Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Felidae (1995)


Francis (Ulrich Tukur) is a cat whose owner (the cats in the film refer to humans as “can openers”) Gustav (Manfred Steffen) has just moved to a new neighborhood.  Discovering a dead cat in his backyard, Francis joins up with local curmudgeon Blaubart (Mario Adorf) to unveil the killer and expose the truth behind it all.

Martin Schaack’s Felidae is an animated film (in case the fact that its main characters are felines didn’t tip you off, though I guess this could also have been something along the lines of Look Who’s Talking Now) based on a series of novels by Akif Pirincci (I surmise this film is adapted from the first book), and without giving too much away, I’m rather surprised it hasn’t been seen by more people or been talked about more than it has.  This film could easily stand shoulder to shoulder with the dynamic duo of mature-themed cartoons, Watership Down and The Plague Dogs (or frankly any others you would care to name).  If you’re a parent, I’m not sure this is something you should show the kids just yet, however (though I’m positive there are folks who threw it on for the kids assuming all cartoons are kiddie fare, and besides, if you’re reading this, I’m going to also assume you’re the sort who knows a bit about what you and your family watch before you watch it).  There is graphic violence, including beheadings and disembowelings.  There are cats having sex.  There are (perhaps the most disturbing element) scenes of live cats being brutally experimented on by Professor Preterius (the name a clear [and fitting] callback to The Bride of Frankenstein and portrayed here by Gerhard Garbers).  So, if these are things you’re uncomfortable watching, you will want to pick something else for family movie night (or your own personal viewing, for that matter). 

Nevertheless, the adult components of the film are essential to the story, and I think had the choice been made to not depict these things in this manner, it would have done a disservice to the film’s themes.  Naturally, when you pair felines up with murder, the first thought in most people’s heads is “curiosity killed the cat,” and that certainly holds true in Felidae.  Francis is an innately inquisitive character, and he knows a thing or two about what makes cats (and people) tick.  This is summed up nicely in the opening moments when Francis comments that Gustav is a student of archaeology who makes his money writing trashy novels and moves frequently when the creative well runs dry.  But Francis knows this is little more than an excuse Gustav gives rather than dealing with his problems head on.  Francis also detects odors coming from upstairs that immediately set him on edge, but we also know there is no way he will resist the temptation to explore further, as with the killings.  This self-awareness is depicted and foreshadowed in Francis’ dreams.  In the first one, Francis is attracted to a door filled with pure white light (read: truth).  But inside the door, he encounters a faceless doctor (guess who?) who gifts him with a diamond-studded collar that transforms into a choking shackle and set of chains that drag him down to Hell.     

More alarming (yet equally in line with the above, and you can thank me later for not using the term “shocking”), is our introduction to the cult of Claudandus (a fabled cat martyr/god; the name being Latin for “he who must be concealed, locked away”), whom we are introduced to during one of their meetings.  The flock, lead by Joker (Ulrich Wildgruber), fling themselves into an apparatus which violently electrocutes them.  Whether they are killed or just stunned by this action, I’m not fully sure, because killing one’s congregation is not a great way to keep it, but the cats who go through this masochism are not shown moving (or breathing) afterward.  We know that when a religious leader is shown spewing fire and brimstone in a film, he/she is typically either crazy, false, or both.  The cats that are in the cult are curious about Claudandus, about religion, and this will get them knowingly hurt and very likely unknowingly killed.  The religious facet ties into the entirety of the film, not simply as a group of misguided cats being manipulated by forces higher up, but as the embodiment of the power of ideology/theology itself.  

Sexuality ties in strongly with both of these elements, too.  The whole idea of being in heat, of rutting with whoever is available and in proximity, is important to the film’s plot.  The cats being killed have not been neutered.  On the one hand, this plays into the idea of curiosity, since these cats cannot help but screw when the first opportunity arises with other cats about which they know nothing.  The very fact they do this places them in danger (for a couple of reasons).  On the other hand, there is the notion of the religious right’s classic condemnation of unchecked sexuality.  Taking out of the equation the idea of what constitutes cat morality (we already know cats have an idea of Hell from Francis’ nightmares) or fidelity, the violation of this theological edict conceivably damns a given cat’s soul.  In Felidae, casual sex can lead to physical and spiritual destruction.

