Review- Nico Icon (1996)

Review- Nico Icon (1996)

Note- Nico Icon can be found here on YouTube. Please make sure you switch on the English subtitles before watching as some sequences are in French and German.

I first became aware of the singer Nico in 1988, ironically the year the singer passed away. I was becoming a huge fan of Siouxsie and the Banshees and a new book had been published about the band. The first few pages went through the early lives of the band members and the bands they were listening to as they were growing up. Of course one of them was The Velvet Underground and Nico. The picture published to illustrate this however wasn’t one of the iconic monochromatic shots of the band wearing shades, black clothing and looking absolutely cool with it. Instead, the image was of Nico but after see had dyed her hair and wasn’t the glacially beautiful blonde chanteuse anymore. The pic was from 1970 and she was dressed in a cape. ‘What Goth could have become if more people had taken Nico to their hearts’, I thought.

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Shortly after this I started listening to and loving The Velvet Underground starting with their iconic first album. Nico’s voice was a revelation. Her teutonic vocals with her own sense of phrasing and meter were mindblowingly original. In fact, after hearing this album I bought The Marble Index and my love for Nico and her career was born.

On seeing the documentary Nico Icon on YouTube I decided to investigate further.

And I’m so glad I did. The film fully explores Nico’s legacy and metamorphosis brilliantly from her time as a model (a profession she hated as she saw herself as a blonde smiling object and nothing more), her introduction to movies with her turn in La Dolce Vita no less, her introduction to singing and then becoming a staple of Warhol’s Factory crowd (Andy famously described her singing style as like that of an IBM computer with a Greta Garbo accent) after being introduced to Warhol by Bob Dylan. Her stint as chanteuse on The Velvet Underground’s iconic first album (not to mention her relationship with The Velvet’s lead singer Lou Reed) followed shortly after this with her solo career as a result.

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From model…
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…to Warhol endorsed recording artiste

I wasn’t prepared for the emotional pull that the documentary has. The scene in which Nico’s aunt is listening to I’ll Be Your Mirror and starts crying because of the beauty of the music and her late niece’s vocals is incredibly moving. The fact that Lou Reed’s lyrics are displayed on the screen via the film’s subtitles show just how gorgeous they are.

The melancholic and reflective aspect of Nico’s music is also explored with songs as achingly stirring as You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone acting as a reflection of Nico’s life. She was evidently her own mirror for the world to see.

The transformation of Nico from blonde bombshell to Angel of Death is also examined. With this metamorphosis people who said to her that the change was too drastic and made her look ugly were met with joyous proclamations from the woman herself. She loved the fact that she wasn’t a blonde object of beauty anymore for others to ogle, an object.

She seemed to hate life and to be looking forward to death. She infamously became a junkie with her addiction to heroine (what else for the guest singer with The Velvets) which meant she toured constantly to supplement her habit. James Young is on hand to tell tales of what it was like to be in her band during this period with one incident involving her deliberately handing him a tour’s worth of used needles for him to dispose of when they were approaching border control whilst in their tour bus. ‘She was the Queen of the Bad Girls’, Young states. She also loved the track marks, rotting teeth and bad skin that the drug had bestowed on her body. ‘That was her aesthetic’, Young opines.

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Nico in the 70’s. Nothing scary about this pic at all…

Nico’s son Ari from her relationship with French actor Alain Delon (one of Nico’s other former lovers expresses that Delon was descended from sausage makers and even though he became a famous actor there was no getting away from his true family vocation in life) is also interviewed. We hear the shocking revelation that it was her who introduced him to heroine and that whilst he was once in a coma, she came to the hospital to record the noises his life support machine made to utilise on her next album.

But throughout the documentary one thing truly shines through and that is the music itself. There has never been any other artist like Nico in terms of music and image. She was a true individual with a back catalogue that is alarmingly and consistently brilliant. Whilst her first album Chelsea Girl was material written by others for her, her second album and every subsequent album after this starting with The Marble Index, showed that Nico wasn’t just an amazing singer and frontperson but also an astonishing writer. Her imagery and obsessions are just as idiosyncratic as her persona and are utterly intoxicating. Fortunately this is captured in the documentary with all phases of her music career being given an airing. And that’s one of the greatest aspects of the film- it encourages the viewer to investigate further and fall full-on into the disturbing, beautiful and esoteric rabbit-hole that is Nico’s oeuvre. And it’s an amazing place to vacate.

