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A Sharon Tate Double Bill: The Fearless Vampire Killers & Valley of the Dolls

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Sharon Tate Double Bill

In the run-up to the release of Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, I decided to take a look at a couple of films featuring Sharon Tate.

Inevitably, Sharon will always be best remembered for the horrific events of the ninth of August 1969, but here I just want to examine Sharon Tate, the promising actress who was beginning to carve out a career in film in the second half of the 1960s.

First up is The Fearless Vampire Killers, a horror parody by her future husband Roman Polanski.

Sharon Tate and Roma Polanski - Fearless Vampire Killers

Also known as Dance of the Vampires, or even briefly Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck, this spoofs the kind of movie that Hammer specialised in at the time. Polanski directed, and co-wrote the screenplay with Gérard Brach, as well as reserving a starring role for himself as Alfred, the hapless assistant of expert though hopeless vampire hunter Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran).

As a director Polanski’s talents are undoubted. As an actor, this isn’t the case, albeit he’s not terrible.

Set in a secluded village ‘deep in the heart of Transylvania’, the pair arrange to a stay at a tavern as they continue their search for vampires. Strings of garlic decorate the rooms, so they just might be on the right trail.

Alfred accidentally walks in on the innkeeper’s daughter Sarah Shagal (Sharon Tate) having a bath. She’s radiantly beautiful, with Pre-Raphaelite hair and dazzling eyes. He instantly falls in love with her. It’s easy to see why.

Sharon Tate - Fearless Vampire Killers

Sarah is obsessed with cleanliness and soon she’s having another bath. When we see a hand clearing snow from the skylight above her, viewers may assume that this is some peeping tom perv.

It’s not. It’s Count Dracula, sorry, Count von Krolock, an ashen-faced vampire who kidnaps her, taking her back to his nearby Gothic castle.

Luckily – or maybe not – for her, our (far from) fearless vampire hunters hatch a plan to rescue her from the Count’s clutches.

Initially, Polanski wanted another American actor Jill St. John – who he had been linked with romantically in the press – for the role of Sarah.

Co-producer Martin Ransohoff had other ideas, and insisted that newcomer Tate would be ideal. He held the purse strings for the project and Polanski was forced to relent, although he wasn’t entirely satisfied with Tate’s acting early in the shoot. As filming progressed, he became more impressed by her abilities and the pair became closer.

Sharon Tate & Roman Polanski

This is certainly no Repulsion or Chinatown but it is worth a watch. There are a number of laughs, including a Jewish vampire who isn’t overly concerned when a crucifix is brandished in his direction and Polanski directs slapstick inventively. A mention must also be made for the score by Krzysztof Komeda, which admittedly is a little uneven but is often utterly wonderful.

Sharon Tate here is often something of a fleeting presence. She obviously possessed charisma and the camera loved her. In the relatively short time she is onscreen, she also demonstrates a very good touch for comedy.

Jacqueline Susann’s novel Valley of the Dolls was a staggering success, a publishing phenomenon that topped the New York Times bestseller lists and which, to date, has sold over 31 million copies. Its runaway sales speedily ensured that a movie adaptation would soon follow and a blockbuster was expected.

It’s the story of the rise and fall of three young females who enter different branches of show business and the lead roles would be expected to significantly raise Hollywood profiles. Candice Bergen, Raquel Welch and Ann-Margret were director Mark Robson’s early favoured choices but none eventually filled the roles envisaged for them.

20th Century Fox had also been especially keen for their contracted star Raquel Welch to play Jennifer North, but she feared she might be typecast as a sexpot if she did so. She offered to play Neely instead but that role went to Patty Duke, who’d won an Oscar, aged only sixteen for portraying Helen Keller in 1962’s The Miracle Worker.

A wide range of actors were then considered to play Jennifer, including Mary Tyler Moore, Julie Christie, Ursula Andress, and even Warhol superstar Baby Jane Holzer, but Tate won over the production team with her screen test.

Sharon_Tate_as_Jennifer_North

Jennifer is a sweet-natured but ditzy blonde who craves fame, although as she admits to her far from encouraging mother: ‘I know I don’t have any talent, and I know all I have is a body.’ She meets and marries a successful crooner and is a loving wife to him. She couldn’t be happier but as this is Planet Susann, don’t expect that joy to last long.

