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The Damned (1969)

by Steve Habrat

There is much to behold and be repulsed at in Italian director Luchino Visconti’s erotic and melodramatic The Damned. Mirroring the rise and fall of Nazi Germany in a wealthy industrialist family, The Damned is an immensely profound film, slower than molasses and extremely homoerotic, certainly not a film for a mainstream viewer and only for a cinephile. At 155 minutes, Visconti puts quite a bit on our plate from the very beginning and does not hesitate to wear you out by attempting to keep up with everything that plays out in The Damned. It certainly had me at the brink of taking a time out half way through it to gather myself for the second act. A highly acclaimed film, The Damned is a hearty examination of what caused the Nazi party to cave in on itself, the perfidy, selfishness, corruption, and perversion that caused what was seen by many at the time as an unstoppable machine to rust and malfunction. As I watched The Damned, I became concerned with how all of these events were going to pay off and how they were going to affect me. On one hand, I was disturbed by the despicable nature of these monsters but on the other, I was saddened by their greed and deceit, their willingness to cut each other’s throats without blinking an eye.

The Damned introduces us to the members of the von Essenbecks, a wealthy industrialist family who is now facing the rise of the National Socialist party in Germany. The family patriarch Baron Joachim von Essenbeck (Played by Albrecht Schoenhals) calls a meeting on the night of the Reichstag fire to discuss the future of the family and their company. After a spat about doing business with the Nazi party, the Baron ends up murdered. The vice president of the family firm, Herbert Thalmann (Played by Umberto Orsini), who detests the Nazi party, is framed for the murder of the baron and he ends up fleeing the Gestapo. The uncouth SA officer Konstantin (Played by René Koldehoff) takes control of the family firm in the wake of the baron’s death. When Konstantin takes control, a battle begins within the family about who will get control over Konstantin. The showdown sucks in Konstantin’s disinterested son Gunther (Played by Renaud Verley), the scheming widow of the Baron’s only son Sophie (Played by Ingrid Thulin), Sophie’s new lover Friedrich Bruckmann (Played by Dirk Bogarde), and her sinister and pedophilic son Martin (Played by Helmut Berger). Playing the family members against each other is SS officer Aschenbach (Played by Helmut Griem), who is only interested in convincing the family to partner with the Nazi party so they can use them for weapons manufacturing.

The Damned is an epic film that is proficiently made and ends up being a soaring force. The cinematography from Pasqualino De Santis and Armando Nannuzzi is absolutely spectacular as they are largely working within a moody mansion where the family members lurk in the shadows and plot against one another. They approach the material with a soft focus, making the film seems like a bloody and ominous soap opera rather than a full-blown drama. The film should be shown in film school for it’s lighting, as it has to be some of the most dazzlingly lighting I have ever laid eyes on outside of an Ingmar Bergman film. At times, it resembles a film noir and then at times, it is lit in bright reds, indicating to the viewer that we are in a hellish nightmare. I also found the way that Visconti would suddenly push his camera in at his characters to be an interesting choice, one where he pushes the viewer right into the personal space of these vile individuals. At times, I wanted to be as far away from them as I possible could.

The Damned also features a legendary performance from Helmut Berger as the bisexual Martin, a frightening drug addicted pedophile that sexually assaults his mother and performs a dance routine in drag. A good majority of The Damned’s run time is shared with Martin and his decadent ways, the film becoming a faint study of a disturbed man in addition to the parallel that it already is. Yet even in all of his devilish ways, Martin is quite a sympathetic character due to the neglect he faces from his selfish mother. He is all but forgotten by the family and when he tries to express himself, he is met with eye rolling disgust from the conservative Baron, who is not very amused by his drag routine. Would things be different for Martin if he had someone genuinely accept and pay attention to him? Would he choose the path the he ultimately does? It’s possible and maybe some of his unforgivable actions would have been avoided. I have always been fascinated by films that force us to get inside the mind of the villain and The Damned ends up being one of those films, but Berger is so persuasive as Martin, allowing himself to get lost in the role, I really wanted out of his mind and to not have to look at his wicked eyes.

