Pro Boner Publico… Derek Jarman’s SEBASTIANE Reviewed.

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“One hundred and eighty!”

BD. BFI. Region B. 18.

Sebastiane (Leonardo Treviglio) is a senior officer in the Praetorian Guard, in fact you could say (if you’re one of those people who endlessly recite Monty Python routines) that he wanks as high as any in Wome. Unfortunately the Emperor Diocletian (Robert Medley), whom we see enjoying a bukkake dance performance from Lindsay Kemp in the company of an anachronistically clad Jordan (the punk rock one, not the “glamour model”) takes a dim view of Seb’s recent conversion to Christianity and exiles him to a remote desert outpost to serve under the aptly named Commander Severus (Barney James), alongside several resolutely gay squaddies and Max (Neil Kennedy), a homophobic brute with no nose. How (I hear you ask) does Max smell? “Terrible!” is the stock music hall answer but Max probably smells pretty good, spending as much time as he does in the bath house with his butch buddies. Severus develops a serious case of the hots for Sebastiane, who rejects his lustful pagan advances. Using Seb’s pacifism as a pretext, Severus subjects him to ongoing torments and humiliations, which seem to be equally enjoyed on each side of the SM equation. Ultimately Severus orders the guys to string Seb up and dispatch him with arrows, an order with which they eagerly comply… after all, you can’t beat a bit of Bully!

Unfortunately, Jarman chose not to depict the sequel to these sad events in which, according to hagiographical tradition, Sebastiane was miraculously revived by Saint Irene and returned to the court of Diocletian to plead with him to change his Christian-bashing ways. Instead, Diocletian had him cudgelled to death (for good this time) and chucked into Rome’s main sewer (depicted below in the 1612 painting by Lodovico Carracci). We also gather that Sebastian’s cranium turned up, silver coated, in Ebersberg, Germany during the tenth Century, and was used to dispense Communion wine to the faithful on the Saint’s birthday. His various relics are, moreover, reckoned proof against outbreaks of plague and pestilence.

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Aside from the reverence in which he is held in both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, the figure of Sebastian has long been regarded as a gay icon if not, er, pin-up boy. In Richard A. Kaye’s words: “Contemporary gay men have seen in Sebastian at once a stunning advertisement for homosexual desire (indeed, a homoerotic ideal), and a prototypical portrait of tortured closet case.” Artists as diverse as Andrea Mantegna and Yukio Mishima have tapped into this myth…

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The BFI’s press blurb describes Sebastiane as “a glorious hymn to the very real, living and breathing male body”. Indeed, Jarman and Peter Middleton (responsible for this film’s truly ravishing cinematography) dwell lovingly on the body in question and its workings, to the point where I found myself shouting: “Careful mate, you’ll have somebody’s eye out with that!” at the screen several times (and I wasn’t always talking about the arrows!) As such, Jarman’s uncostumed drama, which grafts bits of Melville’s Billy Budd and Laurens van der Post’s The Seed And The Sower (filmed by Nagisa Oshima as Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence in 1983) onto Christian tradition, enjoyed a brief success de scandale before much of its Roman romp thunder was stolen by Bob Guccione’s Caligula (1979). By having the dialogue spoken in archaic Latin, Jarman was presumably deploying and / or lampooning the convention by which you can get away with more in “Art” films, though I gather that he was originally planning (before distributors put their collective foot down) to have Sebastiane screened without benefit of subtitles. You can take anti commercialism too far, you know…

The male body, however real, living or breathing (they left out “arse-winking”), has never held any erotic fascination for me (frankly, on the cusp of my sixth and seventh decades, even the female body agitates me significantly less than it used to) but I enjoyed this opportunity to see Sebastiane again for three reasons. 1) It’s not Jarman’s excruciating Jubliee (1978), whose “punk rock” pretensions date it more horribly than any of The third Century shenanigans depicted here. 2) House Of Freudstein Hall-Of-Famer David Warbeck once told me that he’d put up much of the film’s finance. 3) Having suffered a Catholic education myself, I’m always glad to see the iconography of repressive religion subverted to the ends of irrepressible Desire.

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The Ecstasy Of St Teresa. Gian Lorenzo Bernini. 1647-52.

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Sebastiane. Derek Jarman. 1976.

Extras wise, you get Jazz Calendar (1968), 36 minutes of the Royal Ballet in rehearsal with the scenery and costumes by Jarman that impressed Ken Russell sufficiently to appoint him production designer on The Devils (1971) and set designer on Savage Messiah (1972)… film maker John Scarlett-Davis remembering how he was roped into the proceedings and subsequently mortified to see himself and his boyfriend snogging away on the cover of Time Out… and 62 minutes of an incomplete, black and white, un-subtitled work-in-progress cut, featuring different music from Brian Eno’s ambient noddlings as heard in the released version.