Anne Welles (Peyton Place star Barbara Parkins) finds work with a theatrical agent and is then offered a modelling contract where she becomes immediately recognised by audiences all over America as the sophisticated face of the ‘Gillian Girl’.

Then there’s Neely, an upcoming singer, kicked off a Broadway show for threatening to outshine main star Helen Lawson, a spectacularly rude diva of epic proportions played by Susan Hayward. ‘The only hit that comes out of a Helen Lawson show is Helen Lawson,’ she proudly proclaims. ‘And that’s me, baby!’

Not to worry, before the midnight hour strikes that same day, Neely has become an overnight sensation anyway after being invited to sing at a nationwide TV charity telethon and wowing the audience.

Again in the world of Jacqueline Susann, you never know when stardom might come knocking.

The plot here is hard to detail but there is illness, addictions, fame, fortune, love, marriage, death, abortion, love, tragedy, addictions – I might be repeating some of these now but it is difficult keeping up with the conveyor belt of ups and downs the characters go through.

Believe me, this trio of women would never need to employ any PR gurus to invent highs and lows in their lives.

Jennifer_and_Tony_in_Valley_of_the_Dolls

Struggling to cope with an outrageous workload, Neely adds booze and, of course, dolls (barbiturates) into the equation with predictable consequences. As she screeches on and on about needing more dolls, I began hoping for a fatal overdose. When this fails to transpire, I suspected I might need some drugs myself if I was to watch this through to the closing credits.

Valley of the Dolls is a melodrama with a load of musical numbers thrown in. I don’t like melodrama, and I’m allergic to any musical that isn’t Phantom of the Paradise. This really isn’t a film for my tastes.

The often overblown style of acting doesn’t help. Patty Duke is ferociously bombastic as Neely. At one point she gets involved in a catfight with Helen Lawson which it’s easy to imagine is over who is giving the most wildly OTT performance. Patty Duke edges that particular contest.

Then something strange happened. I began to enjoy the preposterousness of it all. Maybe the heat got to me – it’s so rare where I live and I watched on Thursday, the hottest day in Scotland for years.

Neely morphs into Helen Lawson but with added self-destructive tendencies. ‘I don’t have to live by stinking rules set down for ordinary people,’ she rants in one of a lengthy list of brattish tantrums.

On the first night of her big Broadway comeback show, she has more than one or two drinks too many – and likely more dolls than might be considered any kind of good idea. With the show about to kick off, she pokes her head out her dressing room after being called to go on. She’s in an absolute state and wearing the costume that she was supposed to have on for the second act.

And when told so, she delivers her response with all the skill and emotion of Tommy Wisseau being torn apart in The Room. ‘So, I’ll do the second act first!’

The scene almost parallels a real-life incident concerning the film. Judy Garland had been signed up to play Lawson, but was supposedly fired after only three days when found out her face in her trailer, refusing to come to the set. Ironically, Garland was at least part of the inspiration to Susann when creating the character of Neely.

As for Jennifer, her world is shattered when husband Tony is diagnosed with a degenerative and terminal illness. On the night she discovers the devastating news; she is invited to move to France to launch a career in ‘arthouse movies’. Or as Neely calls them ‘nudies’. She accepts the offer almost immediately.

I suppose someone had to pay his medical bills but poor Tony, dying in a sanitorium knowing his wife is establishing a reputation for herself as a soft-porn star

Sharon Tate in Valley of the Dolls

Although it didn’t intend to be,Valley of the Dolls is campy as hell. It was old Hollywood trying to be modern but bore little resemblance to what a new Hollywood was beginning to offer – The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, where Sharon took an uncredited role as ‘Girl at the Party’.

Without the modish threads and hairstyles, this could be the 1940s – the novel started off in 1945 and continued for another twenty or so years. Here we begin maybe in 1964 and continue only an undefined but obviously short period of time. No attempt is made to age the characters and don’t expect Vietnam or psychedelia to make any appearances.

Dionne Warwick supplies a slushy theme tune and there’s a soppy score to go with the hysterical soapy plot-lines.

It’s maybe hard nowadays to imagine audiences queuing up to see an adaptation of an airport novel that was almost universally slammed on its release as trashy. Then again I remember being in a cinema and witnessing crowds flocking in to see Shades of Grey, a commercial hit that few critics failed to mock.

