How Does It Feel To Be One Of The Beautiful People? HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN Reviewed

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 18.

Prior to the advent of the internet (if you pampered millennials can actually imagine such a thing), Phil Hardy’s Aurum Horror Encyclopedia was the hard-pressed Horror hack’s bible. Before the dawn of VHS, in fact (“Dawn of what, now?” – A Pampered Millennial) we would drool over its reviews of films we thought we’d never live to see… The House That ScreamedThe House With Laughing Windows, Don’t Torture A Duckling, et al. A lot of those titles are now in general circulation, of course, but Hardy’s tome also alerted us to the existence of and tantalisingly synopsised a whole subset of forbiddingly entitled Japanese efforts such as Koji Wakamatsu’s Violated Angels (1967), Teruo Ishii’s The Joys Of Torture (1968) and Shiro Toyoda’s Portrait Of Hell (1969)

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Arrow have been making some impressive inroads into Japanese territory recently, notably (for our purposes) with their Bloodthirsty Trilogy box. Now here’s Ishii’s 1969 effort Horrors Of Malformed Men (“Kyofu Kikei Ningen”) which, startling as it is to Occidental eyes, is typical of the edgy sex / crime / horror fodder that the Toei studio were churning out during the ’60s and early ’70s.

Freely adapted from the popular weird tales of Edogawa Rampo (think about it), the film starts with amnesiac Hirosuke Hitomi (Teruo Yoshida) finding himself in a mental institution, the general vibe of which is Marat / Sade-a-go-go, with wall-to-rubber-wall sex-crazed, semi-naked mad chicks. Security seems pretty lax in this joint and during one of his regular nocturnal rambles around its grounds, Hirosuke strikes up a friendship with pretty young circus performer Hatsuyo (Teruko Yumi)… gotta have a circus right next door to the nuthouse, right? After singing a lullaby that sparks a vague childhood memory in his head, she agrees to try to recall its origin but when he meets her next day (after donning a joke shop beard, for some reason) she’s bumped off and Hirosuke is framed for her murder. She says enough before dying to convince him that he can locate his home town “somewhere along the coast of the Sea of Japan”… narrowing things right down, there! Improbably, he does make it back home and even more improbably, passes himself off for his dead doppelganger Genzaburou (also played by Yoshida). It helps that they’ve both got a swastika tattooed on one of their feet… very PC. Most improbably of all, Hirosuke is accepted by the dead guy’s family, the difficulties attendant on carrying off this masquerade briefly slowing the loopy action for a bit…

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… no worries, things are back from flat to barking batshit crazy in a nano-second after our man has sailed over to Panorama island in search of his long-lost dad, Jôgorô Komoda. This guy’s played by one Tatsumi Hijikata, a kind of Japanese equivalent to the recently deceased Lindsay Kemp. No surprise then that when we’re introduced to him he’s doing a spot of, er, interesting interpretive dancing on a wave-lashed stony outcrop of the island.

When not busting radical moves at the seaside, Jôgorô likes to experiment on his kidnapped victims, transforming them into freaks… so we get goat girls, another chick with a hand sewn to her head, non-identical Siamese twins… other dudes seem to have some feathers stuck to them or to have simply been given a quick splash of silver paint.

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Despite professing indirect inspiration from the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Horrors Of Malformed Men is clearly based largely upon H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel The Island Of Dr Moreau, though Jôgorô gets things arse-ways about by reducing humans to the level of beasts rather than speeding up the evolution of animals, as was Moreau’s modus operandi. The resulting human oddities and horrors foreshadow those of the Emperor Tiberius’ own island getaway in Tinto Brass’s Caligula (1979) and I wonder if Tom Six had certain scenes from HOMM in mind when he dreamed up The Human Centipede (2009). Japan’s censors sensed other allusions when they banned Horrors Of Malformed Men… although no more sexy or graphic than other contemporary Toei releases it could, they figured, be construed as an allegory for certain unfortunate events that happened in Japan during 1945.

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Love Island’s new policy re recruiting contestants proved controversial with viewers…

What’s Jôgorô’s motivation for these crazy surgical antics? Well, he wants to flood the world with an army of mutants as revenge for the way he was rejected by polite society on account of his webbed fingers (sense of perspective needed here, Jôgorô!) His beautiful wife turned against him and took a lover. He’s just telling Hirosuke how he resolved this little marital spat (by chaining them up in a cave, feeding him to crabs then obliging her to eat the crabs… I couldn’t seem to find this one anywhere in the Relate training manual) when Edogawa Rampo’s regular Sherlock Holmes figure, Kogoro Akechi (Minoru Oki) turns up and proceeds, in know-it-all fashion, to explain everything that’s been going on (I must admit, I was still more than a tad baffled when he was finished).

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Edogawa Rampo, yesterday.

Kogoro persuades Jôgorô not to pull the lever that will blow up the whole island (an inadvisable design feature previously popular in Universal Frankenstein movies) but Hirosuke, having recently discovered that he’s been shagging his sister, opts to blow up with her during a firework display, a spectacle that just about tops all the other weird shit we’ve been sitting through for approximately the last two hours… it’s like the climax of Zabriskie Point, albeit even more dementedly druggy. As the star cross’d lovers heads fly through the air, you ask yourself why, if he was such a shit hot surgeon, Jôgorô didn’t just separate his webbed fingers. Well, that would have been a lot simpler but a lot less fun for us, the viewers.

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Apart from the stuff you’d expect (if, indeed, you’ll ever trust your expectations again after watching Horrors Of Malformed Men) the generous bonus materials include two audio commentaries, by Japanese cinema buffs Tom Mes and Mark Schilling (perhaps things will become a little clearer after I’ve heard those), Schilling’s rather touching video account of Ishii’s visit the Far East Film Festival in Udine (followed by a tourist trip to Venice… I don’t believe he was attending that city’s film festival), a new video interview with veteran Toei screenwriter Masahiro Kakefuda and the featurette Malformed Memories, in which filmmakers Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo The Iron Man) and Minoru Kawasaki (The Calamari Wrestler) talk of their admiration for the Cinema of  Teruo Ishii. These interviews did manage to resolve one outstanding issue for me, that of cultural relativity … do these films just look (very) weird (indeed) to our round eyes while being consumed as commonplace by domestic Japanese audiences? No… turns out that they alternate between picking their jaws up off the floor and laughing their asses off, too!

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Ishii’s “Pink” classic Orgies Of Edo, another 1969 effort, is next up from Arrow so hang onto your hats.

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Little Sawdust Hearts, Torn At The Seams… WHO KILLED TEDDY BEAR? Reviewed

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BD. Network. Region B. 15.

Sal Mineo, whose finest hour-and-a-half came as Jimmy Dean’s sidekick in Rebel Without A Cause (1955) had a great future firmly behind him by the time he wound up in Joseph Cates’ Who Killed Teddy Bear?, ten years later. Here he plays Lawrence Sherman who, during adolescence, was supposed to be baby-sitting his kid sister Edie but snuck away for a bit of slap and tickle with the neighbourhood floozy. Happening upon and grossed out by their furtive fumblings, Edie fell down the stairs, still clutching her beloved teddy bear and sustained a head injury that left her mentally handicapped. Lawrence has been trying to make amends ever since, serving as carer for the adult Edie (Margot Bennett) and working as a busboy in a Times Square bar to support her. Upon developing an unrequited passion for aspiring actress / bar hostess Norah Dain (Juliet Prowse) though, he undoes years of good work by decapitating Edie’s teddy and leaving it in Norah’s apartment (and what better way to win the heart of any young lady?) He also spies on her from his adjacent apartment, follows her around and bombards her with obscene phone calls (it’s strongly suggested that he’s flobbing off while doing so).