One thing that neither this disc’s bonus materials nor its fully illustrated booklet (featuring liner notes by William Fowler) shed any light upon is the role of long forgotten one-shot co-director (and editor) Paul Humfress (who also co-wrote Leslie Magahey’s BBC 1979 adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Schalcken The Painter). It would be interesting to learn how he and Jarman divided the work between them.

The behind-the-scenes Super 8 short The Making of Sebastiane, shot by Jarman and  sound assistant Hugh Smith… or at least that part of its 25 minutes not taken up with footage of Sardinian mountain roads shot through the window of a moving car… capture a singular historical moment, in which a repressed minority were starting to flex their muscles, joyously. Who could have known that another pestilence was coming, one against which saintly skulls would afford scant protection?

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“There’s A Girl In My Soup!” “So What… There’s A Piranha Up My Arse!” CANNIBAL TERROR & Antonio Climati’s THE GREEN INFERNO On 88 Blu-ray.

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1) Don’t Torture A Turtle…

The Green Inferno. BD. Region Free. 88 Films. 15.

Although Eli Roth seemed to be paying his dues by including an Italian cannibal filmography in the credits for his Ruggero Deodato pastiche The Green Inferno, he conspicuously omitted from it the Antonio Climati picture whose title he had pinched. It’s a significant omission because Climati’s Green Inferno (originally released in Italy as Natura Contro in 1988) develops an ongoing argument about the moral dilemmas inextricably associated with The Italian Cannibal Film and the fact that this spilled over into something of an ongoing personal feud between Climati and Deodato makes the whole thing of more than mere academic interest…

The main thrust of this film’s plotting will be all too familiar to regular viewings of Italian man-munching epics, with Professor Korenz (Roberto Ricci) disappearing while on an expedition into the Amazon basin in search of the elusive Eema tribe. Jemma Demien (May Deseligny, who bears a vague, pleasing resemblance to Daria Nicolodi) is your mandatory sassy TV reporter (we’re introduced to when she reports on a head shrinking racket for the mondo-esque TV program “Reality Beyond Fantasy”) aiming to track down the Prof. Inexplicably, she decides to recruit Fred (Marco Merlo) and Mark (Fabrizio Merlo) to the cause. These shiftless sibling adventurers, whose allegedly endearing but actually highly irritating antics include TWOCing planes and driving ludicrously big-wheeled jeeps around, would be better qualified to present the next series of Top Gear… and that’s certainly not intended as a compliment.

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Before you can say “Yanomamo”, however, these good ol’ boys are accompanying Jemma into the jungle, together with their eccentric young scientist pal Pete (never embark on an Amazonian mission without one) played by Pio Maria Federici, who supplies a trumpet accompaniment to (and misconceived witticisms about) the unfolding “action” (if we can stretch a point and call it that). The perils they encounter include frog races, a tussle with an anaconda, attacks by ants, spiders and more of those ubiquitous spiky ball booby traps. Our heroes even have snakes held to their peckers by crime lords who want to find the Eema on account of their alleged inside information on the whereabouts of El Dorado (that old chestnut!) They  manage to break up an organ farming racket en route to their disappointing rendezvous with those Eema types and the discovery of the Professor, who promptly takes off in their plane with Jemma, stranding then so they won’t be able to give away the location of the tribe. “Well, we said we wanted adventure!” one of them quips, though thankfully viewers were spared any sequels. Maybe they never made it back?

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Ruggero Deodate was as fascinated and horrified as anybody by Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi’s epochal Mondo Cane (1962) and its shockumentary sequels. The deadly duo’s 1966 doc Africa Addio (which excites controversy to this day over the provenance of its animal and human death scenes) is often cited as the departure point for his devastating critique of Mondo mores in Cannibal Holocaust, but Deodato seems to have been more focussed, while constructing it, on a couple of mondos co-directed in the mid-70s by Antonio Climati (DP on both Mondo Cane and Africa Addio) and Mario Morra, another protegé of Jacopetti and Prosperi. The films in question were Savage Man, Savage Beast aka Ultime Grida Dalla Savana (“The Last Cries From The Savannah”, 1975)  and This Violent World aka Savage World / Mondo Violence (1976). Both feature the mandatory mix of violence inflicted on both animals and human beings (but how much of it is faked… and how worried should we be about the bits that aren’t?) This Violent World (“banned in 40 countries!”) seems to have registered particularly strongly with Deodato, to the extent that he restages two scenes from it (native women bathe a white man and seem fascinated by his penis / an episode of enforced abortion) in Cannibal Holocaust.