Made on a budget of around $4.7 million, Valley of the Dolls took over $44.4 million at the box office and was studio 20th Century Fox’s biggest hit that year. It was also one of the top ten grossing films in America. According to website The Numbers, it sold over 37 million tickets in 1967. Which for a movie only released halfway through December is remarkable.

Like the novel, it received a critical mauling, and Jacqueline Susann herself is said to have hated it. As did many members of the cast.

Sharon_Tate

Sharon Tate is, by the standards of the movie, almost subdued, despite suffering more than any of the lead characters. She really is much better than the lines she was asked to deliver and even found herself nominated for the New Star Of The Year – Actress Award at 1968’s Golden Globes, although that was won by The Graduate’s Katherine Ross.

‘The work she did in the film was very sensitive,’ multiple award winning actor Lee Grant told Vanity Fair in 2017. Grant, who played Jennifer’s sister-in-law Miriam in the movie also noted: ‘There was something in her character that struck a chord with her… I found her fascinating.’

Would she have gone on to become a major star?

Very possibly. I wouldn’t go as far to say she was one the most gifted actors of her generation but she was already good and potentially about to become even better with more experience. Certainly her talent and good looks would have ensured plenty of parts in projects with better source material than Valley of the Dolls.

Mark Robson bumped into Roman Polanski on Sunset Strip after both movies had been completed and told him: ‘That’s a great girl you’re living with. Few actresses have her kind of vulnerability. She’s got a great future.’

Sharon Tate: January 24, 1943 – August 9, 1969.

For Sharon’s official site, click here.

 

Isaac Hayes: Theme From Shaft (Soundtrack Sundays)

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Shaft (1971)

Who’s the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about?

John Shaft? Damn right.

Gordon Parks’ Shaft was a very important movie. A game changer even.

In an era of Black Panther and when 007 is supposedly about to morph into a black woman, it might be difficult to appreciate the impact that Shaft made on popular culture in 1971. Here was the first American action film from a major studio with a black man in the lead role. It received some great reviews and proved to be box-office gold. According to Time, it was made on a budget of only $500,000 but grossed $13 million.

This success encouraged other big studios, and independent production companies to grab their own slice of blaxploitation action.

Some have claimed that Shaft isn’t strictly blaxploitation as the Shaft novel that it is based on was written by a white man Ernest Tidyman with the character of Shaft in that being white too. The film’s director, though, was black. Its lead actor was black, and the man who composed its legendary score was also black. Not only that but the man who helped Tidyman write the screenplay was John D.F. Black.

Okay, he was white.

In Britain, cop and detective films and shows tend to kick off with some awful aural wallpaper that almost seems to tell us not to get our hopes up too high, nothing very exciting is gonna happen here.

Shaft opens in the middle of NYC. Skyscrapers. Bustling streets. Noise. One man emerges from the subway. This is, of course, Shaft and within seconds we realise that he’s a superfly guy, strutting between cars on 42nd Street as if fear was a concept that was alien to him.

Richard Roundtree as Shaft

Even better is the music accompanying this with Bar-Kay Willie Hall’s distinctive hi-hats and Charles Pitt’s chikka-chikka-wacka wah-wah, maybe the funkiest little riff ever recorded. And then those swirling symphonic soul strings!

Isaac Hayes’ Theme From Shaft is a masterpiece. The sound of an American metropolis, bursting with vitality and modernity. Danger lies ahead and plenty of thrills are surely guaranteed.

Arguably this is the finest theme song of the 1970s, and also arguably the best track Stax ever released. It reached number one in America for a couple of weeks at the tail end of 1971 and won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Shaft without the theme tune just wouldn’t be as good. The plot is a fairly standard hardboiled detective story involving a turf war between some black criminals based in Harlem and the Italian Mafia, which results in a kidnapping of one crime lord’s daughter and Shaft being tasked to find her.

Too black for the force, too blue for his brothers, Shaft operates between both sides of the law. He’s highly likeable, but he also has his faults. Despite having a girlfriend, he picks up and sleeps with a woman who he meets in a Greenwich Village bar. As she later puts it: ‘You’re pretty good in the sack, but you’re pretty shitty afterwards. You know that?’

