Say what you will about the original Sleepaway Camp—you can’t accuse it of lacking ambition. All writer-director Robert Hiltzik had to do to sell a movie with that title in that era was cast a bunch of teenagers in a wan Friday the 13th knock-off and splash some Karo blood around in the woods. Yet he made something dark and unique, with queer undertones: the first gender-identity horror film. The story goes that Hiltzik’s script for a follow-up was rejected by producer Jerry Silva, who thought it was too dark. Instead, he forged ahead with plans to shoot two overtly-comic sequels back-to-back in Georgia under the direction of local talent Michael A. Simpson. A 24-year-old writer named Fritz Gordon got the gig on a recommendation from U.S. distributor Nelson Entertainment.
The Night Porter is one of the most bizarre psychodramas in the history of film, using the Holocaust as a dreamy, abstract backdrop for a toxic romance between a former SS officer (Dirk Bogarde) and the “little girl” (Charlotte Rampling) he isolated, humiliated, and raped in a Nazi concentration camp. If that sounds absolutely outrageous, that was surely part of the design. This wasn’t Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS or another in the short-lived cycle of Nazi-themed exploitation pictures. This was Italian director Liliana Cavani’s first English-language feature, and Bogarde and Rampling were English-language stars. In order to recoup, The Night Porter would need to be provocative. Cavani delivered on that score. European critics are said to have taken the movie’s sociopolitical context seriously, but upon arrival in New York its outré imagery generated a mix of critical scorn and mockery that, ironically, helped earn it big returns at the box office. (Vincent Canby’s pan deriding it as “romantic pornography” was highlighted in the advertising.) If you know nothing else about the film, you probably know its signature image–Rampling, wearing black leather gloves and an SS officer’s cap, her bare breasts framed by the suspenders holding up a pair of baggy pinstriped trousers, tossing a Mona Lisa smile at the camera. That key art has kept The Night Porter in demand for more than forty years now, from arthouses and VHS tapes to DVD and now Blu-ray releases under the Criterion imprimatur.
What scares you the most? If you chew on that question for a while, then imagine a narrative that gets you to that terrible place, your story might be a little like the one in The Vanishing. Completed in 1988, this downbeat thriller didn’t make it to the U.S. until a couple of years later, when it coincidentally landed in New York within weeks of The Silence of the Lambs. The Vanishing isn’t, strictly speaking, a serial-killer movie like Silence, but it shares that film’s deep interest in the psychopathology of its villain. Like a good (and by “good,” I mean “lurid”) true crime book, its interest is similarly piqued by the painful, quotidian details of an abhorrent crime.
It’s quite possible that there is no better-known director of truly terrible genre movies than the late Italian filmmaker Bruno Mattei. Though I’ve not seen any other Mattei films, I feel comfortable making that assessment based solely on the “blood-soaked double feature” assembled here by the B-movie mavens at Blue Underground.
By any rational measure, Hell of the Living Dead and Rats: Night of Terror are cheesy barrel scrapings, budget-starved and blandly offensive horror counterfeits. But by the standards of Mattei’s filmmaking ouevre—which also includes nunsploitation, Nazisploitation, women-in-prison flicks, and mondo-style “documentaries”—they are the cream that rises to the top of the milk.
Ah, the good old days — when an introspective B movie with an incongruously complex, multi-threaded narrative got sold on the drive-in circuit as a straightforward sex comedy. Directed in Miami Beach by NYU film school grad Joseph Adler, and shot in 16mm, it all takes place over the course of a couple of days at a toy manufacturers’ convention. One “convention girl” is looking for sweet corporate revenge against her ex. An older wife is looking for no-strings-attached sex with a genial cabana boy. Another woman is trying to sell the industry on her anatomically correct Barbie and Ken, including Ken’s tiny, magnet-induced erection. I’m not making any special claims for the quality of this generally drab little movie, but it clearly has things on its mind — infidelity, parenting, sexism, depression — and it’s an interesting artifact.
Well, this got panned on its release — perhaps justly. But now that it’s on Netflix Instant, where you can queue it up without earmarking any money or committing much time to the experience, it’s in its element. I watched it at the beginning of a long holiday weekend after making a shaker full of margaritas (tequila, triple sec, fresh-squeezed lime juice, no mixers or any bullshit like that) and found that it fairly reliably delivered the laffs, one after another.
No, it’s not an action movie. I think it fancies itself a satire, but it’s not a very good one of those, either. And as grindhouse pastiche, it’s unconvincing. It’s just a live-action cartoon, with inane gags — starting with the garishly spotlighted Wilhelm Scream (presumably a Morricone parody) that punctuates the opening credits — that connect just often enough to keep things interesting. It has Lady Gaga! Mel Gibson! An absurdly brief Walton Goggins cameo! Some tongue-in-cheek reflections on American border paranoia!
I still cringe at the unconvincing CG blood and bullet holes (really? you couldn’t be bothered to just have a make-up guy paint a gunshot wound on that guy’s kneecap?) but when it’s used to allow Machete to tangle a bad guy’s intestines in a whirring helicopter rotor? I guess I’m OK with that. At the very least, it’s rarely boring. And, in contemporary Hollywood, giving a 70-year-old actor of Mexican descent a multiplex action franchise is a mildly subversive act on its own. Would I watch Machete Kills Again … in Space!? Yeah, probably. But I wouldn’t pay 12 bucks for the privilege.
Ah, summer camp. Softball games, capture the flag, nightswimming, and life-changing boating accidents. Not to mention killer bees, child molesters, maniacs in the shower, and one kid with a whole lot of baggage, if you know what I mean. Sleepaway Camp is a slasher movie, and it depicts lakeside Camp Arawak as a pressure-cooker of hormones and teenage flop sweat. Into this fetid milieu step Ricky and Angela, teenaged cousins united by tragedy: a boating accident that killed Angela’s parents and sibling some years earlier. Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) might be a little awkward, but he just wants to fit in; Angela (Felissa Rose), meanwhile, seems downright disturbed, spending much of her time dead silent, staring down her fellow campers with a mournful, almost accusatory glare. Before long, some of those campers start dropping dead as surely as the flies that coat the glue strips dangling in Arawak’s kitchen. There’s a soup incident, a shower incident, and an incident involving a toilet stall and angry bees. There’s a bit of business with a curling iron that’s probably inappropriate in a movie starring underage actors. The slasher’s hands appear on screen, but do they belong to unhappy Angela? Overprotective Ricky? Or someone else entirely?