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Her transition from the blonde Ice Queen to the Angel of Death is extraordinary enough and reminds me of the transition that Scott Walker made from pop star pin-up to serious artist who made the kind of music that music critics can’t salivate over more. Nico was even more exemplary as when she started writing her own material we were suddenly plunged headlong into her own world with it’s own meanings and rules. It was a sphere of frozen borderlines, friar hermits and janitors of lunacy. What does it all mean? Who knows. But it works beautifully. We were invited into the mindscape of an island, a question mark, a true maverick and, dare I say, a genius.

This documentary is so good that not even the very pretentious device of snippets of dialogue appearing on the screen as text just as a subject is saying them can even ruin or tarnish proceedings. Thankfully this isn’t employed too often but why it was used at all is beyond me.

Proceedings are rounded off with a rendition of Frozen Warnings from the album The Marble Index sung by John Cale at the piano. It’s an apt tribute to a singer who Cale saw as someone truly exceptional even if the world is still catching up on Nico’s genius. But with a new biography coming out soon it appears that the wheels are in motion regarding this. This documentary is a great starting point for the uninitiated and familiar alike.

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Essential and one of the best documentaries about one of the best and beguiling subjects ever to grace the arts. Even Siskel and Ebert gave the film two thumbs up. But don’t let that put you off.

5 stars out of 5

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Review- Martha (1974)

Review- Martha (1974)

More Fassbinder goodness with this 1974 film as we see the central character start out as a happy go lucky woman who feels pressurised to find a man, settle down and adjust to married life. Her own parents are revealed to be in a loveless marriage until Martha’s father collapses and dies when he is with his daughter on holiday in Italy.

I’m not going to give away too much about the plot and what happens during the course of the movie as I don’t want to blunt the impact of the film but all I’ll say is that this is a dark piece of cinema! And I mean DARK!

As the concept of coercive control is just starting to be spoken about in the popular media, Fassbinder had made a film about it 1974. And gaslighting. And marital sadism.

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A special mention needs to go to Margit Carstensen in the lead role whose performance is nothing short of astonishing as we see her character’s spirit and very existence being destroyed and disintegrating before our very eyes.

I also didn’t know that Karlheinz Bohm had ever depicted a darker character than his star turn in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. I was sooo wrong! His character here is a sadistic psychopath/narcissist and acted to grimy and reptilian perfection.

I remember when I saw the movie Threads for the first time. I thought to myself that it couldn’t get any darker but then saw that that it was only halfway through it’s running time. I then saw that it could get MUCH darker! The same happened when I watched Martha.

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This does for marriage and societal expectations for women what Jaws did for sharks. When I watched this I kept thinking to myself ‘I’m so glad that I’m gay. And that I’m happily single!’

****and a half out of *****

Review- Ali- Fear Eats The Soul (1974)

Review- Ali- Fear Eats The Soul (1974)

Emmi, a 60 year old widowed cleaner decides to enter a bar that is playing Arabic music to shield from the rain. She sits at a table on her own far from the regulars who are at the other side of the bar. They dare one of their entourage, Ali to go and ask her to dance. Whilst they think he will refuse instead he calls their bluff and complies.

With this Emmi and Ali get to know each other and this develops into a relationship. But with this the couple come face to face with societal prejudices regarding inter-racial relationships and their age gap.

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Masterfully directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ali- Fear Eats The Soul shows how the love between Ali and Emmi is met with others hatred, ignorance and bigotries.

The couple are quickly ostracised and find themselves all alone which is depicted by the couple being depicted in long shots in many of the film’s scenes. One such is the heartbreaking scene in which they both sit in the rain outside a restaurant where there are no other diners. The couple sitting at the middle table of a huge and empty seating area emphasises their ostracised status within the restaurant and society in general. In fact the only others there are the restaurant’s staff who have decided to stand outside openly gawping at the couple in wide eyed disbelief that they would dare to be in a loving relationship whilst transgressing so many norms of what is acceptable and what isn’t.

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The scope of these extreme long shots which emphasise their isolation and separation is huge with Emmi and Ali being shown to be tiny within them. This emphasises just how cut off from everyone else they are whether that be the people around them or society as a whole. Another example is when they go to a restaurant just after they get married. The couple even seemingly break the fourth wall and look into the camera as they are shown to be the only figures in the frame and dwarfed by how far away the camera is and how small their figures are in the frame. Fassbinder holds this shot for seconds but it feels like hours with the audience being made to purposely feel a little uncomfortable at having the characters dwarfed in their surroundings whilst they look us in the eye.

