Jac Avila, Part Three: The Body in Pain

by Rich Moreland, August 2016

My thanks to Jac avila for sharing his views on film making and culture. I look forward to reviewing more of his work in the future.

All photos in this and the preceding posts are courtesy of Pachamama Films and Decadent Cinema. Vermeerworks is their distributor.

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Jac and Amy on the set of Justine

Jac and Amy Hesketh on the set of the upcoming film, Justine

A Set of Values

In Jac Avila’s films there is a distinct theological undercurrent. In helping us understand how it complements his work, Jac begins with a snapshot of religion and society.

“Catholicism in South America and most of Europe, particularly Italy and Spain, is more a part of culture than religion,” he explains. For many of the faithful, it’s “a set of values,” a good mixture of  belief with “plenty of mythology” tossed in, “most of it not taken seriously.”

“However, when one grows up inside Catholicism, one is taught to love that culture,” he declares, though it “tries unsuccessfully, to repress a large part of one’s humanity, like sexuality.”

Of course, Christianity is closely linked to suffering . . . a natural human state. But, then again, so is sexuality. Is there a connection?

Blood Sacrifice

“In Catholic culture, the body in pain plays a crucial role with Christ at the center,” Jac continues. It’s really “blood sacrifice as redemption.”

This idea dates back to the Early Middle Ages as the church was making the transition from its birth in the Roman Empire to its place as Europe’s centralized institution.

But we need to remember that crucifixion, the ultimate “body in pain” statement, was around long before Christianity. That Christ and some of the Saints were crucified is more coincidental to their condemnation during Roman times when dying on the cross was the established demise for society’s outcasts and outlaws.

Roman times. Mila Joya in Dead But Dreaming.

Mila Joya’s character faces death in Dead But Dreaming’s flashback to Roman times.

From there, the diabolical combination of torture and death moved out of the Roman Empire into the next historical period.

“In medieval times this (The Body in Pain) symbol took over. Executions were cruel and public, so was penance,” Jac reminds us.

Incidentally, the public fascination with death lingered into the 19th century as Jac illustrates in Dead But Dreaming when the Irish traveler is garrotted before onlookers.

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Jac then cites the distinction between the Catholic and Protestant interpretation of sexuality.

“Catholic imagery is full of The Body in Pain, a beautiful body, always, either male or female, almost nude or totally nude, with an expression of bliss in the very moment of martyrdom.”

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Elaborating on the visual impact of a crucifixion, Jac explains, “The school I attended was full of those images. Beautiful paintings expressing exactly that. Catholicism is far less repressed sexually than Evangelical, Calvinist, Lutheran Christianity.”

He follows that thought with a quick history lesson.

“The framing of the body in medieval Europe, was intrinsic to the historical moment.  Humanity was moving from an agrarian culture to the beginnings of city culture. Social interactions were changing dramatically. The image of the body as symbol became pervasive,” he says.

Jac regards the 12th century (1100s) as a pivotal time in the emergence of the body as art.

“The Church had the most power in influencing most everything,” he notes, which lasted until the Renaissance, a time “when art flourished and thought was liberated by Thomas de Aquinas (Catholic theologian and Scholastic) when he gave some long overdue importance to humans.”

For the most part, Medieval art is purely religious with Christ “an overpowering figure taking up the entire frame,” Jac suggests.

In other words, man is not celebrated. The heavenly bliss of eternity and the proper way to get there occupied Medieval artists, who, incidentally, never signed their work.

By the Renaissance, change was on the horizon. The ideals of humanism were infused into culture, at least in the Italian City-States where money patronized the arts. The result? Art and literature achieved a secular focus.

As for art’s theological representations, Jac gives us this example. We see the Virgin Mary as “a real woman breast-feeding a child,” a cultural broadening influenced by Aquinas.

And somewhere along the way, our sexual fascination with crucifixion and suffering took hold.

Feminism

So, what about the sacred feminism popular in pre-Christian cultures?  I suggest the Church patriarchy had some issues with this idea. Jac spins it less severely.

“Catholic doctrine did not do away with the Divine Fem all together. Mary was and is an object of worship almost equal to God, she’s more accessible; she is the mother. But yes, women were repressed of course, but so were men. The great fear is the true liberation of mankind. We’re all afraid of freedom. I don’t think we’d know what to do with it.”

Mila Joya and Amy Hesketh in Maleficarum's execution scene, a reminder of the Church's fear of witches.

The Church’s fear of witches and it’s repression of women in Maleficarum’s execution scene.

I agree with the repression/freedom argument. Certainly the Church did not abide heresies and especially witches and warlocks. By the 15th century the Inquisition (the subject of Jac’s film, Maleficarum) was holding court. Credit Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella for making sure everyone toed the religious line.

The Church court extracts a confession from Amy's character in Maleficarum.

Inquisition torture extracts a confession from Amy Hesketh’s character in Maleficarum.

Regardless, Jac steps up his defense of the Sacred Feminine.

“In Catholicism women have a high place because of the Virgin, The Mother of God herself. Catholicism is not as patriarchal as it may seem to be. What we may be expressing is that women, just like men, have the same or more capacity to suffer for humanity.

“In that sense, female martyrdom gets equal treatment… or better yet, takes the main role. The strongest character in Catholicism is Saint Eulalia. She’s crucified twice.”

Of interest is that the original St. Elulia, the reference in Jac’s film Martyr discussed in a previous post, was, according to legend, a teenage virgin tortured and crucified on a St. Andrew’s Cross.

Carmen Paintoux

Carmen Paintoux in Martyr.

