The Mystery Of The Elusive Auteur… THE CASE OF THE SCORPION’S TAIL Reviewed

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BD. Region B. Arrow. 15.

The Case Of The Scorpion’s Tail (1971) plays out in familiar globe-trotting style, kicking off in a London that is still just about swinging (and in which Fulci’s Lizard In A Woman’s Skin was shot, the same year) before relocating to Greece, where this film was released as “Dawn Of The Black Stilletos” (yeah, I remember her well…) George Hilton is insurance man Peter Lynch, detailed by his employers International Unlimited Insurance to investigate the million dollar payoff to Lisa Baumer (“Evelyn Stewart” / Ida Galli) after her old man was among the victims of a Lockerbie-style plane bombing; her druggy ex is prepared to testify that she was in on the conspiracy but gets silenced by an identikit black clad, knife-wielding assassin (Luis Barboo from a thousand trashy Jesus Franco movies); to complicate matters further, the latter’s girlfriend Lara (Janine Raynaud from Franco’s Succubus) was having a fling with Mr Baumer and is contesting his will. On the eve of her flight to Tokyo, still carrying that million around in a bag (!), Lisa is butchered in her hotel room in a scene that’s cribbed directly from a memorable murder moment in Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970) and which also obviously alludes to the shockingly early demise of Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho. Enter Interpol agent John Stanley (Alberto de Mendoza), local cop Stavros (?!?) played by Luigi Pistilli and Anita Strindberg as investigative reporter Cleo Dupont. Lynch wastes no time making out with her (good choice, considering the other two options) amid copious consumption of J&B. Lara also pops up again, only to figure in a BWTCP patented siege scene before she and Barboo’s character are both killed off. Still with me? It’s only after Cleo’s own siege scene that the clue of the Scorpion-shaped cuff-link emerges from a photographic blow up (!), soon revealed as a red herring when Lynch takes Cleo on a recuperative harpoon fishing trip and the final wave of twists and shock revelations rolls round. What a carry on for Cleo…

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For some time now I’ve been labouring over a piece (and for an even longer time, trailering it… way to guarantee an anticlimax there, Freudstein!) concerning the way the giallo genre shifted from the superficially “sexy” but ultimately money-motivated potboilers of Guerrieri and Lenzi to the deranged sex killer sagas pioneered by Argento’s Bird With The Crystal Plumage. In the course of researching this piece I had cause to dig out, rewatch and reappraise Luciano Ercoli’s Forbidden Photos Of A Lady Above Suspicion (1970), a film which anticipates much of what happens in the four more widely celebrated gialli that Sergio Martino clocked up over 1971/2. With an impeccable sense of timing, Arrow are now debuting the second of those, The Case Of The Scorpion’s Tail, on UK Blu-ray.

Martino’s earlier The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh mixed three parts cold, calculating killer(s) with one homicidal sex case (yep, the odds were very definitely stacked against Edwige Fenech) but the action was proceeding in a deccidedly post-Argento direction. The Case Of The Scorpion’s Tail suggests that the director, his producer / big brother Luciano and prolific scripter Ernesto Gastaldi were still hedging their bets as to which kind of plot was going to trump the other at the box office. Again, both strains are mixed, though there’s a definite feeling (despite Strindber’gs character anticipating that of Daria Nicolodi in Deep Red… plus a brief and jarring irruption of Fulci-esque eye violence) that matters have regressed into something more resembling one of Lenzi’s torrid bonkbusters. In the absence of Fenech (who was pregnant) one half expects Carroll Baker to arrive centre screen. She doesn’t but there’s so much else going on in this rattling little giallo (I particularly

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appreciated the psycho’s Diabolikesque rubbber kill suit), which rolls along at a fair old lick and (if you can overlook such jarringly cheap moments as the airfix air disaster) in satisfying style. For Martino Jr, TCOTST might well have seemed, in retrospect, to play things a little too safe, which he would remedy in spades with his 1972 brace All The Colours Of The Dark (which incorporated occult elements into the basic formula) and Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key (a chamber giallo whose sexual decadence is peppered with more than a pinch of Poe). Ringing the changes from film to film was the essence of Martino’s directorial style…

… if, indeed, he had one. Le Dolce Morte author Mikel Koven argues in an engaging featurette here that Martino is some kind of anti-auteur, whose directorial identity dissolves into whatever filone he’s currently navigating, whose genre films are all about genre rather than any personal statement he’s making. Koven suggests that the true auteur of these Martino films could be producer Luciano, but is more probably screen writer Ernesto Gastaldi, obsessively re-refining his take on Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955)… well, Brian De Palma built an auteurist rep by Hitching his star to endless rehashes of you-know-who…

Gastaldi’s auteurist credentials are further examined in a video essay by Troy Howarth and who do we find providing the main feature’s commentary track (moderated by Federico Caddeo) but Gastaldi himself… damning George Hilton with faint praise, explaining his beef with Dario Argento (illogical plotting) and relating the corruption of Italian censorship bodies.

I’m hard pressed to think of a release whose bonus features cohere so cogently into an overarching argument, one which you might or might not care to accept. Should generate a few lively threads on social media, anyhows…

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Sergio Martino does get his own say, citing the notorious Fenaroli insurance murder case as an influence at least as important as that of Les Diaboliques… he also talks about phony credits that were manufactured to meet co-production quotas, his dismay at the overuse of zooms in his films and the ever-popular subject of J&B product placement.

George Hilton is interviewed too, revealing his affair with Anita Strindberg, which is perhaps a little ungentlemanly… even more so, his pronouncements on her botched boob job. More amusingly, he remembers his first encounter with the Argentinian actor Alberto De Mendoza, who ultimately became a friend but initially identified him as “that Uruguyan twat!” You’ll also get to marvel at a trailer that is, quite frankly, berserk.

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We hacks are never sent the limited edition booklets that come with these things so I’m not able to comment on the writings of Howard Hughes or Peter Jilmstead (the latter presumably extracted from Peter’s eagerly anticipated Strindberg biog, The Other Anita) but Rachael Nisbet, one of my favourite bloggers (at hypnoticcrescendos.blogspot.co.uk) has kindly sent me the text of her highly enjoyable essay. I particularly admire the heroic way she manages to stay with the labyrinthine plot twists of these things. I’m more down with Koven (who admits, in his featurette, that he just “goes with the flow”). The main thrust of RN’s piece concerns the way that TCOTST’s deployment of “whodunnit” themes make it a quintessential giallo…

… indeed, although somewhat less adventurous than subsequent Martino gialli (or its predecessor The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh, for that matter) this Case belongs firmly in the giallo files on your shelf. Arrow’s new edition looks (bearing none of the dreaded grain often associated with such upgrades) and sounds just great, showcasing a Bruno Nicolai score that’s all prowling bass and snarling trumpets, ably echoing the work of Nicolai’s compadre Morricone in the first three Argento thrillers.

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Jeepers, Creepers… ALL EYES ON LENZI – THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE ITALIAN EXPLOITATION TITAN Reviewed

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All Eyes On Lenzi – The Life And Times Of The Italian Exploitation Titan (2018). Directed and produced by Calum Waddell. Produced and edited by Naomi Holwill.

