Draconian Daze… SHOGUN’S JOY OF TORTURE Reviewed.

BD. Arrow. Region B. 18.

From Toei studios and director Teruo Ishii, the guys who brought you (among countless others) the 1969 brace Horrors Of Malformed Men and Orgies Of Edo, comes this portmanteau survey of draconian judicial misogyny during Japan’s Edo / Tokugawa period (1603-1868). After a random pre-titles sampling of decapitation, evisceration, immolation and the ol’ “torn apart by rampaging bulls” chestnut, we’re into the first of three stories, that of lovely Mitsu (Masumi Tachibana). When her brother Shinzo (Teruo Yoshida) is seriously injured at work, she faces the prospect of destitution and accepts an offer from his big shot boss Minosuke (Kurosawa regular Kichijirõ Ueda) to finance the required medical treatment. Mean Mister Mino’s motivation is not at all altruistic, however and the only way for Mitsu to keep the funds flowing is to succumb to his sexual advances. When Shinzo learns what is happening, he’s so incensed by the blot on Mitsu’s honour that he initiates an incestuous relationship with her… I’m not entirely convinced of the logic behind this, but at least it suggests that Shinzo is recovering his strength. Ultimately Shinzo calls Minosuke out on his sexual blackmail, Mino exposes the incest and Mitsu injures him with a knife. Suspended and beaten until she confesses, Mitsu is brought to trial before an enlightened magistrate (also played by Yoshida) who tries to exercise clemency but she won’t renounce her forbidden love, hoping to be reunited with her dead brother / lover in Heaven. Unrepentant, she is crucified upside down over an incoming tide. The incest taboo is a basic tenet of any civilised society but Mitsu’s punishment is surely excessive, especially as Minosuke (who, it’s revealed, arranged Shinzo’s incapacitating injury) seems to get off scot free!

Cut to the linking device, in which a scholar peruses the annals of Edo period jurisprudence. All the events in this 1968 film (original title Tokugawa Onna Keibatsu-Shi / Tokugawa History Of Women Punishment) are allegedly based on authenticated historical occurrences, with the second story specifically concerning the notorious goings on at Juko Temple in 1666. Abbess Reihō (Yukie Kagawa) presides sternly over her Buddhist nuns but is secretly bedding her attendant Rintoku (Naomi Shiraishi). When they stumble upon one of their charges romping in the woods with Syunkai (Shin’ichirô Hayashi), an inhabitant of the neighbouring monastery, the Abbess is simultaneously outraged and aroused. The guilty nun is suspended and beaten, then bitten by leeches, followed by the application of chillis and ultimately a red hot poker to places where the sun don’t shine! Predictably these drastic measures, intended to transfer Syunkai’s affections to Reihō, have precisely the opposite effect. When the Shogun’s men turn up to investigate the reports they’ve been getting, they find the abbess carrying his severed head around with her. Reihō and her principal collaborators are crucified and stabbed with spears. That compassionate magistrate asks presiding magistrate Lord Nanbara if they aren’t going too far by executing the dead and the insane…

… to no avail. Nanbara (Fumio Watanabe) is a connoisseur of cruelty and in the concluding episode (whose thematic concerns anticipate those of Pupi Avati’s 1976 masterpiece The House With Laughing Windows) we find him sneering at the alleged masterpiece of famous tattoo artist Horichi (Asao Koike) when he sees it adorning the back of a top Geisha girl. He scoffs at its depiction of tormented souls in Hell for its lack of authenticity. Obsessed with perfecting his Art, Horichi scours the bath houses until he finds a woman with perfect skin and kidnaps her to provide the canvas for his next attempt. “After I’d tattooed her private parts, she became compliant and obedient” he muses (advising the new canvas to “think of it as though you were bitten by a mad dog”). He bugs Nanbara to allow him to attend the torture of captured Christian missionaries while he works and his request is granted.

“I would even go to Hell for the work I want to achieve…” rants Horichi: “… it will be the pinnacle of my life’s work!” Deciding that only Nanbara’s face is appropriate for the ogre in his new tableau, Horichi sets about giving his Lordship a sufficiently agonised expression, so at least the film ends on a note of poetic justice (recalling that in the contemporary Amicus portmanteaus efforts). This and stern voice over reminders that the only reason we’re seeing all these horrors is to illustrate man’s inhumanity to woman and as a warning against the consequences of draconian legal codes didn’t cut any ice with the Japanese critical establishment, which roundly condemned Tokugawa Onna Keibatsu-Shi. In its undeclared aim of dragging potential Japanese cinema ticket buyers away from their beloved TV sets, however, it proved wildly successful, spawning a series of official and bootleg sequels plus any amount of increasingly icky “eco-guru” efforts claiming inspiration from it. Unlike most of those, Ishii’s film is skilfully made (drawing its look from medieval Buddhist Hell Scrolls and the S/M visions of Oniroku Dan) and particularly beautifully shot by Motoya Washio…. and all the more disturbing for it. To help keep you glued to your own beloved TV set, the folks at Arrow have appended the following…

Extras: Audio commentary by Japanese cinema expert Tom Mes, an appreciation from author Patrick Macias of Teruo Ishii’s career and Jasper Sharp on the wider depiction of torture for titillation in Japanese exploitation cinema, an informative featurette that will prevent you from ever suffering the social faux pas of confusing Pinky Violence with Roman Porno. Also trailer, image gallery and reversible sleeve options (original / Jacob Phillips’s newly commissioned artwork). The first pressing only comes with a collectors’ booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Mark Schilling.

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All The Colours Of Chiaroscuro… Indicator’s COLUMBIA NOIR #2 Box Set Reviewed.

BD. Indicator. Region B. PG.
Limited Edition (6,000 units)

FRAMED (Richard Wallace, 1947) UK BD Premiere
711 OCEAN DRIVE (Joseph M Newman, 1950) UK BD Premiere
THE MOB (Robert Parrish, 1951) World BD Premiere
AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD (Vincent Sherman, 1952) UK BD Premiere
TIGHT SPOT (Phil Karlson, 1955) World BD Premiere
MURDER BY CONTRACT (Irving Lerner, 1958) World BD Premiere

Following hard on the shit heels (*) of Indicator’s Columbia Noir #1 set, what we have here (predictably enough but no less welcome for that) is another six disc sampling of deadpan dicks, duplicitous dames, deadly frames, double crosses, crime bosses, relative morality and all the rest of it. So don your trench coat, light up a Lucky Strike, set your venetian blinds to maximum Expressionist effect and let’s check out the lineup…

(* “Shit heel”: pulp fictional variant on the term “gum shoe”, denoting a private investigator… but you knew that, right?)

Mike Lambert (Glenn Ford) makes one hell of an entrance in Richard Wallace’s Framed (aka Paula, 1947), the brakes on a crappy lorry supplied to him by his stop gap employers having failed. If he looks more like a mining engineer than a truck driver that’s because he is a mining engineer, looking for an opportunity to ply his trade. As luck would have it, old prospector Jeff Cunningham (Edgar Buchanan) is looking for a mining engineer to help him work a new seam of silver he’s just discovered. Just to make it unanimous, blonde bombshell Paula Craig (Janis Carter) is looking for a sap whose charred remains will pass for those of her smoothy boyfriend Steve Price (Barry Sullivan) after they’ve cleaned out the Savings & Loans where Steve works. Lambert’s exactly what she’s been looking for and although he wonders what such a swell broad is doing behind the bar in a shabby drinking dive (Jeez, this burg could do with a decent careers office!) he’s too dazzled by her alleged beauty to join up the dots. But can Paula follow through with the plan when she starts falling for Mike? And could he stand to see an innocent man take the fall for her ? It’s taken as read that Ford is irresistible to the opposite sex but there are plenty of other plot contrivances (courtesy of Ben Maddow, who adapted John Patrick’s original story to the screen) that will require you to spend your disbelief from a great height… if you can manage that, you’ll enjoy Framed just fine.

Gorgeous Glenn’s back (as Steve Emery) in Vincent Sherman’s Affair In Trinidad (1952) but he’s barely off the plane before he’s walked into another frame-up. The brother he came to visit has “committed suicide” and Chris, the sister-in-law he never knew he had (Rita Hayworth, previously romantically teamed with Ford in Charles Vidor’s The Lady In Question, 1940, Gilda, 1946 and The Loves of Carmen, 1948) hasn’t allowed so much as a respectful interlude to pass before she’s cozying up to smarmy socialite Max Fabian (Alexander Scourby). Steve’s a much brusquer fella than Mike Lambert was and responds to this breach of etiquette by handing Chris a slap.

What she’s not allowed to tell him, unfortunately, is that she’s been working undercover for the cops to dig up dirt on Fabian and his connections with sinister foreign agents (though every so often she takes time out of from this important mission to perform a sexy song and dance routine). Nor does Chris feel at liberty to convey to Steve (you guessed) her growing feelings for him. No prizes for guessing that all these romantic complications are ultimately resolved along with that sinister foreign agents’ fiendish plot… which turns out to be an alarming anticipation of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a full decade before it actually unfolded!

Edmond O’Brien’s Noir star eclipses even that of Ford, given his appearances in the likes of Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A. and (alongside Jimmy Cagney) Raoul Walsh’s astonishing White Heat (both 1949). In Joseph M Newman’s gripping 711 Ocean Drive (1950) his character Mal Granger makes the transition, via his telecommunication skills, from a working stiff who enjoys placing an illegal bet here and there to a big wheel in a horse racing racket. His story, told in flashback by a member of Uncle Sam’s “Gangster Squad”, demonstrates in no uncertain terms the slippery slope that inexorably led him from minor peccadilloes to brutal amorality and begins with a caption claiming that the actors and crew needed police protection from gangland elements intent on disrupting this film’s shoot. That must have taken some doing during the dramatic Boulder Dam finale (a sequence worthy of Hitchcock) where Mal finally succumbs to his fatal character flaw, a fondness for a rival mobster’s woman. Femmes fatales inevitably spell doom for would be wise guys, a motif we see again and again in annals of Noir and elsewhere on this box set.

There’s crime film Royalty (Ford, O’Brien et al) and then there’s Edward G. Robinson… from chewing the scenery as Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931) to pursuing a dodgy insurance claim with proto-Columbo doggedness in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Robinson’s impact on this genre has probably only ever been surpassed by that of Cagney himself. In Phil Karlson’s Tight Spot (1955) he’s District Attorney Lloyd Hallett, trying to convince flibbertigibbet jailbird Sherry Conley (Ginger Rogers) to take the stand against Benjamin Costaine (Lorne Greene) her Mr Big former boyfriend… all this based, by some accounts, on Senator Estes Kefauver’s efforts to secure Virginia Hill’s testimony against her mob associates. Sherry’s going to take a lot of convincing, given the recent heavy lead intake of other prospective witnesses. Maybe the romantic attentions of her protection detail Vince Striker (Brian Keith, living up to that hunky handle) will prevail where the DA’s civic duty lectures failed? But Vince is concealing a thing or two himself… Proving (as if their wasn’t abundant other proof on her resume) that she wasn’t “just” Hollywood’s greatest female Hoofer, Rogers steals the show here with a sassy, spirited screwball performance.

