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Aileen:  The Life and Death of a Serial Killer

Blazing Saddles

Black Magic

Grave Invitations/Sword of Hearts

Aileen:  The Life and Death of a Serial Killer’ (2003, Columbia/Tristar)

Directed by Nick Broomfield 

Lots of folks have seen ‘Monster’, the Hollywood version of the Aileen Wournos story that won Charleze Theron her “Best Actress” Oscar.  If you thought that movie was interesting, then you really should see ‘Aileen:  The Life and Death of a Serial Killer’.  This is the second documentary director Nick Broomfield has made on Wournos.  The first, ‘Aileen Wournos:  The Selling of a Serial Killer’, focused on the way so many people tried to cash in on Wournos’ story.  This film shows Aileen’s last days on death row, and delves deeper into her past in an attempt to understand why she wound up the way she did. 

Broomfield clearly has sympathy for his subject, despite the horrible nature of the crimes Wournos committed.  He also seems to believe her original claim that at least the first of her murders was in self defense.  Broomfield further rationalizes that this event acted as a trigger, causing Aileen to commit further acts of violence.  Strangely, as this movie begins, Wournos has renounced her past claims.  She now says she killed all her victims in cold blood, and wants nothing more than to get her execution over with.  The movie then becomes an attempt to figure out which story is true, and if Aileen is now lying, why.   

The film also focuses on the nature of the criminal justice system, and on the way executions are often have more to do with politics than with any real idea of “justice”.  Perhaps most disturbing in this respect is the way in which Aileen was judged “sane” after a 15 minute interview with state “experts”, when almost every moment she appears on screen seems to indicate just the opposite.  I don’t think Broomfield is trying to justify Wournos here, he’s simply asking whether the punishment truly fits the facts.  It’s not an easy question to answer, but Broomfield’s film does a good job of making the viewer think about the issues. (Bob Ignizio)

Black Magic’ (1975, Celestial Pictures)

Directed by Ho Meng-hua 

This is part of the Shaw Brothers Collection of films recently issued on region 3 DVD.  If you’re like me, and don’t have a multi region DVD player, this doesn’t do you much good.  Fortunately, Celestial Pictures has seen fit to release the collection on video CD, a format playable on most DVD players.  VCDs don’t have quite the same level of quality as DVDs, and most movies get split over two discs in this format, but at least you can watch them.  They’re also pretty cheap.  I picked this up at New Energy, a video store located in Asia Plaza on East 30th Street in downtown Cleveland, for under ten bucks. 

Now on to the movie.  Shaw Brothers studios was best known for their martial arts movies, but they also produced a handful of horror films during the seventies.  ‘Black Magic’ concerns an evil wizard named Shan Jianmi (Ku Feng) who sells his services to anyone with the money.  Love spells are his most popular item, but death spells come a close second.  There’s a bunch of soap opera level romance that results in various characters hiring the black magician to make other characters fall in love with them.  Eventually, a good wizard is recruited to try and set things right. 

The plot isn’t much to write home about, but thanks to some truly bizarre scenes, this one is worth a look.  In order to cast his spells, the evil wizard needs such exotic ingredients as corpse saliva and human breast milk, and some of his spells require burning human remains.  The way his death spells work is pretty nasty, too.  Characters become infested with worms that can be seen crawling underneath their skin.  It’s all pretty silly, but the production values and acting are good, and there’s enough weirdness to make this worth a watch for horror fans who think they’ve seen everything. (Bob Ignizio)

Blazing Saddles’ (1974, Warner Brothers)

Directed by Mel Brooks 

There are very few comedies that can make me laugh again and again the way ‘Blazing Saddles’ does.  ‘Duck Soup’, ‘Airplane’, ‘This is Spinal Tap’, some of the better Stooges shorts, and Brooks’ other classic, ‘Young Frankenstein’, are about it.   ‘Blazing Saddles’ wasn’t just a parody of westerns, but a brilliant satire of the state of race relations at the time it was made.  The film makes frequent use of the “n” word, but only does so for the right reasons; to be accurate and to show the stupidity of those using it.   