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Though not actually confirmed till halfway through the picture that it’s Sherman pulling all these sick stunts, you’d have to be equipped with the IQ of Edie not to have worked it out long before this point. I mean, he’s angry and alienated and when not working out obsessively, this guy is trawling Times Square’s grind houses and dirty book shops. You can’t help wondering if Schrader, Scorsese and De Niro screened Who Killed Teddy Bear? before coming up with the character of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976)…

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“You talkin’ to me?”

Norah seeks the support of bar boss Marian (Elaine Stritch, giving probably the best performance in the film… though Prowse is pretty good) and troubled cop Lt Dave Madden (Jan Murray). Marian tries to parlay her comforting routine into a lesbian encounter, for which transgression she is bumped off by the jealous Sherman. Madden is an even more complicated piece of work… his apartment is littered with textbooks on deviant sexual behaviour that are clearly intended to mirror Sherman’s collection of pornographic publications, some of which he shares. He rationalises his obsession as an attempt to understand the minds of sex criminals after the rape and murder of his own wife. The lingering suspicion that he’s a bit of a flake himself is reinforced when his attentions towards Norah become a little over affectionate (she needs to change her deodorant… or maybe stop using one) and are rebuffed, causing him to rant: “Every scrawny broad thinks she’s entrusted with the crown jewels and that she’ll die if she loses them!” I’m reminded of Lucio Fulci’s comment on his own slice of the big apple, The New York Ripper (1982): “Every excess in that movie is an excess of fantasy because every character is extreme… (it’s) a film without salvation”. Sure enough, things don’t work out too well for anyone by the end of Who Killed Teddy Bear?

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Mineo’s loyal gay fan base will enjoy the scenes of him working out, bare-chested and his tight-fitting outfits during some of the ludicrous funky dance sequences with which this film is freighted. Hill St Blues buffs will recognise the “Dan Travanty” who plays Carlo (the bar bouncer who gets stabbed by a drunken customer) as Daniel J. Travanti / Capt. Frank Furillo. Otherwise WKTB?, while no masterpiece, emerges as an engagingly torrid little pot-boiler and incidentally, an invaluable visual record of Times Square before Rudi Giuliani cleaned it up (looking all the more immediate for Joseph Brun’s gritty monochrome photography). Don’t start me on Leslie Uggams’ infuriating ear-worm of a theme song, which failed to even ruffle the Queen of Atlantic Records laurel on the late Aretha Franklin’s brow.

 

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When this film was shot, director Cates had already turned in his masterpiece anyway, in the shape of his daughter Phoebe, for which we are duly thankful (and no, I’ve never felt the temptation to send her a decapitated teddy bear…)

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You get a take-it-or-leave-it 1966 episode of Court Martial (“The House Where He Lived”)  starring the ill-fated Mineo (and the even worse-fated Frank Wolff) but the other principal extra here is as worthy of the admission price as the main feature… LSD: Insight Or Insanity?, an 18 minute high school educational reel narrated by Mineo, promises to dispel all the sensationalist myths about acid, then proceeds to trot out and elaborate on every last one of them (people staring at the sun, jumping off tall buildings, et al) and introducing a new one on me: “Other trippers attempt to merge their being with a large fast automobile”. “What do America’s leading doctors, scientists and psychiatrists have to say?” asks Sal the square.

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Well, the assembled worthies (a scary-looking bunch who would surely harsh even the mellowest of trips) are unanimous: “The LSD fad… is more than a fad. Because of it, people are disturbed and even dead”. The most telling indictment of all? “LSD doesn’t inspire one’s desire to perspire”. Hot diggety dog! As well as this threat to the Protestant work ethic, “there’s always the chance of a bad trip, a bummer, a freak-out… or even a flip out!”, dutifully re-enacted by an overacting kid in a strait-jacket. Yep, “a real kick has become a real kick in the head”. And if getting stuck in a psychological “never-never land of no return” isn’t enough to deter you, Insight Or Insanity? ends with a bunch of kids playing Russian roulette. Are they tripping or this merely a metaphor? Powerful stuff, either way… how odd then, that the film makers follow this harrowing spectacle with a pro-acid song playing over the credits. Like Sal says… “It’s up to you!”

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Vicious Sydney… Flavio Mogherini’s THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE Reviewed.

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 15.

During a career in which he was more active as an art director and production designer, Flavio Mogherini managed just this one certified giallo (his swan song, 1994’s Delitto Passionale, sounds like it might be a borderline case) among his directorial credits… but it’s a fascinating one and not only because it’s based on a notorious and perennially enigmatic true life murder mystery (a new cinematic treatment of which is pending as I write these words)… the Antipodean equivalent of the Black Dahlia case .

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The overwhelming majority of gialli are set in an urban Italian milieu and even the most jet-setting efforts of Umberto Lenzi and Sergio Martino tend to play out in recognisably European cosmopolitan locations. The action of Mogherini’s The Pyjama Girl Case (1977), in contrast, apparently unfolds beneath the rolling blue skies and between the wide open spaces of Australia, the land of opportunities and new starts… though its principal characters’ attempts to lay the ghosts of their pasts prove unsuccessful, with tragic consequences. For instance…

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The film kicks off like a commercial for the Sydney Tourist Board, with off-road bikers and a cute little girl enjoying a golden beach… until the latter discovers a dumped, burned out car with a dumped, burned up girl inside it. Sydney’s finest (who make The Sweeney’s Regan and Carter look like by-the-book softies) are happy to pin the murder on shanty-dwelling sex case Quint (Giacomo Assandri) but reluctantly retired Inspector Thompson (Ray Milland), who’s bored with tending his orchids and can’t be kept out of the station house, thinks that’s a little bit too convenient. Besides, who is the mysterious burned woman? This film is at least as much a “who’sbeendonein?” as a “whodunnit”.

In an attempt to answer that question, the cops arrange for the body, stripped of its yellow pyjamas and dunked in a tank of formaldehyde, to be put on public display in an improbable and gristly attempt to jog somebody’s memory or elicit a suspicious reaction from a viewer… a snarky comment on us, for watching this sort of thing?

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Meanwhile, we are introduced to the troubled love triangle of three struggling immigrants – Dutch former prostitute Linda (Dalila Di Lazzaro), her oversensitive Italian husband Antonio (Michele Placido) and Roy the German, played as a priapismic Iago by “Howard Ross” (Renato Rossini)… just to further complicate matters, Linda is still making it with long-standing sugar daddy Professor Douglas (Mel Ferrer). The culmination of this romantic tragedy is played out in parallel with the ongoing, ill-fated investigations of Inspector Thompson (a character that anticipates the one played by Max von Sydow in Dario Argento’s Sleepless, 2001) and at some point in this bifurcated narrative you’ll twig  (and I guess this constitutes a SPOILER ALERT!!!) that the time frames are not what you’d initially imagined them to be, the past and present having been crunched together as if to underline that message about the impossibility of escaping one’s own past. Mario Landi, of all people, attempted something very similar in his considerably less accomplished and altogether grubbier Giallo A Venezia (1979) and while TPGC contains nothing like the outré imagery of that film, I was surprised (in view of some rather gruesome moments and an icky gang bang scene) to find that our pals at the BBFC have knocked it down from an ’18’ to a ’15’ Certificate.

