Caligula (1979)

Picture this for a moment. You have Tinto Brass working with an illustrious cast led by Malcolm McDowell, working with a screenplay by Gore Vidal, high production values, it seemed as if this film had all the right ingredients that made a classic, or a close approximation of one, so what went wrong? Well somehow the founder of Penthouse magazine, Bob Guccione, became the film’s producer. While Tinto Brass wanted to make the film as a political satire, Guccione simply wanted an extravagant, high class porno, and because the producers didn’t let Brass edit the film at all, Guccione was free to put in as much unsimulated sex scenes as he wanted, completely disregarding Brass’ original vision.

I’m no prude, but needless to say, I can understand why Roger Ebert walked out on this film. It seems to have no worth other than as an extravagant cavalcade of degeneracy, devoid of the meaning that Tinto Brass had hoped to bestow upon it. Seriously, I’ve seen some messed up stuff in films, but this film, with its lurid, feverishly graphic sex scenes that you’d now find only in the some of the more hardcore online pornography, stretches it for two-and-a-half long hours. If Guccione attended something arousing then he’s surely failed. He bastardised what could have been a truly great film for nothing.

As for the plot, it’s essentially sex-crazed retelling of the rise and fall of the infamous Roman emperor Caligula, who ascended to the throne after the death of his predecessor Tiberius. The film details some of Caligula’s eccentricities, but isn’t exactly historically accurate. It’s historically accurate to some degree, but I don’t recall Roman historical accounts of a red wall with rotating blades beneath it that chopped the heads off of anyone buried up to their necks.

I assume this is the film from which people get their assumptions of “pagan Roman debauchery”, some of them using it to say “this is why Christianity is better”. Keep in mind this was a film produced by Penthouse, a magazine that specialised in smut. Certainly that’s what Bob Guccione wanted out of Caligula, and in fact, much of the sex scenes, which are often stretched beyond belief and often seem like they interrupt the plot anytime something interesting actually happens, were filmed by him, rather than Tinto Brass. If you’re impression of Roman history comes from here then I don’t really know what to tell you.

The acting is actually quite good, but it’s Malcolm McDowell whose fine acting talents truly carry the film. In keeping with the garish, over-the-top interpretation of Imperial Rome that he is cast in, McDowell raises the level of his performance to match the gaudiness of it all. It tends to result in him overacting, but with McDowell it’s quite riveting. His charged performance really stole the show and made the film at least more tolerable to watch.

Another plus side to the film is its tremendous production values. The whole film looks extravagant and gaudy, the film is given a booming classical music score. I suppose this was part of the producers’ attempt to give the film an extraordinarily opulent atmosphere, but thanks to the frequently overstretched hardcore sex scenes and spates of gore, the film’s atmosphere has more of a grotesque opulence. Maybe that was intentional. To be honest, I’m not sure what parts of the film were Brass’ ideas or Guccione’s ideas.

On the whole, Caligula was, to put it bluntly, an overblown failure, both in its artistic merits and as a commercial product. To my mind, this was something that could have been a similar historical masterpiece to Ken Russell’s The Devils, but sadly it got into the hands of a lecherous porn producer, and what you get is a bloated, overstretched film that attempted to offer up a titillating Roman fantasy but instead leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.

  • Score: 59%
  • Grade: D
Advertisements

The Hunters of the Golden Cobra (1982)

golden cobraSteven Spielberg’s classic Raiders of the Lost Ark has seen its fair share of imitators and blatant knock-offs, certainly during the early 80’s when it was fresh. In this case, we have an Italian-made knock-off that plays out like a made-for-TV film. It’s essentially a low-budget knock-off of Indiana Jones, but with only tiny fraction of the charm. It’s pretty silly on the whole, and to be completely honest, it’s not that great of a matinee film, considering how much it looks like a cheaply made carbon copy.

The film’s story, which is set in 1944, involves two textbook action heroes, an typically rugged American solider named Bob Jackson, and a stereotypically British intelligence agent David Franks. Together they’re on a mission in the Philippines to track down an ancient relic called the Golden Cobra, teaming up with a woman searching for her missing sister.

Honestly, there’s not much to say about the story, but it’s a bit jumbled and gets off to a frenetic and silly start. It’s mildly entertaining for a while, but then get into a lot of weird nonsense that seems like it was jammed into the film in order to distinguish it from Indiana Jones, which ultimately fails because the film is so much like Indiana Jones and so cliché-ridden that it’s downright comical. Even the climactic final showdown is rendered impotent by poor choreography.

The characters are pretty much plain stock characters, but they have their quirky moments. Indeed, the British character was so ridiculous that he’s actually moderately funny. However the film is ruined by some terribly bad acting. A lot of the characters come across as remarkably hammy, like they got people who don’t do much acting, and only did one take. It also sounds like they dubbed the voices over the movie. I assume this to be the case, given that the film was originally released in Italy and eventually got an English language release a few years later. I also noticed that there are a number of background characters that look like they don’t really belong in the film, like a sailor who looks a bit like John Candy.

I have to assume the film must have had a low budget, because the film looks cheaply made. I’m not sure, but I think there might have been a few cardboard props. Unique to this film, however, is that sometimes you’ll see a few scenes that are kind of like spaghetti Western scenes (specifically, these are gunplay scenes), just a lot cheesier. Everything in the film is the cheesier version of Indiana Jones, like taking a loving tribute to old school B-movie and turning it into an actual C-movie.

I’m not entirely sure if this film could have been much better, considering it’s basically a knock-off. In other words, this film was clearly pointless. I sometimes wonder why I subject my eyes and ears to films like these, perhaps so you don’t have to. Either way, if only I were paid to this.

  • Score: 48%
  • Grade: D