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Japanese poster for This Violent World.

By attempting to grab the Mondo moral high ground, Deodato was laying himself open to charges of having his cake and eating it. Certainly Climati, sensing that the finger was being pointed at him, took note of the animal abuse that litters Cannibal Holocaust and the nudge, nudge marketing which implied that its little known cast had indeed been eaten by cannibals and decided to lob a dissenting brick, in the shape of The Green Inferno, through the wall of Deodato’s cinematic glass house. That’s probably enough mixed metaphors for now…

Serving as his own DP (and making a predictably beautiful job of it, given his CV), Climati shot Contro Natura in the Colombian town Leticia, where Cannibal Holocaust (and also Umberto Lenzi’s coat-tail riding Cannibal Ferox, 1981) had been made. Returning a dubious favour, he copped the Green Inferno title  from a line in Holocaust and also went out of his way to stage scenes in which monkeys, coatis and turtles receive kind treatment at the hands of the protagonists… a very far cry, if not from the Savannah then  from the way in which comparable animals were treated during Deodato’s picture. You don’t have to abuse animals to make a mondo / cannibal picture, seemed to be Climati’s message and although he was a conspicuously late convert to this position, he seems to have won the historical argument, with Deodato and Sergio Martino now endorsing more animal friendly versions of Cannibal Holocaust and Prisoner Of The Cannibal God and Umberto Lenzi accepting (it’s clear that he never entertained any moral qualms on this score) a similarly softened variant of his Cannibal Ferox (all of these for Blu-ray release by Shameless). There are, it’s worth noting, restored shots of monkeys being hit with blow darts in The Green Inferno that had to be trimmed before Vipco got their ’15’ certificate (for a DVD release opportunistically entitled Cannibal Holocaust II) in 2002. There is no record of how a small fish (allegedly a piranha) felt about swimming up and being pulled out of a native porter’s arse.

Bonus materials include a limited edition glossy slip case and booklet with notes by Italian pundit Francesco Massaccesi (these if you buy early enough), remastered trailer, reversible sleeve and Italian opening / closing credits. Most worthy of your attention is Eugenio Ercolani and Giuliano Emanuele’s documentary Scenes From Banned Alive: The Rise And Fall Of The Italian Cannibal Movie, in which Umberto Lenzi, Ruggero Deodato and Sergio Martino are interviewed about their efforts in this particularly blood stained filone. There have been several documentary investigations of this area in recent years (most of them by the UK’s High Rising Productions) but it’s interesting to see a native Italian take on the Phenom. We’d heard that Lenzi and Deodato buried the hatchet before Lenzi’s death but there’s a significant amount of low-level niggling here, though the notoriously irascible Lenzi reserves  most of his ire for stoking another ongoing feud, with Ferox star “John Morghen” aka Giovanni Lombardo Radice. Modest as ever, Lenzi declares the decapitation of Johnny in that film “a stroke of directorial genius!” Steady on

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2) … and among the nominees for best screen dialogue, H.L. Rostaine and Ilona Kunesova…

Cannibal Terror. BD. Region B. 88 Films. 18.

“Can’t you open the fucking door?”

“Shit… oh shit.”

“Shit… what are you doing?”

“Shit… oh shit.”

“Fuck… oh fuck it! No fucking idiot could get that door open… made me look a fucking fool!”

… but seriously folks, “Allan W. Steeve”s Cannibal Terror was never nominated for and certainly never received any Oscars, the only accolade it ever actually managed being a place on the DPP’s official “Video Nasties” list. Because, in our youth, we prided ourselves on our consumption of Forbidden fruits, this was just one of the many cinematic atrocities to which we anal retentive types willingly subjected ourselves, back in the day. Now it’s back on our shelves courtesy of 88 Films, certified ’18’ and in an HD restoration that makes it look whole a lot better than it probably ever had a right to look….

The swear fest we just heard comes courtesy of some kidnappers who abduct a child and secrete it in a safe house, in the depths of some jungle or other, while the ransom is sorted out. Their jungle guide advises them that cannibals lurk behind every bush. “They’d love to put you in the soup” she warns “but if we don’t stop, there’s no sweat.” As it happens, there’s perspiration aplenty when their jeep breaks down. Disregarding her own warnings, the guide wanders off into the undergrowth and is promptly ambushed by the locals who, it has to be said, present a less than convincing spectacle…

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Frighteningly authentic Amazonian cannibals. Yesterday.

