London Vampire vs. Lesbian Gambler

My old friend James had a bee in his bonnet, as we say back at the 34th
Rifles. The 34th had been removed from the Front Lines after we were
decimated at…
Okay, you caught me, I’m lying. It’s been a long time since
someone caught me lying, and I hope you are very proud of yourself.
You’ll be excused from lessons for the remainder of seventh period.

My old friend James was on the move. Instead of a nameless bar in a
soulless city, though, we ended up at his rather posh Bethesda
apartment where he had two DVD’s waiting. They were titles that didn’t
really go together: 1999’s indie Britflick Croupier and a favorite piece of crap from 1970, the obscure Vampyros Lesbos, which Quentin Tarentino will tell you is a schlock cinema classic.

While I have the utmost respect for Tarantino’s work, I like to temper
my support. He’s blended entertaining storytelling with a deep respect
for what has come before. There’s nothing original in his work but, by
bringing it through the door with an American voice, it’s nothing but
original. That thought confuses some folks. The short of it is: I only
watch Lesbos for the tits.

James selected the two films for reasons that, in his mind, seemed clear. Croupier
follows the twisted tale of a young author, Jack Manfred. He’s
suffering from near terminal writer’s block. In the hopes of breaking
the block, he turns to the seedy life of a casino card dealer and
becomes absorbed by a strange, apathetic darkness. It’s good for his
writing, though!

Meanwhile, Vampyros Lesbos is a later evening T&A
flick, Jesus Franco’s “Psycho-Sexadelic Horror Freakout!” Most
schlock-heads believe it to be one of Franco’s best turns; he’s one of
the elite guards when it comes to Euro shock cinema. Ed Wood is the tip
of the iceberg in this sort of schlock movie making. He just made a
splash because he was a cross dresser and, later, because he was played
by Johnny Depp. But hailing Ed Wood as the kook of our international
cinema greats is like saying there was only one famous Civil
War general. There were many directors who made many weirdo cult films
and all of whom have equal and, often, greater followings than Ed.
Jesus Franco is among that group. Coming out of Spain, he wrote, acted,
directed and scored movies under any of 40 different pseudonyms. It is,
for normal people, almost impossible to know how many films he was
involved in. Like Jackie Chan, his early era is shady and never
mentioned. Better still, he continues to make movies! You don’t see
them on the big screen, and we’re down from five or six a year to one a
year, but the old boy is kicking. You can’t shake a stick at lesbian
vampires who have an over fondness for candelabras. My temples pulsed
in anticipation of the 90 minutes of mind numbing, slow moving
pseudo-terror that we had lined up after Croupier.

Croupier has lots of stuff going for it, namely Alex Kingston
giving us a full frontal shot. She’s the girl from ER. It’s a neo-noir
film, which is always nice to experience when properly done. It’s
witty, dark, and not at all audience friendly. That’s also nice. I’ve
always identified with stories about the demented, troubled minds of
writers. Croupier does that well, with plenty of Britishness
thrown in to make me coo like a pigeon because I am, of course, a
hopeless anglophile. Getting into a story about a crazy, hat-wearing
writer who’s sexy to boot is what Saturday night is all about. James is
almost constantly drunk these days and I can’t focus on writing to save
my life, so I guess I have to kill women as an experiment, eh?

Mike Hodges is directing. He gave us the Sandy Bullock vehicle, Murder by Numbers, as well as The Terminal Man and the excellent original version of Get Carter (which I reviewed right here).
Paul Mayersberg is on the screenplay. He’s a writer who has been
troubled by mediocrity ever since his strange yet brilliant adaptation
of Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth. The cast are unknowns,
generally speaking from the viewpoint of the United States of Love, and
the flick begins with the cool, smooth lines that only the Brits can
do. It has a perfect little prologue that is followed by death, terror,
struggle and rebirth. The story reads as if from a book. That’s not
something that can often be achieved, yet they manage it with finesse.
Another perfect script, the narrator’s voice beginning as the house
lights go down. We open with: “Now, he had become the still center of
that spinning wheel of misfortune.” What a great opening line. This is
a nut-cutting study of the writer’s life, the gambling world and a
young man cut loose.