Even if none of my quasi/pseudo-intellectualizing draws you to this movie (and there are other things going on which may; I just don’t want to give away the store, as it were), the film is structured and told in a visually interesting fashion.  Most shots not involving closeups on cats are framed with Dutch angles.  It’s fairly rare to see perpendicular or parallel lines in much of the film’s compositions, and much of the scenery appears twisted in some aspect of another.  Bright lights are also a rarity, lending the movie some verisimilitude and reinforcing its dark underpinnings.  There are also a lot of bird’s eye view perspective shots (an indication of a deity observing and judging the characters as well as a reference to the characteristic of felines to sit up high on furniture/appurtenances looking down on the world around them).  Further, the film has the distinct flavor of a hardboiled detective novel.  A character is presented with a crime and feels compelled to discover the criminals.  Secondary characters appear to both menace the main character and throw him off the trail (most notably the marvelously designed Kong [Wolfgang Hess], who reminded me of the feline version of Chuck Jones’ Marc Antony character).  Others provide clues, the doling out of which places them in immediate danger.  The protagonist alone can follow the convolutions of what’s going on, the only one beside the antagonist who can put the pieces together in the proper order.  And ultimately, this protagonist is the only one who can confront the antagonist with the truth, though the answers will likely bring a bittersweet resolution.  Slightly lighter in tone than the aforementioned anthropomorphized animations, Felidae still packs one hell of a satisfying wallop.

MVT:  The basis for the narrative is intriguing and chilling, and I feel that it strengthens even after the main mystery is solved.  In other words, it’s not a one-trick pony, and it will reward on future viewings. 

Make or Break:  When the Claudandus cult makes its eyebrow-raising entrance, you instantly know there is much more going on in this film than might be expected.  

Score:  7.5/10

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Urge To Kill (1989)

The first computer I ever bought was actually a word processor.  This would have been back around 1996, and I had just moved down around the Philadelphia area with dreams of becoming a screenwriter dancing in my head (never mind that any sane person would have moved to Los Angeles to accomplish this goal).  The gizmo was manufactured by Brother, and because I couldn’t afford a brand-spanking-new one, I had to buy one refurbished.  It served me quite well, although for those who have never had to format a document such as a screenplay while you write and edit it (even with using saved templates), you really cannot appreciate the level of effort that went into getting your words out (and that’s even before you can find the words you want to get out in the first place).  I still remember the small monitor, with its type on a background of black, the font like something out of War Games (but orange).  

Which brings me to another issue.  In order to print out what you had written, you had to load each sheet of paper separately into the machine, like a manual typewriter, and God help you if you had a page count over a hundred or so; you’d be there all day.  The typewriter/printer came with one font which came in one size.  If you needed or wanted something different (say, size twelve Courier), you had to order a wheel for that specific font and size which had to be changed out manually.  The documents were stored on hard discs which held literally hundreds of kilobytes (yes, that’s sarcasm) and sometimes had to be split onto two discs if you were verbose (which I tend to be when writing).  And yet, for all that, there was a tactility involved in the process that made it feel bigger than simply putting your mind on paper for people to read.  You were involved in a project, and when you reached the end, you couldn’t help having some small amount of pride (regardless of the work’s actual quality).  The word processor was a tool like anything else.  You were using technology to a large extent, but you weren’t a slave to it.  It makes me wonder how far we’ve really come that the dynamic of this relationship has changed so very much to my mind.  And as much as you may not believe it after watching Sexploitation pantheon member Derek Ford’s final opus, the officially unreleased (but available via Youtube) The Urge To Kill (aka Attack Of The Killer Computer), the film touches on this universal conflict: Man versus Machine/Technology.

Spectacularly christened music producer Bono Zorro (Peter Gordeno) brings aspiring singer Melanie (Sally Ann Balaam) back to his crib to see if she’s really got what it takes to make it in the biz (if you know what I mean).  Zorro’s pad (which looks about the size of a college student’s apartment) is ”high tech” and fully automated, and is controlled by the Central Environment Control System (which Zorro refers to as “C.E.C.S.y” [pronounced “Sexy”]).  But the computer is jealous of the parade of floozies its master drags through the place and decides it wants him all to itself.

