Royal Jelly (2021)

Sean Riley is the the principal of Benndale Elementary School in George County, Mississippi by day, but by night, he wrote and directed this movie all about a school outcast who becomes a human bee groomed to be the next queen of the hive. This is his second full-length movie after 2017’s Fighting Belle, in which a Southern belle left at the altar becomes a boxer.

This is a movie rich in bees and the honey they help produce, as nearly all the main character’s names are the names of wildflowers which bees pollinate and the term royal jelly refers to the secretion produced by glands of the hypopharynx in nurse honey bees. This is fed to all the lavrae as they grow, but mostly saved for the future queen bee as she rests in her cell within the hive.

The film’s heroine is Aster, who is that most rare of combinations — so rare I’ve never heard it it before — known as the goth beekeeper. That means that nobody likes her at school at all and she’s treated worse at home thanks to her new stepmother and stepsister, who have taken her father’s attention away from her.

Luckily — or perhaps not for the victims in this film — a new teacher comes to the school that loves bees just as much as her. And she takes in our protagonist after her stepsister and friends crush all of her hives.

This is a horror movie, so this isn’t about an older teacher grooming a sensitive young girl to the Sapphic delights of the world. That would be an Italian movie from 1978 or somesuch. This is a direct-to-streaming video in which someone grows fairy wings and fangs as they become a human bee and get their stinging revenge.

So yeah. It’s Carrie with bees and no revenge for the heroine. And it’s not the best bee movie even. That would maybe be Invasion of the Bee Girls. It’s also not anywhere as good as Phenomena, but very few movies are. There is a good idea here, but there’s not the budget or the follow-through to make it anything better than what it is. Some bees make delicious honey, others just sting you, but the pain eventualluy goes away.

Royal Jelly is available on demand from Uncork’d Entertainment. Visit the film’s official Facebook page to learn more.

Death Drop Gorgeous (2020)

Written and directed by Christopher Dalpe, Brandon Perras (who also played Tony Two Fingers, as well as doing the cinematography and editing) and Michael J. Ahern (who was Detective O’Hara), Death Drop Gorgeous presents a slasher world that we haven’t seen, well, nearly ever in the form: a campy, gay-positive glitter, makeup neon and booze-soaked — not to mention incredibly hilarious — murder saga.

Dwayne (Wayne Gonsalves) has just had a bad breakup, which brings him back home to Rhode Island and a place on the couch in the apartment of his friend Brian (Christopher Dalpe). As he pieces his life back together, he keeps moving somewhat backward, even getting his old bartending gig back, working at The Aut Haus alongside Tragedi (Complete Destruction), Janet Fitness (Matthew Pidge) and, perhaps most importantly, Gloria Hole (Michael McAdam), an aging drag queen who doesn’t draw in the young customers.

Unbeknownst to our hero, several club patrons and employees have already been killed and drained of their blood by a social hookup app using serial killer named The Vampire, with owner Tony Two Fingers paying off the cops to stay open. But when Brian goes missing — last seen getting into a cab driven by Linnea Quigley alongside Gloria — Dwayne starts keeping his eyes open.

I’ve never seen a movie where a man is killed with a meat grinder at a glory hole, directly followed by a scene with someone eating sausages, so this is quite obviously groundbreaking stuff. It’s even more amazing when you consider that most of the cast were non-actors and the movie was filmed almost exclusively in Providence on weekends over the course of a year and a half.

The film wouldn’t work if it was all comedy, so the slasher/giallo parts all work just as well if not better. That’s a testament to the work on screen.

I’ve always believed that determining that if a movie is a giallo or a slasher means answering a few questions: Do we care more about who the killer is than the killings themselves? Is there good music? And is there plenty of fashion? The answer to all of those questions is yes and I find it happily wonderful that the best two giallo-esque movies of the past decade — and the ones not slavishly bound to the conventions of the genre so much that they become pastiche — would be this film and Knife + Heart, two LGBTQ-positive films in a genre best known for gorgeous and fashionable women being killed in, well, gorgeous and fashionable ways.

That’s not to say that this movie is all Bava lighting and dubbed dialogue. It’s a movie onto itself, filled with high energy, hilarious dialogue and a creative team whose lack of experience surprised me, because unlike the majority of direct to streaming films that come to us, this feels like the kind of movie that I’d rush to the theater — well, you know, in any other timeline — to see.

That said, Death Drop Gorgeous will be released in select theatres and is also available on demand from Dark Star Pictures. If you want to know more, check out the official Facebook page.