Johnny Damico: he uncovers the waterfront…

Robert Parrish’s compelling The Mob (1951) begins with off duty cop Johnny Damico (Broderick Crawford) trying to buy a wedding ring for his girl when he stumbles onto a crime scene and makes a complete hash of it, allowing a murderer posing as another cop to get away scot free. Johnny’s suspended from the force, only to be secretly deployed (under a new alias) on NYC’s docks, to gather info on gangland interests in that crucial economic sector. Mean streets, mean docks… Johnny can’t trust anyone, the existential angst and all pervading paranoia hitting Philip K. Dicklike levels when the Mob hires Johnny to carry out a hit on himself! The ultimate revelation of the big cheese’s identity is kind of “corny” (to quote the character himself) but the suspenseful, hospital based climax concludes things in satisfying style. There’s a great supporting cast in this one, including up-and-comers Ernest Borgnine and Neville Brand… Charles Bronson (who gets a couple of lines but no screen credit)… and Jean Alexander (no, not THAT Jean Alexander!) The Mob and Affair in Trinidad were both shot by multiple Oscar nominee Joseph Walker. Two time Academy Award winner (for From Here To Eternity, 1953 and Bonnie And Clyde (1967) Burnett Guffey served as Cinematographer on Framed, Tight Spot and Joseph H. Lewis’s The Undercover Man (1949) and perusal of their collected work across existing and pending Columbia boxes (which also highlight the OST contributions of George Dunning) provide useful insights into the essence (which had always been more about a vibe than an adherence to any hard and fast rules) of High Noir…

By 1958 the movement was dissolving in waves of cross-genre contamination and few films illustrate this tendency better than Irving Lerner’s Murder By Contract (1958). Vince Edwards plays Claude, an upwardly mobile dude who covets a des res and calmly figures that the quickest way to accumulate the necessary readies is to become a hit man. We follow his monastic preparation and rapid rise through the ranks, until he is flown to LA to rub out a heavily guarded witness on the eve of a major trial. His Zen-like approach to the job winds up Marc (Phillip Pine) and amuses George (Herschel Bernardi) but Claude, who has flipped from taciturnity to rambling expositions of his Nietzschean personal philosophy, completely loses his cool when he learns that his target is a woman. He rationalises his reservations along “deadlier than the male” lines but when obliged to see the job through, he bungles it via apparently Oedipal apprehensions and (spoiler alert!) dies in a drain. Memorable for a nifty jazz guitar accompaniment (courtesy of Bing Crosby’s long time musical director, Perry Botkin) and a firm favourite of Martin Scorsese, Murder By Contract is nicely posed on the cusps of Noir and Nouvelle Vague, anticipating much American “underground” Cinema of the 1960s with its satire on the American business ethic and the blunt black comedic edge to its violence…

… speaking of which, Indicator continue the admirable practice here of beefing up their Columbia boxes with Three Stooges mayhem… and that’s got to be better than a poke in the eye. Each disc contains a Stooges short, selected for some affinity to the film it supports. Violent Is the Word for Curly (1938), for instance, affords an early DP credit to the prolific Lucien Ballard, who later shot Murder by Contract. Nor is it too hard to work out the thematic pertinence of Three Sappy People, Saved by the Belle (both 1939), Idiots Deluxe (1945), Up in Daisy’s Penthouse (1953) and Hot Stuff (1956) to their respective main features. Any chance, I wonder, of a Stooges box (or series of boxes) from Indicator?

While we’re waiting and hoping for that, let’s consider the other extras on this set. Alongside the expected trailers and image galleries, audio commentaries come courtesy of Imogen Sara Smith, Glenn Kenny, Gina Telaroli, Lee Gambin, Nora Fiore and Farran Smith Nehme. The Steps of Age is a short 1951 docudrama written and directed by Framed writer Ben Maddow, depicting the challenges of ageing through of the eyes of a retired widow. Joseph M Newman’s 1945 short Diary of a Sergeant tells the story of Harold Russell, a soldier who lost his hands during World War II and subsequently won an Oscar for his performance in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). You get two interviews with Ernest Borgnine and one in which Peter Ford discusses the life and career of his father Glenn. Caribbean (1951) is a Crown Film Unit short depicting life and culture in the West Indies, British Guiana, and British Honduras. Irving Lerner’s Oscar-nominated Swedes In America (1943), presented by Ingrid Bergman, concerns the life of… well, work it out for yourself. Martin Scorsese contributes an enthusiastic review to Murder By Contract. If you enjoyed the excerpts from Joe Valachi’s Senate subcommittee testimony on Indicator’s recent release of The Valachi Papers, no doubt you’ll appreciate (on the Tight Spot disc) an hour or so’s worth of extracts from unedited telerecordings of another (1951) Senate hearing into organised crime, originally compiled by the British Film Institute and presented in four parts, including footage of the aforementioned Virginia Hill. Limited edition includes a 120 page book.

Like its predecessor, this box showcases many different aspects of the multi-faceted Film Noir phenomenon… and box 3 is in preparation! Bring it on.

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“V” Is For… Charles Bronson In THE VALACHI PAPERS And THE VALDEZ HORSES.

The Valachi Papers. BD. Indicator. Region B. 18.
The Valdez Horses. BD. Indicator. Region B. 15.

Charles Bronson attained Stardom via a brace of John Sturges pictures, The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) but it was Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) that recast him as an authentic Icon, the imposing rock solid landscape of Monument Valley melting into wobbly jelly when counterpoised with his craggy physiognomy. Bronson was back in Italy for Sergio Sollima’s Violent City (1970), where his fictional “hit man at odds with former employers” proved ideal preparation for his eponymous lead role in Terence Young’s The Valachi Papers (1972). Put together by legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis, the film was adapted (by Stephen Geller) from Peter Maas’s much litigated book of the same title, based on the memoirs of / interviews with the renegade Mafia soldier whose televised Senate testimony in 1963 confirmed for the first time the existence of an Italian-American organised crime syndicate, revealed much about its history, organisation and rituals and brought the expression Cosa Nostra into general usage.

Valachi’s version of events, as followed in the film, is an attempt to justify his breaking the oath of omertà, the rule of silence by which he had lived since becoming a made man in 1930. We see him, as played by Bronson, working his way up through the ranks from juvenile street gang stuff to serious involvement with the various heavyweight organised crime factions until internecine warfare between them (and in the case of Lucky Luciano, imprisonment) leads to Vito Genovese emerging as Supremo, with Valachi serving him as driver and assassin. He’s ultimately involved in the castration of Gap (Walter Chiari), a playboy gangster who’s become over friendly with Genovese’ s wife. In 1962 (while both are confined to Atlanta Federal Penitentiary on drugs charges) Genovese, believing that he’s been betrayed by Valachi, gives him “Il bacio della morte”. Valachi bludgeons to death a fellow inmate whom he suspects of trying to claim the bounty on him. Now serving life for murder, he decides to testify before John L. McClellan’s Senate Subcommittee in return for protective custody…

Bronson is supported here by a truly stellar cast including Lino Ventura as Genovese, Angelo Infanti (Luciano), Fausto Tozzi (as Albert Anastasia, the head of Murder Inc), Chiari, Joseph Wiseman, Amedeo Nazzari and inevitably Jill Ireland’s along for the (post-synched) ride as Valachi’s wife Maria. Mario Garbuglio’s production design and the film’s general fidelity to period accuracy (a jarringly anachronistic appearance by the Twin Towers of the WTC notwithstanding) also contribute to making The Valachi Papers an eminently watchable picture, perfectly complimented by the music of Riz Ortolani (and an uncredited Armando Trovajoli). The direction of Young (for whom Charlie had previously turned out in Cold Sweat, 1970 and Red Sun, 1971) is as slick as ever. As various collaborators (e.g. Geller and legendary make up FX man Giannetto De Rossi in the extras here) remember, Young prided himself on knocking out pictures quickly and efficiently.

In consequence The Valachi Papers, as engaging as it undoubtedly is, comes across as a superior “B” movie… a milieu in which Bronson would have felt comfortable, learning his trade as he had on the likes of Andre De Toth’s House Of Wax (1953, above), Roger Corman’s Machine-Gun Kelly (1958) and any amount of low budget war pictures and westerns. Therte’s no hint of the character depth and development that could have been attained if e.g. a Coppola or a Leone (to cite the obvious examples) had been calling the shots. Then again, they would have needed to be calling them to a Brando, a De Niro or a Pacino. Charlie Bronson, iconic as he was, was never exactly the most nuanced of performers. Horses for courses…

… which brings us, via the magic of clumsy segue, to The Valdez Horses (1973). When not typecast in Italian-American roles, Bronson (an ethnic Lithuanian, born Charles Dennis Buchinsky in 1921) often essayed Native Americans and here he’s Chino, a “half breed” horse trainer up against the competing land claims of cattle baron Maral (Marcel Bozzuffi on characteristically obnoxious form). He’d also like to be up against Maral’s sister Catherine (the miscast Ms Ireland), which only intensifies the aggro between the two men. As if this ongoing feud and the background buzz of everyday racism weren’t enough to contend with, Chino also finds himself responsible for the care of runaway kid Jamie (Vincent Van Patten).

For this film, De Laurentiis reunited Charlie with writer Geller and make up ace De Rossi, also with director John Sturges, whom he trusted to handle the star’s shyness, sensitivity, jealousy around Jill Ireland and (by general assent) outright eccentricity. Having expressed reservations about Terence Young as a director while remaining fond of him as a man, Geller and De Rossi (again featured in the extras on this disc) clearly feel no such ambivalence on the subject of Sturges. Giannetto remembers working with the director of Bad Day At Black Rock (1955) as the biggest disappointment of his professional life. Geller complains that Sturges chose to shoot in Almeria rather than The Rockies and that the director played down the the Indian stuff, which he personally had found the most intriguing element in Lee Hoffman’s source novel. Maybe he should have just taken the kid out, there seems no compelling reason for his character’s inclusion unless it’s as some kind of vague nod to George Stevens’ Shane (1953).