Shaft with Gun

Shaft is also a fascinating time capsule of New York as the 1970s are getting underway – from the cinema billboard advertising Get Carter (another film with a cracking theme song) and a poster announcing a Four Tops concert to those sharp sideburns, moustache, and tan leather coat worn by Shaft. And Richard Roundtree is just about perfect as the eponymous hero.

Its success persuaded ailing studio MGM to knock out a couple of quick sequels, Shaft’s Big Score! (1972), and Shaft in Africa (1973). By the time the latter was released, the blaxploitation floodgates had truly opened, with a raft of movies playing theatres, drive-ins and grindhouses across America every night of every week.

Some of these movies like Superfly and Coffy were terrific watches. Others like Blackenstein and Disco Godfather were rank rotten with 1974’s Three Tough Guys and Truck Turner (both scored and starring Isaac Hayes) somewhere in between.

In October 1973, Shaft became a CBS TV series. Compared to the movies, this was a toned down Shaft. No longer any kind of renegade, Shaft was now happily co-operating with cops. The violence was toned down and the bad language disappeared. Predictably, with nearly all the things that fans liked about the films gone, the series didn’t last long. And that looked to be the end of Shaft.

On paper, Shaft 2000 must have looked like a wonderful idea. Name of a fondly remembered, iconic film? Tick. Classic theme tune? Tick. Box office actor that could have been born to play the lead? Make that another tick.

In reality, there’s little reason for this using the Shaft name for this John Singleton directed movie, other than to trade in on the brand and re-use the music. Okay, Richard Roundtree notches up a few minute’s screentime to provide some continuity, the idea being that he is the uncle and mentor of sorts to Samuel L’s Shaft II, a NYPD detective. Uncle Shaft is hardly essential to the plot, though, albeit it’s always nice to see Roundtree onscreen.

I’m guessing that if, a poll was conducted at the start of our new century to find out who the public considered the coolest man alive, then Sam L might well have topped that poll. He demonstrates his charisma here, but the dialogue is never Tarantino sharp and he struggles to match the magnetism of his persona in Pulp Fiction. Not only that, but he just isn’t as cool as Richard Roundtree in the original.

Roundtree & Jackson

The plot tries to be ultra-smart but is often pretty dumb. It revolves around racist rich kid Walter Wade (Christian Bale channeling some of the obnoxiousness of American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman) killing a young black man and Diane Palmieri (Toni Collette), who witnesses the murder but denies having done so. She really should have checked the giant mirror in the bar where she works to see if she had wiped all the blood from her face, or Shaft might not have known she was lying about not seeing anything.

Soon any traces of believability vanish as we’re introduced to Latino crime boss Peeples, a caricature bad guy, surrounded by cartoonish idiots.

By the hour mark, I was growing bored. There are few things more tedious than gun fight after gun fight unless someone as gifted as John Woo is choreographing the shootouts and Singleton is no Woo. Even worse are the ‘twists’, such as when female cop Vanessa Williams reappears after being seemingly shot dead. Did anyone in any audience in the world not see that coming?

Don’t expect subtlety and definitely don’t expect character arcs. Like his uncle, this John Shaft is a sex machine with all the chicks: smart, charismatic, heroic with badass patter that no criminal can compete with. He’s flawless when we first see him and flawless when we’re again treated to some of Isaac Hayes’ classic (and re-recorded) theme as the closing credits kick in. Followed by some R. Kelly dirge.

This is a dumbed down Shaft, made for the wrong reasons and lacking the grit and the charm of the original.

Shaft 2000

My original plan for this post had been to go and see the latest instalment of the franchise which features John Shaft, John Shaft II and his son John ‘JJ’ Shaft Jr, an FBI agent. On finding out that this was even more comedic in tone than the 2000 version, I couldn’t muster up the necessary enthusiasm to go see it.

Why reward Hollywood for lazily dishing up stale reboots and uninspired remakes and sequels? And while I’m not very interested in James Bond – the last time I paid into to see 007, Roger Moore was jumping over crocodiles – maybe the producers of Bond 25 should ask themselves what are the benefits for fans of that franchise in taking out what the character has always been about?

Getting back to Isaac Hayes and that 1971 soundtrack, here’s the Black Moses live at 1972’s Wattstax Festival. Dig that psychedelic pimp cape and chain mail vest!

For more on the recently released deluxe Shaft soundtrack, click here.

