Monday, May 12, 2014

The Ex-Fest


If you really love movies, there exists that magic time, the moments before a film begins as it slowly fades in, and you have to guess exactly what you're watching. Seeing something contemporary behind generic multi-conglomerate logos takes a bit of the fun of it, but there's something powerful about catching a film from another era that gives no hints, shows no credits, and ominously utilizes a cinematic vocabulary of which you're unfamiliar. Not only must you guess the film, but you also have to get your bearings: someone may die, someone might fall in love, and the music that plays just might kick your ass. And for those brief moments before the title comes up, you just don't know how.

This is the feeling one experiences when they attend Exhumed Films' Ex-Fest, a wholly unique movie marathon that, for true film junkies, is the cinematic event of the year. For four straight years, Ex-Fest has been showcasing the strangest and most obscure of exploitation films' past, original prints teased with only the faintest of clues, the only guarantee being that the film would be from an earlier period, usually separate from the horror genre (the good people at Exhumed also put together the 24 Hour Horror-Thon each year around Halloween).

This year's fest took us around the globe, showed us the heart of darkness, the ecstasy of bad behavior and the exoticism of peculiar deviance. Exhumed's Horror-Thon sells out each year, but that's not the case for Ex-Fest, which makes no promises about what you'll see. The recipe allows for mass walkouts and some disappointed people hoping for a more filtered bout of exploration. You're not going to see Arnold blow off someone's face in this festival, but you will see George Kennedy cradle a shotgun while in a lizard suit, which he did in last year's “Radioactive Dreams”. And you won't catch Sharon Stone disrobing to seduce her prey, but you just might see Carol Kane seduce... well, read on to find out.


The first film was “The Eagle's Shadow” (aka "Snake In The Eagle's Shadow"), which begins with a good look at the martial arts from its star, Jacky (sic) Chan. This Yuen Woo-Ping-directed fight film, which I believe I saw once on Univision during a late night, finds a very young Chan as a bumbling disciple to a borderline-magic old man, who must then recruit him in a struggle between warring kung fu clans. This is very much gang warfare on a micro scale, carried on no less gangsta than it would be in a film like “Boyz N The Hood”. Of course, there are the typical Chan-quality Gags And Stunts, but the one standout moment is a brawl between a kitten and a rattlesnake. Like Donald Sterling, these films are Of Their Era, which means that some people on the set willingly broke some rules to get things on the screen. So if you're seeing something dangerous, chances are it's at least partly real. There is a real snake and a real cat in these shots, and while the movie employs some clever editing, there's no doubt during some moments the production had a real cat face down an actual snake.




The second picture was Sergio Sollima's “Face To Face”, a widescreen western epic complete with a badass Ennio Morricone score. This deceptively complex film teams a principled teacher from the East Coast with a wily criminal from Texas in a hostage situation that slowly, gradually morphs into a criminal collaboration. There's some meat-off-the-bones philosophies about the principles of violence and the duality of man, but oddly enough, this just didn't feel scummy enough for Ex-Fest for me. Which is to say I liked and admired it a great deal, and am extremely thankful I saw it. But it's hard to look at the gorgeous photography and brilliant casting of this picture and not think this wasn't something a bit richer and more intriguing than the average Ex-Fest entry, albeit still with the usual booze, broads and guns.


The next picture hewed closely, and somewhat depressingly, to the troubling women-in-prison genre. “Bamboo House Of Dolls”, from producer Run Run Shaw, was an exceptionally good-looking film about a Chinese containment camp during World War II, the Japanese aggressors proceeding to have their way with the collection of female nurses on the premises, a good chunk of whom are American. The picture actually has top-flight production value and the action sequences hover between jagged handheld and blazing dolly shots, stylistically pumping up a fairly generic storyline. Again, very Sterling-esque, but when you agree to Ex-Fest, you consent to seeing the presence of more than a few voyeuristic rape sequences in the films, and this was no different. I recently caught Camille Delamarre's “Brick Mansions” and was a bit taken aback by how this PG-13 actioner may have had the most leering of any movie in years. But “Bamboo House Of Dolls” clearly comes from a place before so much pearl-clutching.


