December 20, 2012

Mixed Blood (1985)

This article on Mixed Blood (1985) originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

" must always do what your mother tells you, you hear? Always." - Rita (Marília Pêra) to her son, Thiago (Richard Ulacia).

Director Paul Morrissey returns to the same territory he chronicled in his earlier films Flesh (1968) and Trash (1970) - the squalid existence of criminals, drug users and various low-lifes living in New York City. Mixed Blood (1985) is a new chapter focusing on the drug dealers and subsequent drug war between two rival gangs in NYC's Alphabet City (the Lower East Side); The "Master Dancers" led by Juan the "Bullet" and the "Maceteros" led by the indomitable and feisty Rita La Punta.

The character driven film centers primarily on Rita's "family", one which consists of her beautiful and devoted son, Thiago, and a large group of underage boys that she recruits to do her criminal bidding. She enlists her boys young so that they can kill without the worry of them serving jail time. The character of Rita is endlessly fascinating and Brazilian actress Marília Pêra is an absolute marvel in the role. She alternates between loving mother figure to her "boys" (in one amusing scene, the idea of motherhood is spoofed when Rita tells one of her boys to take out the trash – "Do it now or no television!") and executing her ruthless duties as the reigning drug queen. This role is so perfect, so unique and complex on so many levels that one is reminded of some elaborate Shakespearean female character along the lines of Lady Macbeth mixed with the violent criminal streak found in Ma Barker complete with the blind devotion of her son and surrogate "children". It's a fantastic character and one that absolutely holds the film together

Similarly, the film, like Rita's character, changes tone and mood from scene to scene. One minute it's jet black comedy, the next, followed by shocking violence. For example, the film's best and most joyous sequence is the scene at Rita's grandchild's christening, where she sings and dances around to a rendition of Carmen Miranda's "Tico Tico". It's lively! Vivacious! Only to be followed a couple of minutes later by a violent infiltration and shootout between the "Dancers" and the "Maceteros." It's on this unpredictable balance that the film succeeds. Even the mix of acting styles, amateur alongside professional, adds to this uneasy mix.

Also of note is the palpable atmosphere of the film. The viewer can almost feel the grime and smell the dank living conditions that lay amongst the maze-like back alleys and graffiti-covered, abandoned tenements of Alphabet City. The flavorful Latin soundtrack also adds a distinctive touch to the film. With all of these elements "mixed" together, flaws and all, we come away with a film that can definitely be considered one of Paul Morrissey's best films.

The DVD from Image Entertainment provides no supplemental materials save for a brief commentary track by director Paul Morrissey that plays over an extensive gallery of behind-the-scenes photographs of the film. Morrissey mentions that this is his favorite film and goes into great detail in describing the casting for the film as well as his inspiration for the story, one which was lifted directly from the headlines of NYC newspapers at the time.

December 3, 2012

Flesh (1968) and Trash (1970)

This article on Flesh (1968) and Trash (1970) originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

Between 1968 and 1972 director Paul Morrissey wrote, shot and directed three influential films that were later to become known as the "Flesh" trilogy.

The first, Flesh, in 1968 was an early attempt of Morrissey to break away from his previous experimental film work with Andy Warhol during the heyday of the "Factory" years. Though his name is often credited in the titles, such as Andy Warhol's Flesh or Andy Warhol's Trash, Warhol merely financed the films and had little or no actual creative development with them.

Flesh was a film that, compared to the other Warhol films of the time, actually followed some sort of a plot, albeit a very loose one. Prior to the "Flesh" trilogy, the majority of the films being released were experimental, with titles like Sleep (1963) (six hours of footage of a man sleeping) and The Chelsea Girls (1966) - two simultaneously screened films that depicted scenes of various Factory regulars improvising in several rooms of the notorious Chelsea Hotel in New York City.

Flesh follows Warhol regular Joe Dallesandro through a series of misadventures in seedy NYC and his interactions with a variety of friends, family and customers all of who discuss, partake, ogle and dismiss Joe as simply, a piece of flesh. The "plot" here is that he is selling his body to others in order to raise money for his wife's girlfriend's abortion.

The film is shot in a grainy, static way - jarring jump cuts and dialogue that is low and natural and is often cut off mid-sentence. One can even hear the camera whirring in the background! The film comes across as if you are watching someone's crude home movies. There is no real style and certainly no special effects or soundscapes; it's 100% natural - natural sound, improvised performances - certainly this type of documentary style film making was a major influence on the whole Dogma film making practice of recent independent filmmakers such as Harmony Korine, Lars von Trier and others. The actors all exude a complete lack of self-consciousness particularly with Dallesandro who spends a large portion of the film in various degrees of undress.

Whether you find Flesh entertaining or not depends on the level of patience that the viewer possesses. The long takes, the amateurish acting, lack of soundtrack, etc. could make for an irritating viewing for the average moviegoer. However, the film does contain some very funny and often touching scenes, particularly the scenes with female impersonators, Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling, and the completely silent sequence of Joe spending time with his infant child. Though the film contains a lot of nudity and sexual content, the film still comes across with a sense of innocence in its portrayal of a man trying to support his family by the only way he knows how.

The next film, Trash, from 1970 is certainly a more polished film and feels more like an actual narrative film than Flesh's semi-experimental approach. There seems to be a lot more thought and consideration in the camerawork and the actors are actually attempting to create genuine characters as opposed to the improvising seen in Flesh. Though Trash has its share of improvisation, the performances here are much more watchable because there is an actual beginning, middle and end to the dialogue and scenes.