The “cannibals” (who seem more interested in playing tug-of-war with her raw intestines than actually eating them… understandably enough) overact shamelessly, grinning like loons as they brandish fistfuls of guts at the camera. I get that these extras are no more trained actors than they are genuine South American natives, but couldn’t their pantomime excesses have been a bit more skillfully edited? Apparently not. Further ineptitude in this department ensures plenty of shots of people standing around waiting for cues and gawping aimlessly into space. The magic of the movies, eh?

Despite the loss of their guide the kidnappers make it to the jungle safe-house, and no sooner has their host gone away on a business trip than one of these desperadoes ties his wife to a tree and rapes her (a feat he accomplishes without dropping or even unzipping his trousers). When hubby gets home he takes his guests on a hunting trip, ties the rapist to the very tree against which he had performed this violation and gives a sharp whistle, which is apparently the cannibal equivalent of a dinner gong. The rapist is eaten and his partners in crime tied to poles and carried off to the native village, where they are given the Cannibal Holocaust treatment while the kidnapped kid is led off to play in a cannibal kintergarten. By the time the parents arrive, acting on a hot tip-off, there’s not much left of the ’nappers. “The gangsters got all the punishment they deserved”, the tribal chief assures them, indicating what is supposed to be the severed head of the baddy-in-chief, blinking visibly as he pokes his head through a bit of scenery. “He got all the pain and suffering that was coming to him.” So did anyone who’s ever sat through Cannibal Terror…

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In possible mitigation, those bemused by the absence of any actual cannibalism in Climati’s Green Inferno will find buckets of palpably phony gore here. Cannibal Terror is similarly devoid of violence against animals, though…  at least on-screen (all those innards had to come from somewhere, I guess). Since his days as one of the DPP’s least favourite directors, “Allan W. Steeve” has been outed as an unholy combination of Alain Deruelle and Julio Pérez Tabernero… Jess Franco’s alleged participation in the project has now been ruled out, though apparently Franco acolyte Olivier Mathot (who also appears in the picture as “Monsieur Danville”) directed certain scenes. Sabrina Siani contributes her characteristic combination of significant eye candy and infinitesimal acting talent.

Perhaps we’ll discover some redemptive element in this disc’s bonus materials? Well, aside from a trailer and deleted “erotic” dancing scene with which you might already be regretfully familiar from Severin’s earlier edition of Cannibal Terror, there’s Naomi Holwill’s documentary That’s Not The Amazon! – The Strange Story of the Eurocine Cannibal Film Cycle, in which assembled pundits Allan Bryce, Mikel Koven, John Martin and Calum Waddell (plus cast member Antonio Mayans, who admits it wasn’t always easy to remember which film he was supposed to be acting in at any given moment) attempt to elicit a few laughs from the amateurish anthropophagic efforts that the Lasoeur family were churning out in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Martin summarises the guiding principles of Eurociné’s cannibal dabblings thus: “If you’ve got a bucket of offal and you can stuff it up somebody’s jumper then pull it out again and if you can film in a park somewhere and pretend it’s the Amazon basin, then you’ve got yourself a movie”, further characterising these films as “shoddily executed”… and who am I to contradict the sartorially splendid but increasingly gnarled looking doyen of dodgy film criticism?

As time marches on, those who haven’t seen Cannibal Terror and many of its DPP list-mates might be unclear about exactly what is was that our moral guardians had in their cross hairs during the early ’80s when they predicted the imminent collapse of Civilisation. If that’s you, prepare to be gob smacked!

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“The Lady Dragon Has Attacked Our Wig Warehouse!”… Arrow’s SISTER STREET FIGHTER COLLECTION Reviewed

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 18.

Yes, Arrow are once again pillaging the Tohei archives, for a release that would have had James Ferman shitting bricks, back in the day, over its gratuitous nunchuck slinging and general levels of martial arts mayhem. What are the BBFC thinking? What’s the world coming to?

During 1974 Sonny Chiba had already starred in The Street Fighter (Gekitotsu! Satsujin Ken), Return Of The Street Fighter (Satsujin Ken 2) and The Streetfighter’s Last Revenge (Gyakushû! Satsujin Ken), not to mention several other features and the TV series Za Bodigaado, but such was the pressure to cash in on the box office bonanza inspired by Bruce Lee’s impact in Robert Clouse’s Enter The Dragon (1973), Sonny also found time to mentor and contribute a supporting performance to the lovely Etsuko Shihomi, herself a supporting player in the Streetfighter flicks but now spun off into her own franchise, commencing with Kazuhiko Yamaguchi’s Sister Streetfighter (Onna Hissatsu Ken).