I will agree that The Damned is essential viewing for those who wish to study cinema or have a strong interest in the history of Nazi Germany. The film devises ways to work in real events, adding to the epic nature of the film. One scene places us right inside the “Night of the Long Knives,” which was when the SS massacred members of the SA, who were growing dissatisfied with Hitler . The way the scene plays out, heavy on the homoeroticism at first and then the slow build up to a flurry of bullets and death is a testament to how to properly mount tension within a motion picture. Next to Martin’s drag performance, it is one of the film’s highlight moments. The Damned, however, does begin to feel its length and those with a short attention span need to be warned before jumping into this. There are lots of extended conversations between tons of characters, making the task of keeping up with every scheme a real chore. I usually don’t have much of a problem sitting through long films but there were moments that were agonizing to endure. After the film ended, I realized that certain moments are agonizing because of their subject matter and depraved disposition, especially when Martin rapes his mother. The film was met with quite a bit of controversy when it was released and it is certainly not difficult to see why. The film is still harrowing to this day, especially the sequences of implied pedophilia. The Damned is never monotonous but rather the subject matter itself weighs heavy on the viewer, as it should. No one ever said that mingling with the devil and his minions was a walk in the park, and that is just what The Damned forces us to do.

Grade: A-

The Damned is now available on DVD.

Natural Born Killers (1994)

by Steve Habrat

Leave it to Oliver Stone to tackle an issue like the American public’s fascination with serial killers, blood, sex, guts, and all out mayhem. Natural Born Killers is without question one of the most controversial films ever made, a psychedelic road trip into Hell that boasts hallucinatory images, shotgun wielding satire, and a blood drenched riot as a finale that leaves the sane viewer with their mouth on the floor. Natural Born Killers is notorious for inspiring a long list of copycat murders in the wake of its 1994 release including the shooting of William Savage and Patsy Byers, the Heath High School shooting, the Columbine High School massacre, and the Richardson Family Murders. Natural Born Killers deals with the morbid intrigue we have with cold-blooded killers and how the media glamorizes and glorifies their actions. The film touches on all the major figures in death including Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Charles Whitman, and David Koresh, to name a few. Through all the controversy, director Stone has some thought provoking things to say and we can’t help but feel ashamed in ourselves for how we hang on the violence projected into our homes via the nightly news. We, as a society, were guilty this past summer when we hung on every second of the Casey Anthony trial and now, we are guilty of it again with the recent Chardon, Ohio school shooting, where news cameras were onsite to catch every drop of blood and every tear from those affected. We still haven’t learned from the message Natural Born Killers tried to deliver to us.

Natural Born Killers follows the horrific killing spree of Mickey (Played by Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Played by Juliette Lewis) Knox, two bloodthirsty individuals who have been twisted and mutated into heroes by the media for the carnage they leave in their wake. The film hops around and shows us glimpses into their troubled pasts, the pursuit of a Detective Jack Scagnetti (Played by Tom Sizemore) who has a few secrets of his own, Mickey’s Manson-esque interview with self-centered Australian tabloid journalist Wayne Gale (Played by Robert Downey, Jr.), and their stay at a prison run by Warden Dwight McClusky (Played by Tommy Lee Jones). After a year stay at the prison, Mickey and Mallory are to be moved to a mental institution after being deemed insane, but the Warden, Gayle, and Detective Scagnetti all have plans of their own for the deadly duo.

You can’t evaluate Natural Born Killers without discussing the hyperactive style and array of colors Stone bathes the film in. He shoots with multiple types of film including Super 8, 16mm, black and white, animation, and video, the film flipping from one style to another with frantic randomness. Stone also adds heaping amounts of stock footage including footage of the 1993 siege on the Branch Dravidians, the Nazis, and the Charles Whitman shootings. In addition, Stone also shows us Mallory’s disturbing upbringing at the hands of her abusive father and cowardly mother. Stone presents this to the viewer as a 1950’s sitcom, adding laugh tracks and upbeat music, suggesting that we sensationalize the past of criminals and use their pasts as entertainment. Stone further suggests that we sensationalize violence every single day and use it as a form of entertainment. Even though the film deals with gruesome topics and we should be appalled by it, we keep watching and easily digesting it because he molds it into shameless entertainment. Even if you hate the film and find yourself mortified by it, you can’t say that you weren’t entertained while watching it.