Despite having one of Hollywood’s hottest hot shots (you know who I mean) as the unofficial President of his fan club, the recently deceased Umberto Lenzi remains an underrated director among aficianados of the various genres in which he worked. I’m as guilty as anyone in this regard… in one of my earliest published pieces I praised Lenzi’s cannibal movies (he wouldn’t have thanked me for that… indeed, he subsequently slammed the phone down on one attempt I made to talk to him about those films) while dismissing his gialli out of hand. Well, the statute of limitations must be up on this so I might as well confess that in those days I still hadn’t seen several of the latter…

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I subsequently caught up with and have recently been re-watching Lenzi’s thrillers starring Carroll Baker, in the service of a feature that I’m writing about the evolution of the giallo, so you’d think I wouldn’t make that mistake again. As recently as my review of Arrow’s Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key, though, I refer to a notional “big four” of giallo directors (Bava, Argento, Fulci and Martino) which really should have been expanded to a “big five” to include Lenzi. Sure, his brand of steamy. scheming, bonkbusting gialli gave way to the Bird With The Crystal Plumage model and his later attempts to render films in the Argento style are not wholly convincing, but to deny Lenzi his proper place in the Hall Of Fame does a significant disservice both to him and to giallo history… over and above which, we must consider the impact of his cannibal epics on polite society and the enormity of his contributions to the poliziotteschi scene.

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Perhaps my brief contributions to Calum Waddell’s timely All Eyes On Lenzi feature-length documentary will go some way towards atoning for my previous critical lacunae. There are plenty of other pundits lining up in it to demand that Lenzi be paid his due respect, including Milanese fan publishing notable Manlio  Gomarasca, the University of Worcester’s own Mikel Koven (who enthuses about the thespian sparks ignited between Tomas Milian and Maurizio Merli, among other things), film-maker Scooter McCrae and one of my favourite up-and-coming writers, Rachael Nisbet (is that your disc collection behind you, Rachael? Jeez, I wish mine was as neatly displayed as that…)

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Principle among those boosting Lenzi’s credentials, of course, is Lenzi himself, in one of the last interviews he ever gave (and in which he gives particularly good value for money on the subject of setting up the action scenes in his crime-slime classics, also keeping an admirably straight face as he expands upon the serious ecological message behind Nightmare City). Giovanni Lombardo Radice offers a dissenting view while his Cannibal Ferox co-star Danilo Mattei (who can also be seen lurking inside a bear skin in Lenzi’s The Iron Master) contributes a more  phlegmatic take on the moody director’s foibles.

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The Iron Master… Nightmare City… Eyeball… all these slices of delirious cinematic trash are enthusiastically endorsed as evidence that Lenzi could still deliver entertaining fare, even when the budgets got a bit rubbish. AEOL doesn’t shy away from the fact that when the budgets got really rubbish, Lenzi was as capable of delivering a sack of shit as anyone (Black Demons… The Hell’s Gate… I’m looking at you) but hey, that never queered anyone’s admiration for Lucio Fulci, and rightly so. Nisbet offers the ironic observation that even Lenzi’s fag-end failures have a fan following of their own among millennials (bloody millennials… who can figure those guys out, huh?)

Another winner from our pals at High Rising Productions, All Eyes On Lenzi will apparently be included in an all-singing / dancing deluxe metal box edition of Eyeball from 88 Films… keep ’em peeled for that one, schlock-pickers!

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06/08/31 – 19/10/17. R.I.P.

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From Copenhagen With Love… FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION Reviewed And Reappraised

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DVD. Region Free. Blue Underground. Not Rated.

Minou (Dagmar Lassander) lives a privileged life of pampered ennui as the neglected wifey of workaholic industrialist Peter (Pier Paolo Capponi). Comfortably marooned in Jacqueline Susann territory, her most significant daily decisions include what colour to paint her toe-nails, which wig to wear (she and her snooty pals all boast extensive wig collections, all of which pale into insignificance in comparison with the legendary lacquered Capponi comb-over) when she hits Barcelona’s hot and happening nite spots (FPOALAS is clearly shot in Barcelona, though at several points in it characters can be seen waving wads of US dollars around) and how early in the day she can get away with downing a tumbler or two of J&B and popping a few prozacs. Yep, Minou is bored off her delectable arse and longs for a little excitement in her life, but as they say – be careful what you wish for!

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Attempting to see off the blahs with a moonlit walk on the beach, Minou is waylaid by a menacing dude (Simón Andreu) with a sword stick who cops a feel off her and demands that she “beg for me… plead for my kisses”. When he’s finished groping he disappears, but not before advising her that her husband is “a fraud and a murderer”.

You have to keep reminding yourself that all of this is taking place in pre #metoo days, otherwise the reactions of Minou’s nearest and dearest to the news of her ordeal at the hands of a sword stick wielding weirdo might seem a little… odd. “It was probably just a prank” suggests hubby, helpfully and the victim herself seems to take the incident in her stride, refusing to alert the police on the grounds that “they just make you fill in forms”. Later, at a hep party where ageing swingers bust their funky moves to another delirious dollop of Morricone Hammond heaven, Minou meets up with pal Dominique (“Susan Scott” / Nieves Navarro) to discuss her run in with the kinky maniac. “It means you’re bursting with sex appeal”, gibbers Dominique (who’s at it with Peter behind Minou’s back, incidentally) : “I’d adore being violated!”. No big deal then, it’s unanimous… indeed, there seems to be suggestion that a bored, spoiled woman is getting carried away with her sexual fantasies.

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Stoking the fire, Dominique shows Minou some (rather tame) nuddy photos she’s had taken of herself and her pals (which had to be developed in Copenhagen!) Who should turn up in one of them, but Mr Menacing Dude from the beach?! He subsequently contacts Minou, claiming that the recent death of one of her husband’s creditors (from the bends, of all things) was no accident. Taped telephone conversations seem to lend credence to this version of events, and Minou is only too well aware that Peter has been suffering some serious cash flow problems, so she agrees to meet the blackmailer… but was it really wise to go in that mini skirt?

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Minou offers to buy Menacing Dude’s silence but he scorns her “paper dollars… you don’t know me, Minou… you must submit your mind and body… you must suffer and be my slave!” What this florid nonsense boils down to is the blackmailer bonking her while taking pictures. With the eponymous forbidden photes in his possession, Minou’s tormentor reveals that he has faked the incriminating evidence against her husband but now has a strong bargaining position from which to demand her ongoing sexual favours… which she seems to dispense, shall we say, not without enthusiasm.

Deduct several credibility points if you haven’t worked out there’s more to this debauched scenario than meets the eye and that there are several twists still to come…

On the evidence of his Death Walks On High Heels (1971) and Death Walks At Midnight (1972), each of which has its moments but both of which ultimately amount to less than the sum of their convoluted parts, I’ve always considered Luciano Ercoli a bit of a second stringer, an underachieving Sergio Martino wannabe. While researching a piece on how the “bonkbusting” strain of giallo (presiding goddess Carroll Baker) gave way to the “psycho slasher” variant (and the divine Edwige Fenech) after the success of Argento’s Bird With The Crystal Plumage, however, I took Ercoli’s Forbidden Photos Of A Lady Above Suspicion off the shelf (1970) for a long overdue rewatching and completely revised my long-standing, complacent opinion.