So there we have it. Do the images from Jac’s films energize the sexual question?

The Guignol Again

Despite the Church’s efforts, the uneducated retained their superstitions and out of this, particularly in Central Europe, phantasmagoric visions and stories emerged of evil forces beyond human control.

“As you know, most of the horror stories, like vampires, come from the old tales of old Europe, which come from far back in time,” Jac points out.

Veronica Paintoux

Veronica Paintoux as the Lamia.

And as we move from Medieval into modern times, with stops for the Enlightenment and Romantic Periods, superstition and the supernatural forces that go bump in the night linger in the human psyche.

It’s not a leap to understand that our world is still fascinated by cruelty, especially sexual torture, and can’t look away.

Our repressed blood lust comes to life with vampire stories and today’s slasher films which tap into horror as it emerged out of the Victorian Age into modern Europe.

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But we don’t need the fantastic to energize our sexual interests. Human depravity played out realistically on a stage will do.

th“The Grand Guignol has its roots in that period of time where executions were performances for the masses. That’s why Guignol was also described as the Theatre of Cruelty,” Jac explains.

In fact, the Parisian stage and the fascination with crucifixion fuel the star power of Amy, Mila Joya, and the Paintoux sisters, Carmen and Veronica.

Brew the mixture of history, religion, and sex into a cauldron of savagery and sadism and what emerges is a new version of the erotic horror genre that is distinctly Jac’s and Amy’s, Olalla being the latest in a line of powerful films.

Framing the Body

“Not everything medieval was cruelty, of course,” Jac continues.

“There was a nurturing, serene, body sharing space with a conflicted body torn by desires, fantasies and that other body, the one in pain, dismembered, racked, whipped. The education of the masses by framing the body became all important.”

Mila Joya tortured in Maleficarum

Mila Joya’s character exemplifies “the body in pain” in Maleficarum . . .

Finally, the native Bolivian offers these comments on Amy’s Hesketh’s approach to her acting.

“As far as Amy’s performance in the films, like in Dead But Dreaming or Olalla I can say that those scenes are the way they are because of the stories. This goes to the Body in Pain discussion. The body as a central symbol in culture, but as it was seen in medieval culture, where much of the representations we have now originate.”

Maleficarum's roasting scene.

. . . As does Amy Hesketh in the film’s roasting scene, a particularly difficult and emotional shoot.

That is where Amy seduces the camera like no other actor.

To reassure the fainthearted, Jac leaves us this note about female performers in his films. Yes, they illustrate the Grand Guignol stage, as noted above, and all its perceived brutality, but there is more.

“Acting in these movies is, in a sense, empowering. The actress has complete control over her body, mind, and soul, to do anything she wants to do.”

That in itself is an empowering feminist statement.

Amy, Jac, and Mila.

Amy, Jac, and Mila . . . artists, innovators, and a new film intelligensia.

 

 

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Jac Avila, Part Two: That Fantastic Thing

by Rich Moreland, August 2016

In this post, we’ll find out about Jac Avila’s background and his view on the female characters he creates.

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Jac Avila as actor.

Jac Avila as actor.

Jac Avila is of international stock. His father was from Holland and his mother, Bolivia, giving him a heritage that is Dutch, Spanish, Basque, and French.

Born in Bolivia, Jac grew up in a Catholic society, a culture that takes on its own identity and values which many Americans don’t grasp. We tend to compartmentalize religion, often limiting it to merely attending church, and don’t see it as a larger social/cultural ingredient in our lives.

On the other hand, a Catholic society is overarching, emphasizing spiritual issues without negating worldly values. For example, it insists that learning take center stage in a child’s life.

“I was educated in the most exclusive Jesuit school in La Paz,” Jac points out with pride. “The education was secular with a big emphasis on science. No conflict there. As a matter of fact, Jesuit priests were very much ahead in everything. The religious aspects of our education was a mixture of ethics, morals, mysticism and the understanding that a great part of the Bible is rather symbolic and mythological.”

Sadly, his mother passed away before Jac entered his teenage years. His father moved Jac and his brothers to New York City where the future actor/director/producer studied movie making, art, and photography.

The Blue Buick

“After graduation I started working at CBS and later at a photo studio specializing in advertising. I quit my job in 1979 to become an independent filmmaker. By 1982 I was making my first film in Haiti and Cuba by way of New York and Miami,” Jac explains.

The film premiered at Cannes in 1988.

“It took me that long to make it,” he confesses, not surprising under the circumstances.

krikKrakPosterFacing expenses that can easily derail projects, Jac spent most of his time doing what indie filmmakers learn is part of the game: meeting the right people and raising money.

The film was Krik? Krak! Tales of a Nightmare which Jac co-produced and directed with Vanyoske Gee. Jac characterizes the production as “a surreal/expressionist docu-nightmare” about the brutal regime of Haiti’s Papa Doc Duvalier that includes the spiritual aspects of Haitian culture.

The work, though difficult, answered “a more political, radical call” for him, Jac declares, and was definitely a “challenge.”

And rewarding . . . the critics received it favorably.

“Le Cahiers Du Cinema, foremost film magazine in France described it as a great horror film in the tradition of Witchcraft Through the Ages,” Jac remembers.

From there he made a television mini-series and a handful of documentaries before shooting a “‘performance'” video, an inexpensive “project that started something unexpected that built everything” he is currently doing.

Jac explains how it happened.

When he was visiting Cuba, he developed a script about a young woman during the island’s colonial days who “has fantasies about being a martyr,” a practice common in “the traditional holy week procession.”

