Hidden Cinema Gems, 1970-71

For one reason or another, oftentimes studio executives’ befuddlement over the nature of a movie they green-lighted but have no affinity for or understanding of when it is finished, a film enters limbo.  In the past it might become the second entry on a double-feature bill.  Reviews might be scanty or nil.  It will in short become lost.  Today, if it’s an “international” picture, it might not even reach DVD status in North America. 

The five movies discussed below are examples of such films from 1970 or 1971, depending on the actual release date.  Some U.S. Army personnel in West Germany were privileged to see them on base theaters and did not forget what was surely a unique “moviegoing experience.”         

The Blood on Satan’s Claw (aka Satan’s Skin, U.K.)

In early 18th century England, as crows caw spookily, a young farmer unearths a disgusting visage in a furrow, but when he returns with others it has disappeared.  Soon enough, however, young folk go missing.  Some are victims, others in thrall of something not fully formed but obviously intent on contaminating the countryside, including the parson. A witchfinder is summoned.  This is folk horror at its finest and would make a great bookend with The Wicker Man (1973).  It was once on VHS but is not on DVD for viewing in North America despite increasing coverage in outre film magazines.  Elaine Macintyre said it “provides a microcosm of a world in the grip of mass hysteria, in which witches and deviltry lurk round every corner.”  (http://www.elainemacintyre.net/film_revuews/blood_on_satans_claw.php)     

Darker Than Amber (U.S.)

Rod Taylor (The Time Machine, Hotel) is John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, “salvage” expert, aka private eye, when he needs some cash, who lives aboard a houseboat named the Busted Flush in Ft. Lauderdale.  In this outing Travis helps Vangie (Suzy Kendall) survive the depredations of sociopathic Terry (William Smith).  The climactic bare-knuckle fracas between Taylor and Smith (TV westerns, Hawaii 5-O, Chrome and Hot Leather, Any Which Way You Can) that rockets from a cruise ship cabin out onto the dock is worth the price of admission.  In a 2010 interview, Smith said, “Fight choreography and staging went out the window when Rod [Taylor] decided to really hit me.  And so the fight was on.  That was a real fight with real blood and real broken bones.  Rod is a skilled fighter, and, at the same time a real scrapper.  Now that was a good fight!”  (Tim Tal, “William Smith:  My fight with Clint Eastwood was longest two-man fight scene on screen,” BZFilm, April 1, 2010.)  William Lustig called it “A truly great overlooked 70s detective thriller,” and William Smith “expressed disappointment that it had become a legendary lost film.”  (William Lustig, “Anthology Film Archives Screens The Seventies—Buried Treasures Series,” August 14, 2009). 

Road to Salina (France)

Road was directed by George Lautner, a notable French filmmaker, but it’s in English and the four prime performers are American:  Mimsy Farmer (Spencer’s Mountain, Riot on Sunset Strip), Robert Walker (Jr.), son of notable film stars Jennifer Jones (The Song of Bernadette, Duel in the Sun) and Robert Walker (The Clock, Strangers on a Train), Rita Hayworth (Gilda, The Lady from Shanghai), and oddest of all, venerable character actor Ed Begley (Twelve Angry Men, Sweet Bird of Youth).  The story:  A young drifter named Jonas (Walker) finds himself at a gas station cum café in a remote venue (the sun-drenched but haunting moonscape of the Canary Islands) run by Mara (Hayworth).  She proclaims him “Rocky,” the son who ran off four years before.  Jonas plays along just for the heck of it.  It doesn’t hurt that Mara has an alluring daughter, Billee (Farmer).  Warren (Begley) goes along with the deception to keep Mara happy. This is a multi-layered and quite mesmerizing film of mystery, suspense and forbidden romance.  The audio commentary on the new DVD release is enlightening and thought-provoking.  Occasionally it did get some notice in the past:  “The movie has a grainy look and an existentialist bend, befitting of a film made by a Frenchman.  It contains suspense elements…, free love sexuality, exotic scenery, generation gap disconnects, and does-a-number-on-your-head oddness.”  (Brian Greene, www.criminalelement.com, April 25, 2014.)     

Scream and Scream Again (U.K.)

Scream is a distinctly odd sci-fi/horror film starring Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and, briefly, Peter Cushing.  At the time of release most critics deemed it incomprehensible.  Roger Ebert called it “absurd” and “engagingly ridiculous.”  (Roger Ebert, “Scream and Scream Again,” www.rogerebert.com, February 18, 1970.)  The commentators for this newly issued DVD make a case for planned surrealism and also believe the police chase involving a kind of cyborg the longest in cinema history.  Price’s scientist maintains that what he is creating will be great, “but not an evil super race.”  Acid baths hide evidence of misdoing.    

The Vampire Lovers (U.K.)

This Hammer Studios film was the first of the commonly designated “Karnstein Trilogy” that was followed by Twins of Evil and Lust for a Vampire and was the initial Hammer outing for the actress generally considered the studio’s greatest femme fatale (not a scream queen because she caused the screaming), Ingrid Pitt, concentration camp survivor who knew all about human-sponsored horror.  It is based on J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s famous novella, Carmilla.  Pitt played Carmilla,/Mircalla/Marcilla and visited sex and death upon young ladies whose mansions she infiltrated as a kind of governess.  Even more so than other Hammer films, it was beautifully filmed.  Played straight, there are nevertheless moments of sly humor.  Back in 1970, The Philadelphia Daily News‘ film reviewer Joe Baltake called it “Campy, literate, witty and dead-straight vampire movie.”

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