Friday, August 29, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: The Tenth Victim (1965)

In the early 1950s, sci-fi author (and now legend...) Robert Sheckley (1928 - 2005) penned a story titled "The Seventh Victim." 

Published in Galaxy Magazine in 1953, Sheckley's tale depicted a post-World War Six future world in which an "Emotional Catharsis Board" had established a worldwide "hunt," or "game" during which mankind could satisfy his need for violence by hunting down human "victims" as a licensed, carefully regulated hunter. 

In fact, after seven successful hunts (alternating turns as hunter and victim...) a person could achieve great wealth and even join an exclusive hunter's club.  

How did such a world come about?  Well, it was believed that the Hunt (established originally by men for men) could curb the violent tendencies of a "large percentage" of men and prevent any further world wars.

The protagonist in "The Seventh Victim" is Stanton Frelaine, a New Yorker who finds himself unable to kill his  assigned victim, a young actress named Janet Patzig who, for some strange reason, does not defend herself or even hire "spotters" to help her target her would-be-murderer. 

Curious about this unusual young woman, Stanton befriends Janet and eventually falls in love with her.  Finally, Stanton confesses to Janet that he is her "hunter" but that he wants to marry -- not murder -- her. 

"You don't kill the girl you love," he  informs her...

From this description, you might guess the ending of the story.  Or maybe not

But, in keeping with Sheckley's literary canon, "The Seventh Victim" is a futuristic satire of sorts, an absurd tale about mankind attempting (with questionable results) to exorcise his "high degree of combativeness" through an officially sanctioned and legislated sport.

In 1965, The Seventh Victim was re-fashioned as a motion picture called The Tenth Victim that starred Marcello Mastrioanni and Ursula Andress. 

Made in Italy, The Tenth Victim is directed by Elio Petri (1929 - 1982), a former neo-realist.  As you may recall, the Italian neo-realist movement in cinema occurred immediately post-World War II, and some of its trademark stylistics include a focus on location shooting, non-professional actors in major roles and a narrative focus on poverty and difficult economic situations.

By the 1960s, however, thanks in large part to talents such as Antonioni and Fellini (who gets name-dropped in The Tenth Victim), the Italian neo-realist movement gave way to a more individual cinema that focused on internal existential angst rather than the external difficulties of life in a more-prosperous Italy.  It was a big shift, but perhaps a natural one given improving economic conditions in the country.

The Tenth Victim arises from this second movement: a more colorful, dynamic cinema, but also one that questions many aspects of modern life.  Petri was well-known as a political/social filmmaker, and in The Tenth Victim he is abundantly aware that he is forsaking the neo-realist obsession on stark reality.  In one specific scene, for instance, the film's main character, Marcello Poletti (Mastroianni) is heckled (and nearly stoned) by a cult of neo-realists who object to the hedonism and romanticism of another cult, the local "sun worshippers."  This is Petri's play statement on his sci-fi film: he knows he's forsaken his background and heritage.  But bloody hell, those neo-realists are such downers...

This all sounds like inside baseball, but you don't have to remember the details of the Italian cinema to enjoy The Tenth Victim and contextualize it in terms of dystopian science-fiction cinema (a current obsession of mine). 

Indeed, this forward-looking film from the 1960s has much in common with later American films on the topic, such as Death Race 2000 (1975). In both ventures, the government gleefully administers a violent contest (the cross-country race there; the Big Hunt here) that is judged, after a fashion, a "social good," but which actually appeals to our most base and awful instincts as a species.

In terms of social commentary, The Tenth Victim also serves ably as a comment on overreaching government, on our thirst for violence, and also -- perhaps most dramatically -- the unending battle between the sexes. 

On that last front, the story by Sheckley suggests that women may be far more effective (and cold-blooded killers...) than are men. And indeed, one might detect a sexist aspect to the film since Poletti is hounded relentlessly throughout by three women: his wife Lidia, his mistress Olga (Elsa Martinelli), and his would-be terminator, Caroline Meredith (Ursula Andress).  The final moments of the film also explicitly compare marriage to "death," which is certainly a funny joke if you take it in the spirit intended.

Weighed in total, the satirical The Tenth Victim boasts a wicked sense of humor from its tour-de-force first "hunt" all the way through its surprising last shot "bang," and it eminently deserves its reputation as a 1960s cult classic. 