Carmen Paintoux had the lead role in Jac’s mini-series at the time and they discussed staging the girl’s fantasy for video. “During that process, she created Camille who is the central character in Martyr,” Jac says.

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The short film was born and the budding filmmaker’s career took on a new direction.

A remarkable journey for a little boy who saw his first movie at age four. Its violence left an impression. The Film? Walt Disney’s Bambi.

“I don’t remember anything before the movie. I remember everything after the movie, even the song that was playing on the radio when my uncle drove us back home in his blue Buick.

“From that moment on all I wanted in life was to know about that fantastic thing I experienced that day.

Magic to Art

Considering what he’s told me, I ask Jac if he designs his films to be political and religious commentaries.

“Not necessarily,” he begins. “Art is beyond those limiting systems. While religion tries and fails to interpret the unknown and the mysterious, politics often try, earnestly, to fit a square into a triangle, with fatal results.”

Having said that, Jac admits his explanation may sound  “a bit simplistic, since both religion and politics are mechanisms humanity uses to organize itself into something manageable.”

“In a way, mankind created gods to control itself,” he believes. But in time, more practical attitudes took shape and the overarching role of the gods receded in favor of elected leaders in civilizations like Classical Greece, for example.

Nevertheless, there is a magic to art, Jac insists.

“Art interprets what we see and turns everything on its head, art can also imagine a million futures and a million pasts. We don’t mock religion or politics [in our films], it’s just our artistic view of humanity.

“I honestly hope that our audience enjoys our movies for what they are and take from them what they feel like taking. I don’t really mind if they hate our movies. I love it if they love them. I hate it if they are indifferent.”

The Heroines

Fair enough. Now what can we say about women as they are presented in a Pachamama film? Are they captives of their own compulsions, unable to forge their own destinies, as might seem at first glance?

Jac gives us his view, beginning with Ollala.

“Olalla and Ofelia (Olalla’s sister) are not weak because women are not weak. This nonsense of the weaker sex is just that, nonsense. Patriarchy is a response to that strength. At one point men felt the compulsive need to control women first and other men second.”

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With a moment’s pause, he adds, “Religion and politics are attempts to control, to make everything fit a pattern that can be controlled. That’s a very primitive view of life.”

It just so happens that when it comes to Church and society, the simpler, the better.

“There’s nothing more scary than women taking over, like in Olalla when she sucks the blood out of her boyfriend. It scares even women, so they have to burn Olalla’s mother,” Jac says.

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What about the other films we’ve mentioned?

Jac has his thoughts.

“The female vampires in Dead But Dreaming survive cruel torment, the accused witches overcome their death sentences in Maleficarum.

bts dead 5 on our way

“Is Varna [in Dead But Dreaming] taking the route Moira took? Will Justine go on after her ordeal is over?”

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Jac states that women in his films are his main focus, and I might add, his source of strength.

“The principal characters in all my movies, including Krik? Krak! are, for some reason, women. They are the heroines in all my stories. Men take second place either as aggressors or victims.

“Even in the miniseries El Hombre de la Luna, where I play the central character, an attorney/painter investigating the death of a young woman, the women in the story solve the problem and rescue the attorney from certain death.”

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But Jac’s women do suffer and it seems to have a sexual theme. So how does pain work into the art he and his filming partner Amy Hesketh create?

We’ll look at that next.

 

 

 

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Jac Avila, Part One: A Working Relationship

by Rich Moreland, August 2016

Recently I’ve reviewed two erotic horror films, Dead But Dreaming and Olalla, products of the independent film companies, Pachamama Films and Decadent Cinema.

This post begins a three-part series on actor/producer/director Jac Avila whose business imprint is Pachamama Films.

Here he discusses his professional relationship with Amy Hesketh.

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Martyr

Jac Avila and I have some common theatrical interests, among them the Parisian theater of fear and terror, the Grand Guignol. Pachamama’s take on the horror genre is influenced by the Guignol stage.BarbazulJac001tiny

“We’re very much inspired by Grand Guignol,” Jac tells me. Since the 1990s, the producer/director has shot “a series of performance videos” that reflect the theater’s unique stamp on shock and violence.

As his evolution in film progressed, Jac’s work drew the attention of Amy Hesketh, who was building her own erotic on-screen resume.

MartyrPosterSmall2One of his films, Martyr or The Death of St. Eulalia (2002), became the catalyst for the their artistic collaboration. Though it was made in New York, (Jac maintains dual residences in NYC and La Paz, Bolivia), Amy saw the movie in South America in 2005.

“It made a huge impression on her and that’s when she decided to join me in this adventure,” he recalls.

At the time, Amy was more into photography than modeling, Jac explains, and had aspirations to write and direct.

Martyr stars Carmen Paintoux, a French actress, whose history with Jac dates to the 1990s. The themes of Christian sacrifice, sadomasochistic relationships, and suffering drive the film and captured Amy’s interest.

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Subsequently, Jac began a working relationship with Amy, who picked up acting again. She joined French performers, Carmen and Veronica Paintoux, to create a new and innovative indie film narrative.

Amy’s first feature as writer and director was  Sirwiñakuy, a tale involving an older man and a younger woman in a BDSM relationship. “She wanted Veronica to play the lead character,” Jac mentions.

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Later films like Barbazul, Dead But Dreaming and Olalla, saw Amy step in front of the camera. Not unusual, he adds, because Amy “puts herself in the more difficult roles” much to the delight of her fans.