What She Said (2021)

This is how you do a tagline: “Everybody has an opinion. Nobody has WiFi.”

Sam (Jenny Lester, who wrote the script for this dark comedy) has decided to drop the charges against the man who assaulted her. Now, on Thanksgiving, perhaps one of the most stressful days of the year, her family and friends have joined together to stage an intervention.

Our protagonist, who has placed her life on hold for 18 months in and out of trials, wants to finish her dissertation. Yet when she receives news that the trial is postponed again, she hides out in her family’s remote cabin in the Virginia woods, ghosting everyone. But can the same people she wants to avoid convince her to come back to the city to complete the trial?

Lester explained her thought process behind the script — and the making of the film — by saying, “It is frustrating that in most portrayals of survivorship, we learn what someone has been through instead of who they are. As more and more women started sharing their stories (often anonymously) online over the past few years, the question that kept itching in my mind was, “Who was this woman before this event that is now synonymous with her identity? Who is she now as she picks herself back up and returns to her life?” As we approached our first feature, we knew we didn’t need to add another SVU version of survivorship to the zeitgeist, and instead wanted to focus on what is hopefully a very human story about a deeply nuanced and often flawed woman and her messy, misstepping, well-meaning chosen family that raillies around her. Putting together a predominantly female, enby, and queer crew and creative team to help tell it was absolutely paramount.”

Where most films that deal with this subject are either courtroom dramas or descend into revenge pictures. This shows the very human side of dealing with what comes after the attack, with Sam struggling to build new connections and continue the ones that she had before. Beyond the horrific emotions and pain that Sam has had to deal with over the last year and change, the fact that others want to tell her what to do may be just as damaging to her.

There are no easy answers, obviously, but this film raises plenty of questions to ponder over and consider. It’s not what I expected to watch for entertainment, yet it’s the kind of movie that will stick in my head and make me think back to it from time to time, which is one of the hallmarks of a film that just plain works.

Director Amy Northrup has an interesting resume, as she’s acted in several films and also works as an intimacy coordinator and facilitates classes on consent practices for filmmakers. This is her first full-length film. Of this effort, she said, “The ways we consume media affects how we see the world around us, and if the stories of sexual assault we see are homogenous, limited, and singular, it makes it infinitely hard to see the layers of impact, to believe the people in our actual lives who come forwared and say this happened to me. When all we see is perfect victimhood we turn around and demand it. This film, for us, was one version of a story that won’t meet that demand.”

You can learn more at the official website of this movie. It’s now available on VOD.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)

Where could Steve Martin and Carl Reiner go after The Jerk and The Man with Two Brains? How about to the world of film noir?

At lunch with Reiner and screenwriter George Gip, Martin discussed using a clip from an old film as part of a story he was writing. From that came the idea to use old clips throughout a movie to remix, recut and reframe an entirely new narrative that would place Martin into the world of film noir, using some of those that helped make those classic films, like costume designer Edith Head*, who made more than twenty suits and production designer John DeCuir, who designed 85 sets for the film.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid casts Martin as Rigby Reardon, who comes to the aid of cheese heiress Juliet Forrest (Sela Ward) after the mysterious death of her father. Throughout the narrative, they come into contact with all manner of famous actors and characters, including Alan Ladd as The Exterminator who attacks Martin (taken from This Gun for Hire), Barbara Stanwyck from Sorry, Wrong Number, Ray Milland from The Lost Weekend, Ava Gardner footage taken from both The Killers and The Bribe, Burt Lancaster from The KillersHumphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe using scenes from The Big Sleep, In a Lonely Place and Dark Passage, Cary Grant from Suspicion, Ingrid Bergman from Notorious, Veronica Lake** from The Glass Key, Bette David from Deception, Lana Turner footage from Johnny Eager and The Postman Always Rings Twice, Edward Arnold from Johnny Eager, Kirk Douglas from Walk Alone, Fred MacMurray from Double Indemnity, James Cagney from White Heat, Joan Crawford from Humoresque and Charles Laughton and Vincent Price from The Bribe. Whew!

These eighteen movies*** — plus footage shot at Culver City’s Laird International Studios, the same place where SuspicionRebecca and Spellbound were all made — creates a narrative all its own, much how beats and samples come together to make a new song within the world of hip hop.

There’s so much detail in this movie, which is because of the talents of the filmmakers, including  director of photography Michael Chapman , who worked with Technicolor to seamlessly match the old film clips with his new footage.

I find it really intriguing that Martin came out of another period piece, Pennies from Heaven, into this movie, while Sela Ward played the woman at the center of the modern noir Sharky’s Machine before this.