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Arrow have done ample justice to Carlo Carlin’s ravishing photography with this 2k scan from the original camera negative, piling on the bonus materials for good measure. Michael Mackenzie presents a featurette concerning the giallo’s globe-trotting tendencies and Troy Howarth supplies a commentary track which I’ll no doubt enjoy when I’ve had a chance to listen to it. Again, I haven’t seen the collector’s booklet (confined to this edition’s first pressing) which features new writing by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. Of course you get a trailer, image gallery and reversible sleeve options.

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Best of all are three cracking new interviews with Howard Ross, editor Alberto Tagliavia and assistant director Ferruccio Castronuovo, plus a re-edited archival interview with composer Riz Ortolani, all of them competing to lavish the most praise on Mogherini as a collaborator and a man. Ortolani’s OST for Pyjama Girl Case is probably one of its weaker components (at times he seems to be aiming for Giorgio Moroder but falling short at Throbbing Gristle… the dirge-like croonings of Amanda Lear don’t exactly help much, either) but in his featurette Ortolani doesn’t dwell on this rare misfire, giving instead a potted auto-biography that takes in his ongoing chagrin over people misspelling his name, being ripped off by The Chemical Brothers and his impressions of the cinematic controversies he was dragged into via his famous collaborations with Gualtiero Jacopetti and Ruggero Deodato.

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Sly old silver fox Howard Ross gives fantastic VFM in a candid, gossipy confessional that could have gone on ten times longer and left me wanting more. He’s certainly got a lot to tell, about a career that started with a literal spear-carrying bit part in Raoul Walsh’s Esther And The King (1960), where he came to the attention of uncredited co-director Mario Bava by saving a girl from drowning. What he does manage to tell us about during the confines of this half-hour featurette includes his 12th place finish in the Mister Universe contest of 1970 (a certain Arnold Schwarzenegger took the laurel that year) and lessons on screen kissing with confidence from Walerian Borowczyk. Re The Pyjama Girl Case, Ross remembers that Di Lazzaro insisted on a double for her nude scenes, feeling that her bod wasn’t up to it… Jeez, we should all look so shabby! Howard’s not looking too bad himself these days, but complains “nobody ever calls me anymore”. For shame…

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Editor Alberto Tagliavia and assistant director Ferruccio Castronuovo provide between them several valuable insights into the making of TPGC. We learn from Tagliavia that the film’s distinctive structure was arrived at after two previous edits failed to impart any oomph to the narrative. After all these years, Castronuovo reveals that apart from obvious establishing shots captured in Sydney, much of this Italo-Spanish production was actually shot in Spain (much of his AD duties involving such mundane tasks as covering Spanish number plates with Australian ones). As any Argento amateur sleuth could have told you, nothing is ever quite as it seems in a giallo…

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The Dollhouse By The Cemetery… MISS LESLIE’S DOLLS Reviewed.

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BD. Network. Region B. 15.

The concept of gender fluidity seems to have slipped, surprisingly easily (give or take the odd outbreak of tabloid hand-ringing and knicker-wetting) into general acceptance over the last few years. ‘Twas not always thus. Not so very long ago, the phenomenon’s existence was only acknowledged in the realm of horror and thriller films, where it was invariably treated without too much sympathy, generally going hand-in-skin-glove-with psychosis and murder. Of course the true-life trans-necrophile antics of Ed Gein didn’t exactly help and the spirit of “The Plainfield Ghoul” hangs over such biggies as Psycho (not to mention its countless imitators), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence Of The Lambs.

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Miss Leslie’s Dolls (1973) is nowhere near as well-polished a piece of Cinema as any of those (Tobe Hooper’s film, an almost exact contemporary, underlines just how far off the contemporary pace it was) nor anything like as compelling as, e.g. David Schmoeller’s Tourist Trap (1979), a film with which it bears many affinities (ditto any amount of  “Wax Museum” variants).  What it is, is a ripe slice of indie American gothic which moves at a funereal pace for much of its length but contains enough incidental oddities to maintain your interest to the bitter, baffling end. Anyone who’s sat through all 72 “video nasties” will have suffered far worse… Unhinged, I’m looking at you!

SPOILER ALERT!!!

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“After murdering the girl students she is unmasked as a homosexual”? Now that’s really serious!

“Handled most capably”? Hm. In fact I’ve got several bones to pick with the compiler of this appraisal. The principal unmentioned elephant in the room is Miss Leslie’s plastinated tableau of dead young women (“My precious dolls!”) Other key elements which it glosses over  (possibly on the grounds that they wouldn’t be well received in big cities and small towns) include Miss L’s rambling monologues about the transmigration of souls (something [s]he appears to have achieved by the end of the picture) and his/her arguments with his/her dead mother (rendered by a skull, the budget obviously not stretching to a Mrs Bates maquette).

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That’s a weird bunch of shit to deal with right there and one of the girls’ observations that Miss Leslie’s house also “smells of death” reminded me of another grindhouse classic but none of this stops the college crowd from fornicating like bunnies as soon as Miss Leslie (having spiked their drinks) turns out the lights…

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Careful with that axe, Miss Leslie…

If pressed, I’d have to summarise MLD as a sexed-up Scooby-Doo episode (the one after the hungry hippy and that scabby dog were, at long last, taken out and shot), written by Thomas Harris (then re-written by a cretin) and directed by… well, directed by Joseph G. Prieto. This bare bones release doesn’t include any information on the elusive Mr Prieto. Certain scuzz film scholars have identified him with the Jospeh Mawra who directed Savages From Hell, Shanty Tramp and Fireball Jungle, but the usual sources (notably IMDB) are all over the place on this one…

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Miss Leslie’s Dolls might not have been Prieto’s first directorial credit, but it does seem to have been his last. Miss Leslie, similarly, turned out to be Salvador Ugarte’s only film role, which is a great pity. Lumbering around looking like Alice Cooper after a particularly epic night on the Brandy Alexanders, ineptly dubbed with a female voice… the kids’ surprise at the climactic unveiling of Miss L as a Mister defies credibility. Was it supposed to come as a shock to us, too?

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Thanks to Ian Caunce for this one…

Once again Network have raided the BFI’s archives to good effect (considering its age and lowly status in the cinematic scheme of things, the film looks surprisingly good in this transfer) and you should try to catch Miss Leslie’s Dolls, before it becomes the next Rocky Horror. Spiked bourbon might well enhance your enjoyment of it considerably.

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Murder Most Fowl… The Nucleus Gang Go To Work On Giulio Questi’s DEATH LAID AN EGG.

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BD. Nucleus. Region B. 18.

Like its companion piece in Nucleus’s “European Cult Cinema Collection”, Lady Frankenstein, Giulio Questi’s Death Laid An Egg (1968) concerns itself with the shenanigans of mad scientists. In the feudal set up of Mel Welles’ film the aristocratic protagonists own their serfs and servants, using them as experimental and sexual fodder under a Romantic patina of paternalism and progress. (*) Death Laid An Egg, in contrast, is set firmly in our own immiserated age, where rampaging technological advance connives at the neo-liberal free-for-all by which everybody’s free to, er, scramble for profit and frankly, fuck anyone who can’t keep up (well, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs!)