"I'll tell you, this year it's trendy to kill women..."

As The Tenth Victim commences, American hunter extraordinaire, Caroline Meredith (Andress) makes her ninth kill, luring her "hunter" to the Masoch Club and then -- during a striptease -- murdering him with her double-barrel brassiere gun. 

The Ming Tea Company is so impressed with Caroline that they offer her corporate sponsorship for her tenth and final kill.  

Caroline agrees to the company's terms and sets off to Rome, where she is take out her tenth victim, a hunter named Marcello Poletti (Mastroianni).   With the Ming Tea film crew in tow, Caroline decides to murder Poletti at the Temple of Venus (the Goddess of Love...) and with the Colosseum in the background. And yes indeed, this locale is symbolic.

Meanwhile, Poletti -- who has just completed his sixth hunt -- is growing twitchy about his upcoming role as victim in the seventh.  He's recently annulled his first marriage to Lidia and is being hounded by his mistress, Olga.  When a third woman, Caroline, enters his life claiming to be a TV interviewer doing a story about sexy Italian men, Poletti is immediately suspicious of her, fearing that she is his new hunter.

Caroline and Marcello orbit each other suspiciously and Poletti sets up his own product placement deal with Coca 80 to murder her.  His plan is to lure Caroline poolside at the Big Hunt Club, and then -- using a spring-loaded chair -- to eject her into the jaws of a man-eating crocodile.  At that point, Poletti would look to the camera and say "You always win with Coca 80..."

Things don't go exactly as planned, however, and Poletti ends up at the Temple of Venus, face-to-face with his would-be murderer and now lover.  Will she kill him?  Or has Poletti let himself be trapped in this fashion?

"Legalize Your Homicides"

As is the case with other movies of concurrent vintage, such as ZPG (Zero Population Growth), Westworld, THX-1138 and Zardoz, The Tenth Victim predicts a future world in which governmental efforts to help solve a problem in fact succeed only in creating a corrupt new regime and civilization.

In The Tenth Victim, a new agency called "The Department of the Big Hunt" (sanctioned by a global moral institution, "which moralized this century") has put an end to all war with the advent of this strange murderous ritual.   Loudspeakers at the Bureau constantly trumpet the wisdom of this war-ending Big Hunt. 

"To avoid the dangers of the big wars, register with the Big Hunt," crows on announcer.  "Legalize your homicides," "One enemy a day will keep the doctor away," suggest others. 

My personal favorite of these violent government platitudes suggests a unique resolution to the problem of over-population: "Why control the births when you can increase the deaths?" 

I also like the announcer's urging to "live dangerously...but within the law."  Good advice, no?
As director, Petri does an admirable job diagramming the absurdly violent nature of this new world order, especially during a scene set at the Bureau.  As Poletti walks down the front stairs of the building, a woman in a white dress (a victim) is shot in the back by her (male) hunter.  A police strolls by and cites the sanctioned hunter...for a parking violation.

What this scene suggests is that there is still rule of law in this's just a very different sort of law.  Murder is legal in this future world...under certain circumstances.  The funny (or sad...) thing about this whole dystopic set-up is that today it doesn't seem all that far from the truth in modern, twenty-first century America. Indeed, The Purge (2013) dealt with similar issues.  Don't retreat, reload, right?

In The Tenth Victim, a hunter decries new Big Hunt regulations in Rome which prevent gun-men from opening fire in restaurants, hospitals and "nursery schools." Caroline responds proudly that such restrictions on personal freedom have not yet been approved in America, and Poletto shakes is head and notes, simply, that "America is...something."

Legalize your homicides indeed.  In this country, you can bring a gun to church if you want.  

So, If a film like Zardoz was a brilliant right-wing picture about the danger of unconventional family units (specifically the 1960s hippie communes) then The Tenth Victim is a left leaning picture about, at least partially, a world in which the NRA makes the laws.

But the really forward-thinking aspect of the film involves how Poletti ties the pervasive violence of the culture to mass media, and to business interests. Specifically, both hunters in the film gain corporate sponsorship, and both sponsors actively encourage colorful, on-camera murder. 

In a very funny scene set aboard a helicopter, Caroline and her Ming Tea TV producers scout locations for the next kill, debating studio interiors versus exterior locations.  At first, the producers want to kill Poletti near the Vatican, but the Pope doesn't approve of the Big Hunt.  Then, they discount the Colosseum as "too run down." 