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With the occasional aid of some ass kicking girlfriends and Sonny (as Seiichi Hibiki), Koryu attempts to rescue her brother from Mr Big’s drug dungeon by fighting her way through Kakuzaki’s assembled henchmen (guys wearing wicker bins over their heads, dudes with swastikas on their karate suits, a bunch of Thai girls in Betty Rubble dresses, a Mohican tonsured blow pipe assassin in a fancy dress outfit, et al), each of them expert in various fighting codes. I love the way these guys manage to get a few licks in before there’s a freeze-frame and caption identifying their particular discipline. Who says you never learn anything from exploitation films? After watching Sister Streetfighter, you’ll never again confuse Karate with Shorinji Kempo. Hopefully. Anyway, despite Koryu’s best efforts, Big Bro gets bumped off, setting up a particularly choice, wire-assisted climactic dust-up during which Kazukaki dons razor claws in an obvious attempt to evoke the denouement of Enter The Dragon.

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Having Sonny Chiba as your support act is obviously a high risk strategy and Sonny nearly steals the show with such moves as breaking the arms of a guy who has the temerity to flash spiky knuckle dusters at him, then disembowelling a fat baddy with his bare hands (that’ll teach him to maintain his six-pack!) But Shihomi trumps this by twisting one crim’s head around the full 180, after which he staggers down the stairs looking very sorry for himself. All this to the delirious aural accompaniment of wicky-wacky guitar and blaring horns… audiences were clamouring for more and director Yamaguchi didn’t keep them waiting very long.

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Sister Streetfighter: Hanging By A Thread (above) was in theatres before the end of 1974. No Sonny this time out but plot wise, it’s pretty much “as you were”, with Koryu travelling from HK to Yokohama to locate a woman who’s been drawn into a diamond smuggling syndicate which transports its illicit goodies in the buttocks of trafficked women (“Dealing in blood diamonds is a real pain in the ass!” quips one of the bad guys in a dubious, er, crack). As if the buttock slicing sequences aren’t unpleasant enough, there’s a scene of torture and eye violence (inflicted on Koryu’s sister) which reminded me very much of Lucio Fulci’s Contraband (1980). The eyes very much have it in this film… Koryu is alerted to the bad guys’ nefarious deeds on viewing micro film retrieved from a dead man’s glass eye (!) and when she finally confronts the operation’s Mr Big, she nails his glasses to his eyeballs in a sweet bit of poetic justice. By this point, of course, it must feel like a hollow victory as most of her nearest and dearest have been wiped out in the process and the film ends with Koryu’s agonised wailing… hanging by an emotional thread, indeed.

Our girl is assisted at the denouement by a Ronin figure who initially threw his hand in with the mobsters, only to switch his allegiances. Obviously intended to invoke Clint Eastwood’s intense drifter in Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars, 1964 (itself a pinch from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, 1961), this is just about the only significant innovation in what’s essentially a cookie cutter sequel, plot-wise…

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Continuing ossification is signified as early as the title sequence of Return Of The Sister Street Fighter (1975), which is lifted lock, stock and barrel from its predecessor (and in which Shihomi goes though her combat stances in a hall of mirrors setting that’s clearly, er, indebted to Enter The Dragon). The plot (Kuryo versus fiendish gold smugglers) is another retread and the film’s shortened  running time also suggests that the law of diminishing returns is starting to set in. Most disappointingly, Yamaguchi dispenses with those freeze frame martial arts captions.

In an attempt to distract our attention from the stale plotting,  The “Mister Big” figure in this one is pitched so over-the-top, he’s virtually in orbit. Confined to a wheelchair, he presides over martial arts tournaments in which the cream of the world’s evil henchman-types fight to the death for the right to take on Koryu. Why, one wonders, doesn’t he just send them all? While we’re asking, when Koryu is fighting the bad guys, why do they always form an orderly queue instead of all rushing her at once? And wouldn’t it be more effective to just shoot her? Alas, there are no guns in these gentlemen’s bouts…

Despite spouting lines like: “Kill all pests… that’s my philosophy!”, Koryu’s foe also makes the classic Bond baddy mistake (much lampooned in the Austin Powers films) of not killing her outright whenever he gets the chance. After she’s wiped the floor with all his goons, Mr Big (whose just been outed as a War Criminal) somersaults out of his wheelchair (that’s his incapacity benefit claim fucked) and whips off his Michael Jackson glove to reveal a golden hand (exposing Goldfinger for the cheapskate we always suspected him to be) before going (golden) mano a mano with Koryu. She’s assisted in the final showdown by another freelancing Clint Eastwood type, who gets his own subplot concerning his rivalry with a Lee Van Cleef clone (!) Koryu also has to protect the young daughter of a mob victim, whose “cute” antics will really grate on your nerves.