The basic premise of the film is nothing we haven’t seen before, and as previously stated, it uses an age-old narrative drive: the humans want to survive, and the machine wants to kill them.  But instead of being something large in scope like the Terminator films or Colossus: The Forbin Project, this movie keeps it personal, like Demon Seed or Electric Dreams.  Even then, there’s nothing all that fresh about this film.  We’ve seen sentient machines that fall in love with their owner/maker.  What The Urge to Kill does that’s interesting is how it personifies C.E.C.S.y.  She (and we’ll just settle on that gender pronoun, since physically the computer is played by a naked woman) appears in flash cuts, staring in direct address to the camera, but her makeup looks like Patty Smyth’s from The Warrior video or Brenda Hutchinson in Liquid Sky (a film I haven’t seen, but the makeup is distinctive).  This personification is implied as being purely visual (like a hallucination or a mental projection), a way to have characters react to another character, even though one of them likely isn’t actually there corporeally.  Outside of governing every function in the house, C.E.C.S.y does manifest physically via a form of telekinesis.  But more than this, she can manipulate the minds of humans, and this is really the crux of the film’s theme.  In a conversation earlier on, Zorro tells chippy Jane (Sarah Hope Walker) that C.E.C.S.y is “just a machine,” to which Jane retorts, “Aren’t we all?”  Later, Jane talks about a person’s mind being reprogrammed like a computer’s.  Nevertheless, for as envious as C.E.C.S.y is, for how much she desires Zorro, there is a physical barrier that is incapable of being surmounted.  This is reflected in the film’s violence.  There’s no symbiosis achieved between technology and flesh.  When the two meet, to paraphrase Lionel Stander’s introduction to the Hart To Hart television series, it’s murder.  

Like so many films with tiny budgets, Ford and company are fully aware of the two things that sell the most: sex and violence, and there’s plenty of both to be had here.  Every woman (even the computer) gets naked at some point or another.  As they get picked off, their ends (no pun intended) are met fairly gruesomely.  Flesh melts off bones, hands are boiled off, an electric toothbrush burns into a character’s head, et cetera.  Make no mistake, this film knows what it wants to accomplish, and it’s all about bodies.  The camera leers at its female characters.  In the first scene, Melanie dances around Zorro’s studio, while the camera peers straight up her skirt and shirt.  The idea of gazing continues in Zorro’s apartment.  The various cameras are given significant closeups as they follow the characters around.  There is the aforementioned embodiment of C.E.C.S.y looking straight at the camera.  In the control room, there is a monitor which is frequently cut to as she keeps tabs on the human characters.  Zorro keeps videos of himself banging various women (most strikingly what appear to be two grannies), and he likes to have prostitutes perform in front of him before joining in, which culminates in two “specialists” from a service called Cat Calls who play a VHS videotape of women mud wrestling while the duo engage in a catfight and tear off each other’s clothes in front of the television.  Everything is looking at everything else in this film, and we, of course, are the ultimate watchers as always, because there’s no one watching us as we watch them (or are there?).  

With all of this in mind, The Urge to Kill is also a film of incredible sloppiness.  Characters enter and exit scenes on a whim.  None of these people seem to have lives or exist in even the thinnest semblance of reality (even if Zorro is a rich, indulgent womanizer).  I’ll give you a few examples.  After Jane pulls Zorro from the hot tub along with a hooker’s forearms, he refuses to believe that C.E.C.S.y is killing anyone.  The clear reaction to this is why doesn’t she just show him the bloody appendages?  A character claims she needs to use the bathroom, but instead strips down and hits the sauna.  Zorro hires two hookers (not the two from Cat Calls, incidentally) and (in a baffling instance of paying for the whole seat but only using the edge) simply takes one to have a bubble bath while the other strolls all over his home.  After they finally realize that C.E.C.S.y isn’t letting them out of the house any time soon, Zorro very casually wants to have a drink and maybe a little sex with Jane (as you do when your house becomes a lethal prison).  And that’s the thing.  Everything about this film is casual to the point of indifference.  On the one hand, this attitude makes the whole dumb affair go down easier.  On the other, it makes the experience a bit of a slog, since there’s no drive to the story and very little tension to keep you interested.  Thank Christ for boobs and blood, huh?

MVT:  It’s crass as all get out, but if it weren’t for the women and their copious, gratuitous nudity, I doubt I could have actually made it all the way through this movie.

Make or Break:  The first two kills are juicy (and naked), and the one is even kind of inventive in a pleasantly unpleasant sort of way.

Score:  6/10