In the movies I’ve seen, Amy dominates the lens. I asked Jac about her motivation to play parts which appear, at least on the surface, to be masochistic. Jac has some suggestions, but makes it clear he cannot speak for her entirely.

Catharsis

“The characters she plays appeal to her, yes, and at the same time scare her,” he begins.

Jac mentions Justine, a character in a film by the same name yet to be released. It’s based on the de Sade novel, so the sadomasochistic corruption of the innocent steps forward as one would expect.

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Due to Justine’s “religious stubbornness” Amy doesn’t have a glowing opinion of the girl as she appears in the novel, Jac remarks. In fact “Amy thought she was an idiot.” However, he adds, “as in any art, a part of us is in those characters and a part of our experience is expressed in them.”

“In some cases it becomes cathartic,he believes.

An interesting thought which I think is clear in Amy’s portrayal of Olalla and her role in Maleficarum, a film involving witch torture.

According to Jac, “Amy plays what appears to be submissive roles, although I see them more like women in peril type of characters, they do not submit, they are forced into their particular ordeal. I can even say that some do not go quietly into their ‘doom.’”

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As heroines, Justine and Olalla are united in that respect, but by different circumstances. Perfect, I might add, for Amy Hesketh’s talent.

How much more of that talent we will see on-screen may be waning because Amy is now concentrating on writing and directing. But she has an impressive resume as an actress.

“The way she prepared herself for her roles in the movies we made is impressive,” Jac remarks.

Bodies and Minds

That brings up another topic which needs clarification. Amy Hesketh and the other actors in the Pachamama troupe, Mila Joya and Veronica Paintoux, in particular, are whipped, tortured and crucified. So, are they the darlings of the BDSM crowd who might flock to see their films?

Sirwinakuy0012-300x389“I don’t think our films fit into what would be the traditional BDSM genre, except perhaps for Sirwiñakuy, which is about an S&M relationship, and Pygmalion, that has those elements too,” Jac observes.

As a director and actor himself, Jac notes that everyone in the troupe gets to “display different personalities in different filmswhich is diverse enough to move beyond the dominant/submissive formula.

“When they do get into their characters, they do go into them with intensity and completely, they become those characters for the time of the shooting. In other words, they do put their bodies and minds into them.”

Then he offers up a dose of reality.

tumblr_litvpumDNz1qhi6wuo1_500“I can also say that they do suffer, physically and mentally, during the difficult scenes. The whippings hurt, the crucifixions are very, very uncomfortable and even painful. There’s a lot of real suffering going on. I do not think that any of them enjoy that, they put up with it for the art.”

The Liberating Part

Of course, Pachamama/Decadent productions have their share of naked female flesh that some viewers may consider to be on the border of softcore porn.

Jac presents his take on that interpretation by referencing the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and its counterculture.

The films of that era represented “an explosion on the face of Catholicism,” he notes. They were a part of the “cultural movements of the time,” in which new artistic and strident voices captured the day.

“In Europe and South America the rallying cries were the movements of liberation from whatever people felt they needed liberation from. Soon, in both worlds, the sexual revolution took over.”

With that, Jac Avila is blunt.

“Nudity in our films is the liberating part. People are still traumatized by nudity, it baffles me, so we put in on their face, warts and all.”

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That is good news for all of his and Amy’s fans.

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Jac Avila can be found online at jacavila.blogspot.com.

All Jac and Amy films are distributed by Vermeerworks.

 

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Cracked and Shattered: A Review of Theatre of Fear and Horror

by Rich Moreland, July 2016

“A special sensation of strangeness and mystery  . . . caused by a shadowing effect in the overhead lights” descended upon the audience. Within moments “an imperceptible, hazy illumination of red and green” crept over the stage.

And so another play in the Parisian theater of horror, The Grand Guignol, is under way but not without the tried and true “rule-of-thumb” of gore. The bigger splashes of blood were restricted to female performers; smaller costumes were easier to launder, after all. “Head wounds,” on the other hand, were assigned to men since shorter hair demanded less maintenance.

Fear and terror driven by insanity, sex, and violence dominated the short stage productions, but pulling everything off convincingly was not easy. Sleight-of-hand, magician’s tricks to create “an atmosphere of sickening and eerie realism,” was requisite. The house regulars stayed amused while first-timers might resort to running for the exits.

Incidentally, male theater goers tended to physically sicken easier than their female companions, likely because the ladies often covered their eyes.

Theatre-of-Fear-and-Horror-370x541Sadism and Perversion

Mel Gordon’s Theatre of Fear and Horror: The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol of Paris, 1897-1962, is a new expanded version of the original 1988 publication. For all intents, Gordon’s work is the most concise account of a small performance venue that was truly one of a kind.

In its post-WWI heyday, the Grand Guignol set aside Expressionist art for naturalism and realism, displaying its graphic horror only a few feet from the audience. Fantasy was pushed aside because play topics came from brief newspaper items lifted from “police blotters.” Crime and mayhem marked the Parisian stage as the “place where every social taboo was cracked and shattered,” Gordon writes.

The Grand Guignol abetted the rise of the horror genre as Hollywood knew it in the 1920s and 1930s. Lon Chaney, John Barrymore, Bela Lugosi, and Boris Karloff “personified the acting styles” learned in the theater of terror. Films like the Expressionist, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) were weaned within the intimate confines of the Grand Guignol. Incidentally, Hitchcock single-handedly shattered the Hayes Code’s awkward  and repressive film censorship with Psycho.

Even famed psychologist Dr. Alfred Binet knew of the theater. He was one of its “most successful playwrights,” Gordon tells us. And there were others, particularly women who might have been considered too psychologically frail to appreciate the art form.

