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What’s New in Old Movies: March 2024

by Don Stradley

 

March is in full swing and the sellers of physical media are churning out some interesting fare. Let’s start with The Batwoman!


The plot synopsis alone should entice:

Batwoman is called to investigate a whacked-out scientist that is capturing wrestlers and using their spinal fluid to create a Gill Man.”


Well, if that’s not a classic, I’m not sure what is.


The gorgeous Maura Monti brings a cool bravado to the title character. What’s interesting about this female crime fighter is that her daily life is nearly as interesting as he secret life. As the stylish “Gloria,” she works as a wrestler (a “luchadora”) and has enough international hobbies to make James Bond jealous. Fighting a mad scientist seems like just another day at the office for Batwoman. According to a recent N.Y. Times article, Monti did her own stunts for the movie, save for a wrestling scene. She was kind enough to allow real luchdoras to step in and spare her the bumps.  


The Batwoman (1968, aka Las Mujer Murcielago) was made during the heyday of Mexican wrestling movies. Hence, it has all of the familiar gimmicks of the genre — lots of soft-looking karate chops and cheap monster effects — though the movie also features a nice jazzy score and some intriguing underwater scenes.


And of course, there’s Monti, who had an interesting career before donning the bat ears. Fans of Mexican wrestling movies might recognize her. In fact, she holds a rare distinction in that she appeared with all three of Mexico’s masked luchador icons — Santo, The Blue Demon, and Mil Mascaras (For those who don’t know, they are the De Niro, Pacino, and Travolta of Mexican wrestling flicks).


The Batwoman performed poorly in America. A hastily written press release appeared in a few newspapers, noting that Monti was a beauty and had to change her bikini eight times during her fight scene with the fishman. Hard to believe that wasn't enough to draw a crowd.


It played briefly in a handful of Spanish language cinemas in California and Texas, and then trickled out on the drive-in circuit, usually playing on a double bill with another Mexican cheapie or a Charles Bronson movie dubbed in Spanish.


It never reached cult film status, but The Batwoman has its charms, namely Monti. The miracle is that no one from DC Comics sued for copyright infringement, nor did anyone from Universal cotton onto the fishman being a direct knockoff of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. In the Mexican movie he's orange, which may have been enough to deflect charges of pilfering.


Monti seemed on a role at the time of The Batwoman. She was appearing in eight or nine films per year, and in 1968 had been nominated for the Silver Goddess award, an accolade from the Board of Mexican Cinema Journalists for her work in the Cantinflas comedy, Su Excelencia.


That was also the year she appeared in the Boris Karloff stinker, Invasion Siniestra (aka Alien Terror). Monti was fifth-billed in that one, playing a sexy scientist. It wasn’t released until 1971, which made it Monti’s 35th and, as it turned out, final movie. She quit the business, or the business quit her, at age 29.


The new Powerhouse Films Blu-ray is a 4K restoration from the original camera negative, and includes quite a few extras. Also, this is a limited edition, so don't leave the Batwoman hanging. (80 min, Blu-ray,  available March 26)


 

Want to enjoy extreme violence towards women but still feel like a film buff? Then I'd recommend Peeping Tom (1960), perhaps the most exquisitely artsy flick ever made about a perverted sex killer.


This is the one about the disturbed cameraman who stalks models. His camera’s tripod is rigged so a sword shoots out of it, allowing him to capture the look of fear on the face of his victim as the blade pierces them. (I’ve always wondered why the models didn’t run away. They just stayed put and let this creep stab them with his camera-sword.)


There's a lot of psychobabble about the killer and his childhood traumas, but the real treat of the movie is Carl Boehm’s performance as the pathetic villain, and the color cinematography of Otto Heller. It also stars the pixyish Anna Massey, who was a regular in British film and television, and Moira Sheerer, the famous ballerina. Directed by Michael Powell, Peeping Tom is a visual stunner. 


The movie didn’t knock ‘em out at first. Reviews varied, though The Guardian of London seemed to set the pace with a headline reading, “Too much of a bad thing.” 


Many critics felt Powell, known for more elegant fare such as The Red Shoes (1948), had simply indulged a major lapse in taste. A Sydney newspaper wrote, “The English are turning out sex-and-horror films by the dozen; and expensive color photography does not save Peeping Tom from being as trashy as the rest.”


The film received an “X” from the British ratings board, and was even barred in a few locations.


Peeping Tom hit American screens in 1962 and flopped even worse than it had at home. Distributed by Astor Films, it was marketed like a cheap William Castle movie for the teenage crowd, complete with dumb advertisements (“Are you being peeped at?”), and warnings that theater management wasn’t responsible for those who might need medical attention due to the film’s “extreme excitement.” 

After a short stint on the American drive-in circuit, it sank without a trace.


In the years to come, however, Peeping Tom enjoyed a reevaluation.  Rediscovered by a new generation of critics and film school brats, it became one of those movies people whispered about at parties. (“Have you seen it? You MUST see it!”)  Suddenly it went from underpraised to overpraised. Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of Horror Movies (1987) called it “one of the supreme achievements of the British cinema – and of cinema in general.” Step aside Citizen Kane!


Nowadays you’ll see it on any list of great British films, usually quite high in the rankings. Mention Peeping Tom to Martin Scorsese and he’ll start talking really quickly about voyeurism and the danger of making art. You won’t understand him, but you’ll get the impression that he really, really likes it.


Reappraisals can be wonderful. I only hope the same thing happens for The Batwoman.


Even if it doesn't quite measure up to the praise of hyperventilating film scholars, Peeping Tom is always worth a look. The new 4K restoration from Criterion includes several extras, audio commentaries, and documentary features, many of which involve Scorsese. (101 min, Available May 14)


 

From the reading room: Philip Gefter’s new book is a mixed bag, but what an intriguing effort. Cocktails with George and Martha: Movies, Marriage, and the Making of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a step-by step account of one of my favorite films, from its beginning as a stage play by Edward Albee, to the raucous 1966 film production by Mike Nichols starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.


Gefter takes us back to that amazing moment in film history. How strange it must’ve been to the people who had loved the play to learn that glamorous, 32-year-old Liz Taylor was going to play frumpy, middle-aged Martha. Stranger still, the film would be helmed by Nichols, best known at the time as being part of the Nichols and May comedy team. He’d never directed a film! Yet it all worked out in a big way. The film won five Academy Awards, including one for Liz, and still feels like a classic.


Gefter’s book isn’t perfect. He botches a few details that any theater or movie buff will catch, and he spends too much time trying to analyze modern marriage. Unfortunately, his insights about marriage aren’t as interesting as he may think. Still, I’m compelled to tip my hat to him. He took a big swing with this book and, as The Wall Street Journal said recently, much of it is “good, harrowing fun.” (Hardcover and kindle, 368 pages, Bloomsbury Publishing, available now

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