don’t want to miss…

Great moments in cinema: Teen Witch

And now it’s back to our ongoing series of classic scenes that changed the history of movies forever. Okay, not really… today’s harmless oddity is Teen Witch, a 1989 movie about an unpopular girl who suddenly learns she’s descending from the Salem witches. Does this lead to her being burnt at a stake? Not really, 1989 isn’t that far in the past. Instead, she can make annoying boys disappear, irritating teachers lose their pants and, above all, have a good and equally unpopular friend win a rap battle. Yes, you’re about to see rap as it was in the late 1980’s. If you don’t dig it, remember that you’re not cool and they are. Allegedly.

Meek’s Cutoff

In space noone can hear you scream, we all know that. But how about the deserts or similar desolate areas? Meek’s Cutoff, made in 2010 but released in the Low Countries no sooner than 2012, offers us just that, an insight into the life of a group of pioneers. Their guide, Meek, promised them he knew a shortcut to an area full of wealth. The opening shot of the movie, the pioneer women wading through a river with caged birds on their heads, immediately shows that the trip may be lots of things, but definitely pleasant. However, does that mean the film doesn’t make for compelling viewing? It all depends on your definition of ‘compelling’. Quite a number of reviewers and bloggers worldwide slagged it off for its lack of entertainment. Then again, it’s a film about a group of rough people (otherwise, they wouldn’t have gone off their initial trail for this cutoff) who are stuck in desolate areas for days and days, with almost no certainty of the next time they’ll get to water. That’s the synopsis, now wouldn’t Meek’s Cutoff be improved if suddenly the entire cast would burst into a song and dance routine, preferably a musical version of Smells Like Teen Spirit? “Here we are now, entertain us.”

The big name in the cast is Michelle Williams and compared to this film, another of her movies, Blue Valentine, becomes a romcom. Meek’s Cutoff is bleak, forcing you to watch a small group of people turn from fearless pioneers into frightened little people. Hope may be around the next corner, or not. More often not, by the way. Does their guide, Meek, know the area or is he just a boaster? If Meek is out of his depth, will the group become leaderless? Adding to the despair, is the lack of water and the sudden and shocking encounter between Williams’s character and an Indian. For some reason, the Indian follows the group and after a while he’s caught. This adds to the conflicts as the group isn’t unanimous on what to do with their prisoner.

If you’re wondering where that all leads to, the answer is a bit unpleasant: Meek’s Cutoff doesn’t give an answer, the film has an open ending. It’s up to you to interpret the final scenes and look (attentively) for details. The Indian doesn’t know English and therefore what he’s muttering is not understood by the group. Helpfully, his words aren’t subtitled. It adds to the lack of references, which is a great way to sum the movie up. You’re about as lost as the pioneers. What we do know is that the Indian likes to carve messages on the rocks. Some travellers think this is a sign to his tribe and that they’re about to be lynched. However, one pioneer himself left the word “Lost” behind earlier in the movie, so maybe that’s what the Indian is communicating as well. Yet, what adds to the mystery is that, unlike the pioneers, observant viewers may spot other messages in the background. What does it all mean? Feel free to share your comments below or send a postcard to the usual address for nostalgic reasons.

The internet, that widely available source of information, does not help Meek’s Cutoff. The incomprehensible language has been translated by surfers and others commented on how historically and geographically correct the film is, which means you can find out for yourself whether the group will find a way or not. Whether you want to know that information is up to you and that’s the choice director Kelly Reinhardt leaves you. That this was done on purpose is evident in the way the film unrolls. Less clear, at least to me, is why the film was restricted to 1.33:1 in a time when widescreen has even become standard on television and computers. For me, widescreen would have added more background (and therefore desolation) but this way you’re closer on the skin of the pioneers.

Don’t expect to be entertained by this film. But watch it if you’re in the mood for “raggedy” and “rough”.

7.5/10