Alucarda (1977)

Some films were so scandalous in controversial content that they were buried for a while until they eventually see the light of day once more. Alucarda was that kind of film, with lurid sexual content, demonic possession and exorcism (which may as well be a form of psychological torture), which you might have seen in other similar Satanic horror films, but this film was a modest cut above most of those other films, even though oftentimes its low budget shows. Given its cheap production values and its pulp fiction plot, you’d be forgiven for thinking this film is a waste of time, but it has a way of surprising you.

The plot of this film concerns two orphaned girls named Alucarda and Justine, who in short order develop a very intimate friendship. They wander off into the woods and met a band of gypsies, and then they accidentally unleash a demonic force that escapes from a casket and gradually consumes the convent. They then get possessed by the Devil, and are driven to wreak havoc on the convent and the nuns and priests that mind it.

The film has been compared to Ken Russell’s The Devils, a film that explored similar themes, but was far more well-made. That being said, some have pointed out similarities between this, and the famous vampire novel Carmilla, with which it shares similar themes. You could call Alucarda the compact, Mexican equivalent of the Ken Russell classic if you want, though that might be a disservice to this film, as it casts the shadow of an unquestionably superior film over it in your mind, and that would ultimately ruin it. That said, I like that the film is confined to a 75 minute runtime, as this makes the film quite straightforward in terms of plot progression, but at the same time, it seems like the story was quite rushed. That being said, it doesn’t take very long for the film to get into gear.

The acting isn’t great. In fact, there’s a tendency to overact, and there’s a lot of screaming that’s more annoying than it is convincing. When they’re not screaming, their performance has a kind of campy, B-movie horror vibe. Even though the film was made in Mexico, the film was originally filmed in English, so we aren’t even dealing with some sort of crappy dub like with most foreign films. The lip movements match the English dialogue.

What the film succeeds in is its evocation of gothic style, albeit in a cheap B-movie sort of way. The set pieces aren’t too bad, and the film’s soundtrack has a weirdly enjoyable prog vibe, and I say this because I swear they used a keyboard in place of a church organ. The film does have plenty of gory violence, but it’s quite tame compared to most films, and the horror scenes are quite cheesy, but the film does have some genuinely creepy moments.

Alucarda is one of those films that’s more for the people who are really into underground horror films, particularly those that have been granted a certain mystique over the years, despite the fact that they are quite mediocre. You could say it’s “so bad it’s good”, but it’s not bad. In fact, it could have been quite good, if only the producers had more money.

  • Score: 65%
  • Grade: C

Sorcerer (1977)

For whatever reason I found myself interested in a 40-year-old thriller called Sorcerer, which turned out to be a remake of a European 1950’s thriller called The Wages of Fear. Whatever you want to call it, the film came out at perhaps an awkward time. It was released just a month after Star Wars came out, and became an instant phenomenon, and when that happened, films like this were left twisting in the wind, and thus Sorcerer, which was produced on twice the budget of Star Wars, failed to turn a profit, and was generally dismissed by critics. That’s a bit of a shame because it’s actually quite a good film. Not as good as I might have hoped, but still a good film.

The film’s story revolves around four men, each from different parts of the world, who are invariably forced to flee from their previous lives, assuming fake identities of course. They all end up meeting each other in the remote South American village of Porvenir, where they live in abject poverty and earn meagre wages. After a local oil well explodes, the men are hired by an American oil company to transport cargoes of nitroglycerin to the oil well using two trucks. If successful, they will be handsomely, but it’s a highly dangerous job and it’s likely that they might die.

With that in mind, why is the film called “Sorcerer”? Well, apparently one of the two trucks in the film is called “Sorcerer”, which I guess is a somewhat logical if silly reason to call the film Sorcerer. The other explanation comes from the film’s director William Friedkin, who links the title to one of the themes of the film. In his words, “the sorcerer is an evil wizard, and in this case the evil wizard is fate”. That’s quite a stretch, but it’s not uncommon for directors to have pretentious ways of rationalising batty artistic decisions. Friedkin isn’t the worst in that regard.

As for the story itself, the concept is actually quite good. It’s main focus is taking people of different backgrounds who hate each other, but not as much as having to work with them, keeping in mind that if they didn’t co-operate, they would surely die. This kind of story is guaranteed to have some drama and suspense. I also like how the film’s prologue shows you how the main characters got from where they were to where they are now.