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Emmi is shown to be shunned by her family who took her for granted anyway and then by her work colleagues, her neighbours and even the owner of the small convenience store she used close to her apartment.

The issue of their relationship being built on love but without sex also poses a problem within the film with Ali going to the female owner of the bar for almost functional sexual fulfilment which Emmi finds out about. Again, we get another shot to depict Ali’s loneliness and isolation, this time in another long shot but this time on his own sat on the bar owner’s bed, completely alone and without Emmi just as she was alone when sat at the table in the bar at which they met.

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The film shows that Emmi’s family and friends only start to speak to her again and seemingly accept her new marriage when they need something- her babysitting duties when it comes to her son who had previously kicked in the screen of her TV on hearing the news of her marriage (a reference to Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows which was an inspiration for this film), her storage space when a neighbours’s son needs to store his belongings in a hurry, her custom and hence money when she is accepted again by the owner of the local shop.

The film also explores how powerful the need to fit in with societal norms really is with Emmi’s narrow minded friends deciding to come to her apartment to meet Ali but which then leads to a scene in which Ali storms out to leave after being objectified by the women as a powerful, exotic object of their lust resplendent with big muscles. They express surprise when they find out that he even washes everyday just like any other civilised human being. Ali feels dehumanised by this and rightly leaves hastily. Even when he leaves, Emmi voices the opinion that it is down to his ‘foreigner mentality’ and ‘others’ him even further.

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Emmi is received back into her gang of co-workers and by doing so ostracises a new woman who has joined her team just because she is an immigrant just like Ali. Toxic behaviour is evidently highly contagious.

During the film, Emmi goes to Ali’s workplace to see him after he had left. She is then humiliated because of her age by his workmates who he laughs along with whilst pretending not to know who Emmi is. The pull of conformity and not wanting to be seen as ‘other’ or ‘different’ is a powerful one and affects both Ali and Emmi in different circumstances.

But nothing brings people together quicker than when adversity strikes and puts everything else into it’s true perspective. And that’s all I’m saying as I don’t want to ruin the conclusion of this extraordinary film.

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There are amazing performances all round but especially from Brigitte Mira as Emmi and the unbearably handsome El Hedi ben Salem as Ali. There’s even an uncredited cameo by Fassbinder himself as Emmi’s vile son in law.

Fassbinder’s film is so well observed that it aches with the love between the two lead characters but also with the hatred and wilful lack of understanding from others that makes it so poignant and heartbreaking.

We also get a peek into the beauty of 70’s Germany which acts as a fantastic backdrop to this extraordinary film.

Ali- Fear Eats The Soul is a masterpiece. It is so poignant that if it doesn’t pluck at your heartstrings and stir your soul then you possibly don’t possess either. It will stay with you long after the film has finished.

Ali-Fear Eats The Soul is beautiful and brutal and just as relevant today as it’s ever been. Every now and again I watch a film that makes me think that my life is better for having seen it. Ali- Fear Eats The Soul is one such film.

***** out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 24- Horror Hospital (1973)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 24- Horror Hospital (1973)

When I saw that Robin Askwith headed the cast of this British 70’s horror flick I instantly thought of the brilliant bawdy comedies The Confessions series which he starred in and were delightfully mucky and low-brow. Perfect for the era. If Mr Askwith could prove a huge hit with the sexploitation brigade surely he could score big when it came to another low brow form of entertainment, the horror film.

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Horror Hospital and The Corpse Grinders- what a double bill!

Here he plays Jason Jones who works in the music industry but after his manager rips off one of his songs he decides to escape via a company offering getaway breaks (‘Hairy Holidays’!) and heads away from London and the music scene. He meets a girl on a train and they get on handsomely. She is even going to the same ‘health farm’ that he is headed to.

And so the adventure begins. Even the ticket collector at the station they arrive at is like someone from a Hammer horror film. However, this holiday destination is actually a hospital in which the residents are wayward hippies and permissive types who are then lobotomised.

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The resulting adventure is part horror film, part groovy campathon which it accomplishes with relish. There is a cast of various oddball supporting characters that are just as entertaining as the main players and there are great touches such as the car fitted with a huge knife that shoots out to behead anyone brave enough to try and escape.