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Martino’s gialli are clearly key transitional works between the sexually overheated, money-motivated murder mysteries of Guerrieri and Lenzi and the post-Crystal Plumage sagas of deranged sex killers, mix-and-matching elements from both strains to keep their audiences guessing while simultaneously, director Sergio, producer Luciano and writer Ernesto Gastaldi  furiously attempted to figure out which side of the equation was going to put the most natiche on Italian cinema seats. No fewer than four aspiring assassins are interacting in their attempts to eliminate Edwige during The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh (1971). Just one of them is a full-blown nutzoid sex case, while the others coolly calculate the financial benefits potentially accruing from her demise. Subsequent Martino efforts essentially reshake the mix while refreshing the flavour with such incidental distractions as a black magic cult (in All The Colours Of The Dark, 1972) and the boho / Poe stylings of the same year’s Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key. (*)

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FPOALAS was released over the last two months of 1970 in Northern Italian cities and during early ’71 in the South,  in other words it was an earlier response to TBWTCP than any of the Martino pictures and anticipates several of their recurring narrative strategies. Like Fenech’s Mrs Wardh, Minou responds to marital neglect by drifting into an abusive S/M relationship with a cad (the prolific and still busy Simón Andreu, who would combine the neglectful and sadistic male roles in Vicente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride, two years later… his roles in both films are so archetypal that his characters in each remain unnamed!)… just like Ivan Rassimov, who would subsequently take the corresponding role in Martino’s thrillers, Andreu tends to lurk in the shadows or barely glimpsed through rain-streaked windows, turning up at pivotal plot moments to further turn the screws on the increasingly desperate heroine. The ease with which Dominique converts Minou to the joys of porn prefigures Edwige Fenech’s rapid recruitment to a Satanic cult when Marina Malfatti suggests it might remedy her conformist malaise in All The Colours Of The Dark… jeez, Lassander even does the “take a shower in your slip” thing before it ever occurred to Edwige Fenech to do so.

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What really clinches FPOALAS’s place as a seminal text in the discourse between the “cold calculating killers” and “irrational, passionate assassins” tendencies of giallo is the self-consciousness with which the conspiring characters discuss precisely this dichotomy.  “You want to defeat me with your money… you’re trying to make a fool of me!” chides Mr Menacing when Minou attempts to buy him off: “Both of you think that your money can buy anything. You’re like animals, yet you call me mad!” “He’s crazy…” Minou confides to Domenique ” he doesn’t think like other people, there’s no way of knowing what he’ll do next”. As it happens, he’s only playing a role but acts it out so enthusiastically that he ends up spoiling the scam that his puppet-master (guess who) had devised. “He enjoyed playing the maniac and forgot I was paying him to follow instructions” complains the actual culprit behind this whole tawdry affair, before the cops arrive and gun him down… but if Andreu’s anaemic antics during this film (which amount to handing out a few superficial scratches with that sword stick) constitute him going over the top as a sex killer, one can only wonder what a half-assed attempt by him would look like!

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Future pasta thriller killers would set about their gory handiwork with altogether more gusto, as the conflict between “60s scheming gialli and 70s stabby gialli” (as one of my social media pals so eloquently put it) was ultimately resolved in favour of the latter. Incidentally, the “rational” motive for all the unseemly shenanigans in Ercoli’s film, when ultimately revealed, makes no sense whatsoever… I mean, I know there was all sorts of crazy stuff going on in Italy during the ’70s, but has there ever been a time (anywhere?) when insurance companies paid out on suicides?

Luciano Ercoli (who also produced FPOALAS… Ernesto Gastaldi, still working through his obsession with Les Dialoboliques, wrote it) retired from the film biz after inheriting a fortune in the mid 70s, presumably to enjoy the J&B quaffing, leisured lifestyle with his muse Navarro (who carried on acting – in several Joe D’Amato titles, among others… till 1989). Hopefully they spent the time until Ercoli’s death in March 2015 more harmoniously than Peter and Minou.

Extras on this disc comprise a theatrical trailer and the featurette Forbidden Screenplays, in which Gastaldi reminisces about working with Ercoli.

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(*) Sergio Martino finally came down firmly in psycho killer territory with Torso (produced by Carlo Ponti in 1973), which stripped the narrative right down to “pretty girls vs drooling loony” basics (with the most sexually conservative girl surviving the kill spree), establishing in the process the template for the subsequent American slasher / splatter phenom.

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“I Think We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Legal Team”… Enzo Castellari’s THE LAST SHARK Reviewed

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L’Ultomo Squalo (“The Last Shark”) aka The Last Jaws / Jaws Returns/ Great White (1981). Directed by Enzo G. Castellari. Produced by Maurizio Amati and Ugo Tucci. Written by Ramón Bravo, Vincenzo Mannino, Marc Princi and Ugo Tucci. Cinematography by Alberto Spagnoli. Edited by Gianfranco Amicucci. Special FX by Antonio Corridori. Art direction by Franco Vanorio. Music by Guido & Maurizio De Angelis. Starring: James Franciscus, Vic Morrow, Micaela Pignatelli, Joshua Sinclair, “Timothy Brent”  (Giancarlo Prete), Stefania Girolami.

Here at the HOF we continue to seek out new obscurities and re-familiarise ourselves with long neglected treasures during our increasingly elastic free month’s trial with Amazon Prime. This time out it’s an Italian copycat effort that scored big in American theatres (round about the time that its director was making a big impression in the early days of home video and winning the heart of Quentin Tarantino with the likes of Bronx Warriors)… scoring significant legal problems in the process.

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William Wells (Joshua Wells), the mayor of South Bay (why does the poster above locate the action in “Port Harbor”? Fucked if I know…) is running for State Governor so he doesn’t want anything to disrupt the centenary wind-surfing regatta he’s throwing (sound reasoning… anyone who lays on a centenary wind-surfing regatta gets my vote!) It follows that he doesn’t want smart alec marine biologist Peter Benton (James Franciscus) spreading scare stories about the potential for shark attacks. Credit where it’s due, the mayor does get miles of underwater metal cages installed to ring fence the bay from sharky intrusions (yep, this guy’s definitely getting my vote). Vic Morrow (in the Quint role) rants (in a preposterous Scottish accent) about how sharks, once they’ve acquired the taste for human flesh, won’t let any metal fence come between them and their next helping of it. Helping them on their relentless way, ambitious freelance news reporter Bob Martin (Giancarlo Prete) sabotages stretches of the fence to increase his chances of getting saleable footage of wind-surfing kids being attacked by sharks (way to get your Pulitzer prize shoved up your arse there, Bob!)

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“There’s something fishy here… I don’t like it” announces one of the competitors, shortly before he, his buddies and their bikini-clad bimbo girlfriends start getting bits munched off them by that Great White. Sensing his gubernatorial aspirations slipping from his grasp, the Mayor has himself helicoptered out over the bay in an attempt to shoot the giant shark, which rises from the brine to drag the chopper and its inhabitants into Davey Jones’s locker… another promising political career comes to an end! What pisses Peter off more than any of this, though, is when the shark bites off one of his daughter Jenny (Castellari’s real life daughter Stefania)’s legs, setting up the climactic confrontation between him, Quinty ol’ Ron Hamer (Morrow) and the titular beasty…

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Hm… did any of that remind you of another film? One directed by Steven Spielberg in 1975, perhaps? Just a little bit? Universal Pictures certainly thought so. As Castellari tells it… “In the sunny city of Los Angeles, in only its first weekend of release, we collected $2,200,000… a crazy amount for any Italian, indeed any European, film. I was fortunate enough to be in LA when it was opening. After 15 days The Last Shark, which was called The Great in the United States, had taken at least 20 million. It seemed impossible to be in competition with Spielberg and win, it was like one of our fantasy productions but it was true! The Americans were running scared of us, so Universal moved to interrupt our success, and a month later they did it, through legal means, inventing a lot of reasons and a lot of evidence which they presented to the judge. You can imagine these high-powered lawyers for Universal, they’re able to fight very well against a small Italian production…”

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As if this wasn’t enough of a commercial injury, Castellari feels that Universal subsequently added a cheeky dollop of insult: “In Jaws 3, which came out two years later, there are several scenes that are exactly the same as in my film, which they killed in this big market, then they had the cheek to copy me… especially the big scene on the pier, it’s exactly the same as in my picture, right down to identical shots!”