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This particular formula was clearly getting a bit played out but Sister Streetfighter: Fifth Level Fist, a 1976 effort from original Street Fighter director Shigehiro Ozawa, shakes things up so much that it’s debatable whether this one actually belongs in the Sister Streetfighter series or on this box. Don’t get me wrong, it’s always a pleasure to see the lovely Ms Shihomi doing her fistic thing… though she doesn’t really get to do that much of it here, her character (reinvented as the 100% Japanese “Kiku Nakagawa”) expending most of her energy on foiling her social-climbing parents’ attempts to marry her off to some boring young Professional. Ozawa privileges romantic comedy and social comment (notably women’s emancipation and racial prejudice) over martial arts and the heroin smuggling gangsters, when they eventually appear, are more realistically depicted (less of the Blofeld stuff but more self-referential humour, as they front up their operation with a film production studio).

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A despised social marginal because of his mixed race heritage, Jim Sullivan (Ken Wallace) falls in with the mobsters but is eliminated when he becomes a liability to them. This tragic figure is sympathetically portrayed and gets his own sweetly soulful theme on the soundtrack. His half-sister Michi (Rabu Micchii) calls in her friend Kiku to bring the bad guys to book but as much time is spent on the sexual tension between her and the investigating cop Takeo Nakagawa (Masafumi Suzuki) as on fighting. Only at the end does Kiku kick over the traces and really get to express herself with her feet and fists before another triumphant / downbeat ending…

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Bonus wise, you get another excerpt from Arrow’s ongoing interview with Sonny (Shinichi to his mum) Chiba, who talks of his working relationship with Etsuko Shihomi plus interviews with director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi (initially dubious about the new female star, he was ultimately won over “by her dimples and her physical capabilities) and screenwriter Masahiro Kakefuda (“We wracked our brains, day and night, to come up with scenarios for the bad guys”). There are various trailers for the films and a stills / poster gallery. The reversible sleeve features original and newly commissioned artwork by one Kungfubob O’ Brien and there’s an illustrated booklet featuring writing on the series by Patrick Macias and a new essay on the U.S. release of Toei’s karate films by Chris “Temple Of Schlock” Poggiali, which you won’t see once the first pressing has sold out or if you’re a humble blogger like me.

Chiba expresses his regret that Shihomi eventually (in a case of life imitating Sister Streetfighter: Fifth Level Fist) got married and retired from action movies. Who knows what she’d have achieved if she’d continue to develop her extraordinary abilities on the silver  screen? Sixth Level Fist at least, I reckon. But I’d have to check one of those freeze frame captions to be sure…

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Is that a nunchuck in your pocket, Jonny Wang, or are you just happy to see me?

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2 Ripping BD Yarns From Severin… Monty Berman’s JACK THE RIPPER and Ivan Nagy’s SKINNER, Reviewed.

SAUCY JACK, YOU’RE A NAUGHTY ONE…

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Jack The Ripper (1959). BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

For readers of a certain vintage, the name of producer Monty Berman will evoke such ’60s / early ’70s gimmicky TV action staples as The Saint, The Baron, The Champions, Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) and the camp escapades of Jason King, both in and out of Department S. All of these seemed to boast iconic title sequences / music and as an added bonus, The Champions arrived just in time to stimulate our developing libidos with the spectacle of the icily beautiful Alexandra Bastedo, the erstwhile Bond girl who would subsequently appear in such Euro Horror epics as Vicente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride.

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It’s my blog so we’re having a gratuitous pic of the glorious Alexandra Bastedo here, OK?

Less well documented (even within the recent slew of books about British Horror flicks) are Berman’s attempts (in cahoots with Robert S. Baker) to ride Hammer’s coat tails with the likes of Henry Cass’s Blood Of The Vampire (1958), John Gilling’s Burke and Hare biopic The Flesh And The Fiends (1960), The Hellfire Club (1961) and the item under consideration here, which (like The Hellfire Club) was directed as well as produced by Baker and Berman (the latter, interestingly enough, born in Whitechapel, a quarter of a Century after Saucy Jack littered its streets with his prostitute victims).