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Sunny side down…

Marco (Jean-Louis) Trintignant is the manager of a cutting-edge egg hatchery where automation has allowed most of the workforce to be laid off. The surplus help hang around outside, throwing insults and the occasional blunt object, much to the chagrin of Marco’s perfectly groomed, soulless wife Anna (Gina Lollobrigida). But are these luddites responsible for all of the sabotage that’s been going on at the plant? Marco is seemingly a model employee of The Association (a simultaneously menacing and ridiculous marketing board whose obsession with eggs surpasses even that of Edith Massie in Pink Flamingos) but secretly he harbours serious doubts about the way the job, society and his life are heading. When the plant’s resident GMF boffin manages to hatch a clutch of giant, headless, wingless birds, to the obvious delight of just about everyone else in the cast, Mario goes all eggs over uneasy and beats these avian atrocities to death with a wrench. His simmering discontent further manifests itself in the clandestine affair he’s conducting with Anna’s ditzy blonde cousin Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin, the Baby Spice of her day, from Joe D’Amato’s Death Smiles On A Murderer)… oh yeah, he also seems to have a penchant for butchering prostitutes in cheap motels. Slimy-slick ad man Mondaini (Jean Sobieski) is keeping tabs on Marco’s murderous side-line while pursuing a parallel affair with Gabrielle and planning a grab for Anna’s money… what could possibly go wrong?

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What the pluck?

Compounding  the complexity of its plot twists (co-authored as ever by Questi’s trusty collaborator Franco Arcalli), the film is shot in oblique style with little regard for conventional cinematic grammar. Questi’s camera will focus on. e.g. Trintignant’s back while he’s delivering a line or float off to concentrate on some insignificant visual detail as the action unfolds. The avant-garde OST from Bruno Maderna and Arcalli’s radical editing further exacerbate the viewer’s disorientation… at one point Arcalli folds what looks like an episode from J.G. Ballard’s Crash (a novel that wouldn’t be published for another five years, BTW) into a routine drive taken by Marco and Gabrielle.

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The black gloves donned by Marco before his assignations with those hookers are also strangely prescient pre-echos of the turn that the giallo genre would take with Dario Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970). But is Death Laid An Egg (as often claimed) a giallo? It’s more properly understood as a deconstruction of that genre, akin to how Questi exploded the spaghetti western with his feature debut If You Live, Shoot! aka Django, Kill! the previous year, in the process clueing Alessandro Jodorowsky into the mystical potential of the genre (and there are moments in Santa Sangre which suggest that El Jodo wasn’t exactly unfamiliar with Death Laid An Egg, either).

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Corrado Farina, one suspects, was also taking notes (check out the subliminal advertising imagery)… and don’t start me on David (insert expletive) Lynch! Elsewhere Questi seems to be cocking a snook at Antonio (“This is how you make an anti-giallo, Michelangelo… stick it in your family albumen!”)

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How more Post-modern can you get on the giallo’s ass than by deploying the whole serial kill stabbing match itself as a red herring? If DLAE isn’t, after all, a giallo in the as-yet-nonexistent Argento mould (I suppose it would be fair to characterise it as the Mario Bava tendency… or one of the Mario Bava tendencies… in 1968) then it certainly has affinities with Romolo Guerrieri’s contemporary thriller The Sweet Body Of Deborah and its bonk-busting descendants directed by Umberto Lenzi (in one of which, 1969’s So Sweet… So Perverse, Trintignant would also star).

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Giulio Questi… the real “terrorist of the genres”?

However you generify Death Laid An Egg, it’s a mesmerising work of Art. Craig Ledbetter was sufficiently mesmerised to devote a special issue of his seminal European Trash Cinema fanzine to it, reproduced here among the bonus materials along with CL’s thanks to Nucleus for finally bringing Questi’s 104 minute director’s cut to light… looking as beautiful as we have come to expect from this label, scanned as it is in HD from the original negatives with the “new” footage inserted from an Italian archival print. You get the truncated (91 minute) cut as well, of course, plus another Jones / Newman commentary track, featurettes (the BFI’s James Blackford on Questi’s work and radical politics… soundtrack collector extraordinary / DJ / Alassandro Alessandroni collaborator Lovely Jon on Bruno Maderna), an archive interview with the director himself (who passed away in 2014) during which he observes that movie-making is now within everybody’s grasp, if not access to major distribution networks, still hung up on the chicken farming model), a short appraisal from Italian critic Antonio Bruschini and another interesting insight into the cuts demanded by the BBFC for the film’s UK theatrical release (as A Curious Way To Love), alongside all the other stuff you’d expect.

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Not quite the lubricious girl-on-girl fest its UK distributors would have had you believe…

The restored 14 minutes reveal a whole new character, Renato Romano’s Luigi, whose role in the overall scheme of things is wide open to interpretation. It also amplifies a suggestion that remains in the shorter cut, regarding the European Union (which was really taking off in its current incarnation round about the time this film was made) and its role as a principal driver of austerity, increasing income disparities, declining public services and terms & conditions for working people, war as a tool for prising open new markets… the full neo-liberal, er, yoke under which we’ve been labouring for the last half Century or so. As such, DLAE comes a useful corrective for the baffling rose-tinted nostalgia for the EU currently sweeping the nation. The film predicts GM food and anticipates the coming tsunami of technological advance that’s going to wash away so many more jobs… talk about chickens coming home to roost! In addition to all these valuable services, Questi proves that avant-garde dialectical materialism in the cinema doesn’t have to be as simultaneously pleased with itself and downright dull as Godard and his ilk.

Pending the arrival from left field of some unexpected and unexpectedly astonishing release from another label, this is going to be the undisputed Disc Of 2018… clucking brilliant!

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(*) An early draft of this posting contained a line that ended: “… progress and enlightened paternalism derailed by the Cotten character’s hubris and the overweening impertinence of Rosalba Neri’s overheated clitoris”. Having penned that, I couldn’t resist sharing it with you.

You’re welcome.

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Do You Like Pina Colada? LADY FRANKENSTEIN Restored on Nucleus BD.

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BD. Nucleus. Region B. 15.

Legend has it that a woman once took out a Lonely Hearts ad, seeking “a man with the brain of Leonard Cohen and the body of Iggy Pop”. An assignation was duly arranged and when she arrived at the predetermined rendezvous, who should be there waiting for her, but… Leonard Cohen and Iggy Pop! And no doubt a fun time was had by all. It’s an apocryphal story which I rather wish was true (Cohen himself attested to its veracity)… it certainly packs a better punch line than Rupert Hine’s Escape (The Pina Colada Song).

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“If you’re not into yoga / If you have half a brain…”

In Mel Welles’ Lady Frankenstein 1971, Rosalba Neri’s title character (who also answers to the name of Tania) has a similar vision of her dream man, radical ideas about how to  transform him into fleshy reality and the family know-how required to pull it off. She transplants the brilliant brain of her father’s homely looking, crippled assistant Charles (Paul Muller, from a million Jess Franco flicks) into the hunky body of the family’s retarded servant Tom (Marino Masé) to make “the kind of man (she) could really love!” Tom’s contribution to the plan is entirely involuntary (Charles smothers him with a pillow while Lady F is astride him… more on this later) but Charles himself is an all-too-willing participant (in my favourite line, he informs Tania, while she’s preparing to transplant his brain into Tom, that she “can’t change (her) mind”!) The operation proves a resounding success and scarcely hours after its completion, Charles-in-Tom is giving her Ladyship a vigorous seeing too.