After the company settles on the Temple of Venus as a locale for Poletti's death, set-designers hoist up a giant sign in the background of the shot, reading "MING TEA."  


Then, before long, the equivalent of Solid Gold dancers (all waving prop guns around...) appear to make the murder scene even more colorful.

Watching these sequences, you can't help but think of the last decade of reality television programming, of being "voted off the island," or of being "fired" from a job.  This Big Hunt (not unlike a certain Amazing Race) is all about big business.

I also found the film forward-thinking in two other instances.  In one scene, an announcer declares that "The National Association of Homosexuals" has officially sanctioned the Big Hunt, suggesting a world in which gay rights are already established by law.  Again, that seems to be the direction we're heading.

And secondly, one scene dramatizes Poletti reading a comic-book from his expansive collection of  such works. The last few decades, in real life, have seen the mainstreaming of comic books in our culture, and as a critical part of modern Geek life.  The Tenth Victim gets this idea right as well.

There's even a subplot in the film about Poletti hiding his elderly parents in his home (in a secret room...) so that the State can't take them away and murder them; an idea we saw with Sarah Palin's "Death Panel" commentary a few years back.

Finally, I really got a real kick out of the moment in which Poletti flashes Caroline a small card that read simply (in three languages): "I am a victim." 

Talk about an embodiment of the victim mentality! Today, we don't actually have card-carrying victims anywhere, but so many folks play the outraged victim role to the hilt, even without the official cards. Everyone seems to have a grievance: about government, about insurance, about employers, about freedom. You name it.

"When people are in love, they make mistakes..."

Against the gun-crazy background of The Tenth Victim, director Poletti also tells a unique story about men and women. 

In the film's bravura first sequence, Caroline lures her (male) hunter to his untimely a strip-club.  She strips down before him -- to a silver bikini -- and he is so taken with her physical beauty that he doesn't see his own death coming.  She shoots him with a double-barrel bra, and that's the end for him.

Later in the film, Caroline similarly manipulates Poletti.  She rouses him to jealousy when she suddenly drops him as a lover and picks a local stud to dance with and interview for her fake TV show.  Poletti falls for the ruse and ends up at the Temple of Venus, at the business end of Caroline's pistol.  He survives by his wits; but the fact of the matter is that Caroline gets him where she wants him.

When you add these sequences to those other scenes in which Poletti must balance his continued survival with the demands of his nagging wife and demanding mistress, two things become plain.  One, men are depicted in the film as being not particularly cunning, bright or capable.  And secondly, that women are...well...barracudas.  

In other words, Poletti is thoroughly out-matched throughout the film, in all corners of his personal and professional (Big Hunt) life.  This  idea is faithful to Sheckley's short story, and  might be interpreted in two ways.

It's either anti-woman for painting them as manipulative hunters or it's even-handed because it also paints men as not-too-bright creatures who let their emotions (and urges...) get in the way of good decision-making.

The film's final scene, which finds Caroline and Poletti on a "wedding plane" bound for America explicitly compares marriage to death.  Caroline hasn't murdered her prey.  Instead, she marries him.  Either way, he is trapped, the film suggests, and the last shot: --  of a gun firing celebratory flowers into his face -- makes this fact absolutely plain.  Talk about shot-gun weddings...

Again, it's not a big stretch to view The Tenth Victim as being sexist. But on the other hand, women are often unfairly described in the media as overtly (and irrationally...) emotional, and that's not the case here.  On the contrary, in The Tenth Victim, it's the man who can't see past his emotions; and the woman who takes the upper hand through the traditionally male trade/profession of "hunting." 

So it comes down to, I suppose, how you choose to interpret the film. You could see it as either anti-woman, or anti-man, if that's your game.  But I think that -- more than anything --  this film is about the dance that men and women do; the endless circling and sizing up. 

The Tenth Victim is more a movie about the way that we fall in love and express that love than one about putting any group down.  The line of dialogue from the film -- "when people are in love, they make mistakes" -- is sort of an on-camera explanation of the characters' behavior throughout, and a sympathetic one at that.

Today, The Tenth Victim serves as a perfect  1960s companion piece to Death Race 2000 (1975), The 
Running Man (1987) or the recent Gamer (2009). If you're intrigued by the idea of a future society where violence is sanctioned and even encouraged, there's much to enjoy and reflect on here. 

