It could be my naiveté, but I have to think that Ulli Lommel’s Tenderness of the Wolves was probably pretty shocking at the time of its 1973 release. A semi-fictionalized account of German serial killer Fritz Haarmann, its violence might seem a bit tame compared to things that would happen, genre-wise, just a year or two later, but its grim atmosphere is hard to shake. Director Ulli Lommel doesn’t shy away from anything, depicting Haarman’s bloodlust and homosexuality in ways that are not overtly explicit, but managed to rile the masses all the same.
I haven’t seen Fritz Lang’s M since college, but Tenderness of the Wolves takes more than a few visual cues from it, from the opening credits to the chilling way that Haarmann interacts with children and victims. Those familiar with Lommel’s later-day work may be surprised to hear that while Tenderness does have a bit in common with Lang, it’s hardly derivative of him. This isn’t a retelling of the life and crimes of Fritz Haarmann, but rather a snapshot of his life taken during the time when he was committing dozens and dozens of murders. Because the production was unable to reproduce the actual period of Haarmann’s killing spree (the late 1910s and early 20s), they updated the story to take place sometime in the late 1940s.
So what we’ve got here is a raw and depressing look at a brutal serial killer, as well as the society that he stalks. Kurt Raab inhabits the role of Haarmann and refuses to give in to the trappings that so often define this kind of character. Yes, Haarmann is an oddball in the film, but Raab and Lommel refuse to demonize him by transforming him into a generic movie villain. He’s certainly demonized through his actions, but his brutal killings are juxtaposed against his somewhat soft-spoken and charming personality (this is where the title’s ‘tenderness’ comes from). When you look at a film like John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, you’ve got Michael Rooker always looking and acting the part. And that totally works for that movie. I think that’s what I was expecting to get out of Tenderness too, but the way this story is presented makes it far more chilling because, as this type of story always goes, the cinematic Haarmann is someone you’d never suspect.
Or maybe the people around him do suspect, but refuse to care. That’d be worse, right? Haarmann does things for the others in his community in the hopes they’ll look the other way. He gives away the clothes of his victims, and turns the bodies into meat to be given to the local butcher. Lommel does a great job of showing the suspicion of others, and takes even greater delight their looking the other way. No, he’s necessarily arguing that they’re the greater monsters, but he is showing a society that’s entirely self-serving in its pursuit of happiness. Harrmann is just one part of that.
I don’t thinkTenderness of the Wolves is completely successful, though. Like many character studies of this sort, its repetitious nature makes it feel a bit too long, even at 82 minutes. We can forgive that because the movie’s oppressive feel leaves a lasting impression. Haarmann’s apartment is tight and claustrophobic, drawing us right into the killer’s world and holding us there as captives. The killings aren’t all that graphic, but the implication of cannibalism is stomach churning. In the middle of the film, Haarmann hosts a dinner party at his house and it’s so sickeningly gleeful that Bryan Fuller had to have seen it. It must’ve been floating around in his mind when attempting to get Hannibal Lecter on television in all of his bloody glory.
Ulli Lommel might get a lot of flack for his modern career. I haven’t seen any of his shot on video, direct to video dreck, but I can tell you that Tenderness of the Wolves is a minor mainstay when it comes to 1970s horror. Budgetary constraints might’ve prevented this from being the definitive story of Fritz Haarmann, but that really doesn’t matter. Kurt Raab’s performance is chilling, compelling, and uncomfortable while Lommel was never more confident with other material (I still love The Boogey Man, though).
Arrow’s disc looks and sounds great, and they’ve stacked the deck with some new extras that are just as interesting as the feature itself.
- Audio commentary by director Ulli Lommel, moderated by Uwe Huber. It’s great to hear from Lommel, who is understandably and endearingly proud of this movie. This commentary and accompanying interview confirm my suspicion that the film was incredibly controversial and successful upon release, and Lommel is incredibly honest about everything.
- The Tender Wolf: An interview with Lommel that’s as interesting as the audio commentary, touching on the making of, post release, and even the glut of police procedural shows that, the director says, bore him to tears.
- Photographing Fritz: Interview with director of photography Jurgen Jurges
- Haarmann’s Victim Talks: Interview with actor Rainer Will
- An Appreciation by Stephen Thrower: A fantastic conversation with Nightmare USA author Thrower, who offers plenty of insight into the film, and Lommel’s career on the whole. Like myself, Thrower hasn’t seen any of his DTV stuff, but argues that it shouldn’t be held against the director’s early career.
- Still Gallery
- Booklet with essay by Tony Rayns
You don’t hear a lot about Tenderness of the Wolves these days, and so it’s very cool of Arrow to give it the royal treatment. I know that a large subset of our reader base is interested in true crime and serial killers, which makes Tenderness of the Wolves right up their alley. It would’ve been interesting to have something a little more comprehensive included on the real Haarmann, much like Arrow’s Eaten Alive disc did for Joe Ball, but the booklet does provide additional details on the killer and his crimes. If all you know about Ulli Lommel is that he’s made some very bad films over the last 15 or so years, then this is a good place to begin your education.
