Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book Review: Swedish Sensationsfilms, by Daniel Ekeroth

Text © Richard Gary / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

Swedish Sensationsfilms: A clandestine history of sex, thrillers, and kicker cinema
By Daniel Ekeroth
Translated by Magnus Henrikkson
Bazillion Points Books (Brooklyn, NY), 2011
320 pages; USD $19.95
ISBN: 978-09796163-6-5

This review is by guest reviewer, Richard Gary.

Just what is Swedish Sensationsfilms, you may be asking? This is cinema produced in Sweden mostly from the late 1950s into the 1990s, but mostly whose heyday is the mid-‘60s through the mid-‘80s, that push the boundaries of taste, topics, and usually patience. Much of the focus includes crime, spies, adventure stories, and pseudo-documentaries, but mostly they are about sex. The American equivalent would be Exploitation Cinema; however, unlike the US subgenre, horror and gore was frowned upon by a strong Swedish governmental censorship board, but sex was accepted so the films were wide open in this area (not sure if pun intended or not).

Back in New York during 1969, I remember after the Mets won the World Series, and any member of the Mets baseball organization could get in free to see Jag ar Nyfiken – Gul, or as we knew it, I Am Curious (Yellow), which paved the way for the wave of Swedish films that would start showing up in art houses such as the Thalia and along 42 Street, pre-Giuliani’s gentrification / sterilization.

Author Daniel Ekeroth’s previous book was Swedish Death Metal, which takes an in-depth look at the harsh music genre. Here he looks at sensationsfilms cinema from his Swedish homeland in a very detailed, thorough, and fan-based loving way.

Here is the general format of the book: each page has the title alphabetically with literal English translation directly beneath, and other names the films have been released under at the bottom. The director and actors are listed on the side. Each citation is, on average, three paragraphs. Usually the first is about the plot, the second about the making of the film, and the third some anecdote or juicy details about the actors, director, critics comments from the time, and such. While that is par, sometimes the info is shorter and summed up in a single paragraph, other times it fills the page.

To add to this, about every fourth or fifth page is filled with images from the films, posters, VHS or DVD boxes, and the like, with average of three per page. Most are black and white, but there is a multiple leaf color section in the middle. All very exciting and labeled with descriptions.

It’s pretty obvious who some of Ekeroth’s likes and dislikes are by his consistent commentary. After all, there are a limited amount of actors and directors coming out of Sweden, so it’s easier to see a person’s work in retrospect. For example, he is apparently not fond of prolific directors Mats Helge Olsson, the Jesus Franco of Sweden, if you will, and Arne Mattisson. He is also fond of actresses like Marie Forsa, and has an obvious crush on period stalwart Christina Lindberg (who has her own few autobiographical pages near the beginning titled “Christina Lindberg, Exposed; as told to Ronny Bengtsson,” where she talks about her career for a few enjoyable pages).

Because the text was translated from Swedish (by Magnus Henriksson), sometimes the syntax feels a bit strange, but that does not interfere with the contents in any way, and in fact, keeps it from getting clichéd. But mostly what matters is he speaks his mind. For example, for the 1982 film Blodaren (The Bleeder), Ekeroth firmly states, “…a group of high school media students could produce a better film than this in a matter of hours” (that only makes me want to see it more, which is possible since it is available in segments on YouTube). For Jag, en Oskuld (aka I, A Virgin, 1968), he jokes, “foremost the one where Inga masturbates accompanied by a wild fuzz guitar – as we all do from time to time.” In a further self-deprecation, both personally and nationally, he posits that Lamna Mej Inte Ensam (1980; otherwise known as Don’t Leave Me Alone and The Score), is “a relic from the most insane period in Swedish history – when child pornography and prostitution was legal, yet horror movies were uniformly banned by censors, and homosexuality as by law considered a mental illness. It’s a miracle any kid survived those years – and I should know!”

It is also admirable that Ekeroth includes some extremely obscure releases, such as The Frozen Star (1977), an early Mats Helge Olsson film which Ekeroth explains, “The original print was only screened once for about ten people at the Metropol theater in little Varnamo…” Apparently, this is also an early example of the Swedish sub-sub-genre of “Lingonberry Western” (the Swedish version of the Italian “Spaghetti Western”). On the other end of the spectrum, there are a few Ingmar Berman inclusions, such as Jungfrukallan (1960), which we know as The Virgin Spring (and on which 1972’s Last House on the Left is based).

The author’s pedigree in music makes its presence felt occasionally, such as for 1971’s Sound of Naverlur (The Sound of the Birch Trumpet, where he comments, “For those of you interested in fast music and very short songs, Dalarna [Swedish province] is also the birthplace of grindcore, as genre godfathers Asocial recorded their 1981 demo tape ‘How Could Hardcore Be Any Worse?’ there in the town of Hedemora.”

There is plenty of trivia related information added, such as for Karlekens Sprak (1976), where he notes that this “is the highly inappropriate film Travis Bickle takes Betsey to see on their date in Taxi Driver (1976).” Another interesting aspect is how many American actors appear in these films, including Rod Taylor, Christopher Lee, Valerie Perrine, Dennis Hopper, and Clu Gulager, and especially those of the golden porn era, such as Harry Reems, Sharon Mitchell, Bob Astyr, Eric Edwards, Darby Lloyd Rains, and Kim Pope.

Towards the back of the book, appear a few appealing appendixes. First up is a “Glossary of Curious Swedish Culture” (including Fritidsledare, Kickers, and Raggare). Next is a “Rogues Gallery” that includes bios and brief filmographies of stars of the genre, such as the likes of directors Mac Ahlberg, Andrei Feher, and Joseph Sarno (born in Brooklyn!), and actors including Marie Ekorre, Heinz Hopf, and Marie Liljedahl. Finally (after the Acknowledgements page), Ekeroth lists the “Twenty Sensationsfilms To See Before You Die.”

And what is missing? Nothing much, but I do have a couple of wish-list kind of additions. First, I would have liked to have seen an index of the films by their English names in the back, so I would not have to go through page by page, as the titles are listed, of course, by their original Swedish names. Second, and this is possibly being unreasonable, how about an included DVD with some of the trailers to these films? Sure, some can be found on YouTube and on the Something Weird label, but having it in the back of the book would have been great, though most likely financially unrealistic.

For the fan of exploitation films, this book is an absolute must. A fun read whether you’ve seen the films or not (or even intend to do so), this book fills a needed hole in the history of world cinema.

Bonus trailers:
Thriller: En Grym Film, possibly a framework for Kill Bill.

Jag – En Kvinna (known in the US as I, A Woman)

Maid in Sweden

Mats Helge Olsson’s The Ninja Mission

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