For those few who may not have seen this movie, the story concerns a black man named Bart (Cleavon Little) who winds up being made Sheriff of the small town of Rock Ridge.  When he arrives, the townspeople are appalled, and try to kill their new lawman.  Thanks to his intelligence, wit, and endless optimism, Bart eventually wins over the townspeople.  He is aided in this by an alcoholic gunfighter named “The Waco Kid” (Gene Wilder).  This frustrates the plans of Hedley Lamar (Harvey Korman), who is hoping to drive the citizens of Rock Ridge from their homes so he can build a railroad through their town.  Although the ending is not entirely satisfactory, most viewers will be laughing too hard to notice.   

‘Blazing Saddles’ was released previously on DVD, and that particular disc was a let down for me.  The only bonus feature was a partial audio commentary by Brooks that stopped about halfway through the film.  Where were those extra scenes I remembered from the network TV airings?  Why wasn’t there a retrospective documentary with cast and crew interviews?  Thankfully, both shortcomings have now been corrected.  In addition, we also get the unaired pilot for a proposed television series based on the film, called ‘Black Bart’ and starring Lou Gossett Jr. in the Cleavon Little role.  Only one of the extra scenes, extending the initial battle between Bart and Mongo (Alex Karras) should have been left in the movie, but it’s nice to know I wasn’t imagining this stuff.  The cast and crew interviews are much more interesting and informative than the commentary.  The ‘Black Bart’ pilot is awful, but still nice to have.  (Bob Ignizio)

Grave Invitations’ (2003) and ‘Sword of Hearts’ (2000, Sword & Cloak Productions)

Directed by David Schmidt 

Chicago independent filmmaker David Schmidt sent me a tape containing both his short horror film ‘Grave Invitations’, made in 200-, and his first feature, the swashbuckling ‘Sword of Hearts’, made in 200-.  The short is a very atmospheric and effective horror tale about a man mourning his lost love, who apparently committed suicide.  There is no dialogue in this 9 minute short, just music and occasional sound effects, but the visuals convey all the information you need.  Schmidt definitely has an eye for poetic horror.

The whole short has a very dreamlike quality to it, with the seaside opening reminding me of similar shots in some of Jean Rollin’s films.  The “punchline” ending feels a bit trite, but everything up til that point is great.  Can’t wait to see what Schmidt does with a feature length tale of the macabre. 

‘Sword of Hearts’, Schmidt’s debut feature, couldn’t be further removed from horror.  It’s sort of like an episode of ‘Hercules:  The Legendary Journeys’ with a cast drawn from the local renaissance fair.  In other words, lots of “good natured brawling” where no one ever really gets hurt, character driven humor, and a somewhat silly plot to hang it all on.  The story concerns a noble and his aunt searching for an artifact that will help them gain the throne of England.  The setting is Elizabethan times, so in addition to swordplay there is the occasional use of firearms.  Aside from the artifact, the effectiveness of which the movie wisely never confirms one way or the other, the tale is free of any fantasy elements.  The acting is good for the most part, although a bit “stagey”.  This is to probably to be expected, since most of the cast comes from a theatre troupe.  The production values and editing are excellent, though.    

While in the final analysis, ‘Sword of Hearts’ is little more than entertaining fluff, it nonetheless displays a lot of talent on the part of its makers.  It also shows why ultra low budget filmmakers are wise to write their films around what they have easy access to.  In this case, Schmidt had access to the Bristol Renaissance Fair troupe, as well as a standing medieval village set courtesy of the Stronghold Blackhawk Retreat Center.  It makes the movie look like it cost a lot more than it probably did.  It’s also nice to see a no-budget filmmaker doing something other than the standard gore drenched “comedy” for a change.  Go to the Sword and Cloak website for more info.  (Bob Ignizio)