In the post-WWII era the theater had female ownership at times and “gave full creative reign to female producers.” tgPerhaps the Grand Guignol’s appeal for both men and women was best summarized by the erotic writer Anais Nin who memorably proclaimed, “All of our nightmares of sadism and perversion were played out on the stage.”

Oh yes, one of the theater’s less celebrated patrons was “a noodle and pastry cook” who later got involved with political causes. His name was Ho Chi Minh.

Sinister Destiny

Mel Gordon’s book is a delightful read, informative without being stiflingly academic. For many readers it’s a primer, so the author obliges with the first third of his pages devoted to a short history of the theater.

After fits and starts, the compact space, once a chapel dating to the eighteenth century, takes on its legendary identity a decade or so before the First World War. Gordon guides the reader through the menagerie of personalities that brought the theater to life.

As mentioned, in the years between the wars the Grand Guignol flourished. One of its notable performers was simply known as Maxa, a woman who “was murdered more than 10,000 times and in some sixty ways” on stage. She was also terrorized by enduring over 3,000 rapes.

Gordon reprints an autobiographical piece written by Maxa (Paula Maxa, actually). In it she recounts her abuse at fifteen by a knife wielding boyfriend who beat her. He committed suicide shortly afterward. It was her first “‘romantic’ experience,” Maxa says, and led to a perverse definition of love.

“This experience marked me forever. Sex, torture, violence, physical pain became a sinister destiny I never could escape.”

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Gordon also includes a short piece titled “Fear in Literature: An Essay” by Andre de Lorde, known as the “Prince of Terror.” He was one of the Grand Guignol’s most popular playwrights and understood the impact of  “the fear of being afraid” he describes as a nightmare with one foot “planted in reality.”

The Theatre of Fear and Horror also includes short summaries of a host of plays ranging from dramas to comedies (yes, the Grand Guignol format included them as relief from repeated terror). The final section offers up two plays in full dialogue. One of them, “A Crime in the Madhouse,” is authored by Alfred Binet and Andre de Lorde. Don’t miss it!

Most fascinating are the book’s illustrations. They are on every page and include photos, cartoons, and playbills. Particularly spectacular are the sixteen pages of all color posters. Thumbing through them, one gets the urge to find enlargements to frame and hang in the family room!

Congratulations to Dr. Mel Gordon on this update about a little known entertainment phenomenon.

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The Theatre of Fear and Horror is published by Feral House. Here is customer information from Amazon.com.

  • Paperback: 220 pages
  • Publisher: Feral House; Expanded ed. edition (August 9, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1627310312
  • ISBN-13: 978-1627310314

 

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Olalla, Part Six: In Her Eyes

by Rich Moreland, July 2016

Here is the final post on Olalla. 

I added this segment as a tribute to the talent and artistry of Amy Hesketh.

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Amy Hesketh’s eroticism is unique in her roles. Consider Maleficarum’s Mariana and Dead But Dreaming’s Irish traveler to appreciate how Amy puts her body out there in a way that elevates sensuality beyond whatever passes for the commonplace and predictable in our culture.

Rarely can an actor pull off suffering in such a way that it becomes a visual spectacle that gives us pause. Amy’s performance in Olalla’s burning scene, for example, honors her as a true Grand Guignol artist.

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Olalla is my third Amy Hesketh film.10272592_474695762659833_4244678109927385087_o Her penchant for the abused victim and her courage to explore what anguish means in a psychological, spiritual, and physical context defines her work. Were she in Paris in the years before and after the Second World War, Amy would have been welcomed at the Theater of Horror.

Yet there is something else about Amy’s performance art that is irresistible, lures the viewer into her soul, and makes the story come alive.

It’s her eyes.

AMYUKHorrorNo matter the mood or the moment, they are mesmerizing, mystifying and exotic, haunting and intoxicating, penetrating, plaintive, often filled with pain, and sometimes inexplicably shy.

In Olalla Amy may have murderer’s blood splashed about, but her eyes remain the enigma, perplexed, almost befuddled by her deeds, yet driven with lust. In the end, they scream of “the body in pain” in all its agony.

Connecting with Amy

When we first meet Olalla in the original story, Robert Louis Stevenson reaches across time in a way he could never have imagined. It’s as if his vision of Olalla speaks to him directly through Amy Hesketh’s presence.

The unnamed English officer is quickly smitten when he finally encounters the mysterious senorita. Stevenson tells us why. God had “lighted the torches of the soul” in her eyes and “looked out” from them “and conquered mine,” the soldier says.

“In Olalla all that I desired and had not dared to imagine was united.”

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In the film version of the story, Nathan tells Olalla her beauty is enticing beyond what we consider normal.

Indeed it is. But there is more. Amy Hesketh blends into Olalla so seamlessly that we sometimes forget there is a separation between actress and character. We willfully suspend our disbelief with ease, the mark of fine storytelling, because Amy is bold, sensitive, and seductive.

Stevenson is not finished, however. As if Amy is standing before him, the Victorian author declares through the officer, “In her eyes I could read depth beyond depth of passion and sadness, light of poetry and hope, blackness of despair.”

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Amy Hesketh’s on-screen presence animates Stevenson’s words. Her eyes, in all their kaleidoscopic beauty and mystery, convince even the most casual viewer that her talent and her emotion are a provocative venture into film.

Stevenson sets the bar; Amy’s Olalla rises above it.

