Legacy of Satan (1974), hits that sweet spot

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Maya (Lisa Christian)

There are a lot of terrible films out there. Many are on Tubi, bless their hearts. The 70s were a heady time for film, with the technology becoming more accessible and an interest in experimental film. At the same time, this era became a nexus of schlock. Legacy of Satan (1974) is garbage, but it’s entertaining garbage.

In essence, Maya (Lisa Christian) is a sexually repressed housewife. Her husband, George (Paul Barry), loves her but is having a hard time dealing with her mood swings and lack of desire. Their friend, Arthur (James Procter), becomes involved in a sexy blood cult. Cult leader Dr. Muldavo (John Francis) becomes fixated on Maya. His cult worships Rakeesh (not Satan?), and they plan to lure Maya in with a costume party. Maya starts having strange visions; one is a pretty cool painting that’s bleeding from the eyes, but then she gets attacked by a guy in a crummy rubber mask, so… kind of unsatisfying.

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Got some schmutz there…

When the couple goes to the cult compound, they are drugged and separated. Maya seems fine with her fate; in fact, when George tries to rescue Maya with the help of a mute cultist, Aurelia (Anne Paul), and a magic sword, Maya turns on him. This twist was really unexpected and fun, but the film kind of fizzles out from there. Dr. Muldavo has been injured during the attempted escape, resulting in some kind of skin condition (with terrible makeup appliances) and Maya tries to nurse him back to health with increasing amounts of blood, but to no avail. The film ends with Maya crying out to Rakeesh for help as she too succumbs to whatever skin disease was afflicting Dr. Muldavo.

Even though this film is not by any means successful, it is a fun watch if you like bad movies. There is something very particular about bad films in this era, distinct from other decades, and boy does this film deliver.

1. Re-using footage. You know what you’re in for almost right away, as the same line shot from two angles is repeated in the same scene. Not a flashback, literally a minute after Maya says the line she says it again. She is reacting to Arthur quitting his job to follow the cult. “Now, George, don’t be so obstinate. He’s a grown man and I’m sure he’s got his reasons”. Astonishing.

2. That budget, though. Despite its limitations, the fashion and interior design are cutting edge, like the painting of two hot dogs on a cube, the monochromatic rooms, the diaphanous silk caftans… So good. The cultist all have sweet crescent moon necklaces which they use to scratch for blood (and look like they may have been made from pie tins). The film takes a really strange turn close to the end, which feels like they maybe ran out of money or time with their extras and sets, where they start using furniture and entire rooms from the couple’s house on what is ostensibly now the cult set, and all of a sudden there are only three people in the cult.

3. Morality restored. What is the objective of the story? Is it a condemnation of free love and the danger of syphilis? I kind of think so. That’s all I could come up with for the strange skin condition. But, in the end,, the real horror is their very, very mauve house.

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Maya and George, living that 70s decor dream.

Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971)

I really liked this movie. While imperfect in that inimitable 1970s way, there are so many interesting details to keep you engaged. The title does not fit the story at all, but let’s dig in.

Mariclare Costello as Emily

Jessica (Zohra Lampert) is fragile, she has just had some kind of unspecified mental breakdown. She and her musician husband, Duncan (Barton Heyman), have bought an old farmhouse in a small town with their friend, Woody (Kevin O’Connor). Jessica stops on the way, in their converted hearse, to take etchings of gravestones, where she sees a young woman in white; her inner monologue tells us she is not sure whether the woman was really there. This is a great little scene as it sets up her fixation on death and her mistrust of her own senses. For the rest of the film you can never be sure how much is real or imagined.

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Zohra Lampert as Jessica

Having spent all their money sight unseen, intending to make money off the orchard there, they pull into town and the locals are immediately hostile to their new counter-culture neighbours. When they arrive at the house, they find a squatter, Emily (Mariclare Costello). She plays the lute and is evasive about her background. Being the hip cats that they are, they ask her to stay with them; Woody wants to sleep with her and Jessica is sure that Duncan does too.

On their first day together, they all go to the lake to bathe, and Jessica sees something in the water. She says it touched her and it felt “like some kind of shark or something” (it’s clearly a human body). The effect for the corpse is excellent, just hair floating in the waves and upraised arms. No one else sees it.