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In furtherance of those Hammeresque aspirations, Jimmy Sangster was poached to script the film and came up with a thoughtful effort taking in the iniquities of social deprivation, gender and disability discrimination, rough street justice, et al, while adroitly shifting suspicion between various characters. John Le Mesurier’s snotty surgeon is looking like the likeliest candidate until another posh doc is revealed, at the eleventh hour, to be the killer, motivated (in a persistent pet theory of Ripperologists) by his son’s death from syphilis, contracted from a Whitechapel working girl. Pursued by Inspector O’Neill (Eddie Byrne) and his men, “Jack” unwisely attempts to conceal himself in a hospital lift shaft and is promptly squashed to a pulp.

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Although an interesting historical footnote, Berman and Baker’s variation on the Ripper saga failed to elevate its makers, as intended, into the Premier League alongside Hammer. Crucially, that company’s lurid use of colour seems to have been completely lost on them. I suppose the b/w cinematography (which again, they divided between them) made it easier to convey a pea soupy East End on their threadbare studio sets, but this film is one of those which you suspect already looked dated when it came out. There is a sore thumb colour insert at the climax of the American release version (which also adds a portentous voice over intro and replaces Stanley Black’s score with one by Jimmy McHugh and Pete Rugolo, among other bits of fiddling) as JTR’s blood bubbles through the floorboards of the lift, this scene and several others excised from UK prints by the BBFC. Both versions are included here and you also get an audio commentary from Baker, Sangster and AD Peter Manley, moderated by Marcus Hearn, plus a selection of alternative “Continental takes”, shot for markets with a greater toleration of female nudity. On top of the expected poster and still gallery and (scuzzy looking) trailer, you get interviews with the ubiquitous Denis Meikle and Whitechapel murder tour guide Richard Jones, allowing you to evaluate their conflicting theories about who the Ripper or possibly even Rippers might or might not have been… an argument that isn’t going to be settled by this release or by anybody, any time soon.

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B&B possibly figured (wrongly) that despite the absence of colour, they could sell this one in The States on the strength of second string yankee hunk Lee Patterson in the role of holidaying New York cop Sam Lowry. Why, you may well ask, would a NYC cop want to spend his vacation helping out Scotland Yard? Well, as Lowry tells Inspector O’Neill: “We don’t have Rippers in New York!” Watch this space, pal… quack, quack, quack!

THE SHAPE OF WATER…

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Skinner (1993) BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

“He wants a vest with tits on it”.

My first encounter with Carl Daft and David Gregory was in 1991 (so obviously pre-Severin, pre-Blue Underground… this was even pre-Exploited) when I found myself sitting adjacent to them at a midnight movie preview screening of Silence Of The Lambs and we exchanged off the cuff critiques. Nearly thirty (yikes!) years later, Severin have released a film that could all too easily be dismissed as a poor man’s take on the Jonathan Demme hit, though as we’ll see, there’s a lot more to this story than meets the eye…

Dennis Skinner (the name a gag that might have been lost on non-British viewers, though presumably American audiences got the “Bob and Earl” reference), played by Ted Raimi, is a nerdishly likeable misfit who rents a room in what looks suspiciously like Norman Bates’ house (shades of Ed Gein, already). His landlady Kerry Tate (Ricki Lake) is having a hard time with her often absent husband Geoff (David Warshofsky) and romance begins to blossom between her and Dennis. He longs to show her his “real self”, but there’s a clue as to what exactly that might be in the mutilated shape of Heidi, a former flame who’s tracking him down with vengeance in mind…

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Suits you, Sir…

When he’s not romancing Kerry or working as a janitor, Dennis likes to kill prostitutes and skin them to construct lady suits for himself. Not the most endearing of hobbies but skilful scripting and direction from (respectively) Paul Hart-Wilden and Ivan Nagy (e.g. in the revelation of the childhood trauma that drove Dennis off the rails) keep us rooting for him and hoping that he can find redemption in the arms of Kerry… but Heidi has other plans for him…

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An obvious STV job, Skinner transcends its evident low-budget by dint of such deft touches as its ant-hero’s obsession with water and it’s ability to fill any vessel into which it is poured. The film’s casting could hardly have been bettered in this regard, with Lake having undergone a massive physical transformation in real life and Lords effecting a no less startling metamorphosis into the cinematic mainstream. Director Nagy was quite the Protean figure himself and it’s clear, from David Gregory’s fascinating bonus interview with him here and from other extras on this disc, that before his involvement in “other business” defined him forever in the public eye, Nagy was a film maker intent on making good films. With Skinner, he succeeded (even if that ambitiously quirky ending does come off as something of a misfire).