This film captures a great time in British film when films were made for the young with their content being just as boundary transgressing as the youth of the day themselves. Hence genres such as bawdy, racy comedies and bloody (but humorous) horror was the order of the day. A golden era.

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As lurid as the paisley underpants Askwith wore in the Confessions movies.

***and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 21- The House With Laughing Windows (1976)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 21- The House With Laughing Windows (1976)

A young man who can restore frescos (ancient works of art) arrives to restore one such artwork but finds events within the remote town to be far from normal. Indeed, they are downright bizarre. Does the fresco hold any clues? Does it depict what people have been led to believe it shows? Will the events directly affect Stefano?

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This Italian film is one hell of a gorgeous (and VERY disturbing) journey. Not only do we get the backstory of the artist who first painted the fresco but also the freaky events that are happening in the Valli di Commacchio area that the action takes place in. 

With all the best of Italian horror/gialli, it also makes you want to go to Italy and experience such a seemingly fantastic and aesthetically pleasing way of life. The photography is magnificent. I’d love to see this film on the big screen. 

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The locales are sumptuous, the characters are left field to the max (at times I kept think of the films of Jodorowsky) which all adds to the overall vision and atmosphere of this gorgeous film.

I’d love to speak about the conclusion of the film but that would massively spoil the entire film for those of you who haven’t been lucky enough to see it yet. Also, if I tried to write down what happens you probably wouldn’t believe me. Just to say- it’s surreal, can’t be predicted and gets under your skin and inside your head and remains there long after the actual film has ended. Fantastic.

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****and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 16- House of Whipcord (1974)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 16- House of Whipcord (1974)

It’s 1974. A French starlet who isn’t averse to modelling with no clothes on is seduced by an enigmatic young man who asks to take her home to meet his parents. However, his home appears to be some kind of old institution like a long forgotten prison. And this is exactly what it is. His mother is the sadistic Governor of her own prison where her son takes flagrant examples of the new ‘permissive’ society so that they can be punished and even executed because of their lax ways.

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This is Within These Walls on steroids. I love the fact that there is a notice at the start of the film that reads “This film is dedicated to those who are disturbed by today’s lax moral codes and who eagerly await the return of corporal and capital punishment.” This is obviously a film that is parodying and sticking up two fingers to the puritanical types who didn’t like that the society of the time was becoming more permissive and free, the ‘Bring Back Hanging’ brigade. Britain was moving away from it’s more conservative ways and some weren’t happy about this as they flocked to fill the letters pages of every national newspaper. Precedents were falling and were set to fall even further as during the 70’s. One prime example of this movement that directly affected film was Mary Whitehouse and her Caravan of Light both of which would try to get exploitation films like House of Whipcord banned. Whitehouse was massively active during the Video Nasties furore that would occur during the next decade.

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But within the film’s duration there are currents of dissent as prisoners held at the institution secretly plan to overthrow the evil wardens and hopefully escape this kangeroo prison. This film adheres to but also subverts the conventions of prison genres but especially the ‘women in prison’ genre and only excludes lesbianism which maybe for the time in Britain would have been a step too far for that still conservative time. Had it have been included then the film may have fallen foul of the BBFC. The theme of an uprising is one of the prime tropes of this genre and I love that this was so brilliantly depicted. But I also love the result of this which ironically delivers back to the prison the woman who had successfully escaped.

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Special mentions go out to Barbara Markham as the deranged Governor and Sheila Keith as one of the sadistic wardens. House of Whipcord was called Flagellations abroad. Quite. 

Another Pete Walker masterpiece. Now, can we have a Blu Ray boxset of his back catalogue please?

****and a half out of *****

 

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 14- Schizo (1976)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 14- Schizo (1976)

This is another Pete Walker horror sleazefest (hooray!!!)

Figure skater Samantha is about to get married to wealthy businessman Alan. Her mother’s former partner has just been released from prison and starts stalking her, travelling from the North East to London to accomplish the job.

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‘Hello? Police? I think I’m being stalked…’

This film mines into the whole phenomenon of being followed, peeping toms and was ahead of it’s time in depicting stalking which wasn’t widely known about at the time.

The film also gives Hitchcock-esque psychological explanations as to what schizophrenia is (again, a term that was relatively unknown by many at the time) to help the audience better understand what they are going to see and the kind of mental condition which would drive the killer to carry out their plans.