The new blu ray re-release of this movie from Kino Lorber includes new commentary by filmmaker Allan Arkush and film historian/filmmaker Daniel Kremer, as well as four radio commercials, three TV ads, a theatrical trailer and the Buttometer teaser trailer. I’m beyond excited to have this movie in my library.

* *The film was dedicated to Head, who died soon after it was completed, with the credits saying, “To her, and to all the brilliant technical and creative people who worked on the films of the 1940’s and 1950’s, this motion picture is affectionately dedicated.”

**Cheryl Rainbwaux Smith also was the double for Lake in this scene, which I heartily endorse.

*** Nineteen if you count the car crash in the beginning, which came from Keeper of the Flame.

REPOST: Tokoloshe: An African Curse (2018)

EDITOR’S NOTE: We originally covered this film on December 27, 2019. It’s been re-released under a slightly different title and is now available on Tubi.

Busi is young destitute woman with dangerously repressed emotions that has just started a cleaning job at a rundown hospital in the heart of Johannesburg. In need of cash so she can bring her younger sister to the city, she must cope despite the predatory and corrupt hospital manager. When Busi discovers an abandoned young girl in the hospital that is being tormented by a supernatural force, she must face her own demons from the past in order to save them both.

A South African movie filmed in English and Zulu, this is the first full film from director Jerome Pikwane.

It looks gorgeous, as Busi’s past and present are both shown to be filled with dangers, despite feeling like two different worlds. South Africa has some of the worst violence against women in the world, crimes that critically go unreported, so hopefully this film can raise some attention.

The Murder Game (1965)

The IMDB summary of this movie is like something out of TV Guide‘s capsule reviews: “A woman abandons her husband, changes her name, and remarries again. Complications ensue.”

The real story is that our protagonist learns that his wife’s first husband isn’t dead. And perhaps even worse than that, he’s actively working with her to kill him off so they can take his money and run. That’s when a three-way game of cat and mouse ensues.

This is the last film of Sidney Salkow, ending a three-decade career behind the camera that saw him make movies like Twice-Told TalesThe Last Man on Earth and several pirate and cowboy films. Its writer, Harry Spaulding, also wrote Chosen SurvivorsWitcheryCurse of the FlyThe Earth Dies Screaming and The Watcher in the Woods.

Plus, you can spot a young Dyan Cannon, if you look hard enough.

Pufnstuf (1970)

Right after the H.R. Pufnstuf television series ended its initial run, this film was quickly made to take advantage of its popularity. Financed by Universal and Kellogg’s, the sponsors of the TV show, this film adds two new witches alongside Billie Hayes’ Wilhelmina W. Witchiepoo: Witch Hazel, played by co-creator Sid Krofft’s neighbor Cass Elliot and Boss Witch, played by Martha Raye, who was so beloved by the cast and crew that she ended up playing Benita Bizarre in the Kroffts’ next show The Bugaloos.

The first choice to play Boss Witch? Bette Davis. When Sid called her, she was so upset that she was his first choice to play a witch that she hung up on him.

Pufnstuf is going to seem absolutely insane to anyone who didn’t grow up in the 70s. It tells the story of Jimmy (Jack Wild), who gets along with absolutely no one in his school and then ends up getting kicked out of the school band before he meets a magical talking flute named Freddy. Today, we would get Jimmy the right drugs and therapy and he’d be successful integrated into a group of kids that would understand him — before mercilessly roasting him on social media — but in 1970 Jimmy ends up on an evil boat and being taken to Living Island, which is ruled by Mayor H.R. Pufnstuf.

As for the antaognists, Witchiepoo wants to steal Freddy the Flute away from Jimmy in order to impress the visiting Witches’ Council and win the Witch of the Year Award. Oh yeah — th witches also plan on eating Pufnstuf, who I assume tastes like the best sashimi ever made.

What’s wild is that Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox worked together for the first time creating the music for this movie and stuck together afterward, writing the songs “Killing Me Softly with His Song”, “I Got A Name”, “Ready To Take A Chance Again” and many other popular songs.

You know who had it rough? Marty Krofft, who accepted the guardianship of Jack Wild while the teenage boy was working in the United States, in addition to producing the show and movie.

I’ve always wondered if McDonald’s ripped off the Kroffts. And I was right. The show was the subject of a successful lawsuit — Sid & Marty Krofft Television Productions Inc. v. McDonald’s Corp., 562 F.2d 1157, — which was decided in the Krofft’s favor by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1977.