That being said, my main issue is with the film’s rather slow pacing. Parts of the film end up being rather boring, but certainly not at the very end, and it does have some surprisingly explosive moments to keep you on your toes. The acting is very good, thanks to the casting of skilled actors such as Roy Scheider. With this film you can really get a sense of their emotions, and while no character is completely likeable, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that that’s pretty much the point. The film certainly succeeds in terms of its pessimistic atmosphere and its style. The film boasts a crisp look and sound, and benefits from skilful editing and tastefully professional shooting. Another highlight would be the film’s musical score, which comes courtesy of Tangerine Dream.

On the whole it was certainly an ambitious film, and quite a good one. In fact, William Friedkin wanted this film to be his legacy, but in a way he sort of had it, given that the film now enjoys cult film status. Ultimately the film’s chances of success were hindered mainly by the fact that it was 1977. If you didn’t go to see Star Wars, you went to see Smokey and the Bandit. Both were huge films that effectively murdered Friedkin’s Sorcerer in the box office, and there’s something symbolic about that. Star Wars and Smokey and the Bandit symbolised the newly emerging blockbuster era, while Sorcerer was emblematic of the New Hollywood style of film-making. After 1977, the New Hollywood era would decline until its eventual demise in 1980, and the art of cinema would be the poorer for it. In a way, Sorcerer was the sacrifice on the altar of blockbuster cinema. Or perhaps I read into this sort of thing too much.

  • Score: 74%
  • Grade: C

Star Wars (1977)

StarWarsMoviePoster1977Before the immense merchandising juggernaut, before the nonsensical prequel trilogy, and before even the concept of blockbuster cinema, there was this refreshingly simple, yet explosively ambitious film that, back in its day, saw scores of people lining up around the block to see it. Though it certainly wasn’t the first blockbuster film, it may as well have raised the bar for the heights such films could achieve, and its mixture of sci-fi and heroic fantasy opened the door to new possibilities for both genres, and is only one of the special ingredients that made it an instant pop culture phenomenon. In every sense, this was a very visionary film, and that would only be a short description.

The film tells the now-familiar story of Luke Skywalker’s journey to assist the Rebel Alliance in its struggle against the Galactic Empire. It presents the classical conflict of good versus evil, echoing the time-honoured traditions of the heroic narrative, and yet presenting that in what was then a totally new context (with the Force being a new dynamic that makes it stand out). By now, pretty much everything about the story of Star Wars is so familiar that it’s almost like a folk tale that’s been passed down for centuries. That’s the power of Star Wars. Even if you hadn’t seen it, you’d know what the score was, and perhaps that’s partly because of its simple and very straightforward narrative. Put it simply, if you’re a student interested in studying narrative, I’d strongly recommend studying this film first.

Of course, I think the greatest part of the film is its characters – the classic cast of familiar characters. We all know them by now. Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and all the rest. They all perform spectacularly, thanks to the well-selected cast of actors, which includes the magnificent James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader, the late Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan, and the prolific voice actor Mark Hamill as Luke. These characters have given us some of the most memetic quotations in movie history, and I think we all know why. It’s because the characters were so utterly memorable and likeable, and we’ve familiarized ourselves with this first Star Wars film over and over again. Of course, it’s also down to the nature of the performances. The characters are serious, but that’s not to say that it’s always that way. In fact, there’s a lot of humour going on as well, even if much of that comes from the film’s instantly recognizable droids.

The film also displays superb visual clout, and I say this not just because of the fantastic special effects, but also because of the world George Lucas had created. The deserts of Tatooine alone look like fine art, especially during that iconic scene where Luke gazes at the setting suns. While I’m talking about atmosphere, the music for the film is a fantastic compliment to overall tone of the film, which I’d say is comparable to an epic fantasy film. The special effects really come into play when it’s time for action. There are lights and explosions abound in this action-packed space opera, which at times, plays out like a comic book on screen.

If there’s anything at all I might criticize about this film, it’s that it leaves a lot of unanswered questions, and that’s probably because George Lucas had more than one sequel in mind. Perhaps it was a good thing that the film didn’t explain everything, because in the end, the audience wanted more. If anything, the only other thing I could criticize is the fact that George Lucas kept editing the film. There’s a version of the film where Jabba the Hut was digitally inserted into the middle of the film, and it’s almost as though Lucas wasn’t happy with it. Then again, most of the people producing it thought it fail, and thankfully they were proven wrong. Whatever its very minor faults, Star Wars is and shall remain a masterpiece of cinema, and a reminder of why film is such a powerful art form.

  • Score: 95%
  • Grade: S