Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Satanik (1967)

When I was a child, I had very thick, naturally curly hair (think of Frieda of Peanuts fame, but with dark brown locks rather than ginger).  What a pain in the ass combing it was.  In high school, I wielded the perennial mullet for which the era is largely famous (okay, derided).  Being into hardcore punk music, I shaved my head a lot towards the end of my high school tenure.  Then a magical thing happened.  Around my sophomore year of college, my hair began to thin on top.  Naturally, I did what any sane person would do when faced with this threat to any sort of a healthy sex life (which was a non-concern, since I was generally like a deer whistle to women anyway, probably due to my shitty attitude which was in part [surely] caused by my thinning hair); I grew the rest of my hair down to about the middle of my back.  Ugh.  

After about a year with a ponytail that would curl up faster than an insect’s legs under a lit match, I began shaving my head again.  For the majority of my college years, as well as my first few years in the fulltime work force, I also maintained a goatee, which I thought looked really good, since it was very dark and, on either side of the corners of my mouth and going down my chin, were two stripes of red hair.  Regardless, once I shaved off the goatee, I realized that I looked better without it, and have remained clean shaven ever since.  It’s funny to me that the number of men who voluntarily shave their heads has gone up exponentially from when I was young and the practice was culturally unacceptable (sort of how you’d be hard-pressed to swing a dead cat in a high school these days and not hit a teen who has at least one future-shameworthy tattoo).  But as an uncle of mine once said, “Why cultivate on my head what grows rampant around my asshole?”  What does any of this have to do with anything?  A short while ago, I noticed grey hairs sprouting up on my chest.  Apparently, the laughs never end.  My point is, learn from my example.  Grow old gracefully, for Christ’s sake.

The late Piero Vivarelli’s (who even makes an appearance in the film as a police commissioner) Satanik opens in the driving rain as elderly, scarred (we have no idea why, and we are never given a reason) Dr. Marny Bannister (Magda Konopka, perhaps better known as one of the Cave Babes in When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth) hails a cab and goes to Dr. Greaves’ (the late Nerio Bernardi, perhaps better known as an Inspector in the great Caltiki The Undying Monster) laboratory.  Bannister tells Greaves that the numbers he gave her appear accurate, and their animal experiments into cellular regeneration have produced positive results.  When Bannister volunteers to be the first human subject for the serum, Greaves scoffs.  Bannister casually murders her friend (partner?  Bannister acts as if she is a visitor to the lab, but she has been privy, evidently, from the start to Greaves’ work), downs the potion (dry ice bubbles and all), turns into a young sex kitten, and sets off on a journey with no seeming deeper meaning than to make money (something she surely could have done without supermodel looks, yes?).  Tepid on her trail is British Inspector Trent (the late Julio Peña, perhaps better known as the Inspector in the fantastic Horror Express), though his talents don’t even come close to those of Detective Frank Drebin.  Is that all there is?  Yes.

While Greaves makes reference to the classic tale of Faust, this film actually hues closer to The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde.  There’s the bubbling potion and the actual physical transformation of the main character.  There’s the transformation in character from meek, sheepish Bannister to fiery, coquettish Bannister.  Interestingly, Hyde is described by Stevenson (if memory serves) as being shorter and more brutish than Jekyll.  He is more of an animal at first sight, and he provides a straightforward visual motif for the story’s theme.  That he becomes as prominent as he does, I think, is part of the author’s point about not only Jekyll but about society in general at the time (and into the present, part of what makes it so popular being its prescience).  

Funny, isn’t it that when this same story idea is applied to women, they always go from being ugly, little, troll-like things to being super-hot sex bombs (the only exception to this from the male side that springs to my mind is Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor)?  Nonetheless, Bannister’s personality (what little there is) doesn’t seem to change the same as her appearance.  More precisely, it seems to change whenever the script calls for it to change (and Konopka plays it blank as a chalkboard, regardless).  Initially, I thought that the story was a bizarre drug abuse metaphor, especially the first time Bannister transforms back from glamorous to gruesome.  She writhes, and she appears to be in physical pain, as if she were hitting the worst of a junkie’s withdrawal symptoms.  The idea of the comedown being more powerful than the high intrigued me for an instant, notably if we were to take into account the difference in personalities.  And that’s when it hit me; there is no difference between ugly Bannister and beautiful Bannister.  The two are equally venal, self-serving, bloodthirsty creatures.  The only true contrast is that the better-looking version attracts men physically.  Why, then, not make a more interesting (and likely more satisfying) film about an ugly woman who improves her station in life by every ruthless, sanguinary means that could be conjured up?  We’ll never know, and this is the film we have been left with, so we don’t really have a choice in the matter.  So, there.

This film truly should work far better than it does, in my opinion.  It has an attractive lead (not the strongest actress, but still…), an interesting core which could have been run with in any number of directions, all of which could have proven entertaining from an exploitation angle alone.  The filmmakers took advantage of none of that.  Instead, they threw together a bunch of scenes, which are too similar to maintain a viewer’s attention and too disconnected to form any sort of cohesive story (I believe this was adapted from a comic book, so likely the disjointed, episodic nature springs from that, but I don’t buy that as an excuse).  Not only is there no character development, but the characters themselves are so threadbare they’re almost transparent.  There is no tension throughout the entire film.  Every scene is exactly what it looks like.  There is no subtext, no meaning, and above all else, no fucking fun.  Satanik is an okay idea in search of a serviceable film.  It didn’t find one.

MVT:  The über-lounge-y soundtrack is very catchy (if it’s available as an album, I would recommend picking it up), and for much of the film’s runtime I found myself paying more attention to the music than what was onscreen (always a good sign).  Some of the tracks sounded familiar to me, though I couldn’t place from where, yet the music in the film is credited to Manuel Parada, so let’s give some credit to the man.   

Make Or Break:  The Break was the lengthy Flamenco dance sequences after Bannister has hooked up with jewel smuggler Van Donen (Umberto Raho, perhaps better known as an Inspector in the better-than-this Baron Blood).  No Flamenco hater I, these scenes drag on for what seems like eons.  I’m no stranger to padding (and neither is the world of genre cinema), but when the travelogue-esque pieces of a film stand out in your memory stronger than anything going on with the story (and, again, that’s giving this a lot more praise than it deserves), trouble is a-brewin’.

Score:  4/10

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