Things chug along efficiently enough under the direction of Sturges (until he left the production, by some accounts due to illness though others claim that he was lured away to prepare McQ, 1974, starring John Wayne in) and his replacement Duilio Coletti until the expected showdown, which turns into a puzzling climbdown on Chino’s part… it’s as though Spencer Tracy’s John Macreedy had just walked away from Black Rock, figuring that the murderers of his friend had suffered enough, or (more to the point) like Bronson’s Paul Kersey in Death Wish (1974) forgiving those who violated his family on the grounds that they must have suffered an underprivileged upbringing. I’m not currently in a position to tell you whether Hoffman’s book ends any differently. There’s a questionable scene in which Chino, being the ol’ Romantic that his is, comes on to Catherine while they’re watching horses copulating. She resists but then realises how much she likes Chino forcing himself on her. Last time I checked, a similar scene in Massimo Dallamano’s Venus In Furs (1969) had to be cut before certification, though of course if Sergio Leone could get away with it in Duck You Sucker (1969)…

Extras wise, both releases benefit strongly from those interviews with De Rossi and Geller. The former is a certified riot, never mincing words in his character assessments of those he’s worked with. He credits people for having big balls, great faces and strong personalities and is himself deficient in none of those categories. It’s a moving moment when he tears up paying tribute to his wife Mirella. Gerber’s another repository of great anecdotes, none more entertaining than the one where he’s persuaded to leave former capo Frank Costello out of the story by Costello himself (“I was shitting my pants!”). Other Valachi extras include an audio commentary with Bronson buff and author Paul Talbot, a short archival “making of documentary” including on-set interviews with Bronson and Terence Young, a further two minutes of “behind the scenes” stuff and the expected image gallery trailers, TV and radio spots. Most compelling of all is the 18 minutes extracted from Valachi’s televised testimony before that Senate Subcommittee. Get your skates on and you’ll receive an exclusive 36-page booklet comprising a new essay by Pasquale Iannone, newspaper reports on Joseph Valachi’s criminal career, excerpts from Maas’s book, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and full film credits. Yes, this is a limited (to 3,000 units) edition UK BD premiere…

… as is The Valdez Horses. Additional extras on that one include an alternative presentation with the Italian Valdez Il Mezzosangue (“Valdez The Half-Breed”) title sequence, another Paul Talbot audio commentary, alternative titles and credits, trailers, TV spots and image gallery. The 36-page booklet here boasts a new essay by Roberto Curti, an archival on-set report with contributions from Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, and John Sturges, extracts of interviews with Bronson and Ireland, an overview of contemporary critical responses and full film credits.

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“Non Ho Sonno”… Paul Schrader’s LIGHT SLEEPER Reviewed.

BD. Indicator. Region B. 15.

His intense Calvinist visions having inspired the likes of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder (1977) then a run of self-directed efforts from Blue Collar (1978) to Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters (1985), Paul Schrader knocked off a few pictures as a hired gun before returning to a more personal style of film making with Light Sleeper (1992). He envisaged this neat Neo Noir as his “midlife movie”, in which the protagonist would gain some self insight, turn his life around and attain a degree of transcendence. Nobody familiar with the director’s earlier work will be surprised to learn that the protagonist is a coke dealer, nor that his moment of transcendence is achieved during a bloody shoot out rather than in any moment of meditative reflection. Perhaps Schrader wanted to show up-and-comers like Abel Ferrara (whose Bad Lieutenant was released in the same year) that they still had a thing or two to learn about absolution and atonement, fate, free will and the whole ethical nine yards…

Although his literary pretensions are going nowhere, John LeTour (Willem Dafoe) seems to living a pretty sweet life. Having kicked his own coke habit, he spends his time supplying to various upmarket addled losers (memorably including David Spade as “Theological Cokehead”, droning on about the Ontological argument for the existence of God) and raking in their cash for himself and his narco partners Ann (Susan Sarandon) and Robert (David Clennon). He’s long accepted that coke wasn’t doing him any good but the penny is starting to drop that it’s not doing any of his customers much good either and when his activities connect his ex-wife Marianne (another apparently reformed addict played by Dana Delany) and Victor Garber’s smoothy scumbag Tis, the clock’s ticking down on that climactic bullet fest…

This picture was built around a suite of five songs by Bob Dylan, for whom Schrader had directed the video clip Tight Connection To My Heart in 1985. Dylan (and I’m cutting a long story short here) subsequently let him down about the tracks so he commissioned five similarish songs on similar themes from the Christian rocker Michael Been (not to be confused with the actor Michael Biehn) and the new numbers do work pretty well, though perhaps recalling the work of Leonard “Chuckles” Cohen more than that of Bobby the Zee.

Schrader rarely gets sufficient credit for the performances he almost invariably get out of his actors, though of course casting thesps as accomplished the ones assembled here is half the battle. Dafoe keeps you on side right through his redemptive journey (and it’s nigh on impossible, as usual, to take your eyes off Sarandon), even if the script (as Schrader freely admits in the bonus materials) gets a bit heavy handed at times, littered with clumsy taking out the trash metaphors and falls from grace. The director has confessed to watching a lot of Antonioni before making Light Sleeper, though it looks like DP Ed Lachman was bingeing on other Italian auteurs, saturating The Big Apple in Bavian / Argentoesque gels. The niche architectural nooks and crannies of New York City have never looked this infernal since… well, since Inferno (1980).

Another UK Blu-ray premiere for Indicator, limited to 3,000 copies, this disc also packs the expected slew of extras, including Schrader’s audio commentary and 18 minutes worth of Dafoe and Sarandon commenting on selected scenes. Schrader (pictured above) talks about the film and its place in his CV during an 18 minute interview. I’m always glad to hear him acknowledge Cat People from 1982, a big favourite here at THOF but often overlooked by snottier assessors of his oeuvre on account of it being a (shudder) Horror Film. In fact its Noirish urban vibe jibes beautifully with that of Light Sleeper. We’re also privy to an interview that Schrader (mostly) and Lachman gave on-stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, after a screening of the film. There’s an archival audio recording of Dafoe in conversation with Guardian critic Jonathan Romney at the NFT. I suspect that “Dear Paul Schrader, Thank You for Light Sleeper” , a new ten minute short from Mark Cousins will prove to be a Marmite proposition, which is to say that you might like it a whole lot more than I did. As well as the obligatory trailer and image galleries, if you buy quickly enough, you’ll get a 36-page booklet including a new essay by Christina Newland, Kevin Jackson’s archival on-set report for Sight and Sound, an overview of contemporary critical responses and full credits.

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The Age Of Miracle’s Not Passed… THE FIFTH HOUSE OF FREUDSTEIN ANNUAL REPORT.

Irene flips the script in 2020…

We’re reliably informed that it’s been a bit of a “different” year out there, possibly even a “difficult” one, but in the time-warped basement of Oak Mansion, the previous 12 months have played out pretty much like any other… well, kind of. The House Of Freudstein opened for business five years ago (after I was nagged into it by Irene Miracle… about whom more shortly ) pretty much laser focused on European (and mostly Italian) Horror, Thriller and Exploitation Cinema. Such films will always constitute our thematic bread and butter and this year we opened our account with a review of Dario Argento’s autobiography and closed it via an exclusive interview with Ovidio Assonitis. However, during 2020 economic conditions came to determine all others (just like Karl Marx told you they would) and much of our piping about Pasta Paura has been played out elsewhere, for people who actually pay to hear the tune (THOF has generated precisely Zip in monetary terms for the last half decade). Consequently there have been fewer postings this year (though reader traffic remains reassuringly heavy) but we’ve covered a wider range of Cinema (and that can hardly a bad thing) than ever before, from Hollywood classics to American and international indie, European trash and Arthouse flicks, Hammer, Ozploitation, lashing of lovely Film Noir… we like to get around and we hope you’ll stay well and stay with us through 2021 and beyond.

Which discs most tickled our fancy in 2020? Arrow finally gave John Landis’s miraculous An American Werewolf In London the BD edition it’s been crying out for… yeah, I know it was released at the tail end of 2019 but I wasn’t allowed to unwrap mine until Christmas, anyway it set the tone for a Jenny Agutter saturated (Walkabout, Equus) year (my favourite kind). Arrow’s Gamera box was an impressive undertaking, reviewed elsewhere than on this site for the above-mentioned reasons, as were Severin’s magnificent Lenzi / Baker set, that mind-blowing Al Adamson box and their much anticipated release of Fulci For Fake, Simone Scafidi’s idiosyncratic portrait of the great man. Second Sight’s blockbusting Dawn Of The Dead also received our fulsome plaudits in another forum but The BFI and Indicator kept us busy with a succession of nifty releases (special mention for the latter’s Fu Manchu Cycle, 1965-69) and Shameless continued to upgrade their catalogue from DVD to BD.

So, which postings were people particularly pondering during the last 12 months of Covid-induced ennui? For the fifth straight year, our two most frequently visited offerings were our interviews with David Warbeck and Irene Miracle (our inaugural posting back in 2016) but this time (and you might want to hang on to something sturdy), Irene finally knocked David into runners up spot, in both annual and all time terms. She wasn’t bullshitting me when she predicted that her internet fans would be all over any cyber rendering of our encounter. Thanks, Pal! Me Me Lay was finally pushed off the bronze podium (ultimately placing fourth) by Barbara Bouchet’s dramatic re-entry into the Top 10. Her fellow Barbara, La Steele was also back, in 8th position. With Argento’s autobiography the only virgin new entry at #10, reviews of Pupi Avati’s House With Laughing Windows and Severin’s ace All The Colors Of Darkness / Giallo set plus my account of breakfast with Joe D’Amato descended into the teen ranks, for the time being. Lunch with Lucio Fulci remained on the chart, though dropping to 9th place. Françoise Pascal rose two places to number 5, Umberto Lenzi’s Eaten Alive slipped one to 6th and Howling 2, despite the ongoing appeal of Sybil Danning’s bodice ripping giffy antics, descended three places to #7.

In the All Time listings, as previously mentioned, Irene Miracle again swapped places with David Warbeck but Me Me Lay dug in at number 3. Apart from a resurgent Barbara Bouchet supplanting Umberto Lenzi (her lunch mate in Manchester, last time I saw either of them) the remainder of the All Time Ten constitutes the same postings as this time last year, with a few ups and downs. 4th place went to Howling 2 (up one), 5th to Lunch With Lucio (up one), 6th to the TLE restoration of Suspiria (down 2), 7th to Barbara Bouchet (re-entry) 8th was Eaten Alive (up 2), 9th Breakfast With Joe (down 2) and 10th, our Spaghetti Exorcist survey (down 2).

The best is yet to come so mask up, get your shots and see you soon.

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How To Become A Movie Mogul, In Several Easy Steps… The OVIDIO G. ASSONITIS Interview

Eccentric mavericks have never exactly been in short supply on the Italian film scene but even in that colourful milieu, OVIDEO G. ASSONITIS stands out. Born of Greek stock in Egypt, 18/01/43, he became involved in film distribution after his family relocated to Italy. When the kind of films he wanted to distribute weren’t available, he started producing them himself. When he couldn’t find satisfactory scripts, he started writing his own. And when the directors he hired weren’t up to scratch… you guessed it. The runaway success of his first (co)directed feature Beyond The Door (currently available in a beautiful BD edition from Arrow) ruffled the feathers of Tinsel Town’s big wigs, resulting in a long running legal case. His fingerprints are on films that represented the best of some genres and changed the course of others. He was behind a couple of the “video nasties”, fired a Hollywood A-lister and saw more of the real Emmanuelle than he probably wanted to. And he’s still going strong, preparing to shoot his latest effort in Maui when we caught up with him.

First things first, Ovidio… I know that you were born in the great commercial centre of Alexandria, also that your father was involved in film distribution. Presumably these things impacted on your choice of career…

When my family lived in Alexandria we were not involved with the film industry. My father was an entrepreneur in the cotton trade, though he did bring writers and film makers over to Alexandria as part of his efforts to promote Italian culture. We moved to Italy when I was 14 years old and my father became the general manager for international relations at a major film producers’ association. Every day at lunch and dinner, I heard a lot of things about the making of movies, something to which I was definitely attracted. Later, I become a film distributor in South East Asia, opening offices all over that part of the world. My partners and I released more than a thousand movies over ten years. At a time when I was having difficulties finding the right pictures for that market I started producing them myself.