The Arrow: Big City Nights (Talking C.H.U.D. and Vamp)
There’s an infamy to C.H.U.D. that, at first glance, feels unearned. It has a wacky reputation honed from an impressive collection of pop culture references, but it’s never crass enough to satisfy those who’ve come looking for exploitation.
C.H.U.D. is full of surprises, though. Its ambitious story serves a cast of talented performers, while strong cinematography captures a city drowning in grime. Some critics lift their noses and scoff at the prospect of creature “rubber work,” ignoring the fact that these titular monsters are among the decade’s best. No, C.H.U.D. isn’t the cheese classic many expect. Its aspirations are loftier, actually. It uses a nefarious government coverup as a springboard for monstrous carnage, but treats the two subplots as equals. That “sin” is unthinkable to some, but it also makes C.H.U.D. unique.
For much of its run time, director Douglas Cheek strikes a fine balance between the glow-eyed monsters and the disposal of toxic chemicals that has created them. Yes, caches of waste hidden deep in the city’s underground creates trouble for the Big Apple. The homeless population falls prey, mutating into brutal creatures that come crawling toward the surface in search of food.
Because of the story’s nature, Cheek understands that New York City is as much of a character as any cast member. 1980s New York sometimes seems like a relic, with its intense population of homeless stuffed into alleys that are overflowing with heaps of trash and slathered in grime. It’s also genuine atmosphere no special effect could replicate. That authenticity makes C.H.U.D. one of the quintessential NYC genre movies of this era. Play it alongside The Exterminator and Maniac for a taste of maximum Big Apple grit.
The climactic assault on Kim Griest is the film’s highlight, but every creature attack is ferocious. It’s striking just how vicious the CHUDs are, and everything about them works. When we shift our attention back to the issue of bureaucratic corruption, C.H.U.D. loses steam. In fact, it would’ve taken a simple reversal of the last two sequences to send C.H.U.D. off with a bang. Instead of Griest reuniting with John Heard at a pivotal moment, Heard and Daniel Stern might’ve resolved their situation and then realized she was in danger, racing off instead to save her from the CHUD menace.
New Work Pictures reedited C.H.U.D. before its theatrical release. They removed a handful of character bits and reordered at least one key sequence. The Arrow Blu-ray contains both cuts, labeled director’s and theatrical. The theatrical version opts to end with a sequence of creature carnage. It’s no less of a head-scratcher, but using the diner sequence (complete with John Goodman cameo) as a bumper is pretty fun. That said, stick with the director’s version. The movie has some incongruences, sure, but it’s still a stronger product (and we learn the identity of the opening victim, which is crucial to one character’s arc).
It’s not uncommon to mention Vamp in the same breath as Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. Both exist in similar “it happened one night…” scenarios, and the nightmarish quality that defines Scorsese’s most underrated effort plays a role in Vamp, too. Like many 80s comedies, it’s a quest for sex that propels our protagonists into increasingly odd situations. It starts as a sojourn to a strip club where the women allegedly do anything, and becomes a movie that could only have been made in the 1980s.
With Vamp, most of the elements are in place. It’s frequently funny and always charming. The FX work is impressive within the scope of its low budget, and it gets a lot of mileage out of its atmosphere. While C.H.U.D. delivers a gritty big city nightmare, director Richard Wenk takes his urban sprawl in another direction. Here, neon glow coats the Los Angeles streets are near desolate and buildings, as if the strip club’s buzzing signs follow you everywhere. It feels sinister, forcing us to wonder when the vamps might catch our ill-fated heroes.
Cast-wise, Vamp is perfect. Best friends Chris Makepeace and Robert Rusler have the kind of chemistry that makes us care about them, while Gedde Watanabe perfects his hormonally crazed persona from Sixteen Candles. Grace Jones is perfect as the joint’s star dancer, Katrina. She’s exotic enough to be a headliner, and has no trouble becoming a menacing creature of the night. One of the film’s strengths is building one hell of a supporting cast. Billy Drago as a crazed albino. Sandy Baron (Seinfeld‘s Jack Klompus) as the establishment owner. These bit parts create exactly the kind of strangeness you want in a “night from hell” movie.
These are very different movies. C.H.U.D. is an earnest attempt to do a 1950s monster mash (complete with governmental distrust) in a then modern environment. And Vamp is more concerned with quirky oddball sensibilities. Their cityscapes are the types of places that swallow the unsuspecting whole. Arrow’s Blu-ray presentations ensure these films have never looked better. Couple that with some stellar special features (yes, C.H.U.D.‘s infamous DVD commentary has been ported over), and you’ve got two ideal Christmas gifts for the cult movie fanatic in your life.