Where the movie version differs most significantly from Sheckley's literary vision is in terms of outrageous touches.  The hunt in the short story is simple: it's an intimate seduction.  But the hunts in the Petri movie are deliberately outrageous and over-the-top, thus contributing to the film's sense of fun and humor about itself and its central concept.

We've come a long way since the swinging sixties, but The Tenth Victim suggests that even in the future, our thirst for violence won't diminish.  Today, nobody wears double barreled bras and there's no Big Hunt on TV,  and yet the film seems strangely much more plausible than it did in decades past.

Movie Trailer: The Tenth Victim (1965)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

At Flashbak: Would You Buy a Computer from this Man? William Shatner: Ad Man of Outer Space (1974 – 1990)

My new article at Flashbak remembers the pitch-man history of Captain Kirk, himself, Bill Shatner.

Here's a snippet (and url: )

"As the captain of a starship, William Shatner has but few peers. 

Another prodigious talent of the Shat, however, involves his ability to expertly hawk a product. 

We remember Mr. Shatner today from all the amusing Priceline commercials, but that series was only the latest in a long line of appearances as a product spokesman.

Over the years, Mr. Shatner has sought to sell us food products, computers, kerosene heaters, cars, and even grocery store shopping experience."

Cult-Movie Review: Pulse (2006)

What if all the devices of modern convenience -- like cell phones, I-Pods, or laptop computers with broadband Internet -- are actually the gateway to pure evil?

That's the premise of the horror film Pulse (2006), another remake of a popular Japanese genre film, Kairo (2001).

The American film, co-written by Wes Craven and Ray Wright and directed by Jim Sonzero suggests that the very tools we use to connect with others only isolate us, taking away pieces of our souls a huge chunk at a time. 

Not unlike The Ring (2002), the conceit underlining Pulse is that Evil can spread to millions of innocent folk quickly, and that there need be no reason or rhyme to the pattern of widespread infection. Anyone with Internet access, a cell phone or digital cable may suffer.

As I’ve noted in my reviews of The Ring and The Grudge, this new breed of horror film is all about two key notions.

First, the J-horror remake genre concerns our discomfort with rapidly-advancing technology, and the widespread broadcast of pain, misery and tragedy.

Secondly, these films ask if there could be a karmic or supernatural price for these widely-seen horrors?

What do such things do to the "global" human psyche?

Pulse goes even further, however, and suggests that living a life of electronic connection actually destroys the will to exist in our own world. 

Accordingly such “online” life leaves this world an abandoned, untended, rotting place. This fact is reflected in the film’s metallic color palette, and in images of a world with rotting infrastructure and much organic decay.

“Do you want to meet a ghost?

A college student, Mattie (Kristen Bell) worries about her sometimes boyfriend, Josh (Jonathan Tucker), who has been out-of-touch of late. When she visits his apartment, Josh commits suicide before her very eyes, and she is traumatized.

Soon, an epidemic of suicides plagues the campus and the city.

Mattie tries to track down Josh’s computer hard-drive, and learns that it has been purchased by man a named Dexter (Ian Somerhalder), who puts some of the pieces together. 

Before his death, Josh had hacked the computer of a telecommunications expert named Zeigler, who developed a new frequency to transmit huge torrents of information: a super wide-band frequency.

Unfortunately, the ghoulish spirits of the Dead can piggyback on this revolutionary carrier wave and squeeze back into our world.

Once back on the mortal coil, they promptly suck the life out of the living,  stealing that which we cherish the most: life itself.

As society collapses, and everyone with a computer or cell phone is devoured by the restless spirits, Dexter and Mattie attempt to upload a virus that will shut down the telecommunications system.

But it is too late to undo the damage, and the apocalypse arrives, with surviving humans forced to huddle in satellite “dead zones” where cell phone and Wi-Fi transmissions cannot touch them..

“I’m not even me anymore. I’m all gone.”

Pulse is not a perfect film by any means, and one senses some that some crucial scenes may have been drastically cut to shorten the running time.

Despite this fact, Pulse is much better than it is given credit for, especially following a rocky start.  The second act works like gangbusters, when one starts to realize how all the pieces fit together.

Pulse’s central tenant is a critique of the “online” or “connected” world of the Web 2.0 Age.