As a producer and distributor you were collaborating with people like AIP and the Shaw Brothers…

AIP was an independent distributor in the United States, one of my strongest connections over there. Nicholson and Arkoff released a lot of my movies and in the process we became great friends. I worked with the son of one of the Shaw Brothers, who was running the company then, also with people like Prince Yukolo Anusom, the brother of the King of Thailand who became one of my business partners.

A movie you produced that did very well in Far Eastern markets was Umberto Lenzi’s Man From Deep River, an important film which transformed the flagging Mondo genre into the highly successful and controversial Italian cannibal film cycle…

My inspiration for that one was definitely A Man Called Horse and also my connections in Thailand, where we shot the movie. It’s a country I knew very well and visiting the small villages in the forests, I discovered some very cinematic elements that could be combined interestingly in a movie. That’s how I decided to write and produce The Man From Deep River. Umberto Lenzi was the kind of director who could understand what I wanted to achieve, though I had to correct some of his more commercial instincts. But collaborating with him was nice, he was a very hard worker… although a little bit crazy!

You’re noted for your forceful personality, I was wondering how you found dealing with such similarly forceful types as Lenzi, Lucio Fulci (who was in the frame to direct Beyond The Door and helped out on the direction of David Keith’s The Curse, which you produced in 1987)… and yes, James Cameron. How were disagreements with these guys resolved?

Very simple. They had to back down… (Laughs)… because I never give up!

OK. Another of your early productions, Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die, is considered one of the classics of the giallo genre…

I was involved in conceiving the mystery story for that film, beyond that my contribution was mainly financial. I was not a “hands on” producer for that one.

When I spoke to Aldo Lado he said that the thing about the killer being somebody who impersonated a priest rather than an actual priest was tacked on under pressure from censors and the Catholic church…

I don’t remember anything about. That sounds like a “post mortem” explanation…

You did have a killer priest in a film you later directed, Madhouse…

Yes.

Were you aware that Madhouse and Man From Deep River were both banned on home video during a crazy UK moral panic in the early ’80s?

Not really. I knew that those pictures had the potential to generate controversy. They were part of a tendency in horror movies that was going on at that time but they were original works… in fact I think there was that over reaction to them because they were ahead of their time.

Well, they’re now legally available in the UK, which kind of supports your argument. The female lead in Madhouse was Trish Everly, a very good looking woman and she gives a strong performance but she didn’t do much after that. What happened to her?

She’s the ex-wife of one of the Everly Brothers, so she was not short of money. After Madhouse I never heard from her anymore...

Like Fulci and Enzo Castellari you had great success in The States with a movie that ran into problems over its perceived similarities to a previous film… obviously I’m talking about Beyond The Door.

The world of horror movies was always something that attracted me and what really changed my vision of how to make them was Rosemary’s Baby. Films like that one and The Exorcist were bringing the horror into our houses, into our daily lives by representing something the audience knows very well. They’re both films about sick people and everybody at some point has some experience of illness, of family members with cancer or something like that.

Warners sued you over perceived similarities to Friedkin’s film of The Exorcist but you said at the time you hadn’t even seen that film… did you ever watch it?

No, but I read the book. We started shooting our film when theirs was still in post production. I read the book on a plane flight from Taiwan to Hong Kong on a very stormy night with a lot of turbulence, which seemed very appropriate. All the passengers were screaming and I was reading about The Devil. I thought this was a perfect project for me to shoot and as soon as I got back to the office I called the publisher to ask about the film rights, which of course had been sold to Warners, who were about to make their movie. So I said OK, I want to do something similar but original, something about the demons that are part of every one of us. Beyond The Door is about those demons we don’t like to acknowledge but we see lurking inside us, parts of ourselves that cause us to do irrational and selfish things, not out of love for ourselves but out of fear. No matter how hard we try to ignore our demons they are always there, bubbling up from under the lid that we try to keep on them. It wasn’t just reading a book that convinced me to produce a horror movie along these lines. The preparation for Beyond The Door was a very extensive intellectual exercise. It was both less and more than just “ripping off” The Exorcist. Every movie is influenced by movies that came before it and you could argue that The Exorcist is a “rip-off” of Rosemary’s Baby. We weren’t motivated to just make a cheap imitation of a famous movie, there was a lot of thought behind Beyond The Door and we hired one of the most important special effects artists, Wally Gentleman (who was Doug Trumbull’s right hand man on 2001) so we could make a good movie… all of this while confined to a $300,000 budget against $10 million for The Exorcist!

The case that Warners brought against you was one of “infringing visual copyright”…

Yeah, they charged me with infringing something that doesn’t even exist! Warner thought that they could intimidate this Italian producer, this small company, considering that the judge had confiscated $20 million dollars from us, pending the trial. Of course they didn’t know me because like I said, I never back down. It took me three years fighting them and I spent three times the cost of our negative on lawyers. In the end I met with them. I was in LA and I drove to Burbank, knocked on the office door of the number 2 man at Warners and I told him: “You have to stop, because you’re going to lose. You’re claiming $20 million from us but I’m going to take you for $100 million! So just stop!” We arrived at a compromise. He asked for two things, firstly that I shouldn’t do a sequel to Beyond The Door, because they were very worried about that, also that I should sign a deal with them to make three movies. They saw the return on my budget compared to what they had done with The Exorcist and they were so impressed that they wanted me to work with them.

That return on your budget had something to do with the amazing marketing for Beyond The Door, with gimmicks worthy of William Castle… the whole “Sensurround” bit and actors planted in the audience who were supposed to be having heart attacks because it was so scary!

The marketing was very smart and the sound was very important because when we had preview screenings for American audiences, they were screaming during the scene where Juliet Mills’ head turns around but it was a different story in Italy. Italian audiences are always very sarcastic and when Juliet’s head was rotating, they started laughing. I know I had to stop this laughing and I had heard that Universal were going to use this thing Sensurround on Earthquake so I flew from Rome to LA and asked them if I could borrow the sound technology. They showed me around this huge laboratory that looked like something out off NASA but of course they weren’t going to lend me the sound system until they had exhibited their picture first and then maybe, who knows. But we had the idea and we came up with a very basic concept which, instead of using 40w of sound, had thousands of watts at front and back of the theatre and the combining of these two low frequencies built a sound that covered the laughs of the Italians.

Try laughing that off! You’ve had some real star names in your films… Richard Johnson and Juliet Mills in Beyond The Door… Henry Fonda, John Huston and Shelley Winters in Tentacles…

Juliet Mills was perfect for the role, she came from this great British acting background. Richard Johnson was the same, from Shakespearian theatre. I liked Richard and he became a very good friend, worked for me in more than one movie. Working with them was great. I always want my actors to be totally involved in the picture, intellectually involved and giving to it the maximin of their experience and talent. They were not just “actors for hire”, they were really behind the story and we worked as a team. John Huston was in Tentacles mostly because he swapped roles with Henry Fonda, who had a heart attack and couldn’t play for us as long as we’d planned. John Huston was an amazing person who became my best friend and worked for me in another movie. I wanted him to direct a movie based on a famous novel for me but of course he died. Glenn Ford was another who played not just for money, these guys had to approve and believe in the story.

All of those were solid pros but in Beyond The Door you also had those two kids in very strange roles… jive-talking and swearing… was it difficult getting good performances out of them?

There have been children in many of my movies and you have to treat working with them like working with animals. They can be extremely good when they are just acting spontaneously but very bad when they start thinking about what they are doing. It’s the same with animals. When they act spontaneously they are very good but when they’ve been trained to do something, they might or might not do it well. Children can be really good, the trick is in choosing the right ones. The girl in Beyond The Door… the Italian Susan Strasberg… they way she talked in the movie was exactly the way she talked in real life. The boy was a very strange American boy who went to school with my son, an overseas student in Rome. I only met him because he was a friend of my son, a strange kid who would sit there silently for hours, which made me think he would be good for our movie. Neither of them had any previous acting experience.

That boy, David Colin Jr., appeared again in Mario Bava’s film Shock, which was even released in America as Beyond The Door 2. Given all the legal problems you’d had with Warners, I was wondering if anybody involved in Shock had had to settle with you.

Not, they just helped themselves to that and I didn’t even chase them. I don’t think it was the film’s producers, it was the American distributor of that picture who did it, taking maxim advantage of the title and logo of my picture.

I guess that illustrates just how successful your picture had been. Several writers are credited on Beyond The Door, one of whom is The Incredible Melting Man himself, Alex Rebar…

Alex Rebar was an American dubbing artist, he dubbed movies from Italian into English and I met him when I was working as a distributor in the Far East. As a matter of fact I originally cast him to play the Richard Johnson role but our schedules clashed and I went ahead without him. In the end his contributions to the film were very limited.

Beyond The Door has a great score from Franco Micalizzi and so many other great composers have scored your pictures. Morricone, Ortolani, Cipriani…

I’ve always believed that music is one of the most important elements of a movie. Alongside the acting and the photography, the music is as important as the plot, so I always want to hear the composition that I’ll be using in my movie before shooting the movie itself. I’ve always done that, that’s what happened with Morricone on Who Saw Her Die

That’s a beautiful score!

It is. In the case of Beyond The Door, Micalizzi, had worked for me in my previous picture which was a tremendous success, a tear jerker called The Last Snows Of Spring. His music for that was a big success on the hit parade for many weeks all over the world. I asked him to have the main composition ready before I shot Beyond The Door and he asked me what I wanted. I had been thinking and thinking about what the theme should be, the language of that music and when I was in Paris, I had heard Barry White…

Who needs Sensurround when you’ve got Barry White?

Whether it was coming from a concert stage or a recording studio or even a telephone conversation I had with him, Barry White’s voice is unlike anything else in popular music. There is something truly profound about that basso… it rumbles! It’s not his voice but the way that he used it. This is what I told Micalizzi about the kind of music I wanted… I wanted to hear the voice of The Devil! That’s how we came up with the theme Bargain With The Devil and he recorded it before I made the the movie, I listened to that music before shooting many of the scenes because it was so very inspirational.

That music plays as Gabriele Lavia and Juliet Mills walk around in San Francisco, having all sorts of weird experiences. I believe that you shot these scenes guerrilla style, without any permits… masquerading as Italian tourists! Was that difficult?

It was very easy. Sometimes we asked for and received permits to shoot in public places sometimes we didn’t have time to ask so we just went ahead and shot the scene but all the interiors were shot in a studio in Italy. We had to be very careful to keep all the stylistic elements consistent so we brought everything we could back from the States to make the room look like an American apartment.

On several of your films you’ve co-directed with Roberto D’Ettore Piazzoli and I wonder how you typically divide the work between you. Is one guy doing the set-ups while the other directs the actors, or whatever?