The Arrow: The Hills Have Eyes and Dark Water
Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes is a favorite. A beautifully unpolished movie that explores the razor thin line between civility and brutality. It pits an ordinary American family against a clan of cannibal savages in a battle of wits that becomes a struggle for survival. There’s things in here that have haunted me since forever, specifically the moment where the survivors are forced to use their recently deceased mother as bait. That bit perhaps summarizes Craven’s nihilistic worldview more than any other: as humans we’ll stop at nothing to survive, and it’s only through domestication that we’re able to subjugate our worst, most basic, instincts.
The Hills Have Eyes is all about that line. The Carter family parallels the hills folk because Craven suggests they’re two sides of the same coin. It’s no accident that at least one of the villainous cannibals is given a sympathetic character arc, and those class implications add another dimension to a deceptively complex picture. One of Craven’s signature strengths is exploring social issues without laying it on too thick. He’s smart enough to take audiences on the thrill ride they came for while rewarding repeat patronage with hidden depth.
From the death of the Peace and Love Generation in Last House on the Left, to the racial politics of The Serpent and the Rainbow, and the further exploration of class inequality in The People Under the Stairs, there’s an academic quality to Craven that none of his peers matched (and only Romero comes close). An entire film class could be taught around these works and their continued relevancy in modernity. But his films speak for themselves without a compulsion to spell it all out. In the case of The Hills Have Eyes, its subversive quality makes it resonate. The last fifteen minutes are white knuckle, with an audience rooting firmly for our remaining heroes to vanquish Pluto and company. It’s about the need for catharsis, and there’s a reason it ends where it does, in the immediate aftermath of a repeated stabbing. Craven doesn’t want us to feel good about what we’ve witnessed, so there’s no release. The Hills Have Eyes isn’t in the business of assurances or answers, and so the abrupt finish leaves us to dangle on a proverbial hook.
No, he’s not judging the Carter family on their actions. Instead he’s suggesting that man’s savagery is never that surprising or impossible.
Alexandre Aja remade The Hills Have Eyes in 2006. It’s among the best remakes of that era, confidently made and packed with state-of-the-art brutality. It’s unbearably tense at times (the trailer sequence especially), although lacking in Craven’s social construct commentary. That’s why the original has retained much of its importance in its 40 years. This genre has witnessed countless fights for survival, but only Wes Craven cuts right to the bone to suggest our own inhumanity lurks right beneath the veneer of civility.
The Hills Have Eyes has been available in several iterations, but none have looked anywhere close to Arrow’s edition. I took a fair amount of flak for my 2011 review of Image Entertainment’s dismal disc, and I’m happy to report that Hills has finally earned a definitive video release. It looks great. In order to resurrect this classic, Arrow assembled a print culled from two surviving 35mm prints, taking the best parts of both and scanning it at 4k. Craven shot Hills on 16mm, so this is never going to be a pretty film. But it’s a visual improvement by leaps and bounds, heightened by beautiful packaging that elevates this release to that of a major event. No matter how many times you’ve owned The Hills Have Eyes, this is worth your money.
Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water may seem like an odd pairing for this conversation, but this Japanese ghost story eschews the trappings of traditional horror in favor of measured scares. Much of its run time focuses on the impact divorce has on a family unit, specifically on the child. Set in a world seemingly besieged by endless rain, the drab apartment interior makes the perfect visual metaphor for the internals of our protagonists. A young mother tries to keep her life and career together by moving into said apartment, a place that saw the mysterious disappearance of a young girl years before.
Watching Dark Water now, it’s difficult to take it on its own terms. The ‘scary Japanese ghost child’ bit hasn’t only been played out, but cigarette stubbed. Blame Hollywood for raiding this trope with reckless abandon, leaving not the slightest ounce of meat on the sub genre’s caracas. It’s unfair to criticize this Dark Water for that, but its trappings are tiresome regardless. And Japan isn’t beyond blame either, running the aesthetic into the ground with countless Ring and Grudge sequels, spin-offs and reboots. By the time Nakata even got around to making Dark Water, it was a little long in the tooth.
What keeps the film compelling nearly 15 years after the fact isn’t the pale-faced ghost child-that’s a small part of the story. The oppressive atmosphere that Nakata conjures and sustains is something special, however. It’s a film that can make you cold in even its simplest scenes. Dark Water also asks a lot of its main actress, Hitomi Kuroki, who rises to the challenge in making this succeed as an emotional domestic drama when the shocks are slow to come.
While you can usually depend on a high quality audio/video presentation with Arrow’s discs, their Dark Water release is among their least impressive outings. As best as I can figure it, they were given a very old and outdated HD master with which to work. It’s not exactly the disaster some are making it out to be, but if you’re going to pay a premium price for this release, you should know it’s not exactly an ideal presentation.