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Well, there’s probably an element of the pasta pot calling the US corporate kettle black here, though what’s undeniable is that with admirable economy and characteristic conviction (in the action sequences) / competence (during the scenes of exposition) Castellari has managed a shark picture that bears comparison with the legitimate successors to Spielberg’s original. Sure, there are plot holes (does Benton chin Bob Martin because he knew that the latter had sabotaged that anti-shark fencing? How did he know? And was a sock on the jaw sufficient payout for his daughter’s missing leg?) but the film’s biggest drawback is the way Castellari allows the camera to dwell too long on his giant plastic shark head (admittedly Spielberg made the same mistake) and some less than convincing model work, certain shots of which should have been dispensed with entirely. There’s one bit with a toy helicopter bobbing around in somebody’s sink, alongside what’s supposed to be a shark… but could well be something else…

… but what else could it possibly be?

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Well, consider Castellari’s own account of shooting The Shark Hunter with Franco Nero, two years earlier: “We did that in a Caribbean island, using 32 real sharks with a Mexican crew. For them it was so easy, but on one occasion I was underwater with the DP when a shark escaped from the hands of his trainer… I saw this shark coming straight at me, it was just like a train, and that was it… whoa! What do you say? ‘You shit your pants!’ I know now from experience, that’s not just a saying. You actually do it!”

Another mystery cleared up. All part of the service here at House Of Freudstein, dear readers.

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Make A Space On Your Shelf And Several Hours In Your Schedule, Amigo… Arrow’s COMPLETE SARTANA Box Set Is Here!

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BD. Region B. Arrow. 15.

Since its grand opening at the beginning of 2016, The House Of Freudstein has effectively been a spaghetti western-free desert. I was just pondering how to remedy this regrettable state of affairs when Arrow beat me to the draw by sending screener discs for their monster “Complete Sartana” limited edition box set…

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There’s a widespread misconception that Django is the most prolific pistol-packin’ pasta cowboy character but in fact Sergio Corbucci’s Franco Nero-starring classic from 1966 didn’t garner an authorised sequel until Nello Rossati directed Nero in Django Strikes Again, 21 years later. All of the alleged Django vehicles between those two were bandwagon jumping rebrandings for foreign markets or domestic rereleases… so Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) is true to the opportunistic spirit of those, if not exactly to that of Corbucci’s original vision.

No, the spagwest anti-hero who racked up the most legit screen appearances, by my reckoning (and I’ll happily stand correction on this) is Sartana… and we’re not even counting the bogus outings spawned by the runaway success of Gianfranco Parolini’s Gianni Garko-starring If You Meet Sartana… Pray For Your Death in 1968 (Alberto Cardone’s 1966 effort $1000 On The Black, in which Garko also appeared, re-emerged as simply “Sartana” and there would be countless more luridly titled cash-ins, including several team ups and showdowns with assorted bootleg Djangos).

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Garko, who had amassed a respectable resumé prior to the spagwest craze, suddenly found himself in great demand due to his passable resemblance to Clint Eastwood… stick a hat on his head and a cheroot between his teeth and he could squint menacingly with the best of them (though to be fair to him, Garko took all of his roles seriously and it’s clear from the films in this set how he tried to develop the Sartana character each time out).

IYMS… PFYD also introduces his ongoing facility with gadgets, booby taps and elaborate stings, in an evident attempt to keep up with the Bonds. Under the eccentric directorial hand of Gianfranco Parolini (“Frank Kramer”), the caped Sartana’s inaugural outing also becomes permeated with a gothic sensibility which predates that of Sergio Garrone’s Django The Bastard (aka The Stranger’s Gundown, 1969), often cited as the template for Clint Eastwood’s wraith-like High Plains Drifter (1973).

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In this one the seemingly indestructible Sartana and his trademark four-chambered pistol contend with kill-crazy William Berger, Sydney (son of Charlie) Chaplin, Fernando Sancho in one of his patented greaseball gargoyle roles and Klaus Kinski (his knife-throwing character is itself effectively thrown away), all feverishly striving to double and triple-cross each other (you’ll need a score card to keep up with the succession of twists) in pursuit of purloined gold. Throw in a few implausible sharp-shooting feats, a garrulous grave-digger and a gold-digging whore or two and you’ve basically got the formula. Piero Piccioni’s pleasing OST features bubbly Hammond organ to the fore and between them, Parolini and DP Sandro Mancori contrive some arresting visuals, including some memorable (pre?) De Palmian split focus set ups.

After Parolini’s opening effort he was kicked off the series (don’t feel too bad for him, though, he immediately initiated and continued with the even more eccentric and similarly successful Sabata saga) and the four subsequent, increasingly floridly titled episodes of Sartana’s adventures were handled by Giuliano Carnimeo.

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1969’s I Am Sartana, Your Angel Of Death (1969) underplays the goth aspects, doubling down instead on those improbable (highly so, given the unreliability of firearms in the Wild West) feats of marksmanship and Sartana’s card-sharping expertise (he puts his deck to more deadly uses than even Wink Martindale could ever have imagined). Here he’s falsely accused of robbing a bank and sets out to identify the actual robbers, not so much to clear his name but from the conviction that if everybody believes he stole the loot, he might as well have it anyway.

Contending with him for it we find Sal Borgese, Ettore Manni, Klaus Kinski (as the  effeminately dubbed bounty hunter Hot Dead… you heard me, Hot Dead… whose story line again peters out abruptly) and the ill-starred Frank Wolff. Even Peplum standby Gordon Mitchell pops up briefly, as if there weren’t already enough people shooting each other’s hats off. The film’s score, courtesy of Vasili Kojucharov and Elsio Mancuso, hinges on a musical motif that’s strangely reminiscent of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town and just in case that’s not weird enough… did they really have fruit machines in the Old West? Just wondering.

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The first two Sartana movies did sufficiently well at domestic and overseas box offices to garner no less than three further efforts, all shoehorned into a particularly frenetic Italian release schedule during the second half of 1970. Garko, possibly due to his stints in Rafael Romero Marchent’s non-canonical cash-in Sartana Kills Them All and / or Sergei Bondarchuk’s blockbusting Waterloo,  was temporarily unavailable so George Hilton stepped into his increasingly dapper duds for Sartana’s Here… Trade Your Pistol For A Coffin. With a penchant for munching boiled eggs equal to that of the cop in Mario Landi’s flesh-creeping Giallo A Venezia (1979), this Sartana’s prowess as a marksman are risibly overstated (he dispatches opponents with guns secreted in books and even sandwiches!), enabling him to make short work of the allegedly deadly Fossit brothers, the mean Joe (Federico Boido) and his slobbering retard of a kid brother, Flint (Luciano Rossi). Sartana has his more of his work cut out dealing with Erika Blanc (from Bava’s Kill, Baby… Kill!, 1966, etc) as good time bar room girl Trixie (“Our main activity here is keeping out of the graveyard”) and Charles Southwood’s perfumed, sartorially poncified and – dare I say it? – ever so slightly camp Sabata. Go West, indeed, young Pet Shop Boys.

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Pink Sabbath.

“What’s the West coming to?” one bemused shit kicker asks another as they witness Sartana’s foppish foil riding into town under a pink parasol. Sabata, in Parolini’s parallel series, would be played by macho hombres Lee Van Cleef and Yul Brynner… it’s hard not to imagine that Carnimeo or somebody else was having a dig, good-natured or otherwise, at Parolini here but such arch touches were undoubtedly also attempts to stop the formula from getting… too formulaic.