Beyond The Door was the first picture which I directed or co-directed. I had a lot of experience in editing, especially the pictures that I was releasing in the Far East, recutting them for different markets. This editing experience also helped me in writing stories and conceiving the pictures I wanted to make. Roberto D’Ettore had worked as my DP and directing together, we didn’t really share out the work. It was more about pooling our different experiences to support each other and make the best movie possible. Of course his camera experience was greater than mine at the time and my experience with editing and conceiving stories was greater than his. I did deal more with the actors, mostly because I could speak English and he couldn’t.

You co-wrote and produced the 1976 film Laure aka Forever Emmanuelle, supposedly directed by Emmanuelle Arsan herself… which I doubt. What was the real story behind that picture?

First of all you have to know that the person who wrote Emmanuelle was not Emmanuelle Arsan…

It was her husband, wasn’t it?

Exactly. Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andriane. He was an officer of UNESCO but he had these strange ideas about sex, he was like a theoretical philosopher of “the new sexuality”. He wasn’t a porno guy, but he considered porn as part of a normal life. I knew him very well, he used to live in Rome and Paris. He was a person of great intelligence, very highly cultured, but he wrote Emmanuelle and had this great success with it. Now one day, I was sitting in front of the President of 20th Century Fox in LA and he was reading the box office takings and he just was screaming, saying hey, look at the figures for Just Jaeckin’s Emmanuelle… he said that I should do something like that and I told him that I knew the guy who wrote Emmanuelle. He was very excited by this and proposed we do a movie in Italy with Louis-Jacques directing, of course under the name Emmanuelle Arsan and also have her as one of the leads. I asked Louis-Jacques about this and he jumped at the chance.

We started putting the elements together and then had the bizarre idea to have Linda Lovelace acting in the movie. I thought that to put somebody with one of the most famous names in the world, particularly in the United States, in a normal, well directed picture with production values would sell the picture and give her more quality, representing her the way she really was. So I asked my assistant to find where she was and a couple of weeks later he found her living in Arizona, almost retired. So we hired her and flew her over to Rome for a meeting with Louis-Jacques. I told everybody to treat her like a lady rather than the Porn Star she used to be, to forget about Deep Throat, to treat her like a normal actress and everybody was willing to do that but throughout the meeting Linda sat with a bodyguard who was also her boyfriend…

Was that Chuck Traynor?

It was an American – Italian guy and she wouldn’t talk directly to us, we had to talk to the bodyguard so it was a funny situation where we were asking him the question, he was asking her the same question, she was answering to him then he was telling us the answer.

Like Chinese whispers…

Yeah. Then she said: “I will never shoot this scene the way that it’s been written. I will never appear naked in the movie”.

WTF?

Yeah, she said that it was absolutely against her morality. Like I say, you could write a book about every movie I’ve ever made. There were so many problems with Linda but we had a commitment with Fox to have her name on the marquee so we called in the actress Annie Belle to do the nude scenes and changed Linda’s role to one in which she kept her clothes on. Then we went to the Philippines to shoot the movie and immediately there were more problems. In the first scene we shot, Linda was walking in a corridor and she had to stop and say some lines but she refused because there was a statue behind her, a copy of the Venus De Milo statue and she said she would never appear in a scene next to a naked woman! That was it, no matter what the deal with Fox was, I fired her. Going back to Emmanuelle Arsan, of course she didn’t really direct the movie, that was Roberto D’Ettore Piazzoli, who loved photographing naked women. Then some stills were released to a magazine which published some really unflattering shots of Emmanuelle Arsan. I had to sue them because they also ran an interview with me that never actually happened! Anyway, Emmanuelle Arsan came to me and said she didn’t want her name attached to the movie anymore and in the end we publicised it with a picture of her, saying she wrote it but that it was directed by “Anonymous”.

What sort of a person was Emanuelle Arsan? Was she comfortable with being this erotic icon created by her husband?

The first time we visited Louis-Jacques ’s apartment in Rome, he opened the door and right in front of us, in the lobby to his apartment, there was a big photo of his wife, naked, with her legs wide open. My wife didn’t want to go in and I had to convince her, c’mon, were doing a business deal here. But everything was like this, the whole apartment was full of photos of his wife in, let’s say, the most incredible artistic positions.

Wow! In 1979 you produced Giulio Paradiso’s The Visitor… that’s another wild movie. What can you tell us about that one?

Again, that would fill a book in itself, like most of the films I’ve directed or produced for other people. There are so many interesting things that happened on that movie, some of them positive, some of them negative. Like most of my movies, it was ahead of its time. I’d like to remake The Visitor, bringing in elements of gaming and virtual reality that we didn’t have at the time. It was an interesting movie, but much more interesting in its conception that what actually ended up on the screen. The same is true of Tentacles, which had a really good script that was compromised by the distributor’s vision. But come on, I know you’re dying to ask me about James Cameron and Piranha 2…

Well, now you mention it… in fact before you signed Cameron to direct that picture, I believe you were going with Rob Bottin.

Exactly. Piranha 2 was not my idea. After I’d settled with Warners over Beyond The Door, they asked me if I would produce a script they were interested in but they didn’t trust the producer… it was the same producer from the first Piranha. They said they’d shoot it if I’d take over. So I read the scripts which was very bad and I told them I’d executive produce if I was allowed to change the story which was really stupid, beyond any credibility. They did insist on me keeping those piranhas, flying out of the sea, which was absolutely irrational but that’s what I signed up for. Immediately I was looking for a director who’d be good with special FX. Knowing very well the work of Rob Bottin, I approached him and he was very happy about directing the movie. About a week after we signed an agreement he came asking me to release him because he’d just got an offer from Universal to pay him a million dollars a year to supervise effects on some of their films and I couldn’t stand in his way. He recommended James Cameron so I went to see him while he was some shooting second unit stuff on Escape From New York. I asked him to direct Piranha 2 and he was jumping like crazy, very happy to do it. That’s how we started to know each other. I like Jim a lot because I understood that he had a great vision. The problem was that he did not know how to make his visions happen, especially in a film whose budget was so limited considering the amount of special effects that Warners wanted to keep from the original script. I have thousands of stories to tell but I’m not going to tell them now, but basically Jim failed in what he was supposed to do. I didn’t want to fire him but I had to after 10 days because at that point we were 9 days behind schedule.When the picture was finished we had to shoot the FX scenes all over again and try to make them work. We spent a lot of time in labs trying to make it happen and have hundreds of flying piranhas attacking, not just one or two on wires and stopping in the middle of the shots. That’s what Jim did. I asked him to stay next to me and help wherever it was needed. I allowed him to shoot all the underwater scenes in the Cayman islands and he got some great shots but only when he didn’t have to deal with special effects. I admire Jim for flying from LA to Rome without any money and staying here for two months. Of course I put him in hotels and gave him whatever he needed. I admire that he is so stubborn but he is a very difficult character. When I was directing the movie he wanted to take part in the editing and although he didn’t have the right to do it, I said fine, but after a week the editor came to me and said: “Hey, I’m very happy to work with James because you will pay me for one year!” He had edited it, Jim had taken it and changed things around but after three days it was right back to what the first editor had already done. He was too inexperienced. I wanted Jim to gain experience but the editor didn’t want him in the editing room any more because he was wasting so much time. I told him that we’d look at the scenes in my office and he could have his say. That’s where the idea of The Terminator came up, based on a book that I bought called Formula Man, by an Italian writer…

Do you remember the name of the writer?

He was a physician as a matter of fact. His name escapes me right now but the inspiration for Terminator came from this book. Jim was asking me what we were going to work on next and he proposed a Terminator-like story but I told him: “Jim, I want to do your third movie with you, not your second, because when you have learned enough you will surely become a great director”. So once when I was in LA, I was going to meet the chairman of Orion Pictures and I saw Jim coming out of his office so asked the chairman, who was a good friend of mine, what Jim was doing there and he said well, they were going to release a picture that he would direct, called The Terminator, which was basically that story. The chairman said that they had seen Piranha 2 and liked it, not knowing that I had actually directed it. I didn’t say anything to put him down and he made The Terminator. Since then he’s written a lot of inaccurate things about our relationship but I’ve kept quiet about it because I don’t want to embarrass him. But every time he made a new movie I’d send him a message saying “You need to improve” and his answer was always “Fuck you!” When I saw Titanic, which I really liked, I sent him a message saying: “You’re improving but you still need to do better” and again he replied “Fuck you!” So this was our relationship. One day I called him because I read something he said that was not true and said: “Hey Jim, we’ve got white hairs now, we’re getting older. You’re much more famous than I am, you’ve made a lot of money and I’m making much less money, we should stop doing this stuff. We spent more than one year together and I admire you for many reasons. I had to do what I had to do because it’s a business but we should stop doing this, let’s meet and have a drink… of course you should pay because you have so much more money than me!” He said I was right and we should meet but after an hour he called me and said: “No Ovidio, I don’t want to meet you, because you are such a convincing person, you will convince me that I am wrong and you are right!”

I heard that Cameron released an alternative cut of Piranha 2 in certain markets, though I’ve never seen it. Is that true?

Absolutely not. He doesn’t have the rights and I would sue him if he did. That just never happened, anyway. I directed Piranha 2 and I could have put my name on it but I kept his on there because I didn’t want to embarrass him, I wanted to help his career.

Can you tell us something about the part you played in the ongoing saga of Cannon Films at the end of the ‘80s?

How long have you got? (Laughs) It’s a long story… I was approached by one of the people who acquired Cannon Films from the cousins Golan and Globus, his partner was the very important financier Giancarlo Parretti who had financed some of my pictures. He said they’d just acquired a major company and requested my help after discovering the critical financial situation that Golan and Globus had left it in. I said I didn’t want to be part of it unless we could sort out the company and we employed a very important lawyer to do that. We split Cannon into two new companies, one which I ran as chairman and which would produce pictures with budgets of lower than ten million dollars and the other, run by Alan Ladd Jr. doing films with budgets beyond ten million. I had a plan and the first policy I wanted to introduce was to move away from the pictures Golan and Globus did which were all about action with machine guns and helicopters. I wanted to try what New Line had done, gradually introducing more quality into their productions. I wanted to make Scent Of Woman with this new company but in the end they did that with Universal because the budget was over ten million. When Parretti decided to buy MGM, that was the beginning of the end and I got out just before everything collapsed. But in that period, it was little more than a year, I made ten movies with good box office receipts, well in excess of the costs of these movies.

A couple of times I’ve asked you about things and you’ve said: “How long have you got?”… “You could write a book”. Do you in fact have any plans to write your memoirs?

After death! You can write them for me after I’ve gone…

Well, we’ve made a good start today. What are you working on now?

Well, you haven’t asked me the question that everybody else asks, i.e. among the pictures I’ve shot, which is the one that I like the most?

And the answer to that question is?

I don’t like any of them! The one I like is always the next one and principal photography for the next one will begin in Maui in Hawaii, where I’m flying out to tomorrow. It’s called The Disappearing Girl, it’s a very strong story about love and life and death. The leads are two teenagers, one American and one Italian. The really interesting thing is that the director of this picture will be a 15 year old girl, a very famous Youtuber and author named Iris Ferrari. I’m never satisfied with my films but I’m sure this one is going to be very good and a tremendous box office success.