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Unfortunately, they’re not left to enjoy their erotic idyll for long. Tanya’s illustrious father (Joseph Cotten, inaugurating an Italian run that would also see him starring in Mario Bava’s Baron Blood, 1972 and Umberto Lenzi’s Syndicate Sadists, 1975) has already been killed by one of his less successful creations and now that monster (Peter Whiteman in a crude Carlo Rambaldi make up job that makes his head look like a septic bell end) is on the rampage in the local countryside, offing the grave-diggers (including career Eurocreep Herbert Fux) who resurrected its various bodily parts, interrupting moments of al-fresco coitus and throwing random naked chicks into rivers… he’s kind to children, though. The ineffectual investigations of Police Chief Harris (Mickey Hargitay) leading nowhere, a crowd of firebrand and pitchfork-clutching yokels is soon besieging Castle Frankenstein, none of which stops Lady F and her toy-boy creation from fornicating away happily as the flames gather all around them, until our over sexed anti-heroine gets her just desserts in an unexpected and rather abrupt denouement.

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Ever since James Whale’s Bride Of Frankenstein (1935), various members of that cursed clan have been seeking to mate their monsters. Udo Kier’s Baron (who could also call on the services of Carlo Rambaldi) had something like this in mind for his “zarmbies” in the Morrissey / Margheriti Flesh For Frankenstein (1973) but couldn’t resist molesting them himself (with hil-arious consequences!) Rosalba Neri’s Tania Frankenstein  beat Udo to it by two years and never, er, made any bones about the ultimate amorous aim of her surgical exploits. Billed, as she was in many of her Italian productions as Sara / Sarah Bay (on the grounds that this would allegedly put more bums on domestic cinema seats… but who in their right mind wouldn’t want to watch her, under any name?), Neri proves here, as she did in Joe D’Amato / Luigi’s Full Moon Of The Virgins (1973) that she could, when given a role to get her teeth into, be so much more than “the poor man’s Edwige Fenech”.

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“Behind every great man…”

Nucleus’ Marc Morris and Jake West are themselves Frankenstein figures, in their own kind of way… men on an obsessive mission to bring you beautiful uncut restorations of films that have, since VHS / “video nasty” / fanzine days, only been available in the UK as shortened theatrical prints and crummy looking, similarly incomplete, nth generation video dubs. I recall watching Lady Frankenstein in (I think) 16mm during a memorable Manchester Fantastic Films Society all-niter entitled Terror Among The Tombs in the late ’80s (actually I don’t remember very much at all about that night, throughout which inadvisable quantities of Wild Turkey were quaffed). But here we are in 2018. Sceptics said it couldn’t be done… moralists said it shouldn’t... now here it is, Lady Frankenstein as a gorgeous looking limited edition in Nucleus’ “European Cult Cinema Collection”…

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This lush-looking 2k scan from the original negative shows exactly how much bang Welles and his DP Riccardo Pallottini got for their buck from Castello Piccolomini, Balsorano. When confined to De Paolis studio… well, Masé will have recognised that staircase set when he encountered it again, suitably redressed, in Lugi Cozzi’s Contamination (1980). Sharp-eyed viewers might also remember it from films as diverse in quality as Argento’s Inferno (also 1980) and Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground (1981).

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Amid the bonus materials on offer here you get the predictable selection of trailers, TV and radio spots, home video sleeves and image galleries… all well and good, but whereas some distributors would leave it at that, Nucleus pile on the goodies. New World’s theatrical cut, reduced to 84 minutes so that Roger Corman could slot it onto more double bills, has been as lovingly restored as the 99 minute Director’s Cut. There’s an audio commentary from Alan Jones and Kim Newman, a reproduction of the contemporary Photo Novel that appeared in Italy’s Bigfilm magazine and three excellent featurettes. The Truth About Lady Frankenstein is a 2007 German TV Special featuring interviews with director Welles, star Neri and Herbert Fux, who reacts to his first ever viewing of the film. We learn more about the astonishing life and career of Mel Welles from his posthumous contribution to Piecing Together Lady Frankenstein, an all new doc presented by Julian Grainger. The Lady and The Orgy is a short but revelatory investigation of Welles’ activities in Australia, where he (under the guise of “Satan’s Prime Minister”) presented Lady Frankenstein as the centre piece of a multi-media grand guignol “Spook Show” review.

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I particularly enjoyed the breakdown of the BBFC’s demands for cuts to the film’s 1972 theatrical run in the UK. The chopping off of Monster #1’s arm had to go and two scenes juxtaposing death with sexual desire were cut to the bone, namely the film’s frenzied, fiery finale and Tom’s fatal coupling with Lady F. The latter, which the BBFC have now sanctioned in all its gaudy glory, is one of the kinkiest set-ups in exploitation film history, with Tom’s death throes pushing Her Ladyship over the orgasmic edge while Charles, busy suffocating Tom, can scarcely conceal his jealous torment over the unfolding spectacle. (*) Amazing stuff in an astounding release that could have been a shoe-in for our “Top Disc Of 2018” accolade, were it not for the fact that its companion piece in that Cult Cinema Collection, Giulio Questi’s 1968 anti-giallo Death Laid An Egg (review coming to these pages imminently) is, improbably, even better!

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(*) The BBFC, often accused of applying double standards for the industry big boys and small-fry exploitation distributors, have played admirably fair in this regard. Twenty-four years after their exposure to Lady Frankenstein, The Board insisted on diluting Famke Janssen’s comparably mantis-like take on the mating game in the Bond flick Goldeneye.

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Got To Get Ourselves Back To The Garden… ASSAULT Beautifully Restored By Network.

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BD. Network. Region B. 15.

Although the upscaling from DVD to Blu-ray has produced miraculous editions of some old favourites (CultFilms’ Suspiria springs to mind) there have been at least as many (and probably more) titles which make you wonder why they bothered. We can all think of stuff that was scanned through 4k and all the rest of it, sometimes crowd-funded on its way and to great fanfare, only to emerge drowning in grain or compensated-to-shit with DNR. So why has this visually astonishing Network restoration, drawing from 35mm negative elements in the vaults of the BFI, been such a low-key affair?

Well, Assault is something of a problematic viewing experience from a 2018 perspective. While the assaults on the schoolgirls are obviously not rendered with any kind of pornographic expliciteness, the presentation of such subject matter in the guise of entertainment now seems vaguely questionable, the BBFC’s classification of it as ’15’ notwithstanding. The casting, furthermore (as a traumatised and catatonic assault victim) of Lesley-Anne Down, whose name so closely resembles that of a real life victim of Britain’s most notorious sex killers, seems rather insensitive and just to put the tin hat on it,  when Tony Beckley’s emasculated teacher tells Frank Finlay’s gruff cop that he has fantasised about raping all of his students, you ask yourself if things could get any more non-PC… only for the Detective Chief Superintendent to retort by suggesting that the guy is probably “not man enough” to rape anyone… ouch!