Garko’s back (with blond locks and a fruity moustache) for Have A Good Funeral, My Friend… Sartana Will Pay, which makes further feeble concessions towards shaking up the mix. This time our man’s not contending for a pot of gold but the deeds to a patch of land, under which there are… deposits of gold! Writers Roberto Gianviti and Giovanni Simonelli must have stayed up all night devising that little plot wrinkle. Sartana faces down a gun man by throwing cards at him, gets two floozies for the price of one (Helga Liné and Daniela Giordano) and his main adversary is a seemingly indolent, Confucious-quoting Chinese saloon owner (George Wang) who reveals unexpected kung fu expertise at the climax. Like its predecessor, this one boasts the cinematography of Stelvio Massi. It’s scored by OST legend Bruno Nicolai, so whatever its shortcomings (it’s probably the least compelling of the five titles in this set) it looks and sounds marvellous.

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Nicolai hung around for scoring duties on Light The Fuse… Sartana Is Coming (1970). This, the most sadistic of the series, opens with a corrupt sheriff and his goons violating a girl then shooting her father. Sartana guns down the bad guys then, in expiation of this “crime”, turns himself into a desert penitentiary run by career slimeball Massimo Serrato. The strict regime in this joint involves pissing on the inmates and showering them with acid, but Sartana’s got a good reason to check in, i.e springing his former cohort Piero Lulli (as “Grand Full”!), who possibly knows the whereabouts of the inevitable purloined gold… turns out it’s stashed somewhere in Mansfield (?!?) In the course of his ensuing encounters with Luli, Serrato, dodgy dame”Susan Scott” (Nieves Navarro) and the mandatory chorus line of madly gurning Mexicans, Sartana must figure out exactly where by piecing together their various conflicting accounts of the original heist, before the official series closes in appropriately nutzoid style, our man mowing down his assembled enemies with a pipe organ that’s been pimped into a multi-purpose artillery piece.

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The aforementioned Rashomon pinch gives the whole film a “whodunnit aspect” that demonstrates just how smoothly the spagwest production line was retooling for Italy’s next box office craze, the giallo. Several Sartana stalwarts, of course, would secure profitable employment on the new yellow frontier… Carnimeo directed Why Are Those Strange Drops Of Blood On The Body Of Jennifer? (1972), Garko appeared in Enzo Castellari’s Cold Eyes Of Fear  (1971), Gianfranco Piccioli’s The Flower With Petals Of Steel (1973) and Lucio Fulci’s marvellous Sette Note In Nero (1970), while Hilton became one half of the genre’s golden couple, canoodling with Edwige Fenech in any amount of spaghetti slashers. Eat Your Heart Out, Gringo… Sartana’s Bonking Edwige Fenech. Now that would have been a title to conjure with…

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The features have all been nicely restored in 2K from original elements and extras wise, this set packs quite a wallop, with commentary tracks from Mike Siegel, C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke plus scads of illuminating interviews with Angel Of Death and Light The Fuse co-writer Ernesto Gastaldi (who offers fascinating insights into the workings of the Martino dynasty), Carnimeo and actors Garko, Hilton, Erika Blanc, Sal Borgese, Robert Dell’Acqua and Tony Askin. There’s a new video essay running down the series’ most familiar thespian faces, plus all the packaging and collector’s booklet stuff that we never get to see here at THOF.

This set’s crowning glory though, worth the (not inconsiderable) price of admission on its own, is the lengthy interview with Gianfranco Parolini, from which you quickly glean why his movies were so batshit bonkers… seriously, this guy makes look Lucio Fulci look like an introverted stuffed shirt, free associating through subjects ranging from the highlights of his wild career to the challenge of dealing with his wife’s dementia. Filmed shortly before his death on April 26th this year, this agreeably crazed galoot was still hustling – at the tender age of 94 – to get the money together for a new peplum. Argento’s Sandman be damned… this is where you crowd funding bucks should have gone. Too late for that but the most appropriate tribute you could now make would be to shell out for this box set. You won’t regret it.

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“Black Magic From Deep Space”… XTRO Reviewed

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BD. Region Free. Second Sight. 15. 

Not all Extra Terrestrials were as friendly as E.T. … nor were any of them remotely as financially successful. Back in 1982, Stephen Spielberg’s touchy-feely encounter of the mawkish kind wiped the box office floor with such superior downbeat contenders as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and John Carpenter’s The Thing, so what chance did a low-budget, Anglo-American Alien wannabe directed (and scored) by the obscure Harry Bromley Davenport (whose only previous feature was Whispers Of Fear from 1976) stand?

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Precious little, probably, when its own director dismisses “the dreaded Xtro” (his own words) as “an extraordinary mess”.  Cooked up between HBD, producer Mark Forstater and New Line honcho Bob Shaye as some kind of UK answer to the surreal non sequitur horrors of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979), hyped on its eventual release as the dark mirror image of Spielberg’s box office champ (with heavy Alien overtones), Xtro is indeed a mess, albeit a very, very enjoyable one. Davenport has also described his little opus as “pointless… completely ludicrous… rubbish…. awful and reprehensible” but I’d characterise it rather as a Poundland restaging of The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)… and I mean that as a compliment! In fact if I may be so bold, Xtro’s queasy quasi-Oedipal undercurrents and sci-fi slant on dysfunctional family life ultimately place it considerably closer to Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) than Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959).

The film’s opening sequence  goes right back to the source of all that touchy-feely alien hugging nonsense, Kubrick’s 2001 (1968) and reinvents its famous “flying-bone-into-spacecraft” segue for the abduction of protagonist Sam (Phil Sayer), whose subsequent return to Earth kicks off a series of highly improbable and improbably grisly events (“The idea was to do the most disgusting things that we could possibly get away with… we just wanted to shock people” admits Harry somewhere during the supplementary materials). Having boned up on alien obstetrics according to Ridley Scott, HBD presents us with the rape of “woman in cottage” (the ever lovely Susie Silvey) by slithery, sub-Gigeresque genitalia after which, in a wince inducing scene, she gives birth to a full-grown Sam.

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His wife Rachel (Bernice Stegers) has very mixed feelings about Sam’s reappearance, as during his absence she has set up home with photographer Joe (Danny Brainin). Scrumptious au pair Analise (Maryam D’Abo) is also sceptical, but at least Sam’s son Tony (Simon Nash) is glad to have him back. Sam cements Tony’s loyalty by passing on some alien powers (in another icky scene that involves neck-sucking and Cronenbergesque bladder eruptions) and soon the lad is bringing his toy clown and action man to life, to kill the interfering old biddy from downstairs (Anna Wing, who must have been particularly grateful when East Enders came along) and conniving in the transformation of Analise into a mummified alien egg breeder. Apropos of nothing (aside from Shaye’s insistence), a black panther prowls the house at random moments…

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Finally, after various other folks have been messily dispatched, Sam reverts to a monstrous metallic insect man and whisks Tony off in his space ship for a new life, God knows where.

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Davenport, as he freely admits, was blessed with a fine cast who never so much as hint in their performances that they consider this outré material beneath them. Admittedly Maryam D’Abo, for whom Xtro represents her feature debut and who suffers from a bit of a wobbly accent, later wrote it out of her filmography. Indeed, on becoming a Bond girl (The Living Daylights, 1987) she declared to the press that she had never done and would never do full frontal nude scenes. Xtro provides conclusive and rather delicious evidence to the contrary.