We’ll be looking out for that and wish you well with it. Thanks for your time, Ovidio.

Ciao!

Beyond The Door is available in a spanking Arrow BD edition from all good retailers or directly from Arrow.

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Not Quite Hitchcock (*), Not Quite Hammett… ROADGAMES And DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS Reviewed

Roadgames. BD. Indicator. Region B. 15.

(* Well, it was either that or “North By New South Wales”…)

Typically of his film making generation, Richard Franklin (1948-2007) grew up (in Melbourne) in the thrall of Hitchcock, Psycho (1960) and the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-61) leaving particularly vivid impressions on his precocious creativity. He was directing his own 8mm efforts, aged 10 and subsequently worked as an assistant cameraman on TV commercials. In 1967, Franklin relocated to The States to study film at the University of Southern California. To paraphrase the immortal words of Homer J. Simpson, he was tired of being a wannabe Hitchcock acolyte… he wanted to be a Hitchcock acolyte! To this end he invited the great man to introduce a screening of Rope (1948) and answer questions from an audience of fellow students. Sir Alfred reciprocated by hosting Franklin on the sets of Topaz (1969) and his swan song feature, Family Plot (1976). RF’s “Hitchcock acolyte” status would be clinched when he directed Psycho II in 1983 and turned a property with high fiasco potential into a witty and worthwhile effort that riffed cleverly on its illustrious predecessor and certainly did it no harm at all (showing the fruit cellar door to Robert Bloch’s then recent and identically titled literary attempt to continue the franchise). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

After graduating USC in 1969, Franklin returned down under to direct 11 episodes of Oz cop show Homicide (197) and the 1973 short …And His Ghost May Be Heard, the latter included among the bonus materials on this set. Bawdy comedies The True Story Of Eskimo Nell (aka Dick Down Under) and Fantasm (directed under the pseudonym “Richard Bruce”) followed in 1975 and 1976 respectively. Franklin really started to get noticed with the Avoriaz and Sitges garlanded Patrick (1978), in which Robert Thompson’s comatose title character uses his telekinetic powers to do away with troublesome medics and pursue sexy nurse Susan Penhaligon. Quickly but skilfully assembled to cash in on Jack Gold’s The Medusa Touch from earlier that year, Patrick did particularly well (with Brian May’s OST replaced by Goblin outtakes and a couple of original themes from Simonetti and co) at Italian box offices, predictably inspiring a mini wave of spaghetti knock offs. Nobody who’s ever seen Mario Landi’s truly hysterical Patrick Still Lives (1980) is ever likely to forget it, although Lucio Fulci’s Aenigma (1987) is among the less memorable entries on that particular Horror maestro’s increasingly variable filmography.

It was Roadgames (1981), though, that earned Franklin his stab at Psycho II. The film is at once a meditation on the awe-inspiring landscape of the Australian continent (c.f. Nic Roeg’s Walkabout, 1971 and Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, 1975), a road movie and, you guessed, an hommage to Hitchcock. Specifically, it emerged from co-director Everett De Roche’s musings about a kind of anti-Rear Window (1954), in which the protagonist who thinks he’s seen a murder is not stuck in his apartment, rather ranging freely across the Australian desert even while he’s confined to the cab of his HGV, the windscreen dimensions of which approximate those of Jimmy Stewart’s rear window and generate similar reflections on the experience of immersing oneself in a thriller on the big screen. Or you can choose to see it as “that moment” in North By Northwest (1959) magnified to feature length. Either way is good.

Franklin and De Roche wrote the part of eccentric loner Pat Quid (catchphrase: “Just because I drive trucks doesn’t make me a truck driver”) for Sean Connery but although Roadgames became the biggest budgeted Australian film of the early 80s, that proposed casting would have amounted to a wage bill too far and ultimately they settled for Stacy Keach (still possibly choking on the memory of how human flesh tasted in Sergio Martino’s Prisoner Of The Cannibal God, 1978). As the hiker he picks up, whose boring secret identity is revealed towards the film’s conclusion, but whom Quid dubs (d’oh!) “Hitch”, we get Jamie Lee Curtis, keen by that point to climb out of what she perceived as the “scream queen” ghetto but crucially for Franklin, carrying some of her mother Janet Leigh’s Psycho cachet (she also offers oblique observations about her Dad, Tony Curtis, during Road Games).

Their cat and mouse games with suspected sex killer “Smith or Jones” (Grant Page from Mad Max, among many other credits, who also co-ordinated the stunts on Roadgames) makes for suspensful stuff, plentiful plot twists and a handful of satisfying hi-tech action set-pieces… all this plus a coda that “owes much” to the closing frames of Friday The 13th (1980). Franklin’s film, consequently, did tidy domestic and international business, though not everybody involved in the contemporary renaissance of the Australian film industry was pleased about that. There were predictable quibbles about the casting of American rather than Aussie leads, regardless of how well the obvious chemistry between Keach and Curtis enhances its pleasing mix of adventure, suspense, romance and comedy. Nor was it felt, in certain rarified quarters, that such a commercially orientated production was quite the done thing. So much for Mad Max (whose director George Miller was a major supporter and champion of Franklin’s endeavours). So much, indeed, for Hitchcock. Because you’re reading House Of Freudstein rather than Cahiers Du Cinema (or its Australian equivalent), I assume that you’ll take Roadgames for the rollicking good thriller fun it undoubtedly is, even more appealing in this brand new 4k restoration by Powerhouse Films, the limited edition running to 5,000 copies for its UK BD Premiere.

Additional extras include not one but three audio commentaries, one by Franklin and film historian Perry Martin, another with film pundits Anna Bogutskaya and Olivia Howe and yet another involving cinematographer Vincent Monton, costume designer Aphrodite Kondos, production secretary Helen Watts and filmmaker Mark Hartley. There’s over an hour of interview out takes (with Franklin, Keach, Curtis, Grant Page, De Roche and assistant director Tom Burstall) from Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood documentary and separate interviews (some of them in audio format) with Franklin, Keach and Page. Kangaroo Hitchcock is a 20 minute mini doc on the making of the film and there’s over two hours of a college lecture given by Franklin, co-producer Barbi Taylor and composer Brian May. You also get nearly two hours of pre-production read-through from Franklin, Keach and Marion Edward… even five minutes of May’s music demos, alongside the expected trailers and image galleries. Neil Sinyard’s appraisal of the film is a predictable standout… if this guy had a rugged profile, quiffy hair do and fashionable clothes he’d be all over TV, even if he was nowhere near as good as he invariably is. The limited edition also packs an exclusive 80-page book with original essay by Lee Gambin, archival interviews with Franklin, Keach and Curtis, Franklin’s Hitchcock obituary, an overview of contemporary critical responses, Mark Hartley on …And His Ghost May Be Heard, full film credits and an exclusive double-sided poster.

Quid’s in…

Devil In A Blue Dress. BD. Indicator. Region B. 15.

Writer / director Carl Franklin learned a thing or two about Genre, coming up in the school of Roger Corman. His Devil In A Blue Dress (1995) typifies that strain of Neo Noir which eschews the original article’s reliance on German Expressionism’s bag of visual tricks (forced perspective, broken up black and white, Dutch angles, et al) to play up the sunshine, swimming pools and orange groves found in the pages of Raymond Chandler and his hard boiled buddies. Adapted (in cahoots with the author) from a novel by Walter Mosley (Bill Clinton’s favourite writer, apparently) DIABD also filters its vision of post-WWII LA through the experience of its black characters. It’s a perfectly honourable undertaking to shift paradigm along racial lines, though recently it hasn’t always reaped the artistic dividends that might have been expected. I’m thinking of Warner TV’s Lovecraft Country (which started strongly but collapsed into incoherence) and Jordan Peele’s disappointing Twilight Zone reboot.

Franklin’s film, by contrast, is a very assured piece of work indeed (the school of Corman never did turn out too many duds), which regrettably didn’t stop it from underperforming in box office terms. Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins (Denzel Washington) is a black guy with aspirations to something more than American society has allotted him but after being laid off from the aircraft factory, he’s struggling to pay his mortgage. Against his better judgement, he accepts a job from the slick (and as becomes increasingly evident, psychopathic) Dewitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), who wants him to track down the missing Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), runaway fiancee of Todd Carter (Terry Kinney), who has just pulled out of the LA Mayoral race. Daphne has an unfortunate, for some, penchant for the company of gentlemen of colour and it doesn’t take much sniffing around Central Avenue’s juke joints for Easy to pick up her trail. But who’s really tying to track her down and why? And as the plot uglifies (casual racism is the least of Easy’s worries as he struggles to stay out of the frame for the multiplying murders that pepper his investigation) our man attempts to square his conscience with the much needed nice little earner he’s signed up to.

Franklin’s accomplished direction throughout is nicely complimented by an Elmer Bernstein score. The casting of Beals makes sense in terms of the secret that her character’s concealing (though frankly that’s not particularly difficult to guess) but as a femme fatale? Well, she hardly lives up to her billing in the film’s title… Washington’s every bit as good as you’d expect but Don Cheadle as Raymond “Mouse” Alexander, the rather “excitable” friend Easy is obliged to call on, steals every scene that they share. One quibble… how long could the recklessly violent Mouse realistically remain free / alive in an America that has always been and continues to be (as a cursory glance at current headlines would confirm) unrelentingly harsh on its black offenders?

Cheadle’s screen test is the jewel in the crown of extras adorning this limited (to 3,000 units) edition UK BD Premiere, a 2K restoration with 5.1 surround and stereo audio options. Accompanying it there’s an audio commentary from Franklin and and an archival interview with the writer / director, conducted by the Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller at a screening of Devil in a Blue Dress. Yeah, you get image galleries and a trailer plus, if you’re quick enough, an exclusive 36-page booklet with new essay by Keith M Harris, archival interview with Carl Franklin from Positif magazine, extract from Walter Mosley’s source novel, an overview of contemporary critical responses and full film credits.



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You Never Can Tell What Will Walk Out Of The Fog… Indicator’s COLUMBIA NOIR #1 Box Reviewed

Foch & Wright’s brush with The Uncanny saves the world for Democracy…

BD. Indicator. Region B. 12.

ESCAPE IN THE FOG (Budd Boetticher, 1945)
THE UNDERCOVER MAN (Joseph H Lewis, 1949)
DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD (Richard Quine, 1954)
5 AGAINST THE HOUSE (Phil Karlson, 1955)
THE GARMENT JUNGLE (Vincent Sherman and Robert Aldrich, 1957)
THE LINEUP (Don Siegel, 1958)

Indicator’s characteristically lush inaugural trawl through Columbia’s Noir and Noirish output makes for an eclectic and immersive box set experience.

Escape In The Fog (directed by Budd Boetticher before he carved out a comfortable niche for himself in Western territory) is a “B” movie in the truest sense of the term, a second feature clocking in at scarcely more than an hour and consequently rattling along at a fair old lick so that Boetticher and writer Aubrey Wisberg can pack their tale of WWII espionage with nasty Nazis, snappy guys, sexy dames tied up in cellars, dirty double crosses and a surprise supernatural element…. all this plus a “blink and you’ll miss her” appearance by the young Shelley Winters.