The Party and the Guests (New Waves #10)

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The Party and the Guests

‘When one lives in a society that is essentially not free, it is the obligation of every thinking person to attack obstacles to freedom in every way at his disposal.’ Jan Němec

O slavnosti a hostech*, to give the film its Czech title, isn’t that widely known outside of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and when it is discussed one fact is always mentioned.

But first a little background.

By Eastern Bloc standards, the Czechoslovakia of the mid-1960s was relatively liberal, though censorship in the arts was still very common.

President Antonín Novotný took a keen interest in this and is said to have been left apoplectic with rage after being given a private screening of Němec’s film, demanding it be withdrawn from circulation. Yes, that fact that is always mentioned when The Party and the Guests is discussed is its history of suppression.

The ban inevitably soon came into force – along with Vera Chytilová’s Daisies – at a meeting in 1967 of Czechoslovakia’s National Assembly. It was declared – as if this was a bad thing – that neither film had anything ‘in common with our republic, socialism, and the ideals of Communism.’

Never mind, as the then-country attempted to navigate their ways towards a more democratic future during the Prague Spring, the film was once again made available for screenings. It was even selected to compete for the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1968, but due to the student and worker revolt in France, the festival was curtailed and then officially called off to show solidarity with the protesters.

Back home, three or so months later, Warsaw Pact troops and tanks rolled into Prague, reforms were crushed, and the country entered a period dubbed ‘normalisation’ by the ruling Communists.

For Němec, normalisation meant his film was banned for a second time.
And when I say banned, I don’t mean for a specific period of time after which the ban might be re-considered like the first time around. It went on to became one of four films (along with The Fireman’s Ball, All My Good Countrymen and End of a Priest) to be officially ‘banned forever’.

Idealogical orthodoxy wasn’t Němec’s thing, and he’d been considered an enfant terrible since his days at the lauded FAMU film school. Now he was being regarded as ‘politically undesirable’ and believed to be biggest filmmaking threat to the government and Communist system.

Blacklisted, he had his passport taken away from him in 1969 and he wasn’t given the chance to direct another feature film in his homeland until the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution.

The Party and The Guests -The Picnickers

The film is based on a novella written by Ester Krumbachová, a fascinating figure in the Czechoslovak New Wave, who at this point was married to Němec, both being credited with the screenplay.

This is a relatively short drama, just sixty eight minutes – few Czechoslovak New Wave films ever outstayed their welcome – and the plot is basic.

The following summary does contain spoilers.

A party of four men and three women are spending a pleasant afternoon enjoying a picnic on the edge of a pine forest. The weather’s good, as is the food, and the wine, which has been chilled in a nearby stream.

This could almost be some socialist realist propaganda borefest glorifying the wonders of Communism but it soon becomes apparent that it really isn’t.

Their little idyll is just about to turn sour. Very sour.

Jan Klusak as Rudolf

Some men, led by an obsequious looking figure in plus fours, accost and manhandle them. These men begin to play some kind of game. They won’t say who they are. They might resemble an absurdist street gang – if such a idea existed – but it’s easy to assume to represent the secret police.

We learn the leader is called Rudolf and everything about him seems slightly ridiculous. He takes great pains to appear polite but his faux-friendliness grates – like Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds.

A table is laid out and the party are told to step inside a circle, marked out on a gravelly piece of land. Fed up with an inane interrogation, one man Karel dares to defy the interlopers and strides away. He’s roughed up.

Another man arrives who is obviously in charge of the interlopers. Dapperly dressed, he has a goatee beard like Lenin’s, and he apologises for the behaviour of his men. He invites the party to join an open-air banquet to celebrate a wedding and his own birthday.

The_Party_and_the_Guests_-_The_Banquet

One of the original group, who remains nameless but is played by well known dissident Evald Schorm, says little and displays no willingness to join in the charade. At an opportune moment, he vanishes, much to the chagrin of his wife.

The Lenin lookalike may appear jovial, but he is a stickler for order and the fact that they are a guest short makes him snap. A solution is suggested. The party guests could break from their meal and attempt to track down the missing man and bring him back, despite his wishes.

The_Party_and_the_Guests_-_Lenin_lookalike

A hound is given a sniff at a slipper he has left and it picks his scent. The search party sets off in high spirits.

The other original picnickers decide to stay on, on the pretext that if their (former) friend should return on his own accord, they should be there to greet him.