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Phil Sayer (now the late Phil Sayer, sadly) generates genuine pathos in his role as the dislocated dad. Bernice Stegers, whose CV also boasts Fellini’s City Of Women and her husband’s Four Weddings And A Funeral, brings credence and therefore credibility to anything in which she appears, witness her compelling turn in Lamberto Bava’s magnificently overwrought 1980 effort Macabro (below) and here. Regrettably, on the night when Mrs F and I once found ourselves sitting at the next table to Stegers in the now defunct Old Orleans restaurant on the bridge in York, my better half dissuaded me from approaching her on the grounds that I’d spoil the poor woman’s dinner if I reminded her of “all the terrible films she’s been in”. Speaking of spoiled dinners, I later threw up my chowder… bit of a washout all round, that evening was. It’s especially galling to learn from Stegers’ appearances in the bonus materials on this set that she’s rather tickled when people engage her in conversation about Xtro…

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“… just don’t ask me about that bloody Macabro thing!”

Once liable for confiscation under Section 3 of The Obscene Publications Act back in those dark draconian days of the early ’80s, Xtro’s BD debut comes with a ’15’ certificate and laden with extras, mostly courtesy of them Nucleus boys, that are almost as entertaining as the feature itself. “There was this awful period of the ‘video nasties’…” reflects Davenport in the archive feature Xtro Exposed: “ … an awful British phrase, it has a lot English pettiness about it”. Too true, Harry… though the twitchy director can’t resist enthusing about the news report on a psycho killer which featured close-ups of Xtro prominently displayed in his voluminous  video collection (“You can’t do better than that, really… sales went through the roof!”)

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In the more up-to-date Xploring Xtro, Jake and Mark have assembled most of the surviving participants and various interested parties, including Tik & Tok, reminiscing about their robotic and alien contortions and Robert Pereno reprising his immortal “Stay in the car”! line. Maryam D’Abo continues to maintain her distance from the project and although I know Jake and Marc tried hard to identify the current whereabouts of Simon Nash, their efforts ultimately proved unsuccessful. In his absence, other participants comment cattily on his crap acting and how much weight he put on during the shoot (more on that later).

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In The World Of Xtro we are introduced to Mr Dennis “Xtro” Atherton (just for a second there I thought we were going to get Andrew “Xtro” Featherstone), an über-obsessive fan of the film who views it as a Bergmanesque family drama with added space aliens and has more cock-eyed theories about it than any of the Shining devotees showcased in Rodney Ascher’s Room 327 could ever muster regarding Kubrick’s film. My favourite among Dennis’s many obsessive observations is the one concerning the magical confluence of Xtro’s length (83 minutes) and year of release (1983)… actually it was released in 1982 and seems to last 84 minutes, but I can’t bring myself to hold this against the likeable Mr Xtro Atherton.

What’s at the root of this singular obsession? Our man reveals that D’Abo’s nude scenes made a big impression on him as a pubertal youth… I bet they did, in fact they remain in my all time top three of female nude scenes in mainstream movies (Elizabeth McGovern in Ragtime, 1981 and Annette O’Toole in Cat People, 1982… thanks for asking). Wonder how good Maryam, who must be nearly 60 now, looks nekkid these days… way better than I do (below), no doubt.

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Xtro’s two existing (semi) sequels are glossed over, but the really big news is that HBD and Mark Forstater are reuniting for Xtro – The Big One (I kid you not), wherein a fourth Xtro incursion will coincide with a massive LA earthquake. We get to see some CGI-heavy test footage from that. There’s also a video tribute to Phil Sayer (incorporating the song Brian May wrote about him)…

… and of course the disc contains four (count ’em) different versions of the original feature, including two distinct endings, the British video release and Harry’s 2018 re-polish which, he freely admits, might have made the film look worse rather than improved it in any way. In fact the high contrast look of Xtro redux gives it more of  a comic book look than anything else, which I guess is quite appropriate for its subject matter. Intriguingly, Harry has also digitally thinned out the face of the much maligned Simon Nash but regrettably, we never get to hear Dennis Atherton’s pronouncements on the profound significance of this particular tweaking.

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This Property Is Condemned. THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT Reviewed.

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BD/CD. Region B. Arrow. 18.

… and the road leads to Blu-ray.

You millennials make me laugh. You don’t know you’re bloody born! When I were a lad, we used to dream about 3 disc limited blu-ray editions of Last House On The Left, containing three cuts of Wes Craven’s ground-breaking, taboo-busting rape / revenge drama, each restored in 2K from the original film elements… plus a pigeon shed-load of extras… after a 15 hour shift at ‘mill, there was no bonus soundtrack CD waiting for us  when we got back to our hovel… no collector’s postcards, double-sided fold-out poster, reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork… and certainly no hoity-toity limited edition, 60-page perfect-bound book featuring new writing on the film by Stephen bloody Thrower. We considered ourselves lucky if someone in ‘village had managed to get their hands on the Replay VHS release… failing that, we’d have to make do with some nth generation bootleg video dub… if we were lucky!

Hang on, if you are a millennial, you probably won’t get the Monty Python gag, either. So enough of that…

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My point, less nerdishly expressed, still holds good. For a long time, in recent memory, any uncut UK edition or cinema screening of Last House On The Left remained a pipe-dream. A particular bete noir for BBFC honcho James Ferman, the film’s defiantly difficult romp through the minefield of “sexualised violence” made it a hotter censorship potato than The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre or (perhaps the most pertinent comparitor) Straw Dogs, permanent fixtures on Ferman’s (s)hit list that attained certification shortly after his demise. The film’s ongoing unavailability on these sceptered isles wasn’t for the want of trying on the part of HOF Hall of Famers David Gregory and Carl Daft, who doggedly pursued the BBFC through every available avenue of appeal during their time at Anchor Bay and Blue Underground. Ironically it was Second Sight who finally secured an uncut edition in 2008, rapidly followed by a Metrodome triple disc set that unearthed further forbidden footage from the archives, while Daft and Gregory  were otherwise occupied with their Severin label. By that time a glossy big(ger) budgeted remake was in the works and multiplex screens and retail shelves were awash with slick torture porn franchises…

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As confirmed by its debut on UK Blu-ray, Last House On The Left remains a more gruelling, challenging and emotionally sapping experience than all of those put together, on account of its moral complexity (scuzzball sex offenders who display remorse for their reprehensible actions and elicit a measure of pity from the viewer… middle class parents whose liberal stance collapses into ruthless retribution) and the sheer naivety of its sophomore film makers Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham (c.f. notable early efforts by e.g. Tobe Hooper and Sam Raimi) and unknown cast, which translates into documentary-style raw intensity on the screen, focussing on one unspeakable episode and its aftermath in unflinching detail.

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If you think Last House On The Left has no relevance outside its original context of Vietnam protest era America, just tune in to any news bulletin or pick up any newspaper (check the internet, if you can tear yourself away from the latest exploits of the Kardashians), where you’ll find no shortage of stories about an increasingly feral underclass in conflict with the comfortable and complacent devisors of the neo-liberal system that created them. It will also be interesting to see how Craven’s film goes down with consumers of currently voguish Scandi Noir, which draws so much of its inspiration from the same source, Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960).

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The copious bonus material on this set includes featurettes culled from the Metrodome and MGM US releases, plus several new ones including interviews with Marc (“Junior” / “Junkie”) Scheffler (who looks like he got separated from his smurf sidekicks on the way to the shoot) and Anne Paul (who failed to bag a role but ended up applying make ups in LHOTL, initiating a career that eventually saw her making up Bill Clinton and four successive Secretary Generals of The United Nations!) Michael Gingold conducts one of those ever popular tours of the film’s locations and I was particularly pleased to see the reappearance of David Flint’s Krug Conquers England featurette, documenting the first uncut cinema screening of Last House (over the protests of local worthies) at Leicester’s fearless Phoenix Cinema in 2000, with star David Hess and Gunnar “Leatherface” Hansen in attendance. It’s great to see Gregory and Daft’s heroic efforts on behalf of LHOTL acknowledged in this mini doc, some of the interviews for which were conducted by Yours Truly. Wonderful memories of a truly memorable night.