Emotional Catharsis

As we have seen, Amy Hesketh is the woman in pain, a victim who is misunderstood and condemned to the most awful of miseries from which, like the endearing Maxa of the Grand Guignol,  she rarely survives.

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Her torments, often inflicted by the bigotry of the righteous, defines Amy’s self-imposed artistic fate. In reality, it’s a personal psychosocial journey that explores woman as prey, scapegoat, and sacrifice, powerless to avoid the anguish that persecutors turn into sadomasochist pleasure.

But the victim scenario is not quite that simple because there a silenced anger shouting from within.

In Olalla, the deck is stacked against the younger sister. Her blood feast compulsions throttles whatever happiness she might realize. The notion that if freed from its familial shackles, Olalla’s determination would prevail. But we never see it, though Amy lets us know it’s there.

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Highlighting all of her roles is a desire to explore the “body in pain” that infuses Amy’s art.

In Maleficarum, lesbian lovers Mariana and Francisca (Mila Joya) are sadistically tortured by the Church. In Dead But Dreaming it’s the whipping post for Moire’s political crimes then a vampire feast at the hands of the fiendish Nara (Veronica Paintoux).

And, of course, there is Olalla who is beaten on the cross to satisfy superstitious villagers who believe monsters are Satan’s work.

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These films present an emotional catharsis that releases Amy Hesketh to inhabit her characters in a way that few, if any, female performers can deliver in the erotic horror genre.

It’s intoxicating. We look away, but like the English soldier, can’t resist looking back.

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By way of Mel Gordon’s Theatre of Fear and Horror, I’ll let the Grand Guignol playwright Andre de Lorde close out this analysis of Olalla.

“At all times . . . horror shows have drawn large audiences. If the Inquisition had made public its interrogations conducted on the rack, they would have had to turn people away.”

Here’s a toast to you, Amy Hesketh. You know this all too well.

We love to watch.

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Olalla, Part Five: The Portrait

by Rich Moreland, July 2016

This post wraps up a few details about Olalla as I’ve interpreted the film.

Here we consider the portrait’s importance in the story and take a look at some of the cinematography.

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Gothic

OlallaPoster800The central image in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Olalla” is the portrait in the English soldier’s bedroom. It presents “a woman, still young” whose body is “very slim and strong.” Yet, she is “marred by a cruel, sullen and sensual expression,” the Englishman notes, and he fears the lady may still exist “in the body of some descendant.” Nevertheless, he is drawn to her.

In the film, the portrait travels across time. It is in Roberto’s bedroom in the 1885 setting and then in Nathan’s in the modern era.

At one point, Nathan, who is the final incarnation of the house guest, gives credence to the Englishman’s apprehension. He gazes at the woman’s face and it fades into Olalla’s, a bit of blood dripping from her mouth.

Like the English soldier who is “haunted by cries of pain” in the night, Nathan hears Olalla’s whimpering coming from her room. Could it be that Felipe is his sister’s abuser in Stevenson’s mind? Amy Hesketh lets us in on that secret in her updated version of the story.

Later, Nathan wants to photograph Olalla using his tablet. She resists at first, but gives in, and the photo reveals much.

First, her image is there, questioning the traditional (Bram Stoker) interpretation that vampires aren’t reflected in mirrors. Then, there is Olalla’s comment that she appears pale, perhaps denying any self-recognition that she is vampiric. Nathan counters her remark with the word “gothic,” an interesting concession to Stoker.

That strikes a chord with Olalla because she responds with one the film’s major themes. “I want to look normal.”

A test for angle and shadowing.

A test for angle and shadowing.

The portrait and the photo solidify the Olalla story. Both have the same shadowing that mutes the left side of the face. Olalla, like her ancestor, is crushed by a past she cannot escape. It’s the darkness that has engulfed the family for generations.

Coincidentally, there is a portrait of Christ immediately to the left (from the camera’s perspective) of Olalla’s ancestor. This foretells a cinematic ending that magnifies the conflict between suffering for sin and yielding to evil.

The images are together

The images: the soldier, Christ, and the ancestor

To bring all the images together, there is one more picture in the room, a soldier taken in profile. It’s a tribute to Stevenson’s original English officer, though the photo is of Victorian origin that fits with Amy’s interpretation of the Olalla back story.

As an aside, there is one more observation concerning Nathan’s tablet. Like the flat screen TV in the apartment Olalla shared with her boyfriend, the tablet is modern technology. However, the family hacienda lives in another era as we’ve seen. Only when someone from the outside, like the boyfriend or Nathan, appears in the narrative does Olalla experience what she desires, the freedom to break away and be “normal.”

Then, in a never ending cycle of entrapment, she kills off her chances of escape with deadly fits of blood lust.

Feeling Alive?

Throughout the film, the camera captures important details that help us interpret the story. Here are a few examples.

Olalla is frequently barefoot, understandable since uncle Felipe derides her as a “stupid little girl” confined her to adolescence. In the family’s presence, Olalla’s body language assumes the awkward posture of a child. Her hands and her feet are restive in an atmosphere that clearly makes her uneasy . . . as children often are among adults.

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In the living room, a glass curio cabinet is filled with bric-a-brac, much of it religious, such as the porcelain Madonna and angels.

Can we assume the family’s blood-thirst clashes with a faith they’ve long put on the shelf? Or, are the religious relics merely socially acceptable trinkets for display, not to be taken seriously? On the other hand, perhaps their blood cocktails are more sinister . . . a perversion of the blood of Christ celebrated in church ritual.

Taking this into consideration, we are inclined to believe that the crucifixion of Olalla’s mother, who committed no crime, was an act of redemption that gives the family a pass to be their wonderfully deviant selves.