They chat and eat, much as they did earlier and seem content with the situation.

And that’s about that. On the surface.

The Party and the Guests (1966)

The Party and the Guests comes over like a Luis Buñuel film with a screenplay by Harold Pinter.

The ruling regime clearly took it as an anti-Communist allegory, although Jan Němec has never claimed it was specifically aimed at them. Maybe it’s as much, if not more, of an attack on ordinary people who, rather than oppose the system, passively make an accommodation with it for the sake of a quiet life, like most of the characters here seem happy enough to do.

It makes you ask yourself the question of how you would behave under similar circumstances. Compromise and conform or confront?

No trailer online but here’s a clip:

If you like The Party and the Guests, you might also like Němec’s first feature Diamonds of the Night, the story of two young Jewish boys who escape from a Nazi transport train. This is another uneasy watch with some startling imagery – including a hommage to Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou.

* In America the film is known as A Report on The Party and the Guests

The Bulldance aka Forbidden Sun (Folk Horror #2)

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The Bulldance aka Forbidden Sun

The term folk horror has been increasingly bandied around in recent years. Coined by Piers Haggard in 2004, when he explained to Fangoria that with Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970), he ‘was trying to make a folk horror film’, Mark Gatiss then borrowed the term for his Home Counties Horror episode of A History of Horror for BBC4.

From that moment on ‘folk horror’ was picked up by many critics and film fans. It’s not easy to precisely define its meaning but it’s generally used to describe films (and TV plays/series and literature) that deal with often insular, rural communities, and pagan rituals and folklore.

Should The Bulldance be categorised as a folk horror?

It does certainly tick a few of the boxes associated with the subgenre. There’s the rural setting in Crete (although it was filmed in what was then Yugoslavia), and it does examine pre-Christian traditions in the shape of Greek mythology.

The Bull Dance Ritual

Pagan is an umbrella term and whether modern day Hellenic polytheists should be considered pagan or not is a source of argument among some practitioners. Or so I’m told.

Extra points surely, though, must be awarded for the involvement of the director of The Wicker Man. Robin Hardy supplied the story and the screenplay. He additionally acted as exec-producer and had originally been slated to direct, although Zelda Barron eventually took on that role.

In his generally excellent book Inside The Wicker Man, author Allan Brown mentions that many American fans of the Hardy directed film perceive what is known across the Atlantic as Forbidden Sun as a kind of sequel to Hardy’s 1973 classic, which I find curious. If you decide to watch this 1988 movie, don’t expect The Wicker Man with sunshine. Or leotards for that matter.

Forbidden Sun - Training Routine

Okay, the movie. Paula (Samantha Mathis), was a gold medal winning gymnast at the 1984 L.A. Olympics, forced to retire at fourteen through illness. She arrives in Crete to spend a summer semester at an elite all-girl’s school for American gymnasts. Her aims are simple: to get fit again and see some of Europe. She sails to the island where the gym is situated on a boat with Ulysses (Svetislav Goncic), a young man with few social skills, and a fellow student Elaine (Renée Estevez, daughter of Martin Sheen). As they disembark, Ulysses attempts to brush his hand against Elaine’s breasts. She warns him off but later claims to Paula that he’s harmless.

The island is idyllic and the Roman built gym intrigues her, especially as their exertions are looked over by the Night Goddess, a sculpture of a female that the girls refer to as the Sex Goddess. It’s said that she brings the girls good luck.

But only if they deserve it.

Bulldance - Jane and the Night Goddess

The facility is run by Charles (Cliff De Young) and Francine (Lauren Hutton) who are immediately taken by Paula, as are her contemporaries. She’s even praised as ‘the champ in the camp’ and soon gets to meet coach Jack (Robert Beltran), who was pally with her dad, and who most of the girls have a crush on. One even seems to be involved in a hush-hush affair with him

As Elaine is dating English guitarist Steve (Marcus Myers), the girls also get to party his band The Lemon Boys, who are in Crete to record their latest album. They’re played by real-life act Hard Rain, whose roots include a punkish Brighton band – wait for it – Midnight and the Lemonboys.

What a summer this is gonna be for Paula!

Although not in the way she might have imagined at this point.