The characters of Mickey and Mallory are contorted into a modern Bonnie and Clyde with a sprinkling of Charles Whitman and Charles Manson. They relish in their hellish fame and joyfully tell their fans “you ain’t seen nothing yet!” as they are led into court. Stone makes them charismatic despite their urges to kill and maim. They use theatrics in the massacres, usually leaving one person alive to tell the tale of Mickey and Mallory. Mickey is a brewing storm of fury that is bottled up and when provoked, slowly uncorks and spews forth with a wrath that will make your head spin. Mallory isn’t as discreet (I use that term loosely here) as Mickey, she unhinges at the smallest little things. But in a sick way, we root for Mickey and Mallory, who actually just want to be left to themselves by the end. Their love for each other trumps their murderous impulses. Stone purposely wants us to root for them, forcing us to listen in on their warped viewpoints Mickey explains to Gale. He also paints them as tragic victims by their troubled pasts, another action by the exploitative media. But Stone uses Gayle to show us how infectious the mental sickness is, the virus spread with a camera and microphone. Mickey sparks a gruesome riot and awakens a killer in Gayle, who begins to enjoy the murder and mayhem. Stone seems to be foretelling the idea of individuals who find inspiration in these monsters.

Natural Born Killers doesn’t pour much hope in the ones who are sworn to protect us. They use murders and psychos for their own personal fame and gain. Wayne Gayle uses them for reputation, Scagnetti uses them for vengeance, and McClusky uses them for his career. In the end, we have to wonder if any of the individuals out there really care about our safety or well-being. These twisted people realize that they can capitalize on death. By the finale, Mickey and Mallory are the rebellion to these individuals–bring down a flurry of bullets with an army of inmates tearing through the prison. Natural Born Killers says that those who claim to protect and serve are really no better than the ones they are trying to capture and put behind bars, something that the real life individuals who are guilty of this crime should be ashamed of.

Natural Born Killers is a film that should be approached with caution, a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. As I have pointed out, many miss the intellectual message of the film and see it as a trippy view into how murder can make you famous. How murder will make the world remember your name, a message that is formed by a weak, delusional mind. For the viewer who wants a thought provoking experience, I encourage you to see Natural Born Killers, a film that holds a slot in my top twenty films of all time. I have always found myself fascinated by how the evening news projects violence into our homes on daily basis. Think of how no one stopped disgraced politician Budd Dwyer as he pulled out a gun and blew his head off on live television, on a snow day when young children were able to see it. If you have seen the footage, you know that the camera kept rolling and the cameraman even zooms in on the bloody mess, making sure we see every minute detail and every smudge of gore. Then it was rerun for everyone to see, presented as a spectacle of a desperate man with no other option. Think 0f how the news covered the events of Waco, how we hang on the interviews with the deranged and manipulative Charles Manson, or our round the clock coverage of any given school shooting. We are the ones who are guilty of making these monsters heroes. We are the ones who sensationalize death and tragedy, refusing to try to intervene or turn away from it. We haven’t learned from our mistakes, that I say with firm confidence. Natural Born Killers is as relevant now as ever, morphing the film to a polarizing classic.

Grade: A

Natural Born Killers is now available of Blu-ray and DVD.

Macbeth (1971)

by Steve Habrat

If you’ve ever found yourself pondering about what film Roman Polanski made after Charles Manson and his bloodthirsty band of cult killers slaughtered his wife, his unborn baby, and a handful of his friends, the answer to that question is a dreary, mud caked version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Perhaps one of the bleakest films you will ever see, considering that in August of 1969, several of his loved ones were so senselessly slain, the film was made out of his engulfing depression, and the result is all sound and fury indeed, but not necessarily signifying nothing. In fact, Macbeth signifies a lot, mostly the events that surrounded the Tate-LaBianca murders. There have been a handful of films made on the notorious Charles Manson, but none have been as lingering as Macbeth is. Polanski molds the tragedy to fit with certain events from the infamous murders, descending into trippy montages, blood-spattered hallucinations, and at the center, a devious Macbeth who dispatches his loyal cohorts to slaughter at will to make the prophecy that was predicted by a motley band of witches remains true. Of course, anyone who has studied the Manson Family murders understands that Charles Manson was a fan of the psychedelic rock record The White Album by The Beatles. He was convinced the album was a witchy message to him about the end of the world, a race riot between the whites and blacks that would devour the earth and leave only him and his followers to rule the world.

In Roger Ebert’s review of Macbeth, Ebert declares that the reason the provocative Polanski elected Macbeth as the film he would make in the wake of his beautiful wife’s death is elusive, and I have to agree with his insight to an extent. It is confounding that he would find solace in the Bard’s material, but Polanski has also made the point that he found himself in a bottomless pit of depression, a depression he had to so desperately shake from his life. He makes the claim that he always wanted to tackle a Shakespearean project and that critics would have labeled any film he would have made as a subtle commentary on the murders. After watching his vision, I found it be one of his most terrifying films (creepier than Repulsion or Rosemary’s Baby), and perhaps a more personal, cathartic film. It’s virtually impossible to watch the intrusion on Macduff’s castle while he is away by two murderers who hack up his wife and children. Maybe it is, after all, easy to see why Polanski gravitated to this material. There is fury and superstation leaking out every shot in this film to the point where watching it in halves makes it easier to endure. I should add that it is even harder to watch the climax, which is a handheld shot of a savage fight between Macbeth and Macduff, and not think that maybe this is a personal fantasy of Polanski, where he imagines himself as the vengeful Macduff attacking the despotic and ignorant “king”–Manson.

