Kiki’s Delivery Service & Belladonna of Sadness: An Anime Double Bill

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Kiki's Delivery Service & Belladonna of Sadness

There may be those out there that think Japanese anime begins and ends with Studio Ghibli.

Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of the favourites in their catalogue and it’s easy to see why so many young people adore this gem.

Kiki is a young wannabe witch, who aged thirteen moves on the night of a full moon to the picturesque seaside town of Korico. There, as part of an age-old tradition, she must spend a year alone as she trains to become a fully fledged witch – and learn to become independent and think for herself. Okay, I say alone but luckily she is able to take her talking black cat Jiji with her.

A budding young entrepreneur, Kiki sets up in business, offering a courier service for food deliveries. And she becomes adept at her job, flying across the sky on her broomstick, which handily means no traffic delays, albeit the weather can be a problem.


Kiki’s Delivery Service is timeless – made in 1989 it evokes the 1950s – and it’s charming as hell and without Hollywood animation’s usual tendency towards sickly sentimentality.

It’s one of the few animated films that turn me into a big softie as I watch and it left me, well, it left me bewitched.

Belladonna of Sadness is also an animated movie about a witch but there the similarities end. This was aimed at adults. There’s rape, corruption, famine, plague and death. If you thought Korico might be the perfect environment to live, the village where Belladonna of Sadness is set will strike you as a living nightmare.

While Kiki’s Delivery Service was a box-office smash in Japan and hugely popular around the planet, Belladonna of Sadness helped bankrupt its production company Mushi and was hardly seen outside Japan and certain parts of Europe.

Directed by Eiichi Yamamoto and inspired by Jules Michelet’s 1863 book Satanism and Witchcraft (which has often been debunked over the years), this anime has been called ‘disturbing animated feminist porn’, ‘an experimental rape-revenge jazz musical anime’ and ‘a glorious mindfuck.’

You’re sold, aren’t you?


The plot?

‘Once upon a time… a kind young man and beautiful young woman were joined in love,’ as the song that opens the film puts it. ‘Jean and Jeanette dancing in the shy of bliss. Smiled upon by God. Drunk on happiness.’

Needless to say, their loved-up honeymoon bliss isn’t going to last long.

As is the local tradition, the couple make an offering to a man who appears to be the feudal lord of the village. They gift him their only cow. He demands ten.


The animation here might strike modern viewers as rather antiquated, with the camera panning up, down and across large artworks. Aubrey Beardsley is definitely an influence, as is the art of Austrian expressionists such as Egon Schiele. Most of the images are created by thin washes of watercolour paint accompanied by gorgeous, sinewy lines, although in places the lines became blotchy like early Andy Warhol illustrations.

The imagery is often pretty psychedelic too – although released in 1973, the film was six years in the making, work starting as psych-rock was being taken up by a new breed of Japanese musicians.

Belladonna of Sadness still

In many ways, this is sometimes a tough watch but it is always a fascinating one and if you know of a better experimental rape-revenge jazz musical anime, please let me know.

After falling largely into obscurity, it was recently given a 4K digital restoration, and even gained a small scale theatrical release in 2016. It’s available to buy on Blu-ray.

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.


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.


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 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.


Faces & In The Soup: A Seymour Cassel Double Bill (American Indie #3)

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By the end of the 1980s, it was often hard to identify what qualified as an independent film. As Kim Newman pointed out in his essay Independent Daze, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing looked indie but was financed and distributed by Universal, while James Cameron’s Terminator 2 was backed by short lived independent Carolco.

Twenty years before in America, things were different. Faces was obviously independent. Director John Cassavetes ploughed his own money made from acting into financing it, as well as re-mortgaging his home. Luckily, he had a circle of friends who would also chip in cash and help out in any way they possibly could. Seymour Cassel was one of this group, along with Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands.

This resulted in Faces being made on a very modest budget of $40,000, and it was shot and edited over a number of years.

Seymour Cassel - Faces

Cassel got started in film in Shadows in 1959, Cassavetes’ first foray into the independent filmmaking scene. Here he played an uncredited, blink and you’ll miss him role, and acted as an associate producer.

On Faces, the next Cassavetes independent, he again took on double duties. As well as helping out as a crew-member, he also agreed to play Chet, a charismatic chancer whose dancing catches the eyes of a quartet of dissatisfied middle-class women while they visit a nightclub. One of this quartet is Maria (Lynn Carlin), whose husband John Marley has just announced he wants a divorce before storming out to meet up with Jeannie, a prostitute played by Gena Rowlands.

Faces is shot in grainy black and white and most of the action takes place in home interiors. It might resemble mumblecore in some ways, with its emphasis on dialogue, naturalistic performances and real locations – much of it being shot in Cassavetes’ LA residence, a spare room serving as an editing room – but don’t expect any mumbling here. Instead the characters drink, sing, argue, tell jokes, dance, suffer emotional meltdowns and shout at each other. THEN SHOUT SOME MORE AT EACH OTHER!

Seymour Cassel in Faces (1968)

You could easily imagine many scenes as a play and the length of some of these scenes might strike modern audiences as terribly overextended. Some dialogue could easily have been cut. It’s not my favourite Cassavetes film but the acting by everyone involved is absolutely superb, down to even relatively small roles – especially Dorothy Gulliver’s poignant turn as the lamentable drunk Florence.

Shot in sequence, so the actors had an improved chance of developing their characters, Faces never comes across as scripted. It looks like an early experiment in reality TV. Either that or a drama where the actors improvised extensively. According to Cassel, though, he was the only actor who veered off-script.

Uncompromising and unpredictable, Faces is raw but utterly riveting. Critic Roger Ebert judged in a contemporary review that it was the sort of film that made you want to grab people by the neck and drag them into the cinema to watch it.

Faces was recognised at the 1969 Academy Awards, earning Oscar nominations for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Lynn Carlin), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Seymour Cassel) and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen (John Cassavetes), although it failed to take any gongs home on the night.

Seymour always retained fond memories of his time on Faces. Talking about this period during an interview on an extra feature on the John Cassavetes Collection, he noted that: ‘The closest I’ve come to having that kinda fun was doing In The Soup.’

He did liven up some big budget movies too like Convoy (1978), Dick Tracy (1990), and Indecent Proposal (1993), but Seymour Cassel remained drawn to independent work throughout his long career. ‘I like the excitement of not having enough money, enough film, enough time to do it, and still trying to make it work,’ he explained in an interview with IndieWire.

In 1996 he was cast as Uncle Al in in Steve Buscemi’s much underrated directorial debutTrees Lounge; he was Bert Fischer in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998), and Dusty, the elevator operator in The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001.

Seymour Cassel - In the Soup 1994

Perhaps best of all was the role of Joe in the aforementioned In the Soup, directed by Alexandre Rockwell in 1992. Here, he played a minor-league mobster who somehow gets the idea that his money might be well spent by helping to finance the indie movie debut of wannabe filmmaker, Adolpho Rollo (Steve Buscemi).

As always, Buscemi puts in an excellent performance here: a wide-eyed dreamer, as desperate to direct as he is deluded about his talent. Jennifer Beals is very good too, but Cassel steals the show, and is at his irascible best throughout, drawing Rollo into his criminal world and constantly advising him how his film could be improved.

Seymour surely deserved a second Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Yet another one the Academy got wrong. Saying that, In the Soup was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, ahead of Reservoir Dogs.

You win some, lose some, and I’ve just belatedly discovered that the world of cinema has lost Seymour, who has sadly died of Alzheimer’s disease.

Seymour Cassel: January 22, 1935 – April 7, 2019