Trash stars Dallesandro again - this time playing a drug user living with his girlfriend, Holly (played by female impersonator Holly Woodlawn) - and the film follows Joe through another series of seriocomic adventures amongst the squalor and streets of New York.

The film's highlight is no doubt the enthusiastic and hilarious performance by Woodlawn. Like Divine in the films of John Waters, Holly Woodlawn isn't playing a female impersonator or drag queen, but an actual female role. The viewer's true sympathies lie with Holly throughout the film in witnessing her attempts at trying to have a normal life and to achieve her goal of receiving welfare.

The title "Trash" has two meanings - the low-life "trash" that Joe and Holly represent and the aesthetic look of the film as Holly collects junk and refuse from the street to decorate her home...of which she is extremely proud. Trash is a much better film than Flesh due solely to the appearance of Woodlawn.

The third film Heat in 1972 is the third and final chapter of the trilogy and this time finds Joe Dallesandro in a sexy spoof of Sunset Blvd. opposite Sylvia Miles. 

All three films have been released as "The Paul Morrissey Collection" on DVD by Image Entertainment.

December 1, 2012

Sugar Hill (1974)

This article on Sugar Hill (1974) originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

The year 1974 was an interesting period in the history of horror and cult films. It saw the release of many now-iconic titles that ranged from the archetypal The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas, to a series of unconventional films that included Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat, the French soft core sex romp Emmanuelle, John Waters' Female Trouble and many more strange and offbeat cinematic experiences.

All of these films shared the similar idea of showing audiences subject matter and concepts that had not really been seen before onscreen. It was a semi-renaissance of new and experimental films that focused on new (often graphic) ways to depict the themes of comedy, violence and sex. An interesting style that began to become more prevalent was the meshing of different genres. In the case of Blazing Saddles, audiences had certainly seen comedic Westerns before but not one that mixed together politically incorrect jokes, scatological humor and broad parodies of other films. Another imaginative "mash-up" of popular genres was the high concept action thriller The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires; in this, the Hammer horror iconography was combined with the increasingly popular "kung fu" craze sparked by the international appeal of Enter the Dragon, which was released a year earlier in 1973.

This combining of film genres was obviously apparent in Sugar Hill (1974), a supernatural thriller with "blaxploitation" elements. Certainly black-themed horror films were anything but new after the appearances of Blacula (1972) and Blackenstein (1973) a few years earlier. However, it's noteworthy that Sugar Hill was ahead of the curve in making zombies the real heroes of the piece.

At the time, American horror films featuring zombies were rare with the exception of Night of the Living Dead (1968) which was still in distribution after six years. Otherwise, you'd have to look to Europe for movies about the living dead such as the Spanish-produced Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971). Also, the "blaxploitation" craze was still in full swing by 1974 with the early 1970s having been witness to the action thrillers of Shaft (1971), Superfly (1972), The Mack (1973), Coffy (1973) and Cleopatra Jones (1973). So, the combination of zombies and a "blaxploitation" gangster drama was a novel concoction.

Sugar Hill is the story of Diana Hill (Marki Bey), a beautiful young woman whose boyfriend is murdered by a group of gangsters. Devastated and driven by revenge, Diana seeks out the services of the mysterious voodoo priestess, Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully). Together Diana and Mama perform a strange ritual and call upon the menacing presence of Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley) and his squad of undead minions. It's at this point that Diana begins leading a double life - that of Diana, fashion photographer, and the other as "Sugar" Hill, executioner of her lover's murderers. One by one, Sugar and her zombie crew begin killing off the men in a variety of bizarre ways. Eventually, she goes one on one with the king boss criminal, Morgan (Robert Quarry), in a final act of retribution.

Sugar Hill is an uncomplicated and entertaining example of drive-in fare from the early seventies. The film seems to take a page from the classic EC Comics of the 1950s (Tales from the Crypt, etc.) in its comic book presentation of characters, dialogue and revenge-driven plot, a common storyline in horror comics. The zombies themselves are extremely effective with their bulging, silver eyes, dangling chains and machetes - all of it topped off by their eerie, grinning faces. Even the dated seventies' fashions, hairstyles and set design add to the enjoyment and one of the key pleasures is watching our main character transform from the sweet, mild-mannered Diana with her soft, straight hair to the more outrageous "Sugar" Hill in her bell-bottomed white pantsuit and large Afro hairstyle.

The villains are a rogue's gallery of cliched crime characters headed up by horror film veteran Robert Quarry as the bloated and despicable Morgan. His cronies are a typical assortment of interchangeable thugs that even includes a pandering black character (named Fabulous) who is often painful to watch. Capping off this comic book crew is Celeste (Betty Anne Rees), Morgan's subservient and viciously racist girlfriend. However, one can't really take the entire proceedings too seriously since all the villainous characters are such extreme slime balls that the audience begins rooting for their inevitable, well-deserved "just desserts".

Sugar Hill fit in quite nicely with the other odd-beat films released in 1974. It offered something different and unexpected than the usual voodoo-zombie thriller stereotype. However, once George Romero's Dawn of the Dead hit screens in 1978, the entire identity and modus operandi of zombies were changed forever. Perhaps one day, horror filmmakers will revisit the idea of the zombie-gangster mash-up approach seen in Sugar Hill.