The MacGuffin that drives this one along is an unspecified “special plan” to end hostilities early (and just four months after Boetticher’s film hit American cinemas, the Enola Gay released its payload over Hiroshima) but the plot turns on the ineffable moment in which recuperating army nurse Eileen Carr (Nina Foch), out for an insomniac stroll across the Golden Gate Bridge, witnesses Barry Malcolm (Willian Wright) being duffed up by some German agents, which turns out to be a (very fortuitous) premonition of something which hasn’t happened yet. As an inquisitive cop tells her: “You never can tell what will walk out of the fog”. What never emerges from that nebulous bridge, however, is any attempt at an explanation for this rum turn of events, which all the participants just seem to take in their stride. Perhaps we’re meant to infer that Divine Providence really was rooting for the Allies or maybe Boetticher was just copping himself a bit of the then-voguish “inner sanctum” action (a mystery series that has continued to exert its influence as recently and controversially as in Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale, 2002). EITF’s moody meditation on death and destiny, played out in San Francisco, might even have been on Hitchcock’s mind when he shot Vertigo in that city, 13 years later…

Nina Foch fanciers are further served in this box by the Dutch actress’s appearance in The Undercover Man. Here she’s Judith, devoted wife of dedicated IRS agent Frank Warren (Glenn Ford), who’s aiming to bring down Chicago’s “Big Fellow”, after all else has failed, by establishing tax evasion. Although the film never makes this explicit (beyond its vague prologue paean to the unsung heroes of crime cracking), the allusion to the real life and crime story of a certain Alphonse Capone is unmistakable. The principle obstacle to Warren and his tenacious team (below) getting at the truth, of course, is the understandable reluctance of those involved in the numbers, protection and various other rackets to break their silence but ultimately it’s a plucky little granny from the old country who speaks up to settle the crime lord’s hash.

The characterisations in Lewis’s morality play are perhaps more cut and dried, black and white, than is customary in this genre, but the art direction of Walter Holscher, Burnett Guffey’s compositions and low angle photography, plus the slick montages of editor Al Clark, are all out of the Classic Noir playbook. Just who is that “undercover man”, though? Warren whips his warrant card out and starts waving it around at the drop of a hat. Maybe the title character is actually “The Big Fellow”, who conducts his nefarious activities so clandestinely that we never get to see him or even hear his real name.

Glenn Ford played Frank Warren-type roles more times than Posh Spice has had hot dinners but in Drive A Crooked Road (co-written with director Quine by Blake Edwards) we find Mickey Rooney trying to bust out of his goofy nice guy straightjacket and succeeding admirably in the role of Eddie Shannon, a short arsed nobody of a car mechanic who just happens to drive like the clappers. Identifying him as the guy they need to beat police roadblocks after the bank heist they’re planning, cynical hipsters Steve Norris (Kevin McCarthy) and Harold Baker (Jack Kelly) lure the hapless schmuck into their scheme, using sexy Barbara Mathews (Dianne Foster) as the bait in their honey trap. When Babs’ conscience starts troubling her, murderous complications arise. Owing much to the plot of Robert Siodmak’s seminal The Killers (1946), DACR emerges as a strong slice of Noir in its own right and gets an enthusiastic introduction here from Martin Scorsese…

… presumably the director of Casino (1995) is also well aware of 5 Against The House. Phil Karlson’s heist movie features the oldest college students seen on cinema screens until Grease (hang on, they’re Korean War veterans studying on the G.I. Bill… still looking a bit to old to fit even that chronology though, if you ask me) including hunky Al Mercer (Guy Madison), his post traumatic stress-disordered former comrade in arms Brick (Brian Keith) and smart alec Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews), who comes up with the whimsical student wheeze of robbing a casino, just for the fun of it and returning the money. What could possibly go wrong? Enough, potentially, for Al to pull out but he tags along anyway so he can marry his girl Kay (Kim Novak, on the verge of the big time) in Reno. Unfortunately the increasingly deranged Brick won’t stand for anybody punking out and he has no intention of returning any money. Bang bang goes Al and Kay’s honeymoon…

The ensemble acting in this one is pretty strong, though the constant would-be wise cracks from debutant screen-writer Stirling Silliphant quickly wear out their welcome. Never mind (as we’ll shortly see), Silliphant went on to pen some sterling stuff. Kerwin Mathews also gets his first big screen credit, after an anonymous earlier 1955 appearance in Fred Sears’ Cell 2455, Death Row, a thinly veiled dramatisation of the notorious Caryl Chessman / “Red Light Bandit” case. Watch out for a pre-“Cannon” William Conrad too, handling the money in that casino.

Kerwin Mathews is back as Alan Mitchell (above left), another Korean War vet, in The Garment Jungle, returning to take his place in the family fashion business but finding it scarcely less of a battlefield. His father Walter (Lee J. Cobb) has become embroiled with the mob (personified by Richard Boone’s aptly named Artie Ravidge) in an attempt to keep the union out of his shop and takes an eternity to figure out that this attempted cure is actually way more harmful than the perceived illness. He doesn’t seem unduly concerned about union supporting employees being roughed up, organiser Tulio Renata (Robert Loggia) being murdered, nor even his partner / best mate dying in an elevator “accident” but Alan eventually… finally… opens his eyes and takes on the hoods while simultaneously romancing Renata’s widow Theresa (the silver screen’s sexiest Sicilian scouser, Gia Scala). This is another forceful effort, with exactly the level of performances you’d expect from such a standout cast. The script was adapted by Harry Kleiner from newspaper articles in which Lester Velie documented the real life struggles of sweatshop workers. As detailed by Tony Rayns in a bonus featurette, Robert Aldrich shot much of the picture but left it to be completed by Vincent Sherman when his desire to emphasise the Jewish experience in Manhattan’s rag trade was thwarted… by producer Harry Cohn (go figure!) As evidenced by the poster below, Columbia would ultimately take a very different tack in the marketing of the film…

Indicator save the best till last on this set, with the great Don Siegel’s The Lineup, on which the aforementioned Stirling Silliphant proved that he had developed into a film writing force to be reckoned with. The action kicks off at San Francisco International Airport, where an apparently bog standard luggage theft escalates into a shootout that leaves a cop and a taxi driver dead. The police discover that a statuette in the purloined case contains heroin, but recognising that its owner is an unwitting dupe, release it back to him, with an innocuous powder substituted for the skag, while they wait to see who tries to pick it up. Enter the intense Dancer (Eli Wallach), his cynical handler Julian (Robert Keith) and their alcoholic driver, collecting from their unwitting mules until they discover that a cute little girl has used all the dope secreted in her dolly as face powder for it, at which point the brown stuff really hits the fan…

As amply demonstrated here (and Anthony Hopkins, please take note) it’s not necessary to chew on the scenery when playing a psychopath. Wallach’s portrayal of the madness simmering away just below his character’s stone cold surface is masterly stuff and when he finally does blow… oh boy!

As underlined in a short accompanying video essay, Siegel’s film makes exemplary use of its locations (many still standing, some of them long gone). But again, why is it called The Lineup? There is a police lineup in it (more than one, actually) but also plenty more noteworthy stuff, including a climactic car chase that (even without the participation of Mickey Rooney) makes for truly thrilling stuff and predates the more celebrated one in Bullitt by a full decade.

All six films are handsomely presented here, for the first time on UK Blu-ray (with The Undercover Man and Drive a Crooked Road making their world Blu-ray premieres). This set also boasts a 120-page book, and is strictly limited to 6,000 numbered units. There are audio commentaries from the likes of Pamela Hutchinson, Tony Rayns, Nick Pinkerton and David Jenkins. On The Lineup you get a choice of two commentary tracks (or you could spoil yourself and listen to both), one courtesy of legendary crime writer James Ellroy with the Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller and a more recent one featuring film historian David Del Valle and author / screenwriter C Courtney Joyner. Supporting the main feature on each disc you’ll find apposite bonus materials such as Boetticher’s The Fleet That Came To Stay, compiled from original combat footage captured during the Battle of Okinawa and released shortly after Escape in the Fog; Joseph H Lewis’s 1945 short Man on a Bus, a PR job for the fledgling state of Israel starring Walter Brennan, Broderick Crawford, Ruth Roman and yes, Lassie. There are also archival interviews of various vintage with Kim Novak, Robert Loggia and Mickey Rooney (also a brief bit of publicity puff in which Rooney watches an earlier bit of publicity puff, featuring his childhood self, with a couple of his Columbia pals!) Director and Noir buff Christopher Nolan delivers a quickfire appreciation of the genre. You also get three half hour episodes of the early fifties radio series The Lineup: The Case Of Frankie And Joyce, The Candy Store Murder (written by Blake Edwards) and The Harrowing Haggada Handball Case (co-written by Edwards and Richard Quine).

The expected Image galleries and trailers are present and correct but what really puts the cherry on this cake is that Indicator have taken it as the pretext to trot out a bunch of their Three Stooges acquisitions from the Columbia vault, each amusingly reflecting the subject matter of the main feature whose disc they share. Titles are You Nazty Spy (1940), Higher Than A Kite (1943), Rip, Sew And Stitch and Tricky Dicks (both 1953), Income Tax Sappy (1954) and the decidedly odd (atypically so) Sweet And Hot (1958). Plenty there for fans of Larry, Moe, Curly, Shemp and, er, Joe.

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Style Over Substance Abuse… SUSPIRIA (2018) & CRYSTAL EYES Reviewed

Nadia (or possibly Nidia) about to become fashionably late in the wonderful Crystal Eyes.

Supiria (Italy / USA, 2018). Directed by Luca Guadagnino.

To say I haven’t exactly been in a rush to catch Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria would be a significant understatement. It never seemed remotely like a good idea. Dario Argento’s 1977 original is a unique marriage of his seriously neurotic psyche and formidable technical skill set, the remaking (rebooting, re-imagining, whatever) of which makes about as much sense as somebody having another bash at, say, Eraserhead. It did nothing to allay my misapprehensions when I learned that the film was going to star Tilda Swinton (an actress who regularly missteps from the “worthy of attention” to “desperately seeking attention” category) and that the insufferable Thom Yorke, rather than Claudio Simonetti, would be scoring (Radiohead? Why not just have somebody shit in your ear?) Then the new Suspiria arrived, clocking in at a daunting two-and-a-half-hours plus (really, it’s not like I’ve got anything else to do with my time…) Friends who did brave it and whose opinions I value had nothing good to say about it. Well, I’ve finally grasped the nettle and can confidently (if not exactly happily) report that, against all expectations, I found it Suspiria, 2018 style to be… not unbearably awful.