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Stillo crazy after all those years…

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I Ain’t Gonna Work On Mimsy’s Farm No More… THE VIOLENT FACE OF NEW YORK Reviewed

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La Faccia Violenta Di New York (1973). Directed by “George” (Jorge) Darnell. Produced by Toni Di Carlo. Written by Jorge Darnell, Giovanni Fago, Marino Onorati, Alberto Piferi and José Diaz Morales. Cinematography by Erico Menczer. Edited by Alberti Gialitti. Art direction by Gianni Polidori and José Rodriguez Granada. Music by Riz Ortolani. Starring: Sergio Jiménez, Fernando Ray, Mimsy Farmer, Luigi Pistilli, Renato Pinciroli, Yolanda Rigel, Adolfo Lastretti, Tere Velázquz, Léon Singer, Giuseppe D’Avanzo, Augustin Isunza.

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Beating up wet backs is made to look like so much fun in The Violent Face Of New York…

I’ve been bingeing on Amazon Prime recently and thought I might post a few quickie reviews of stuff I found on there, as time permits and the fancy takes me. The Violent Face Of New York (here under its alternative title One Way) is a bit of rarity in that it’s an Italo-Mexican co-production. The picture it paints of the lives (and deaths) of illegal Mexican immigrants to the USA suggests that Trump would be doing them a favour if he ever did build that fucking wall: repetitively setting up pins in a bowling alley and getting duffed up by its scumbag patrons, lugging heavy sacks around and getting beaten to death and stuffed into one of them if you complain about working conditions… it’s all in a day’s work, a model of industrial relations straight out of a Tory wet dream…

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Although fellow wet back wannabes are shot dead by US border guards, Sergio (Sergio Jiménez) makes it to the promised land with a package of dope and an introduction to gang master Mr David (Fernando Ray). Disgusted by the exploitive underworld he’s been sucked into and having become involved in an affair with the gang master’s mistress, Milena (Mimsy Farmer), Sergio resolves to bring down the organisation but in a downbeat drama such as this, there’s only ever going to be one conclusion…

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Jorge Darnell (whose thin resumé also includes the 1975 rip-off of you know what, Devil’s Exorcist and the following year’s horror comedy Hard Times For Dracula) directs with gritty efficiency and was able to call on a solid crew. A Riz Ortolani score never exactly hurts, either. Sergio Jimenez is believable and sympathetic as the doomed hero and Fernando Ray, as usual, never puts a foot wrong. As with so many of the films she’s appeared in, though, it’s Mimsy Farmer who continues to haunt the viewer’s memory…

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Her dark hair in this one makes for a refreshing change (though she’s often required to wear a Marilyn Monroe-style blonde wig for Mr David’s sexual gratification) but it’s the same old fragile Mimsy. Nobody has ever suffered in Italian (or any other) cinema quite like Ms Farmer. I’m not talking about the physical suffering routinely undergone by the likes of Daniela Doria, Zora Kerova and Mariangela Giordano, though (MAJOR SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD!) one shouldn’t discount Mimsy’s spectacular decapitation at the climax of Argento’s Four Flies On Grey Velvet (1971) or the fact that the rest of the cast of Francesco Barilli’s Perfume Of The Lady In Black (1974) conclude that film by eating her. It’s the laceration of her very soul, so eloquently conveyed in those Argento and Barilli pictures, Barbet Schroeder’s More (1969) and Armando Crispino’s Autopsy (1975) that makes each cinematic date with Mimsy Farmer such a memorable one and the denouement of TVFONY, in which her character’s desperation and simultaneous resignation to her enslavement are so readable in those eyes, is yet another mesmerising moment.

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I was tickled by the scene in which Mr David, attempting to intimidate his moll back into line, tells her that Britain was once overrun with hamsters and that we limeys solved the problem by turning them all into fur coats. Americans believe the funniest things about life over here, don’t they? The one about Birmingham being a no go area for Muslims is particularly droll. But she takes his point… or rather, sadly for her and Sergio, she doesn’t.

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Sonic Does Solipsism… Cronenberg’s eXistenZ Reviewed

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Ted Pikul in the throes of an eXistenZial epiphany. Yesterday.

BD/DVD Combi. Region B/2. 101 Films. 15.

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Why do artists feel the need to revisit former glories? Perhaps because their glory days are so demonstrably behind them. Consider Opera (1987), the final fling in a string of baroque, bloody, beautiful and flat-out berserk horror and thriller classics that Dario Argento had sustained for nearly two decades. Then consider his abysmal Phantom Of The Opera (1998), a weak-as-piss rehashing of the same themes with the same cinematographer, Ronnie Taylor, merely underlining the point that Argento’s muse had deserted him, to be replaced by… well, by Asia.

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Just a year later, David Cronenberg brought us eXistenZ, which on superficial perusal (and that, I confess, is all I gave it at the time) came across as a pointless and decidedly less full-blooded and edgy reworking of his polymesmeric Videodrome (1983). Obliged to give it a second viewing (by the fact that those nice folks at 101 sent me a review copy of their new BD / DVD edition), I find that I’ve given eXistenZ shorter shrift than it merits (e.g. in my cursory dismissal of Cronenberg’s post-Fly output while reviewing his debut novel Consumed).

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In the near future, wimpy marketing trainee Ted Pikul (Jude Law) accompanies legendary games designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to a test seminar for her latest advance in virtual reality technology but no sooner have she and a bunch of fans plugged pulsating, placenta like game consoles into their spines (all par for the Cronenbergian course) and started communing in cyber space, than a pro-reality terrorist (ditto) makes an attempt on Allegra’s life with a gun fashioned from bones which shoots teeth (a piece of mutant technology that has clearly evolved out of Videodrome) and Ted finds himself promoted to Allegra’s body-guard. Brow beaten by her into having a bioport inserted in his spine (by Willem Dafoe’s freelancing gas station attendant) Ted embarks on a white knuckle adventure in which it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish gameplay from reality…

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Just as Brian de Palma was justified in reviewing the ethical quagmire of Casualties Of War (1989) through the lens of subsequent media technology developments  for Redacted (2007, above), eXistenZ cannot simply be dismissed as “Videodrome light” (although I’ve been guilty of doing precisely that)… it’s a genuine auteurist reconsideration of that film’s thematic concerns in the light of technology-driven cultural change on the cusp of The Millennium (and goes about its business so much more smartly than it’s vastly bigger budgeted contemporary The Matrix).

eXistenZ is “Videodrome updated and upgraded”, a film addressing the concerns of those who used to worry if young people watching The Last House On The Left really got that it was “only a movie… only a movie” and now wake up in a sweat in the middle of the night wondering if players of Grand Theft Auto or Call Of Duty can correctly answer the question that provides the last line of eXistenZ”: “Are we still in the game?”

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Ordering Chinese food becomes a tricky business amid the fluid reality of eXistenZ.

Despite its shifting planes of reality, this one is narratively much tighter than its predecessor and boasts an ending that is simultaneously more predictable but more satisfying than that to Videodrome, which Cronenberg was notoriously still trying to work out on the last day of shooting.

Over and above its Videodrome connections, eXistenZ reflects Cronenberg’s musings (after conversations with William Burroughs and Salman Rushdie) on the independent existence an artistic creation takes on, with potentially malign consequences for its creator.

It’s also, regretfully, the closest we will ever get to Cronenberg’s once-mooted screen adaptation of Philp K. Dick’s darkly psychedelic 1965 novel The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch… observant Dick heads will appreciate the packaging of the fast food Ted and Allegra consume while on the lam.