Following Pulse’s opening credits, for example, the film cuts to frequent insert shots of students walking on campus playing with laptops, talking on cell phones, and snapping digital pictures. The idea made explicit by this imagery is that technology is ubiquitous, and therefore the perfect avenue for an invasion.  As a culture, we have turned our attentions away from nature and reality, to this new cyber world of the Net.

Accordingly, much of the film's visual palette also seems to exist in the half-world of flickering fluorescent lights, which makes a kind of sense.  It’s as though the audience is gazing at a computer screen in the dark half the time. The form thus echoes the films content nicely.  The world is becoming increasingly ugly-looking, and that ugliness stems from the invasion of the “other world” but also the lack of attention we give this one.

For example, almost every location in Pulse looks filthy. Mattie finds rotting food in Josh’s refrigerator.  She also stumbles upon a rotting, dying cat, actually, in one of his closets. 

These discoveries suggest that Josh -- his soul now robbed by the online “spirits” -- has forsaken all interest in this world.  He doesn’t care to eat.  He doesn’t even care for his pet cat. Once consumed, literally, by the denizens of the Net, the here and now on Earth mean nothing to him.

And unfortunately, this kind of obsession with the digital realm is not merely limited to movies. You may have read, for instance, about the case of a couple in South Korea that spent so much time online -- tending to a virtual baby -- that their real-life, biological baby died of malnourishment.

Pulse comments on that very dynamic, and has done so prophetically.

This leitmotif is given voice, again, in the description of life on Earth after being consumed by the digital world.  “They take your will to live,” states one zombie-like character. “You’re a shell.  Your body dies right out from under you.”

Pulse is thus a horror allegory for people who spend too much time online, but shirk real life relationships and real life responsibilities doing so, and with ultimately, nothing to show for it.   The answer, according to Pulse (rather amusingly): “dispose of your technology!”

What many reviewers have tagged as Pulse’s weakness, a kind of fever-edited -- nay hyper-edited --visualization, actually seems to reinforce the content too. Everything seems to happen at the lightning-fast speed of information transmission, and there’s always a new scene demanding attention, even when you might like to further mine a scene already in progress.  

What tethers the movie, perhaps, is a series of repetitive shots of Mattie’s campus.  Little by little, it grows abandoned, as our world dies, and these shots help to establish the timing and progression of the invasion.

Finally, the film rises to a fever pitch during an apocalyptic and surprisingly effective conclusion. There's a spectacular shot of a jet airliner crashing into a building as it is overcome by ghosts, and this is a beautiful and unexpected vista for a small budget horror.

And then the end of the world arrives. It isn't averted by a hoary “happy” ending, and Pulse doesn't cop out with a cheap way of stopping the invasion. The main characters attempt to upload an anti-invasion virus into a server mainframe at the college computer center, but the Dead circumvent the plan. The die is cast.

The "survivors" are left with no choice but to flee to America's "dead zones," those few places out in the wilderness that don't get cell phone signals. As it winds to its shattering denouement, Pulse makes audiences contemplate the end of cities; the end of urban American, and the end of “connected” civilization.  It’s ironic that the “dead zones” of no Wi-Fi are the only place where natural life can grow.

Then again, perhaps that irony is the movie’s point.

Movie Trailer: Pulse (2006)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

At Flashbak - The Five Worst Monsters of the 1970s Horror Film

Here's a snippet, and url: (

"In the 1970s, the horror film underwent a dramatic transition in terms of monsters.  Hammer Studios’ Dracula and Frankenstein series were ending their long reign on the silver screen and a new breed of monster -- slashers like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees -- waited in the wings for the next evolution of the format. 

In this time of shifting fears and shifting expectations, new monsters rose to fill the void at the cinema, and some were very effectively-crafted. This was the era, after all, that first presented audiences with terrors like the demonically-possessed Linda Blair in The Exorcist (1973) and Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). 

Yet for every big screen monster that proved absolutely terrifying, there was another that, oppositely, proved…absolutely dreadful.

Inspiring fear in absolutely no one, are these: the five worst horror movie monsters of the 1970s."

Pop Art: Pac-Man Coloring and Activity Books (Whitman Edition)

Pac-Man Cereal (General Mills)

Pac-Man Colorforms

Trading Card of the Week: Pac-Man (Fleer) Stickers and Rub-Offs