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In the words of Cicero: “”O tempora, o mores”…

1971 was arguably the annus mirabilis of the giallo, the year that brought us Mario Bava’s überinfluential Bay Of Blood, Fulci’s psychedelic three-ring circus Lizard In A Woman’s Skin, Sergio Martino’s masterly The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh and an Argento brace in the shape of The Cat O’Nine Tails and Four Flies On Grey Velvet, amid countless others. One of the most intriguing yellow shockers from this year, though, was made right here in dear old Blighty and produced, as if that weren’t already a sufficiently surprising proposition, by Peter Rogers,  the man responsible for all those jolly Carry On Romps

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The director of Assault, though, was ideally placed to handle a British attempt at the giallo (which this film so clearly is)… Sidney Hayers, having racked up a couple of routine thrillers in 1950, revealed a knack for transcendental cinematic delirium with the completely demented Circus Of Horrors (1960), a film that would give the trashiest Eurotrash competitors a run for their cheesey money. Hayers subsequently directed Peter Wyngarde in Night Of The Eagle aka Burn, Witch, Burn (1962) an effective little variant on Jacques Torneur’s Night Of The Demon (1957) but 1971 turned out to be his busiest year in terms of Freudsteinian credits. As well as the  The Firechasers (an insurance fraud thriller) and episodes of both The Persuaders and the short-lived Shirley MacLaine vehicle Shirley’s World, Hayers directed Revenge aka After Jenny Died and Inn Of The Frightened People, in which Joan Collins and family take the law into their own hands when their young daughter is raped and murdered… not a million miles removed, thematically, from the film under consideration here.

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Straight after Circus Of Horrors, Hayers began a prolific career in TV direction with episodes of The Avengers and The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre. Anyone whose caught even a handful of the German krimi cycle, which was so influential on the giallo, will know how often these Wallace thrillers featured schoolgirls in peril as a plot point and that’s the theme around which both Assault and Revenge (not to mention the subsequent Italian trilogy written and / or directed by Massimo Dallamano) rotate…

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… but Assault’s credentials as a giallo all’Inglese go way deeper than that. You want a plot that hinges on its protagonist half-glimpsing a crucial clue and agonising about its exact significance? You got it. You want said character to be played by giallo icon Suzy Kendall? Here she is. Lascivious subjective camera work… a hard-ass cop… a shoal of lecherous and disreputable red herrings… convoluted plotting wherein all sense of proportion is lost (a trip to pick up some sodium pentathol concludes with the pharmacy blowing up… *) … a spectacular demise for the newly unmasked culprit, so ingeniously (some would say stupidly) devised that it suggests divine retribution? All present and politically incorrect. Overblown alternative titles? Well, Assault played the US grindhouse circuit (presumably post-Exorcist) under the alias In The Devil’s Garden, a rebranding actually justified (kind of) by the fact that Kendall’s feisty Julie West spends much of the film believing she literally saw Satan himself at work when she stumbled upon a fatal sexual attack inflicted on one of her students in the woods adjacent to the posh school where she teaches. Indeed, her insistence on sticking to this lurid account leads to her being ridiculed by the prickly coroner (Allan Cuthbertson) when she gives evidence at the inquest. Det. Chief Supt. Velyan (Finlay) co-opts a sleazy tabloid reporter (Freddie Jones) to vindicate her, unmask the culprit and set up a truly electrifying climax…

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Perhaps it would be inappropriate, given Assault’s subject matter, to describe this restoration as “ravishing” but it’s an incredible step-up from Network’s previous DVD edition. Even the bonus trailer, which looked pretty knackered on that, is significantly improved here. The stills gallery remains but the 1981 Tales Of The Unexpected episode There’s One Born Every Minute, starring Finlay, is conspicuous by its absence… no great loss when weighed against the sumptuous presentation of the main feature.

My screener didn’t come with the limited edition collector’s booklet with essays by Adrian Smith and Laura Mayne, plus PDF material. Hopefully that comes with some information on this beautiful renovation job. Hell, I might even shell out £9.75 to find out. Talk about a bargain… what are you waiting for?

Trivia note: much of Assault was filmed in Black Park, Iver Heath, Bucks, subsequently the home of pre-Cert video distribution legends IFS.

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(*) … and taking with it, in his first credited screen role (as “Man in chemist shop”), David Essex. Is he more, too much more than a pretty face in Assault? I don’t think so…

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“Spirits Of The Vilest Roman Emperors”… Jess Franco’s SADIST OF NOTRE DAME and SINFONIA EROTICA On Severin BD.

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Director / star Jess Franco ponders a knotty moral issue in The Sadist Of Notre Dame…

The Sadist Of Notre Dame. BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

Sinfonia Erotica. BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

During the darkest days of “video nasty” witch-hunting, I was often required to debate the subject on TV chat shows (Kilroy… John Stapleton… Right To Reply… I’ve done ’em all) which pitted me, on more than one occasion, against a certain holy-rolling side-kick of the dreaded Mary Whitehouse. During one such exchange I pointed out to her that significantly more serial killers claimed inspiration for their misdeeds from The Bible (it’s usually The Book Of Revelation) than from horror films. “Oh, that old cliché!” she blustered. “That’s a mealy-mouthed way of admitting that it’s a fact!” I shouted at her, as the mic was yanked away from me and pointed at another concerned worthy.

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Jess Franco’s The Sadist Of Notre Dame (1979) follows the murderous career of precisely one such bible-bashing nutcase, in the slabbering shape of… Jess Franco! Yes, this is Franco’s A Cat In The Brain, though actually preceding that notorious cinematic car crash by 11 years. While Lucio Fulci’s flick faces few serious contenders in the “unintentional comedy” stakes, TSOND is undeniably a much better film. Stick a frame around that last sentence because I’m not going to be making a habit of comparing Lucio Fulci unfavourably to Franco. As well as starring their own directors, both titles incorporate large chunks of films each had already made, though Sadist is content to raids Franco’s Exorcism (1974) in contrast with the several films Fulci cannibalised for A Cat In The Brain, some of them not even directed by him in the first place.

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Exorcism stars JF as the disturbed Mathis Vogel, who mistakes the Grand Guignol performance of a Satanic mass for the real thing and is moved to avenge its “victims” by killing the performers. The rise of legal porno cinema rendered this kind of picture pretty much redundant at the time and Exorcism went largely unreleased. Parisian producers Eurocine tried to recoup some of their losses by enlisting Franco to shoot hard-core scenes (in which he enthusiastically participated) to be added to 25 minutes of the original footage and released as Sexorcismes. Franco’s original footage was also reworked, without the benefit of porno material, as Exorcism And Black Masses… none of this to any significant commercial success. Exorcism and Sadist (sometimes “Ripper”) Of Notre Dame have both been released as “Demoniac” (Redemption attempted to release the Sadist variant… I think… under that title on VHS in the UK during the 90’s, kicking off a real shit storm. Black House Films have now released a UK blu-ray of Demoniac, though I haven’t seen it and can’t vouch for its contents). Still with me?

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By 1979 Franco and his new muse Lina Romay had returned to Spain, after years of exile, to take advantage of the rapid liberalisation that followed the death of our hero’s namesake, the Generalissimo. Still trying to retrieve something from the Exorcism debacle, Eurocine (in co-production cahoots with Spanish company Triton) requested another reworking of its footage, which Franco saw as the ideal opportunity to vent his fury at Catholic hypocrisy, now that he was free to express himself freely on this and any other subject that took his fancy.

The Sadist Of Notre Dame begins with new footage in which the Vogel character (still played by Franco but now named Mathis Laforge) is incarcerated among a bunch of winos and deadbeats in a Swiss Sanitorium. Escaping in (appropriately enough) a garbage compactor, he arrives in Paris and naturally enough, for a defrocked cleric, he gravitates towards the eponymous cathedral, stabbing to death the first prostitute who fastens onto him (“The Court of The High Inquisition sentences you to death!”) before extending his range to the killing of women who arouse his libido by indulging in such sinful activities as… (ulp!)… disco dancing!