But is all as it seems? In a word- NO! The film keeps us guessing as to the killer’s identity right up until the end and takes us on a voyage through 70’s locales to do so with impeccably decorated flats and the London streets of the time (again, Walker is so good at capturing the time and place that he sets his films within. Here we get gorgeous snapshots of a bygone era and a time capsule of London in 1976 whether it be the exterior of King’s Cross railway station, the inside of a supermarket or the grimy flophouses cum hostels of N1).

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The cast are all fantastic especially Lynne Frederick as Samantha and an early appearance by Stephanie Beecham as her best friend Beth. There’s even John ‘Johnny Remember Me’ Leyton and Queenie Watts in supporting roles.

Watch out for the literally eye-popping clairvoyant meeting scene which is both terrifying and very funny. Walker also has the ability of making something truly scary and unnerving but bookending this with dark observational humour. The character of Joy embodies this perfectly.

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Another Walker masterpiece. He really is worthy of more praise and to be reappraised as the King of 70’s British Horror.

****and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 4- Abby (1974)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 4- Abby (1974)

A Blaxploitation Exorcist rip-off.

A pastor goes to Nigeria and accidentally unleashes an ancient malevolent spirit. Oops. His daughter-in-law back in America then starts to change from being a God-fearing, wholesome wife to becoming a possessed randy harlot. 

This film is such good fun. The pastor is played by William Marshall who was already known to Blaxploitation audiences as Blacula. Austin Stoker also stars who would later feature in John Carpenter’s masterpiece Assault on Precinct 13 a couple of years later. But it’s Carol Speed as Abby who steals the show. She seems to truly relish her role and brings some much needed spice and vigour to it.

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There’s groovy interiors, snappy dialogue and effects that look cheap and nasty even by Exorcist rip-off standards. In fact they make Beyond The Door’s FX look highly innovative by comparison. But that’s all part of the fun.

I love the fact that the exorcism at the film’s conclusion takes place in a downtown bar.

This film made loads of money at the box office but was abruptly taken out of circulation when Warner Bros. issued a lawsuit as they stated that the film ripped-off The Exorcist a bit too much. Abby’s director William Girdler never denied this. The only existing prints are in very bad condition and it’s rumoured that a decent print hasn’t surfaced yet as possibly the lawsuit is still in place which prevents a decent DVD/Blu ray release. It’s also rumoured that the lawsuit also involved all copies of the print to be confiscated by Warner Bros. so that they could destroy it.

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I hope this isn’t true. I’d love this film to be released after being restored. In fact, I’d love a Blu ray box set containing all of Girdler’s films. He deserves to be recognised as one of the leading auteurs of brilliant exploitation films. 

*** and a half

Poster of the Week- Westworld (1973)

Poster of the Week- Westworld (1973)

This weeks Poster of the Week goes to the classic sci-fi nightmare that is Westworld from 1973.

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There are so many brilliant images here that sum up the movie- the iconic image of Brynner’s demented robot gunslinger, the technician sat in front of a bank of monitors and control panels, the technological font used for the film’s title, the tagline that has indeed gone worng…

And whilst we’re at it, take a look at the similarly brilliant posters for the film’s sequel Futureworld, (loving this tagline too) and Westworld’s Japanese and Belgian posters. All gorgeous.

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Possibly the most colourful movie poster ever made. And possibly the best tagline ever too.

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A similarly iconic image used for the Japanese poster

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The pop art genius of the Belgian poster. Green skin is always cool.

Poster of the Week- Freaky Friday (1976)

Poster of the Week- Freaky Friday (1976)

This week’s Poster of the Week is one that is framed and adorns one of the walls in my flat! It’s artist Brian Bysouth’s extraordinary poster for the 1976 ‘body switch’ comedy Freaky Friday.

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The attention to detail is amazing with several scenes and characters from the film being depicted and drawn so well!

I’m so glad that a film that is now seen as a family viewing classic that effortlessly captured the goofy 70’s zeitgeist of it’s time should have a poster drawn with such love and imagination by an artist such as Bysouth. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if I saw this artwork outside a cinema back then and didn’t know anything about the film, I’d instantly venture inside to investigate further which is one of the effects of great film artwork.

To see portions of the poster in more detail please head on over to the excellent Film On Paper website.

It’s almost as if a great film inspires other great artwork for it’s advertising. Check out the German and American posters for the same film.

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How Freaky Friday was advertised in Germany…

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…and America