Normally the films are interspersed with vintage trailers, a treasure for anyone who has spent hours on YouTube checking out their depository of seedy bargain basement junk. This year, they eliminated the trailers, but they did bring us “The Best Of Sex And Violence”, a curio of a movie consisting only of movie trailers. Harkening back to a time where you couldn't just click a few times to see any trailer you want, this feature presents the best and nastiest of exploitation trailers, filled with bold nudity and bracing gore, and introduced by an unlikely host, the rictus grin of the elderly John Carradine. His introductions, wide-eyed and completely insincere, usually poked fun at the movies, as well as his own participation in the entire endeavor, a cheap paying gig for a former cinematic legend. If you ever wanted to see the crotchety old Carradine crack deeply-dated jokes about homosexuality while introducing a trailer for Lucio Fulci's “Zombie”, this is clearly for you. The unfortunate note is that those who had been to previous Exhumed events were no stranger to some of the clips presented, but for awhile stuff like “The Doberman Gang” really threw the audience for a loop.


Halfway through, Ex-Fest got pretty aggressively weird with the suspense thriller “The Mafu Cage”. Transparently based on a stage play, this indescribable oddity finds Lee Grant and Carol Kane as sisters, housemates and lovers (!) living off the largesse of their late wildlife-loving father. While Grant has managed to live a relatively normal life on the outside, she nonetheless must keep the difficult Kane at home. In an earlier time, Kane was given a pet she named Mafu, but her reckless behavior led to Mafu's death. Each subsequent pet she's been given has met the same grisly fate, all named Mafu. As the film begins, she's onto her latest Mafu, an orangutan who makes himself overly friendly towards the lonely Kane by making out with her and groping her repeatedly. The affection is returned until it is not, and soon Kane's aggression emerges not only against the pet, but her own sister and her sister's new boyfriend as well. This is a film with approximately zero scares or gore moments, blunt and bizarre and absolutely unique. You can imagine wearing a dashiki to see it open Off-Off-Broadway on opening night.


The most conventionally exciting film of the day was “Class Of 1984”, the kids-ain't-alright suspense thriller from “Commando” director Mark Lester. The new teacher at Lincoln High is a straight-arrow with something of a short fuse, something that places him in conflict with the authentically-dangerous punks who walk the halls. The transgressive feel of such a film is minimal given that we've been spoiled by decades of age-appropriate casting (the “teens” in this film are mostly late twenties) but there's brief gravity brought to the film by an achingly young and slightly chubby “Michael Fox”, looking like a borderline ninth grader. Roddy McDowell is the alcoholic veteran teacher who has grown accustomed to the threats and violence, and he begins the picture as comic relief before the ferocious and unexpected violence done to him and the tragic reaction that spurs the third act. I would very much like to see the sequel, which apparently takes place in the future and introduces robot educators into the mix.


Good on the Exhumed folks for procuring a print of Ralph Bakshi's confrontational “Coonskin”. The most lambasted of Bakshi's films, this urban animated wonderland traces the adventures of three black men as they attempt to navigate the criminal underworld of New York City during a time of what the film considers phony civil rights and dubious economic realities. Like most Bakshi films, his has that unique feeling of being immaculately animated and designed, and haphazardly plotted and indifferently performed, at once polished and improvisational. Typically, the audience has just about no idea how to respond to the film. Interesting to see this vision of black culture and attitudes after the thoroughly white "Class Of 1984", where the black students are bullied through transparently racist behavior.



I do wish some out-of-theater issues didn't prevent me from seeing the final film, the sexploitation thriller “Eager Beavers”, but twelve hours is a lot of time to spend at the movies. This one looked seedy and disreputable, but also polished and relatively newer (possibly 1985?), so I disliked foregoing a very nice print for the real world. Such is the nature of Ex-Fest, which very much feels like a portal that swallows you whole and takes you to another world, one where women are slapped and yelled at, where men are disgusting, hairy-chested slobs, and where making love is less common than a sloppy car chase. It's best this event be once a year: the cinemas no longer have enough personality to accommodate such an experience beyond that.






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