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Not wishing to hide his light under a bushel, Laforge pens a fictionalised account of his murderous moral crusade (entitled “The Return Of The Grand Inquisitor”) and visits the offices of Venus Editions to see if editor Pierre De Franval (Pierre Taylou) will publish it in his flagship quasi-literary bongo mag The Dagger In The Garter (“We specialise in erotic bondage drama stories…”) Having been fobbed off, Laforge is leaving the office when he overhears De Franval and his secretary Anne (Romay) mocking him… more significantly, he learns that she and her flat mate Maria (Monica Swinn) are organising a sex show and orgy at a deconsecrated church for a couple of kinky aristocrats and their swinging pals, news which stokes Laforge’s self-righteous ire and reconnects us with the original  narrative of Exorcism and its tragic conclusion.

The protagonist’s interrogation of his victims, his tormented self-interrogations and his confessional exchanges with former seminary class-mate Relmo (Antonio De Cabot), now an officiating prelate at the Cathedral, make for a more bleakly compelling experience than Fulci wandering around muttering about Nazism and sadism, although TSOND does have its moments of unintentional comedy, e.g. the aforementioned and seemingly endless disco dancing sequence and the one in which some old Count (Claude Sendron) gets his masochistic rocks off as one of Anne’s pals walks all over him. I’m sure he’s having the time of his life but such pursuits, however ardently enjoyed, invariably come across as ridiculous to non-participating observers and are consequently best kept private, a point underlined by another scene of pale, flabby individuals involved in a half-hearted daisy chain.

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Severin have done the usual stalwart job with this 4k scan of the best available elements, discovered (I always love this bit) “in the crawlspace of a Montparnasse nunnery” and the bonus materials won’t disappoint, either. There’s a short interview with the doyen of French B-movie critics Alain Petit… a mini video essay from Robert Monell, curator of the inimitably named “I’m in a Jess Franco State Of Mind” blog… and who better than Stephen Thrower (author of Murderous Passions and The Flowers Of Perversion) on familiar passionate, informative and insightful form, to talk us through the labyrinth of alternative versions and discuss whether TSOND is a variation on Exorcism or a new film in its own right? Best of all though is the eye-opening, fly-opening featurette The Gory Days Of Le Brady, covering that legendary sleaze cinema (pictured below) and its neighbours in the Parisian equivalent of New York City’s The Deuce. Sample quote: “If you slipped on some sperm and fell over, everybody would just laugh”. A word of advice, dear readers… such floor deposits will probably be frowned upon down at your local multiplex.

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Meanwhile, “transferred in 4k from an uncut 35mm print donated by The Institutuo De La Sexualidad Humana in Madrid” (sure thing, boys), Severin present Franco’s Sinfonia Erotica (1980). If Sadist Of Notre Dame was a somewhat misleading title for a film whose title character agonises over his killings rather than wallowing in them and in which the naming of another character as De Franval is nothing more than a throwaway, Sinfonia Erotica is authentically one of Franco’s many muted adaptations of “the divine Marquis” (Thrower concedes in one of the extras on this disc that any truly faithful adaptation of De Sade’s literary excesses would be unreleasable in any market), specifically an amplification of the De Bressac interlude from Justine Or The Misfortunes Of Virtue.

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Is it just me or does the bottom of that engraving resemble a VHS tape?

Martine De Bressac (Romay, hiding behind her Candice Costa alias) is driven back to her family estate by Doctor Louys (Albino Graziani) after her husband’s libertine antics have driven her to a nervous breakdown. What she discovers on her return is hardly conducive to recuperation. Her husband the Marquis (Armando Borges) is embroiled in a gay affair with a dissolute young nobleman named Flor (Mel Rodrigo). As if this wasn’t sufficient complication, on the very day she returns, the runaway nun Norma (Susan Hemingway) is discovered unconscious on their grounds, apparently having been raped.

Under threat of return to the hated convent, Norma reluctantly agrees to join the Marquis and Flor in their bed, also in a plot to drive Martine completely insane and murder her. Amid the expected soft core bonkathon (including, uniquely in Franco’s filmography, man-on-man action) sub-plots (in every sense of the term) emerge and it becomes a, er, toss-up as to who’ll do away with whom first. Perversely, the more Martine learns of the Marquis’ murderous intentions towards her, the hotter she seems to get for him (spending much of the film frantically masturbating) and when (SPOILER ALERT!) she emerges as the only survivor of the menage a quatre, it  transpires that this is the culmination of a vengeful masterplan by Doctor Louys, rather than the fulfilment of her own desires. Like Norma, she’s escaped from the frying pan only to find herself in the patriarchal fire.

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Franco delivers this perhaps unexpected feminist message with a thoroughly characteristic disregard for the rules of “well made cinema”, to the strains of Franz Liszt, to boot. My recent reviews of the prolific director’s films have increasingly featured a line to the effect that “this is one of his more watchable efforts”… but have I been lucky enough to keep getting progressively “more watchable” Franco flicks? Or is true, as is often asserted (“You can’t say you’ve really watched any Franco film until you’ve watched all of them”, in the formulation of Tim Lucas) that you more you watch, the more you get it?

Again, Severin have effected the best looking version of Sinfonia Erotica that’s currently possible. Special features include another excerpt from the long last interview session that JF ever gave (to Sev’s David Gregory), featuring his reflections on his doomed relationship with first wife Nicole Guettard, plus another audience with Stephen Thrower, who traces the development of Franco’s De Sade obsession through the course of his career. I’ve never made any secret of my long-running Franco-scepticism and he’s never going to supplant Fulci  in my heart, but Thrower’s thoughtful commentaries and a succession of excellent Severin releases are, slowly but surely, converting me to the cause.

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Oxytocin Trumps Testosterone… Cocteau’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST on BFI Blu-Ray

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BD. BFI. Region B. PG.

One of the sustaining myths of civilisation building is that of the women dragging their men folk out of the saloon bars and into the church pews… of the latter ceasing to spread their wild oats and getting down to some serious husbandry… of love overcoming lust and oxytocin trumping testosterone. The taming of male libido and aggression has been an ongoing theme of fantasy cinema, from any amount of readings of Dr Jekyll And Mister Hyde to King Kong, Lon Chaney Jr’s Wolf Man and assorted Paul Naschy knock-offs… from films as bland as Disney pablum and the pap of the Twilight franchise to those as seditious as Borowczyk’s La Bete…

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Jean Cocteau’s La Belle Et La Bête (1946) comes as close as any of these to presenting a definitive take on the “Beauty and The Beast” theme by sticking, straight-faced, to the source whereby Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (in 1740… subsequently abridged by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756 and Andrew Lang, 1889) distilled this wisp of folklore into formal fairy tale.

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Josette Day is Belle, the beautiful and virtuous daughter of a penurious father (Marcel André), ridiculed and over-worked by her acquisitive sisters (shades of Cinderella). When Papa rides off in hope that his ship has finally come in, the Ugly Sisters place their orders for jewels and finery while Belle (to their haughty amusement) requests but a single rose (shades of King Lear). That ship duly fails to come in and her dad compounds their misfortune by picking the requested rose from the enchanted garden of La Bête (Jean Marais), who demands one of his daughters in recompense, as an alternative to taking the old man’s life.

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The dutiful Belle takes his place and The Beast is duly smitten with her. The balance of the picture is taken up (along with her ghastly family’s mercenary machinations) with the accommodation which the title characters come to and the revelation of Monsieur Bête’s finer features, by dint of which he ultimately wins her heart and transforms, in the process, into Prince Charming, the maskless Marais (the French Brad Pitt of his day).