Pufnstuf the movie was directed by Hollingsworth Morse, who also made Daughters of Satan and Ark II, and was written by John Fenton Murray, who also scripted ArnoldLidsvilleSigmund and the Sea Monster and Partridge Family 2200 AD., and Si Rose, who wrote plenty of TV.

You can now get this movie from the awesome people at Kino Lorber, who have released it on blu ray along with an extra trailer. I’m excited to have this film as part of my collection and you will be too.

Garden of Hedon (2011)

Kevin Kangas (Fear of Clowns) directed and wrote (along with Luke Theriault) this film, which concerns a detective who awakens to find himself in a pleasure palace where all manner of decadent pleasures last eternally, from the simple act of eating to — you guesses it — any fetish there is. But when a dead body shows up in what seems like heaven, this become a mystery that needs solving.

This flirts with the giallo and has some great ideas, even if the costumes suggest Eyes Wide Shut on a Spirit store budget. Actually, isn’t that what we want so often? A movie that has ideas that are bigger than the money on hand to film it and the willingness to dive right in and try to make something great?

So yeah — you may not have seen anyone in this movie before. You may never see them again. But the central idea in here — is this heaven or hell or just somewhere strange on Earth and there’s a murder that needs solving — is solid.

Now, if you just gave it a more giallo-esque title instead of the punny Garden of Hedon, we’d be getting something. Ensnared in the Arms of HeavenThe Case of the Perverted EternityAutopsy of an Angel?

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s shot on digital, it could definitely use another pass on the script, some better acting, improved audio and less of that piano tinkling over and over and well, over. But hey — what have you done today? Did you convince a bunch of people to dress up and traipse about a mansion and make a horror movie for less money than some people make in a year?

Maybe I was in the right mood for this. I think watching forty giallo movies in two weeks kind of numbs you to reality which is exactly how I want to live my life.

You can watch this on Tubi.

The Fourth Victim (1971)

I absolutely loved this movie. Seriously, what a madcap blast this was and it totally took me unawares. Arthur Anderson (Michael Craig) a wealthy Englishman with two previous wives who’ve also died suddenly and mysteriously, his third wife drowns. Luckily, his housekeeper’s testimony keeps him free and clear, even if the police continue to watch him.

The very night he is acquitted, Julie (Carroll Baker) breaks into his house, which is a giallo meet cute, and she becomes his fourth wife. But is she on the up and up? Is he? Why are the wives of Arthur Anderson dying in such frequency?

This movie steals just enough from Rebecca and Vertigo without being slavish to those films. I also absolutely adore that when we first meet Julie, she’s sleeping inside a tent in an abandoned mansion, because that’s totally normal. And is that Marina Malfatti (The Night Evelyn Came Out of the GraveAll the Colors of the Dark) skulking in the background, wearing a cape as a casual during the rainy evening ensemble I spy?

Spanish giallo has been a great rabbit hole to go down and I’ve also been enjoying slowly watching the resume of Eugenio Martín, who is best known for Horror Express, as well as It Happened at Nightmare Inn. And come on — Carroll Baker starring giallo is nearly a genre in and out of itself.

And while there’s no real hero here, I still enjoyed every minute.

Also known as Death at the Deep End of the Swimming Pool and The Fourth Mrs. Anderson, this has just been re-released by Severin, who include a trailer, a deleted scene and an interview with Eugenio Martín biographer Carlos Aguilar in their always stellar package.

The Stendhal Syndrome aka La sindrome di Stendhal (1996)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sean Mitus grew up watching Chiller Theater & Pittsburgh UHF channels and has been a drive-in enthusiast for the last seven years. Sean enjoys all genres but has recently become interested in Italian Giallo and Poliziotteschi genres. 

“A young policewoman slowly goes insane while tracking down an elusive serial rapist/killer through Italy when she herself becomes a victim of the brutal man’s obsession.” – IMDB

After licking his wounds from back-to-back underperforming releases filmed in the US (Two Evil Eyes and Trauma), Dario Argento returned to Italy (and some say to peak form) with The Stendhal Syndrome, hereafter referred as Stendhal Syndrome. The film stars his daughter, Asia Argento, as Detective Anna Manni and then Euro-star Thomas Krestchmann as Alfredo Grossi.  Argento’s Stendhal Syndrome is a fascinating inversion of the usual giallo tropes.  