Olalla and Nathan talk among the images within the cabinet.

Olalla and Nathan talk among the images within the cabinet.

Nathan and Olalla are united in one respect. He tells her that he has seen so much death that he can’t “feel alive anymore.”

The reality of that statement is ready to be tested by the family who is itself a reflection of his thought. Soon the party will begin and a table neatly organized with napkins, glasses, and the like is prepared. The arrangement is a set-up for a violent end: a pistol is centrally positioned among the dinner ware.

Nathan’s arrival is eagerly anticipated as one would the daily farmers’ market where fresh fruits and vegetables tempt the taste buds.

A Few Words about the Production

Olalla is a finely crafted film. Numerous close-ups connect the viewer with the characters. Additionally, Amy favors overhead and high angle shots, putting the family in a metaphorical fishbowl that invites us to watch their goings on with a mixture of macabre humor and pathos. Cinematographer Miguel Inti Canedo’s work is impressive.

A superb example is Olalla’s first appearance in the long hallway. It’s shot in single point perspective from high above with her a small figure at the opposite end moving toward the camera.

Later when Uncle Felipe overpowers Olalla, he binds her in a crucifix posture that references her mother’s death. The overhead shot tells us she may someday suffer a more grisly fate than a few beatings to reestablish her submission.

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Nearing the end of the film, another overhead shot shifts the focus to the pitchfork crowd in the 1880s. Notice that the whip marks on Olalla’s mother replicate the strokes inflicted on a tied down Olalla. Mother and daughter are forever united.

Oh yes, don’t forget that the Englishman’s final memory of Olalla in Stevenson’s story. He sees Olalla “leaning on the crucifix;” Amy puts her put on it.

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Olalla is a horror film, of course, but one that does not rely on special effects. Nonetheless, there is one spectacular moment when Jac Avila’s editing steps forward to show the fires that consume Olalla.

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A note for anyone who doubts the versatility of indie film projects. Everyone does everything. Actors do make-up, take on the jobs of PA’s, build sets, capture the film grabs (production stills) and operate technical equipment when needed.

A director has many jobs!

A director has many jobs . . .

It’s the closest thing we have to neighborhood theater, a truly refreshing experience.

Which includes set construction . . .

Which includes set construction . . .

And speaking of performers, Jac Avila’s and Amy Hesketh’s Pachamama/Decadent Films is also an acting troupe. Revisit the second post in this series for the names of the talented people who do their very best to make every film a first-class production.

A celebratory moment!

A celebratory moment!

The Budget

Finally, indie productions must deal with the bane of budgetary restrictions. Considering that, Olalla is exceptional. Though the outdoor sequences are not elaborate, they more than adequate to supplement the story.

10417775_10153193597846840_8578639109230206091_nOn the other hand, the indoor shots of the family hacienda in modern times are the real driving force of the film.

By comparison, the 1800s flashback scenes emphasize the family’s once wealthy position that Stevenson establishes in the original story.

Their home is well-appointed.

Also, the church that becomes Olalla’s last refuge is visually impressive. Both are awash in color.

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Because I mainly review films in an industry that operates outside mainstream Hollywood, I’m well aware that talented directors rarely have the money to bring their projects to the screen in the fashion they’d like.

Despite whatever financial hurdles they face, Amy Hesketh and Jac Avila create narratives that are intriguing interpretations of timeless stories produced with an innovative modern feel. As a team, they and their troupe deserve the highest accolades.

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There is on more post to come. It centers on Amy Hesketh’s performance in Ollala.

To learn more about Amy and Jac, visit their twitter accounts at @Amy Hesketh and @Jac Avila.

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Olalla, Part Four: The Flesh of Brutes

by Rich Moreland, July 2016

For some viewers, an Amy Hesketh film shivers with a sexual chill. For others, it’s pure heat. 

Either way, horror films in general are erotically perverse and Amy taps into that appeal.

 As we’ve seen, however, Amy Hesketh differs from other fear and terror filmmakers because her movies focus on realism while more traditional horror is pure fantasy. The result?  Amy’s torture scenes dominate the genre in ways others can only envy. The inquisition film, Maleficarum, is a classic example.

In Olalla, Amy adds another ingredient: the monster image as it resides in the human psyche. Let’s take a look.

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“Monster” is a recurring theme in the filmed version of Olalla. The family hurls the accusation Olalla’s way, though in the original short story, Stevenson never uses the word, preferring to rely on suggestion.

For example, the English officer hears wailing in the night he describes as “pitiable and hateful cries” that are “ravings worthy of hell.” But the source is never identified.

10924645_10153193700991840_5293608269395833368_oLater, when Olalla declares she will have no children, “My vow has been given; the race shall cease from off the earth,” Stevenson intimates dysfunctional idlers and strange creatures inhabit the family.

Do they?

To find out, let’s investigate how the monster image drives Amy Hesketh’s screenplay.

It’s My Turn

Uncle Felipe has his way with the sisters.

In the scene in which he emotionally abuses and punishes Olalla, Ofelia helps him tie her to the bed. Afterward, Felipe forces himself on his restrained niece in an act of incest and power (he is teaching her a lesson), though within the family that’s likely their version of “normal.”

To reinforce his discipline, Uncle Felipe reminds Olalla that she is “monster” and “they kill monsters” in a reference to her mother’s death.

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Later Felipe visits Ofelia who makes seductive moves in his direction. With her submissive side ready to romp, she coos, “It’s now my turn.” He closes the door behind him and we are left with an incestuous tryst that recalls the English officer’s inbreeding comment in Stevenson’s story.