The locals’ hostility towards their group is compounded when they try to sell antiques from the house. The antiques dealer in town (not a local) tells them that the daughter of the previous owner, Abigail, drowned in the lake near the house and her unused wedding gown is in the attic. There is also an H.P. Lovecraft angle that all is not right with the locals, who all sport cuts, scars, and bandages. Jessica comes to believe that Emily is some kind of vampire or spirit. To be fair, there’s a sepia photograph in the house that is clearly just her.

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That’s not suspicious at all…

There are more strange little episodes and it becomes clear that Jessica is not well. It can’t help that Emily has sex with Duncan. The best sequence by far is when Emily comes out of the water in Abigail’s wedding dress, telling Jessica to join her. This may be the source of the title, implying that Emily is playing some kind of game, but it really does seem more like Jessica’s (lesbian) fantasy. The end of the film is really messy, and you can’t be sure what’s going on because of Jessica’s mental state, but she might have killed Duncan with a hook?

The great strength of the film is how weird and off-putting Jessica’s performance is. The inner monologue is a clunky device, but the filmmakers sometimes use echo and layer in other voices to create an eerie effect. Jessica performs her mental illness with darting eyes, physical shaking, and at times her voice gets low and strange; she cries seemingly without noticing. As I mentioned, there is an undercurrent of gay panic to the film, as Jessica fixates on Emily with a longing gaze but also rejects Emily’s looks and touch in response. The idea of Emily as a ghost in the lake, waiting to pull her in can be seen as Jessica’s anxiety around her own lesbian desires.

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Like I said, the film is not perfect, but still an interesting watch. I had to buy it on YouTube for 12$ Canadian, but I really don’t mind. I would watch it again. I saw it compared to David Lynch, and while I wouldn’t go that far, it was pretty experimental and engaging.

The Nightingale (2018), exploitation film?

I saw the trailer for this movie and was super excited right away, then I missed in in theatres and forgot all about it. Luckily Shudder recently got it and I enjoyed it a lot. In Covid times, there is a lot to be said for a story that takes you out of the present. Is it a horror film? Not really, but it speaks to the history of exploitation films in a really interesting way. I can recommend it on the whole, but not as a horror flick.

Director Jennifer Kent came to everyone’s attention with The Babadook (2014), so I feel like that saw to The Nightingale‘s packaging as another horror film. Really, it’s more of a period drama but a good one at that; it’s even based on a book. It tells with no glamour but great beauty the story of a penal colony in Tasmania in 1825 . Spoilers ahead.

In a strange way, this narrative is a staple of exploitation films: a rape-revenge story. But unlike its predecessors, the film isn’t shot in a way to titillate. During the rape, the camera focuses on her face, you see little of her body, and the scene is not protracted. The violence towards her attackers, on the other hand, is graphic; bringing it closer to the tropes of rape-revenge. The film narrowly side-steps being an exploitation film by filming the same story in a different way.

The protagonist, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), is an Irish convict. Recently married with a baby, she is trying to get a letter of recommendation to end her conviction. When we first see her, she is singing a Gaelic lullaby to her baby as she walks to hard labour at the prison. The lieutenant in charge of their prison, Hawkins (Sam Claflin), is obsessed with her beautiful singing voice and refuses to let her leave. We see his face transfixed as she sings for the officers. In sharp contrast, Clare is forced to suffer through repeated rape at his hands in the hope he will let her and her family go free; he even tries to buy her compliance with trinkets. He is equally fixated on getting a promotion to work in a larger town, but his hopes are dashed when an inspector finds his prison badly run. When Clare’s husband again asks for their freedom, Hawkins turns his rage and disappointment on them. The violence is terrible. He and his cronies kill her husband, Jago (Harry Greenwood) kills her baby, Hawkins rapes her again and tells one of his cronies, Ruse (Damon Herriman), to do the same. Clare is left for dead and Hawkins decides to set out for the city to seek his promotion.

Waking up to pure desolation, Clare sets out to follow him on her horse, Becky, her most cherished possession. To guide her through the jungle, a friend directs her to Billy Blackbird (Baykali Ganambarr). She tells Billy that she is following her husband and strikes up a bargain for his services, but treats him like a distrusted slave, calling him only “boy”. Over the course of the trip, she comes to depend on him and he comes to realise her mission is one of revenge when she murders (in brutal fashion) the man who killed her baby. In turn, Hawkins’ crony, Ruse, kills Billy’s Uncle Charlie (Charlie Jampijinpa Brown), giving Billy a stake in the revenge plot.