The film opens with a cold open of Anna Mani and we have no idea who she is.  We see here have a transcendent experience while touring the Uffizi Art Gallery in Florence, Italy.  The experience is a purported psychosomatic phenomenon known as the Stendhal Syndrome and is visually realized in early CGI with visual flair by Sergio Stivaletti.  Anna is helped by a stranger, Alfredo.  Anna develops amnesia and begins to recover small details.  As she investigates the latest rape and murder crime scene, Anna is attacked and raped by Alfredo who turns out to be a wanted serial rapist and killer. What follows is another visual set piece of the rape and murder of another victim.

Anna escapes and attempts to put her life back together.  As she does, Anna has sudden shifts in her personality, appearance, and behavior.  She has another Stendhal experience before being reinstated to limited duties as a Detective with mandated counseling sessions.  Anna becomes obsessed in finding Alfredo and his visage begins to dominate her every thought.  She returns a colleague’s romantic advances with a simulation of her sexual assault by Alfredo.

Anna returns to her hometown and family for a more supportive environment.  However, her distant relationship with her father doesn’t help any.   Anna tries painting as therapy without rrelief  It actually seems to drive her deeper into mental instability.  While this goes on, we see Alfredo target, rape and murder another victim in a harsh set piece.  As Anna contacts early victims who attest to Alfredo’s brutality and devastating impact, Alfredo calls Anna from within her apartment and kidnaps her once again.  

Alfredo brings Anna to his lair and in the harshest set piece brutally assaults and rapes Anna.  He keeps her captive, and Anna has another Stendhal fugue of sexual torment.  Alfredo returns for another assault, when Anna manages to turn the tables on him.  She fights viscously and recovers her gun. In Alfredo’s attempt to exert psychological dominance, Anna manages to shoot Alfredo and disables him in a cathartic beating.  She taunts Alfredo before dumping him helpless into a waterfall and raging waters below.   

The final third of the film finds Anna unable to shake Alfredo’s psychological scars, even as she flips back to a feminine persona and appearance.  The investigation into Alfredo’s background reveals a distorted obsession with Anna.  She claims to be recovered from her visions and their effects.  She meets a French art student and the budding romance seems to put her on the path to recovery.  Suddenly, Anna is getting phone calls from Alfredo, and Anna’s new lover is mysteriously murdered.  Anna is notified that Alfredo’s body has been recovered and she seeks clarity from her psychologist who instead challenges her distorted point-of-view on Alfredo’s influence over her.

In the film’s climax, Anna’s colleague Marco rushes to see Anna as we see Anna fully transform to her feminine, protective self.  We see the body of her psychologist who was brutally murdered by Anna. We along with Marco see Anna finally revealed as the murderer of her psychologist and lover. Anna has finally succumbed to Alfredo’s madness in full. She lures Marco to her car and kills him. Anna attempts to flee, but we know she never will be free of Alfredo as the film ends.

As I mentioned, the Stendhal Syndrome is dominated by the theme of inversions: 

  • The story upends the usual giallo tropes with the killer being known early in the film.
  • The killer, Alfredo, is dispatched at the midpoint of the film.
  • Anna becomes predator a la rape revenge movies (Call Her One Eye; Repulsion; I Spit on Your Grave).
  • Anna becomes more aggressive both sexually and personality, dresses more masculine, and later seeks out and repeats her degradation on Alfredo
  • Anna later flips back to her feminine side to but continues to lose control of her sanity and ultimately descends into madness a la Repulsion

The Stendhal Syndrome is a strong entry in the giallo pantheon.  Argento’s aggressively misogynistic treatment of how women are assaulted and murdered, rivaling Fulci’s The New York Ripper) and Asia Argento’s relatively young age in the role (just 21 during release) may put off some.  I argue that by this time Argento had included more slasher-style set pieces as with Tenebrae, Trauma and Opera so this shouldn’t come as a surprise and that  Asia Argento’s performance does not limit her character development.  

Further strengthening the viewer’s experience is Thomas Krestchmann’s sublime performance as the sociopath Alfredo, the moody cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno, and Ennio Morricone’s usual nuanced score.  I recommend The Stendhal Syndrome for giallo and Argento fans who have seen his earlier works. Seek out Blue Underground’s 3-Disc Limited Edition for a full treatment of this deserved gem!

References

  • The Art of Madness: Inside ‘The Stendhal Syndrome” – Michael Gingold; Blue Underground 3-Disc Limited Edition © 2017
  • Film Commentary – Troy Howarth; ; Blue Underground 3-Disc Limited Edition © 2017
  • So Deadly, So Perverse, Vol. 2 – Troy Howarth; Midnight Marquee Press, Inc; © 2015
  • https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0117658/reference