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On another occasion, Olalla peeks through the door of Ofelia’s bedroom. Her sister is nude except for a corset and thigh-high stockings. Uncle Felipe is smacking her bottom in a brief scene that is reminiscent of a 1960s roughie or kinkie.*

jac and mila 2If there is any jealousy on Olalla’s part, we don’t see it and wouldn’t expect to. For her, Felipe’s riding crop is a source of discomfort, not the erotic fun Ofelia anticipates.

Unlike other Amy Hesketh productions, the scene is not explored further, though a brief glimpse of the sultry Mila Joya in her Bettie mode is a welcome moment.

Of course, there is irony at work here because Felipe proves that he’s just another fiend creeping around the family tree and raises the question of how long has this been going on.

Obsession Feeds the Monster

Olalla’s unnatural proclivity (compulsion? kink?) is revealed early in her life. In a telling scene, she and her sister are walking a narrow path that is a reminder of the hacienda hallway of present time. They’re followed at some distance by Roberto and their mother who have struck up a relationship Stevenson’s Englishman could only imagine.

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The taller Ofelia suddenly cries to her sister, “What have you done, you animal?” Little Olalla raises her head, blood on her mouth. On the ground is a dead bird with a gash in its neck.

young olallaThe girl looks confused, guilty, and helpless.

This moment defines Olalla’s past. Uncle Felipe and Ofelia will struggle to keep her self-destruction from putting everyone in peril, though it is the family that ironically endangers her. Olalla, who desperately wants to be normal, will be disciplined and under lock and key within the house.

10959611_10153193663996840_5116423304263740522_nIn fact, Stevenson foretells Olalla’s fate. In the original story she explains to the soldier why their love will never come to be. The family “seed” was passed on, she says, but it’s “wrapped” in “the flesh of brutes” who are “inflicted with the mind of flies.” This infestation will stop with her.

In Amy’s film, the original Olalla propagates the family’s decadency and pays dearly. What does this portend for her daughters? Like the Victorians, Amy is leaving it to us to figure out.

Familiar Ground

So, we fast forward to modern times and, as mentioned above, Felipe binds a nude Olalla to her bed, hands over head and feet secured to the opposite end of the bedstead. She is wayward once again, this time with her boyfriend, and needs a forceful reminder.

Felipe uses the riding crop to raise some real welts on Olalla’s torso and thighs. It’s beautifully shot scene and once again marks (pun intended) Amy Hesketh as the darling of softcore sadomasochism.

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But, there is more going on here because the film gives Amy, as both director and actor, the opportunity to present erotic punishment from two distinct psychological perspectives.

As the modern Olalla, she is not the innocent victim. Rather, she is defiant and angry, caught in her own time warp in which she cannot escape her destructive and bloody urges.

We see this when Ofelia tempts Olalla with an apple, the traditional forbidden fruit. She dangles it and pulls it away letting Olalla know that breaking the bonds of the family’s perverse garden of joy may linger as a desire, but doing it is another matter.

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In her role as the 1800s’ Olalla, Amy is on familiar psychological ground: the innocent victim. Taking refuge in a church, the desperate and frightened Olalla persuades her daughters to flee with Felipe, then awaits the village mob. She prays just as her literary counterpart does at the end of Stevenson’s tale.

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But her fate will not be to suffer silently. Rather, it plays out dragging and screaming to a heinous end.

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The villagers finally put her away with a crucifixion and burning, but not without a good flogging first. In the fashion of Biblical retribution, the mother suffers for the familial sins she has passed to her children—Ofelia’s incestuous desires and little Olalla’s blood thirst.

Is this final act a futile attempt at redemption?

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The extended scene is a reminder that as the Irish traveler in Dead But Dreaming and the tortured Mariana in Maleficarum, Amy Hesketh performs with a pathos and realism rarely found in cinema today. The Grand Guignol would be proud.

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The Final Real Monster

The cartoonist Walt Kelly’s Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Amy Hesketh reminds her audience that the horrific vigilante murder of Olalla is the worst of human depravity: mob violence.

As the purifying fires of Christian mythology leap around Olalla, the vengeful expressions of the villagers become intermittent commentators on what they really are, a collective monster that far surpasses the degeneracy of Olalla’s family.

The flames of satisfaction intensify and the victim’s cries pierce the darkness. With the end moments away, the mob mentality suddenly recedes replaced by faces of regret and shame. Is the recognition of evil the final act of redemption?

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Oh yes, there is another monster in Olalla we cannot overlook: the demon of violent death neatly packaged by its flatterers: insanity, fear, amorality, hatred, and self-righteousness.

But it never comes without society’s approbation of the real monster that infects us, the ubiquitous “they,” the source of all evil that Uncle Felipe recognizes when he chastises Olalla.

It forever haunts our consciousness and feeds our imagination . . . along with The Grand Guignol and Pogo, of course.

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* In the decade before the birth of modern adult film, movies contained nude scenes in what we know today as softcore. Eventually, audiences wanted more but male/female penetration was off limits.

Love_Camp_7_1To spice up offerings, B-movie makers like David Freidman and Joseph Mawra resorted to rape, whippings, torture, and general mayhem to put the naked girl on the big screen.

These films became their own adult/horror sub-genre called roughies, kinkies, and ghoulies–largely realistic in settings that resided in society’s underbelly, such as the mad doctor’s house of pain, spy interrogation, female prisons, and human trafficking, commonly known as white slavery.

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The next post explores some of Olalla’s cinematography.

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