The movie sums up Jack Manfred after 12 minutes – “Jack was up above
the world, a writer looking down on his subject.” But you can’t stay
above the world for long. Jack’s “professional voyeurism” won’t last.
The green, sucking water at the bottom of the pit of gambling and sin
quickly pulls him down. It’s not really about being on the other side
of the chips, though. It’s all about the poison that seeps through in
what Jack believes to be detached observation. The idea that the world
around him is a feeder for his book, and his hopes to be a successful
writer, are both mistaken dreams. His writing becomes a conduit for all
the filth and depravity that crawls around on the floor of Human
addiction. Jack is quickly taken over by the latent schadenfreude
present in every writer. What is it that drags him in? Watching people
lose? Bringing them down? If he cannot succeed, then his writing life
is over. So, he hurts those people, simply through emotional
negligence. The hands-off observer in a hands-on world. But the
misfortune of the people around him is what builds his novel. He
becomes an addict. A sardonic, venomous addiction that brings him into
the downward spiral. Of course, the great horror of the true writing
life – all that is okay. It leads to production. Do words on a page
outweigh Humanity? The obsession, shared by writers both aspiring and
accomplished, is laid out early on. On the subway, Jack dreams of
people reading his book. He dreams of getting into their heads. While
I’ve shared those thoughts, I’ve also sat next to million dollar
authors who wish the same things. The power of looking across at a
woman and seeing your book in her hands is indescribable. Jack opens
himself to the conduit, opens himself to pollution. Everything must be
done in order to move forward.

Every writer should watch this movie, if only to learn how to drink
five ounces of chilled vodka every night. It’s a novel on film, and
part of the increasing number of movies and books about struggling
writers in an equally struggling world. It’s the natural process,
captured, displayed. If you write, you’ll recognize that big darkness.

“So Nacho says check it out!” James wants me to say as I hastily write this review and he puts in Vampyros Lesbos.

Call me crazy, but I adore this trash. Here’s the opener: The theme
music is electronically altered spoken Turkish with a groovy, funky
musak background. On camera, an adorable brunette she-vamp reaches
towards us as red silk scarves flutter around her. Scene one, act one,
cut to she-vamp in see-through negligee masturbating to her image in
front of a mirror and dancing to a 70’s guitar riff. Amen, brother,
this piece of crap pulls through every time.

If you plan to enjoy the talents of Jesus Franco, Dario Argento or any
of the gore/Euro-horror crew, you must be drunk. I write these
articles, people rent the movies and they send me emails saying, dude,
Nacho, what the fuck did you make me do? Were they sober? Yes. That’s
always the first mistake.

In your basement? Nacho wrote a review about Black Belt Jones?
You got the tape on the coffee table? Great. Now, stop! Pour yourself
five ounces of vodka, smoke a joint, undo the top three buttons, have
another five ounces of vodka, dim the lights, roll film. Now you’re
cool, baby.

These big entertainment centers we have today… You ever notice how they
sit serenely in sanitized living rooms? Watch out for the leather, take
your shoes off at the door, we can’t eat in here. What the fuck? I’m
watching goddamned Jesus Franco! I’m rolling through the Pam Grier
collection. I’m going to tackle all four Phantasms in a row and, then,
I’m going to blow my head off and splatter brains across your
white-washed, virginal walls. James, you see, he understands. So do I.
Our entertainment centers are in backrooms, forbidden chambers, the
hell dimension. Who’s combing the carpet while surround sound feels us
up? Open a window, man, because the stench of death comes from beneath
that couch. Today’s special: A super death TV sits beside a pile of Thrashcore
magazines and vinyl punk records. Haven’t touched them in years. There
are some moldering Jelly Babies behind them if you’re hungry.

Okay, I’m ranting. Back to nude vampires. A woman in black underwear
writhes on the screen, I am encased in overloud 70’s guitar music, the
only light in the room is from the wall of entertainment before us, and
Johnny Walker Black melts my ice. James drinks his straight. The room
is choked with the smoke from Cuban cigarillos, coffee brews in a
mold-coated pot sitting on the floor beside the couch. It smells like a
dog has slept in this room for 20 years, though James has never owned a
pet. Jesus Franco, ladies and gentlemen; we watch in silence.

Vampyros Lesbos is the first to hit upon an oft-used idea. How
do the vamps go unnoticed in the modern day? Well, they form a theater.
When in doubt, act.

The great thing about filming on location in Istanbul is that it’s an
excuse to have your funky 70’s music overwhelmed by a sitar. Oh, I’m
not complaining. The soundtrack could be pots and pans banging together
as long as naked girls walk around covered in blood.

“Let me talk for a bit during this slow part,” James said to me as he
refreshed my scotch. He told me the life story of his younger sister
and I listened contentedly. See, you gotta be drunk, because the slow
part is thirteen hours long.

Overall, with the booze settled in, I must say that Lesbos ranks far
better now that it has a proper DVD restoration. Now we have the bright
colors we’ve never seen on the old beat-up VHS version. The subtitles
are in place and properly translated, as opposed to making up a story
like the early 90’s tapes did. It’s a fairly complicated story, too.
Bram Stoker meets Whitley Strieber. Nude chicks abound, blood pours and
it’s simply amazing what a sewing needle can do to an eye socket.

James and I finished our three hour marathon on a high note. Usually
I’m sporting a movie headache but, this Saturday, I was feeling up
above the world, a writer looking down on his subject…

Nacho’s gin rating: Watch the first while drinking, watch the second while drunk. You’ll thank me by midnight.

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