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Cocteau coaches Marais in the Droopy Nipple World Championships of 1946.

So many factors contribute to making La Belle Et La Bête such an off-kilter classic… the idiosyncratic, fourth wall-breaking title sequence, the atmospheric black-and-white photography by Henri Alekan, Christian Bérard’s other worldly production design (he’s credited as “illustrator”), the costumes courtesy of Antonio Castillo and Marcel Escoffier… not to mention such surreal features as the animated furniture and fittings and oneiric moments like the one in which Belle blossoms through her bedroom wall (after donning a magic glove, obviously).

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Cocteau intended La Belle Et La Bête as a welcome and necessary injection of fantasy after the horrors of World War II (its prologue requests a mindset of “childlike simplicity” from prospective viewers), but the cachet of his Surrealist associates, who had sat out the German occupation in foreign exile, inevitably waned in comparison to that of the Existentialists, who had stayed and resisted. The reputation of Cocteau, who had stayed, fared worse still… he was later accused (though acquitted) of collaboration. Myths prevail, though and sampled at this remove, the dreamlike qualities of his furry fairy tale enchant the palate like a sparkling glass of Crémant de Loire while the contrived intellectual conceits of Godard, Robbe-Grillet, Melville et al are about as appealing as yesterday’s croissants.

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Looking suitably princely and charming in a 5K scan from 2013 (5K? Expect all your favourite titles to be re-offered to you yet again in the near future), the BFI’s La Belle Et La Bête is handsomely appointed with a predictably lavish coachload of extras. Aside from the obvious trailer, a stills gallery and an illustrated booklet of essays (which I haven’t seen), there’s a commentary track from the always compelling Sir Christopher Frayling, film and audio clips of scenes that were deleted from the film (to its benefit, it has to be said) and two short documentaries, the first of which deals with the difficulties the polymath poet / director laboured under during the production of LB&LB and also those faced by its restorers, drawing on the invaluable pages of Cocteau’s film making diary while dodging the question of the extent to which René Clément actually co-directed the proceedings. The second documentary paints an engrossing if not always endearing portrait of Christian Bérard, whose vision drew from the paintings of Vermeer and the engravings of Gustave Doré while in its turn exerting an undeniable influence over the likes of Jim Henson, Terry Gilliam and Ridley Scott (keep La Belle Et La Bête in mind next time you watch Blade Runner, in particular the scenes in J.F. Sebastian’s apartment).

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Best of all is the inclusion of René Bertrand’s 13 minute claymation epic Barbe Bleu, (1938), an appropriately beautiful and brutish rendition of the associated Blue Beard myth that’s virtually worth the price of admission on its own.

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Plastic Bertrand…

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Black Emanuelle Goes Beyond The Pail And Off The Bristol Chart… VIOLENCE IN A WOMAN’S PRISON on Severin BD

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BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

In an archive micro interview among the extras on this characteristically cracking Severin release, director Bruno Mattei offers the profound observation that “Violence In A Women’s Prison is a film about the imprisonment of women”… no shit, Sherlock! Up to their old tricks, Mattei and frequent collaborator Claudio Fragasso shot this one (also known as Emanuelle Reports From A Women’s Prison / Caged Women) simultaneously with another “Gemser in jail” epic, Blade Violent aka Women’s Prison Massacre in 1982. Mattei handled most of VIAWP while, down the block, Fragasso concentrated on BV. If there was anything particularly tricky to shoot, each would help the other out and the continuity girl apparently commuted between the two on roller skates… a wonderful snapshot of how things worked at the height of the soon-to-deflate spaghetti exploitation boom.

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As you won’t have too much trouble gleaning from one of those alternative titles, the plot here involves Emanuelle Sterman (as she appears to be surnamed this time out) masquerading as one Laura Kendall (prostitute, dope peddler and pimp murderer) to go undercover for Amnesty International and report back on the human rights abuses in a high security prison, godknowswhere. There’s a local peasant dude called Miguel who turns up to deliver fruit and veg, from which I imagine we are supposed to infer that these events are unfolding somewhere in Latin America… Miguel doesn’t figure in any significant way for the rest of the picture, although it’s suggested at one point that he has a speed boat in which the good guys might be able to escape (what, was he a contestant on Bullseye or something?)

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It looks for a while as though their isn’t going to be too much in Emanuelle’s report, over and above the predictable sapphic shenanigans and some stereotypical depictions of brutish bull dykes and limp-wristed faggots, for Amnesty to get incensed about… I mean, “If you don’t get out of bed you can’t have any coffee” must rank pretty low on the scale of crimes against humanity. The outrages begin to escalate, though, when our heroine decides to up the ante by dumping a bucket of shit over the head of a guard who winds her up during slopping out. A rather messy fight scene ensues, to the obvious delight of Warden Rescaut (another mesmerisingly intense performance from the brilliant Franca Stoppi) and Emanuelle is consigned to solitary confinement in a dungeon, where she is soon (this is a Bruno Mattei flick, remember) attacked by a pack of ravenous rats.

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Chief Warden Dolores (Lorraine De Selle) invites the Governor of the men’s prison next door (Jacques Stany) over to party, their love-making spiced up by the spectacle of a couple of his (floridly overacting) inmates violating one of hers. The gay character Leander (Franco Caracciolo) is lynched by fellow prisoners, inflamed by spectacle of an unattainable floozy flaunting her charms through the window of her cell. Kindly Doctor Moran (Gabriele Tinti, Gemser’s real life spouse and frequent film partner) reassures Leander, before he gives up the ghost, that he’ll be able to look Jesus in the eye…

Under the tender care of the Doc, who’s serving time for the mercy killing of his wife, Emanuelle recovers miraculously quickly, only to be outed as the Amnesty mole that De Selle and Stany have been looking out for (perhaps stashing her draft reports under her mattress wasn’t the smartest of ideas…)

In a ringing endorsement of her accusations, Emanulle has a bell lowered over her, which the guards beat on with their truncheons until she confesses (ding dong!) She’s then put in a hospital ward to recover but this is only to lull her into a false sense of security while De Selle administers incremental doses of poison to her. How being raped by  Stany fits into their “lulling” stratagem is anybody’s guess.

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Anyway, during a general uprising in which several guards and inmates are killed off (“Who will feed my pet cockroach?” are the dying words of one old lag), The Doc and Emanuelle attempt an escape, but never do manage to find Miguel’s speed boat (“Ooh, let’s see what he could have won!”) The film seems to close with them being marched to execution but there’s a final twist which, if a bit abruptly sprung, is quite clever by the general standard of these things. Mattei was so pleased with this one that he attempted to W.I.P. audiences into another frenzy with The Jail: The Women’s Hell, a thinly disguised remake, 24 years later.

Extras comprise the aforementioned short Mattei interview, an amusing radio spot and an interview with Fragasso and Rossella Drudi that’s split about 50 / 50 between VIAWP and their broader joint career… the usual moaning (all perfectly justified, I’m sure) about “the usual swindles”.

While never quite attaining the levels of surreal and sadistic delirium that Joe D’Amato and Jess Franco always brought to W.I.P. and affiliated genres, Mattei rings enough sleazy bells (quite literally in one scene) to satisfy devotees of this stuff and with another scenery-chewing performance from Stoppi (below) and both Gemser and De Selle registering at their career foxiest, it’s another winner from the ever reliable Severin stable, scanned in 2k from a pristine inter-positive so you can wallow like never before in this fevered festival of feisty faecal fist-fight action… you lucky people!

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