These two horror films may seem like strange bedfellows. Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes is masterful survival horror about the delicacy of civilization, while Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water uses supernatural horror as a metaphor for familial trauma. In both cases, we’re looking at movies with a lot more under the hood than the genre is often given credit for. The Hills Have Eyes is one of my favorite releases in an already impressive year, while Dark Water is of the try before you buy variety.
The Arrow: A Blood Bath Involving Swinging Cheerleaders and Crimes of Passion
Blood Bath is one of the best releases in recent memory. This honor has almost nothing to do with the film(s) contained within the package, but because it’s a comprehensive study of a film production that can only be described as an unmitigated disaster.
The movie started life as a foreign spy flick, transitioned into a psychological thriller about a deranged artist dunking beatniks in boiling wax, and wound up a piece of vampire schlock about a shape-shirting vampire. Yes, really. One movie. Endless reshoots and reshapes. Three directors. A complete mess. What’s really fascinating about this box set is that you can trace the picture’s evolution through the inclusion of these edits. The end result doesn’t necessarily make anything inside this box worthwhile, but there’s probably no greater curiosity on the market.
One of those directors, Jack Hill, is a 60s/70s drive-in mainstay. He’s responsible for what is probably my favorite blaxploitation movie ever (Coffy, sugar!), and has made endless contributions on the fringes of exploitation. Arrow Video seems to like Hill, as they’ve released great editions of some of his most notable works, with both Pit Stop and Spider Baby being among his best (reviews here).
Now we’ve got Hill’s The Swinging Cheerleaders on Blu, and it’s…a bit of a disappointment. Considering the behind-the-scenes pedigree, as well as the bevy of gorgeous women in front of the camera, this should’ve been an easy home run. This unofficial series has produced a few highly entertaining entries (The Cheerleaders, Revenge of the Cheerleaders, and Cheerleaders Wild Weekend), but this one’s the nadir.
The story finds a college newspaper reporter going undercover to write an expose on the exploitation and degradation of cheerleaders. It sounds like an excuse for raucous exploitation but it’s perhaps the tamest effort in the series. The Cheerleaders is about as softcore as a movie can be without being pornographic. And the other movies in the series offer varied instances of exploitation. The Swinging Cheerleaders isn’t just reserved, it teeters on being downright dull.
Part of that can be explained away because Jack Hill seems bored by the prospect of making a straight-up “tits and ass” movie. He devotes a lot of time to our main character’s investigation, and hedges the run time against an equally dull subplot about illegal betting. The film is lighthearted enough to recommend for a summer afternoon, but it’s hardly among the best things Arrow has released, and ranks among the weakest Jack Hill offerings I’ve seen to date.
Jack Hill has nothing to do with Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion, but it shares some of the duality of The Swinging Cheerleaders as our central heroines both pretend to be something they’re not, straddling two lifestyles until the lines of life are blurred. That’s reaching a little, I admit, but my point stands. In The Swinging Cheerleaders our character learns a simple life lesson and moves on. Crimes of Passion is a heavier film, weird, hilarious, disturbing and purposefully obtuse. The duality here comes from China Blue (Kathleen Turner, brilliant in this film), a seamstress by day and highly sought hooker by night.
Crimes of Passion is great because, while China is assertive, the movie has no desire to justify or explain her existence. Of her two lives, the 9-to-5 gig resonates as the facade–a way to keep up appearances and nothing more. We spend much more time inside China’s ‘other’ world–grimy hotel rooms and seedy street corners. We’re given the sense this is what she wants out of life. What she loves doing.
And that’s not a judgement. At least, I don’t think it is. Writer/director Ken Russell uses China to illustrate the importance of sex as a conduit to emotional connection. We see this through her relationship with married man John Laughlin, himself struggling to be fulfilled in his 9-to-5 marriage to Annie Potts. And it’s magnified via the guise of a deranged street preacher (Anthony Perkins in a performance that must be seen to be believed) who wants to brutalize China with a specialized dildo as a means of delivering her ‘salvation.’ Russell’s examination of America’s conservative struggles with sex is an incredible artistic achievement and perhaps one of the best films to come out of the 1980s.
This is wild stuff, and Arrow’s Blu-ray gives us two cuts of the movie to choose from. There’s really no reason to go for the R-rated cut, however, as the unrated version dials the sleaze up to 11. This is the way Russell intended it, and you might just feel the need for a cleansing shower after viewing. Again, as Russell perhaps intended.
All three of these discs are intrinsic of the care that Arrow Video takes with their titles. Blood Bath‘s selling point *is* its special features (the entire package is essentially one huge supplement), while Crimes of Passion finally finds the kind of release it’s long deserved. The Swinging Cheerleaders also gets a nice dollop of extras that help flesh out the film’s place in exploitation history.
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