2019-06-28_1728

Fifteen minutes have passed without a hint of horror and already it’s obvious that The Bulldance completely lacks the magic of The Wicker Man. It’s like some not terribly interesting made for TV movie. Luckily, it does improve, although not to the point where you’re likely to become particularly absorbed in the fate of any of the characters.

In addition to their training regime, the girls are also given tours of historic places of interest and Francine teaches them Greek mythology.

She takes them to see a fresco depicting a fearsome looking bull, whose story she has earlier outlined to the class: angered by a deception by the king of Crete Minos, Poseidon casts a spell on his wife Pasiphaë, inducing her to fall in love with the bull that he had gifted to Minos to sacrifice, Pasiphaë later giving birth to a half-man, half-bull, Minotaur.

Francine goes on to explain the origins of ‘the Bulldance’, this being a massively dangerous somersault over the horns of a charging bull, that is believed to have been last practiced several millenniums ago. ‘I doubt if any modern gymnast could do it,’ she declares.

Jane (Viveka Davis), the school’s rebel, isn’t so sure and becomes obsessed by the idea of re-enacting it. And she’s the kind of gal that, well, isn’t afraid to grab the bull by the horns. She convinces Elaine to persuade Steve – who has an art school background – to create a Minotaur mask, so the gymnasts can perform a form of the dance as a routine at their end of term show.

Forbidden Sun -Minotaur mask

During a group training run, one of the girls goes missing. When found, she has to be hospitalised and it transpires that she has been the victim of a sexual assault.

The girls immediately pin the blame on Ulysses, who has just been caught spying into the girls’ room, using his binoculars.

As an attempt to gain revenge, they lure him to their studio, where they encourage him to don the giant bull mask (which they then lock). With his vision obscured by it, the girls lash out at him until he is unconscious. Suddenly panicking, they attempt to revive him with the medically dubious method of pouring half a bottle of brandy down his throat.

Soon afterwards, it emerges that he was not behind the attack. Surprise, surprise, his pervy behaviour was only a red herring. Who coulda seen that coming?

The plot twists consistently fail to deliver surprises. Lauren Hutton kept reminding me of Jessica Lange, only without the exceptional acting ability. Not, that she was rotten but I’m guessing she is another model turned actor, who was more suited to the former profession.

Likewise, Samantha Mathis and Viveka Davis were both fine, without ever really shining. I remember Mathis gaining some rave notices around this time but her career never blossomed in the way some imagined it might. Nowadays, she’s maybe best remembered as the one-time girlfriend of River Phoenix.

Forbidden Sun Minotaur mask

As for Zelda Barron, she’s an interesting figure. She started as a secretary then script supervisor, and performed continuity work on Cry of the Banshee and Slade in Flame. Moving up the ranks, she took on the role of associate producer on The Coal Miner’s Daughter and was special consultant on Reds. She even shot a number of videos for Culture Club.

As a director, her biggest success was Shag. A movie about the 1960s dance craze in case you found yourself raising an eyebrow at that title. The experience of working with so many young female actors on that played a big part in the decision to give her the job on The Bulldance.

Here, she demonstrates her talents only intermittently, with some imaginative shots of the gymnasts in action – some of the girls were obviously trained athletes. As newcomer Paula arrived at the school, I momentarily thought of the entrance of the vulnerable Suzy to the ballet academy in Suspiria. But it lacked any of tension that Argento generated there.

In his 2012 book Serendipity… A Life, producer Peter Watson-Wood (who later also produced The Wicker Tree) recalls The Bulldance immediately falling behind schedule. After five days of the shoot, he noted, Barron had yet to complete the first day’s schedule. To attempt to make up for lost time, whole pages were dropped from Hardy’s script.

As for the soundtrack, The Lemon Boys’ songs are competent enough, as is their incidental music, but to paraphrase a comment by Alex Cox that I quoted in last week’s post, it lacks the excessive genius of Paul Giovanni songs like Willow’s Theme.*

They maintain that they were never even paid for their work on the movie.
Clearly the production was always a troubled one.

Today, it’s almost forgotten, but it’s still just about worth a watch if anything folk horror related is your thing.

* Around ten yeas ago, I caught one of them, bassist Simon Laffy, at a ‘secret’ gig in Rockers in Glasgow as a member of Man Raze, who wanted to perform a warm-up show before their support slot for Alice Cooper at the Clyde Auditorium later that evening. A bit rocky for me, although it was nice to see Paul Cook on drums.