Much critical discussion of Pasta Paura, certainly the work of its principal practitioners, has centred on the old “style over content” chestnut. Does style crowd content out of these films or subtly enhance and amplify it? Guadagnino seems to have his own definite ideas in this regard, dialling down the style (in cahoots with DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, production designer Inbal Weinberg and art directors Merlin Ortner / Monica Sallustio he’s come up with a very good looking picture, whose good looks sadly pale into insignificance compared with the all out aesthetic assault of Argento’s original) while cramming in extraneous content. So Dakota Johnson’s Susie Bannion (sic) is the victim of a religiously repressive Mennonite upbringing (Suzy’s Mom considers her “my sin… that’s what I smear on the world”… BTW, Greta Bohacek as the young Susie bears a pleasing resemblance to Nicoletta Elmi); instead of being bisected by falling masonry, Pat Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz) gets regrettably wrapped up with the Red Army Fraction (yes, that’s the correct rendering of their name) but also gets to deliver the best line in the film (“They’ll follow me out and eat my cunt on a plate!”); and the witches who staff the Markos Dance Academy seem to have exerted an influence over Hitler and co. So far, so… well, I’m still watching, aren’t I?

Guadagnino gets a bit more milage out of the whole terpsichorean thing. Those witches seem to feed off the energies unleashed by dancing (which can also be turned against their enemies) rather than just eating the dancers, as in the original. The routines here are modern, interpretive stuff, as opposed to the classical ballet in Argento’s film (which, combined with some judicious editing, makes easier for Johnson to pass herself off as a dancer). The 42nd Street references (and I’m referring to Lloyd Bacon’s 1933 musical now) are more overtly stated than before and the mousey teacher’s abrupt suicide reminded me of the pianist’s in Pasolini’s Salo.

Guadagnino’s Suspiria doesn’t drag anything like as much as I’d feared it would and Tilda Swinton’s Kind Hearts And Coronets” turn is significantly less irritating than it could have been. Incidental pleasures include a tiny role for Jessica Harper (the original Suzy Banyon) and a somewhat larger one for the marvellous (and far too little seen, these days) Renée Soutendijk from Spetters, constantly snarking away over some malign gag that only she gets. It’s also quite amusing from a 2020 perspective to see these holistic health freaks chain smoking away like bastards.

In conclusion, Suspiria 2018 is nowhere near as appalling as I’d expected, which isn’t to say that I’m likely to ever watch it again…. two-and-a-half hours of my time is more than enough. I sincerely hope we’ll be spared a four hour “Amazon Original” take on Inferno. No need to worry about a Mother Of Tears rehash because as Darrell Buxton has already pointed out, that’s covered in the mystifying, messy and decidedly overripe final thirty minutes of Guadagnino’s film. The whole experience would have been much more satisfying if they’d changed the title / character names and generally cut back on the allusions to Argento’s masterpiece, riffing on Suspiria 1977 in the same way that Midsommar riffs on The Wicker Man. Courting direct comparisons with what is probably The Greatest Horror Film Ever Made was never going to work out to this film’s advantage. On the other hand…

Crystal Eyes / “Mirada De Cristal” (Argentina, 2017). Directed by Ezequiel Endelman and Leandro Montejano.

During a catwalk show designed to let the world know what a tortured existence supermodels lead (“… trapped in a shop window with no escape”), the obnoxious, coke addled Alexis Carpenter (Camila Pizzo) manages to monumentally piss off everybody (going so far as to scar her make up artist for life, with scalding coffee) before accidentally incinerating herself. Most of the tears shed for her are blatantly crocodilian, but an unspecified admirer, somebody who spends their time obsessively watching a VHS compilation of Alexis’ greatest media moments, is also watching out for her legacy. The formidable Lucia Uccello (Silvia Montanari), publisher of the fashion bible Atilla, decides to stage a tribute event on the first anniversary of Alexis’ death, pitting a posse of bitchy models into competition with each other to fill the Jimmy Choos of the former colleague they so despised. In protest or as some misguided tribute of their own, Alexis’ brother and boyfriend decide to steal some of her dresses before they can be used in the show, only for the latter to have his throat cut by a murderous mannequin. He won’t be the last, as the extravagantly disguised killer steadily works his or her way through everybody who was present on that fateful night. Will the tribute show be haunted by this Phantom of the catwalk? Well, what do you think…

Just about any frozen frame from writer / directors Endelman and Montejano’s Crystal Eyes would probably invoke the spirit of Argento’s Suspiria more effectively than is managed during 152 minutes of Guadagnino’s “reimagining”. Clearly conceived without any substantial aspirations whatsoever, this Argentinian effort is an unabashed open love letter to the Italian horror and thriller traditions, a sentiment that will be enthusiastically seconded by legions of admirers around the world. I really can’t abide those Cattet / Forzani desperate Arthouse wannabes, nor those bigger budgeted productions which take the same lazy tack of grafting prime Morricone or Trovajoli cuts onto their “Original Soundtracks” in an attempt to cop some facile giallo cachet, but Crystal Eyes is a different matter altogether, a seriously devotional exercise.

Endelman and Montejano are clearly enthusiastic consumers of all things Yellow and gleefully plunder their favourites for scenes to restage. Carlo Vanzina’s 1985 effort Nothing Underneath (the very title of which riffed on the ol’ “style / substance” chestnut), its sort of sequel Too Beautiful To Die (directed by Dario Piana in 1988) and their end of cycle ilk are heavily referenced, but the directors don’t hesitate to delve right back into the archives of couture slaughter, revisiting Mario Bava’s seminal Blood And Black Lace (1964) for the murder of one of Lucia’ sexy lesbian “nieces” (it was either Nadia or Nidia but I’m buggered if I can tell one from the other). The film’s climax will bring back welcome memories of Michele Soavi’s Stagefright (1987), too, while Pablo Fuu’s score strikes exactly the right notes for late ‘80s giallo.

Endelman and Montejano were also responsible for the film’s production design and have done a remarkable job recreating the decor of (the original) Suspiria (Lucia’s office comes complete with a dagger plumaged phoenix statue) on the cheap. Cinematographers Cecilia Casas and Vanina Gottardi alternate between the Luciano Tovoli look on Argento’s classic and what Romano Albani wrought on his follow up, Inferno. Outrageous matte shots of city scapes contribute further knowing nods to the influence of Bava and as for that drawer full of Hitchcock artifacts…

Stylistic exercises as sterile as those aforementionend Cattet / Forzani efforts are hardly the most captivating cinematic experiences. Crystal Eyes, in sharp contrast, effectively corrals its cornucopia of stylish genre allusions into a teeming subtext that will tax the brains of those sufficiently versed in the wilder highways and byways of Pasta Paura. It won’t be too hard, for instance, for any horror fan raised on “video nasties” to spot the significance of Lucio the blind lift attendant (Andrés Borghi) and his cataracts, nor to look, er, beyond that and get the reference to a fractured pipe in the basement (send for Joe the plumber!) but how many viewers took Lucio’s blindness as a cue to extrapolate the killer’s identity from what happened in Paolo Cavara’s Black Belly of The Tarantula (1971)? I certainly did… and as it happened I was completely wrong, though Endelman and Montejano have a ball leading us up and down such garden paths throughout their picture.

Essentially as camp as a row of tents, this Fray Bentos thriller is played sufficiently straight faced to pass for a convincing latter day spaghetti slasher… which is, if I can stretch a banal geographical point (and for a film as enjoyable as this, why wouldn’t I?) exactly what it is.

The original and still the best…
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Return Of The Mac… Federico Zampaglione’s TULPA Reviewed.

Tulpa aka Tulpa: Demon Of Desire (Italy, 2012). Directed by Federico Zampaglione.

The whole giallo stabbing match kicked off (by common assent) in 1963, with Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much; peaked quantitatively in the first years of the ’70s; qualitatively in 1975 (with Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso); and tailed off after 1987, when Argento chalked up his last top notch picture (Opera) and Michele Soavi made his astonishingly assured directorial debut, Stagefright. Like Irving Wallace in the latter, the genre itself has been pronounced deceased many times but that ol’ death nerve has a habit of twitching back into life, just when you thought it was safe to take another slug of J&B. The results have been decidedly mixed, though once in a yellow moon something as marvellously entertaining as Ezequiel Endelman and Leandro Montejano’s Crystal Eyes (2017) turns up… and yes, we’ll be reviewing that one shortly.

Given director Federico Zampaglione’s previous (and for all I know, ongoing parallel) incarnation as an Italian rock star, one might reasonably have feared that his Tulpa (aka Tulpa: Demon Of Desire, 2012) would emerge as some kind of glorified, feature length pop promo. What bodes well for the picture is that he conceived its story in collaboration with spaghetti screen-writing veteran Dardano Sacchetti, who’s penned more A-grade gialli than anybody else (with the probable exception of Ernesto Gastaldi).

Tulpa stars Greta Scacchi lookalike Claudia Gerini (Zampaglione’s partner when they made the film) as Lisa Boeri, a high finance woman whose boss Mr Roccaforte (Michele Placido) is a big cheese in the money markets (see what I did there?) Lisa works hard and plays hard, unwinding from the pressures of bitchy boardroom battles by visiting an Eyes Wide Shut styled upmarket swingers’ club, where she has lashings of fun and is encouraged by Kiran, the cadaverous moloko plus-dispensing bar tender / Tibetan Buddhist adept, to free, surrender to and generally indulge her Tulpa. Apparently if I’d paid more attention to Twin Peaks I’d have got the reference but (evidently unlike Signor Zampaglione), I tuned out of that show very early in its run. The Tulpa, we learn, is a concept borrowed from esoteric Tibetan Buddhism and apparently refers to a physical being, generated from sexual energy, which if allowed too much autonomy, can impact on the material world with demonic intensity.

Are Lisa’s bonking exploits responsible, then, for the black hatted and leather macintoshed spectre slicing its way through her co-swingers and boardroom rivals (not to mention throwing hot chip fat in their faces, putting them on barbed wire carousel rides and interring them in coffins with hungry rats)? Needless to say, there’s no shortage of twists and turns along the way though as in many classic gialli, the killer’s identity is eminently guessable. Which is not to say that Tulpa is a classic giallo, exactly… but you know you’ve wasted many 90 minute chunks of your precious time on plenty worse.

During my interview with Dardano Sacchetti he complained that Zampagline had stressed Tulpa’s soft core aspects over the giallo elements of his story. Regular readers of this blog might well agree. Zampaglione directs competently enough and has clearly familiarised himself with the Argento canon (I would hazard a guess that he was particularly taken with Opera) but never comes close to the visual creativity of prime time Argento or the other terror titans with whom Sacchetti notably collaborated, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci. Together with his brother Francesco, the director also scored his film, waxing Carpenteresque during stalking scenes and approximating Claudio Simonetti’s cacophonic Suspiria crescendo during the climactic revelations. FZ opted for his actors to deliver their lines in English which obviously made some kind of commercial sense, though this decision ultimately backfires on the movie, with stilted deliveries often distracting attention from the on screen action (it’s a problem that dubbing doesn’t always solve, witness Argento’s Tenebrae, 1982).

“Who the fuck are you, to say that?”

If there is any message lurking behind Tulpa’s veneer of recycled style, it’s that sexual repression, rather than sexual expression, creates demons. Amen to that.

Bond girl sex bomb Maria Gracia Cucinotta apparently produced Tulpa. So, er, grazie, Maria…

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