When they finally catch up, Clare is unable to kill Hawkins and makes peace with embarrassing him in front of his superiors, but Billy in not satisfied. Under cover of night, he returns to kill Hawkins and Ruse, where he is fatally wounded. The story ends with Clare and Billy on a beach at dawn awaiting a no-doubt terrible fate for their crime. There is no joy in this ending, no vindictive glee in our protagonists.

I found it really interesting the way that the movie draws parallels between violence against women, children, and people of colour. Hawkins is the personification of all crimes of colonisation, hypnotised by the beauty of her voice, the appearance of culture. We would like to think such times are over, and yet, even in 2018, an Italian critic shouted “whore” and “shame on you” when Kent’s name appeared in the credits at the Venice Film Festival, where she was also, notably, the only female director featured. What was his intent? Was he objecting to her depiction of violence? There is no small irony in that when you consider the history of Giallo exploitation films in Italy.

What Have you Done to Solange? (1972)

Resist the urge to make a Beyonce joke. This movie is really different than I was expecting, and worth watching. On the surface, you’ll see all of the trappings of a classic Giallo film: badly dubbed, lots of nudity, misogynistic violence, mystery killer, … etc. But then, there are other things to surprise you. The visual style is very naturalistic, no gels, no dramatic angles. Mild implication of psychic ability? The story is also surprisingly empathetic to its young female cast in some ways (okay, but also a few pervy shower scenes). Welcome to Massimo Dallamano’s What Have you Done to Solange? (1972). Spoilers ahead.

So our protagonist is a Catholic girl’s school teacher, Enrico Rosseni (Fabio Testi), having an affair with a student, Elisabeth (Cristina Galbo). Gross, right? But the film goes out of its way to explain that it’s totally fine through dialogue with another teacher basically giving him a thumbs up. Also, it turns out he didn’t take her virginity (despite much effort depicted in the film) so it doesn’t count… plus he said he would marry her…

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When our film starts, Enrico and Elisabeth are having a romantic outing in a rowboat where he tries to coax her into sex. So, breasts 5 minutes into the film, good job. She stops him because she sees someone in the bushes. No polite way to put it, our killer stabs a girl in the vagina. Over the course of the film, this is repeated with several girls from the school. But why? Elisabeth gradually remembers important details from the killing, like he wore a priest’s habit. During the ensuing investigation, the affair is eventually exposed and Enrico loses his job. Fair, right? Bizarrely, he decides to go all Scooby Doo on the murders with the tacit blessing of the police. Sure, why not?

So, the affair. His “cold, German” wife, Herta (Karin Baal), forgives him immediately‚Ķ You know, once Elisabeth is horribly murdered in the secret apartment her husband had for their affair. I have to say, that murder came as a surprise. It was even a different murder method. She seemed to be the female lead right up until that moment, now the wife emerges as part of his Scooby Doo murder mystery gang. I briefly wondered whether it would turn out that Herta murdered Elisabeth completely separate to the other crimes.

So… who is Solange? Did you forget about her? I did, I was totally hung up on sleazy Enrico. Somehow all the murdered girls link back to her, but no one will say anything more. It all comes down to looking for her.

The reveal at the end is actually kind of heartbreaking. It certainly explains the killer’s motive and method. Shall I tell you? Solange was the secret daughter of one of the teachers. The same one who approved of Enrico’s affair with a student, so there is possibly an implication there.

Solange was secretly a party girl along with her group of friends from the Catholic school. Since Catholics don’t believe in birth control, she instead wound up going to have an abortion on the kitchen table of her friend’s maid. Afterwards, she went catatonic and her father wanted to find out why. He started disguising himself as a priest and taking the confessions of her friends, then interrogating them before killing them, thus gradually piecing things together. Through convoluted events, Enrico draws the police to him and witnesses his suicide when the police find one of the girls in his attic. Then, as in all great Giallo films, freeze and abruptly roll credits with overwrought music. But it’s Ennio Morricone, so not as bad as you might expect.

I would love to see a modern re-make of this film, it could really develop the ethical issues absent in the 1970s context.