If you find yourself drawn to this film, you should be aware of what you are getting yourself into. This is Shakespeare after all and the furthest thing from modern day interpretations like 1996’s Romero & Juliet or 2001’s O. The medieval surroundings may send some casual film viewers fleeing, especially when the Bard’s dialogue starts erupting from the mouths of these thespians. For the viewers who watch this with a glass of red wine in their hand, theater junkies at that, they will be tantalized with overdramatic delight as they quote along with the renowned dialogue. I’ve always found medieval projects a tough pill to swallow, and theater even more grueling. Although I find that the underlying implications this film contains to be attention grabbing and an opportunity to watch someone mend wounds that will never truly fade. I don’t believe Polanski when he says that this was an excuse to get back to work. In fact, I think it would be more commendable if he were to admit just that, that it was made in response to the atrocity that shook his very existence and to publicly mend.

Polanski’s Macbeth is a gruesome affair, one that seems hell-bent on showing the audience the carnage that Polanski saw in his home. The film is also a Playboy Production, yes the same Playboy responsible for the nudie magazines created by Hugh Hefner. He serves as a producer here, and judging by some of the films graphic nudity, heavily involved with some of the production, especially with the casting of the beautiful Francesca Annais as Lady Macbeth. This film contains a sequence in which Lady Macbeth sleepwalks nude, a result of oppressive fear, guilt, and paranoia for all the terrible manipulation running rampant in her life. I will only sum up Macbeth briefly, as many should already be familiar with the story. The story follows a Scottish lord Macbeth (Played by Jon Finch) who stumbles upon three witches whom prophesize that he will become king. Macbeth becomes obsessed with the idea of becoming the ruler, taking control of fate and destiny, and murdering the current king. Macbeth gets what he wants and becomes a vicious ruler who will stop at nothing to keep his secret that he murdered the previous ruler to ascend the throne even as suspicion bears down on him. Meanwhile, his wife Lady Macbeth slowly descends into madness in the wake of her guilt.

There is much to compare and contrast with real events in Polanski’s Macbeth. The witches could be seen as mirroring The Beatles, who Manson believed were predicting Helter Skelter, which would bring about the end of the world. He believed that he was to become king of a new world and his followers would be his loyal disciples. Loyal in the pre-apocalypse they were, when at his command, they were sent out to butcher innocent people, primarily wealthy white families and leave “witchy” messages in the hopes that the white cops who would find the scene blame African Americans, sparking a race war. The witches prove to be false, dabbling with psychedelics, which coincidentally The Beatles were too at the time. I have also pointed out the similarities in the siege on Macduff’s home, which ends in slaughter. Funny enough, he is away while this takes place. Polanski has said that he found the inspiration for this scene from when a Nazi SS officer terrorized his home. Manson was also rumored to be a sympathizer of the Nazi party. The scene in which Macbeth stabs to death King Duncan is also graphically violent as Macbeth stabs relentlessly, evocative of what the Manson Family did to his friends and family, all of which were stabbed multiple times all over their bodies. Even during a trippy hallucination montage, we catch a brief glimpse of a baby being ripped from the mother’s womb, an image all to personal to Polanski, who lost his unborn child at the hands of the murderous intruders.

Earlier on in this review, I said that Macbeth was Polanski’s most terrifying film, even more so than Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, two films I highly respect and our proud members of the horror community. Macbeth scares because of it’s scowling pessimism, understandable at the time. It scares because of Polanski’s bobbing authenticity and the darkness of its soul. Macbeth is the ultimate Manson Family film, proving to be higher brow than the decadent exploitation wannabe The Manson Family and more eloquent than Manson, My Name is Evil, which both tackle the Family head on. I believe that Polanski denies that this film is about Manson because he wishes to give Manson zero satisfaction. Manson was blatantly power hungry and had a voracious desire for fame. Definitive if slyly indirect, Macbeth peers into a troubled soul, stanch and grisly about what it displays, even if there is some dishonesty and recoil when it is confronted.

Grade: B+