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Get your skates on, 101’s release of this title, number 002 in their Black Label range, is limited to 3000 copies and comes with slipcase and a booklet including the essay Enemy of Reality by Alex Morris and an interview with Denise Cronenberg  by Phillip Escott. Can’t comment on either of those because I haven’t seen them.

The disc comes stacked with extras, including (alongside the mandatory trailer) Cronenberg’s audio commentary, “making of” and promo feaurettes plus one that focuses on the work of DC’s long-serving production designer, Carol Spier and interviews with the director himself, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Willem Dafoe, visual FX technician Jim Isaac and Jude Law.

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Brand new to this edition are two commentary tracks, one by Kim Newman and Ryan Lambie and another from Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson, plus an interview with Christopher Ecclestone, who freely admits that his American accent in the film is crap but tries to explain this away on the grounds that nobody in eXistenZ is quite what they seem. Nice try Chris, but you can’t pin the blame for that preposterous accent on Allegra Gellar!

Ecclestone also suggests that in the light of ever-accelerating technological change, a remake might be in order. Cronenberg was way ahead of the curve, though… what’s the betting that if such a project were ever green lit, its protagonists would be schlepping around collecting Pokemons?

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Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow… MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD On Shameless Blu-Ray

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BD. Region B. Shameless. 18.

Ever wondered how an old gargoyle like me managed to snag the alluring Mrs F? (Calm down at the back, I said “snag“, OK?) If so (and in the unlikely event that you haven’t got anything better to do), study the UK quad poster, reproduced above, for Sergio Martino’s Prisoner (alternatively Mountain / Slave) Of The Cannibal God intently. When I suggested that the menacing central figure in it resembled nothing so much as “a turd with teeth”, her funny bone was sufficiently tickled for me to be considered a reincarnation of Oscar Wilde and the rest, as they say, is history. But enough autobiographical snatches from me…

… no, hang on, here’s another one. While wooing Mrs F and indeed, for about a quarter of a century in total, I was a vegetarian. During that period, when people would express unease to me about the maltreatment of animals in Italian cannibal films, I would respond along the snooty lines of: “Do you eat meat? You don’t need to, so what’s the difference?” About a decade ago, on medical grounds, I regretfully reverted to an omnivorous diet, decided that there was, indeed, a difference and began to seriously question some of the content of these films. By the same token, friends who remain committed to vegetarianism have protested the recent trend of releasing them in versions cut to eradicate or reduce scenes of cruelty to animals. It’s complicated…

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Having already released a BD edition of Ruggero Deodato’s epochal Cannibal Holocaust (1980) in a marginally more animal friendly variant now endorsed by Deodato as his “preferred version”, Shameless now bring us a Mountain Of The Cannibal God which “softens” its animal cruelty and which director Sergio Martino (in his on-screen intro) declares an “improved version” for a new generation of viewers, although once again it’s not exactly going to find favour with card-carrying PETA supporters.

M/S/POTCG (set in Papua New Guinea but actually filmed in Sri Lanka and Malaysia during 1978) is a ripping yarn of derring do that kicked off an action adventure trilogy which Martino completed the following year with The Great Alligator (below, also filmed in Sri Lanka) and Island Of The Fishmen (filmed in some park in Sardinia).

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Ursula Andress and Antonio Marsina hire Stacey Keach to help them find Ursula’s old man, an explorer missing in action among the natives. Stacy’s got a personal stake in the adventure and a burning ambition to wipe out the Puka tribe, who forced him to eat human flesh when he was briefly incarcerated by them. The gang encounter all the expected jungle perils and hook up with Claudio Cassinelli en route to the eponymous mountain, where they find the suppurating corpse of Mr Andress (looking like a refugee from the opening shots of Texas Chainsaw Massacre) being worshipped by the locals en account of the bleeping Geiger counter stuck in his chest, which they take for his heart… yeah, whatever. Turns out Andress and Marsina were after the local uranium all along.

While fitting nicely into the Rider Haggard / Jukes Verne terrain of Alligator / Fishmen, M/S/POTCG also reels off the expected cannibal film tropes with alacrity… y’know, “Who are the real savages?”… white woman worshipped (Andress decked out in a fetching Albanese goddess outfit in which she still cuts an impressive figure, 13 years on from Hammer’s She) by impressionable (and, it is strongly implied, inferior) natives… cannibalism (duh!) and – most contentiously – violence against animals…

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The pre-cut film was only certificated ‘X’ by the BBFC for a theatrical release (under the “Prisoner” title) in 1978 after the excision of two episodes of crocodile-on-turtle violence, a bit of snake vs eagle unpleasantness and the infamous scene in which another snake suffocates and consumes a terrified monkey, comprising 126 seconds. This version was identical to the one released by Hokushin on home video three years later, which “enjoyed” a place on the DPP’s official list of “video nasties” from November 1983 to May ’85. After that unfortunate spasm of witch-hunting had run its course, M/S/POTCG  became one of a slew of “contentious” titles that were certificated for VHS (in its dying days) and DVD after further cuts, in this case 126 seconds from the Vipco release (“Cuts required to sight of animal cruelty, including animals being goaded to fight each other”). 2008 and 2013 releases, by Orbit and Cornerstone respectively, were identical in duration and contents.

Shameless have restored scenes of sex and violence never previously seen in an official UK release of this film, including a female Puka frigging herself off, a dude getting castrated and the ludicrous sight of another guy pretending to bum a pig, which seems blithely oblivious to his amorous efforts. Such footage would fall foul of “extreme porn” legislation if rendered “explicitly / realistically” but fortunately that particular statute doesn’t include “laughably”. Apparently the restoration materials were sourced from Martino’s personal archive. Although the BBFC were prepared to wear all this stuff, 121 seconds of compulsory cuts were “required to remove six sequences of animal cruelty in accordance with BBFC Guidelines and policy”.

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Even so, the film still contains the knife impalement of a tarantula, immediately  followed by the gutting of a lizard (its innards promptly scarfed down by natives)… a monitor lizard is seen honking up the messy remains of a snake it recently consumed… a live crab is roasted over the fire (to the obvious enjoyment of Marsina’s character)… and the memorably revolting underground snake-scoffing fest is present and (politically) incorrect. The working assumption would seem to be that the more mammalian (more sentient?) an animal is, the more likely the BBFC are to take exception to its mistreatment in this kind of film.

Shameless suggest that much of the animal abuse was inserted for Far Eastern markets where such stuff goes down well at the box office, though this hardly absolves Martino from responsibility… nor does the micro-featurette in which he addresses the issue here. Honestly, I love the guy’s movies but this apologia is all over the place, no more convincing than that which he gave on Blue Underground’s previous, totally uncut release. That one also contained a frame-by-frame analysis of the “snake eats monkey” scene that conclusively demonstrates the inadequacy of Martino’s account of it.

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But where do you stop? If non-PC depictions of women and indigenous people were removed from these films, there’d be very little of them left to screen… and what about the unpleasant dwarf who torments Cassinelli before having his midget brains bashed out? Is this an acceptable depiction of a vertically challenged person? Like I said, it’s complicated…

This BD transfer looks rather  marvellous, Giancarlo Ferrando’s shimmering cinematography effectively rendering the heat and humidity of which Martino complains in Riccardo Trombetta’s NoShame “making of” documentary, Cannibal Nightmare: Return To The Mountain Of The Cannibal God, which includes nifty “on location footage” and contributions from Martino and the dynamic duo of DP Ferrando and production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng. You also get a trailer and Italian title / credit sequences.

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Don’t look back on Andress…

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