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Other bonus materials (apart from the obvious trailer) include interviews with Raimi, writer Paul Hart-Wilden and editor (actually the last in a long line of editors) Jeremy Kasten, plus the unexpurgated depiction of Skinner’s gruesome tailoring. All the surviving contributors agree that this would be far less problematic today than the ill-advised scene (Hart-Wilden insists that he didn’t write it) in which Skinner wraps himself in the skin of a black co-worker and goes into a cringe-inducing Amos’n’Andy routine. Hart-Wilden is wryly amusing on the troubled pre-production history of a film he was hawking around for several years before Silence Of The Lambs. Hammer rejected it on the grounds that it was too horrific (!), British Screen because he wasn’t Peter Greenaway. The success of Silence Of The Lambs finally got Skinner green lit in The States, only for it to be shelved when funds dried up. Nagy’s involvement in the Heidi Fleiss scandal having reignited interest in the property, Hart-Wilden and Kasten offer their respective insights on the struggle to get it finished and released. Skinner’s no Magnificent Ambersons but its behind-the-scenes saga is as compelling and salutary a tale as any of the perils and pitfalls that lurk behind Tinsel Town’s glittering facade.

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Fast Times At Westworld High… CLASS OF 1999 Reviewed

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Look Mom, no CGI!

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BD. Vestron Video / Lionsgate Home Entertainment. Region B. 15.

Did you miss the recent Channel 4 documentary Teachers Training To Kill (in which teachers in Ohio were training to take down school spree shooters)? No worries, this timely re-issue of Mark E. Lester’s 1990 edusploitation epic will being you right up to speed. What we have here is a post-Terminator reboot (from a time before our screens were littered with bloody reboots) of the director’s own Class Of 1984 (1982), a film that was inexplicably dragged into the “video nasties” shit fight (not that any of that fiasco made any sense whatsoever). In CO84, the staff and student body of Lincoln High School (including a pudgy Michael J. Fox in one of his earliest non-TV appearances) were terrorised by the lamest collection of juvenile delinquents outside of Next Stop, Nowhere (more widely and notoriously known as “the Punk Rock episode of Quincy”).

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“I’ve never been more serious in my life, Sam…”

By 1999, Lester “predicts”, things will have deteriorated to the point where many schools have become “free fire zones”…. what’s worse, many of the shanty neighbourhoods in which the school kids reside and the ridiculous fashions sported by the gang members (even more ludicrous than those in CO84) suggest that Lester had been ODing on Enzo Castellari post-apocalyptic flicks while dreaming up this one.

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Dr Miles Langford (Malcolm McDowell), the idealistic Principal of Kennedy High School, is empowered by The Board Of Educational Defence to call in the shadowy MegaTech Corporation who, for a reasonable fee, are happy to supply their new line in android teachers. Gym master Mr Bryles (Patrick Kilpatrick), Chemistry specialist Ms Connors (the legend that is Pam Grier) and History teacher Mr Hardin (John P. Ryan) take a hard-line, old… er… school attitude towards discipline and have the bionic ability to back it up. Turns out that they were prototype kill droids rejected by the US military on the grounds that they were too violent and flaky. Now reprogrammed for pedagogic purposes, they revert all too readily to battlefield ethics when encountering resistance. “Students are being beaten for minor infractions… two of them are already dead!” Dr Miles whines to MegaTech honcho Dr Bob Forrest (Stacy Keach, looking significantly more scary than any of his renegade replicants, below). “Education at its finest!”, insists Dr Bob.

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While the Principal wrings his hands, one Cody Culp (Bradley Gregg, above, as the most miscast gang banger ever) is dating his daughter Christian (Traci Lin) and uniting the fractious factions of the student body against their oppressors with the memorable rallying cry: “I’m going to go waste some teachers… who’s with me?” As The Kidz fight back, the school goes up in flames and the teachers shed their synthetic skin to reveal the full extent of their android armoury… it’s a nightmare scenario but given some of the loopy stuff that Trump has been recommending on behalf of the NRA, I guess we’re going to have to get used to it.

No action fan is going to feel short-changed by this mindlessly brilliant bit of blackboard jungle brouhaha, which in all probability exerted an influence over Kinji Fukasaku’s cracking Battle Royale (2000). Blink and you’ll miss Rose McGowan in her fleeting feature debut… yep, #hertoo.

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A generous compliment of bonus features includes Lester’s commentary track and interviews with him and co-producer Eugene Mazzola, enthusing about the great times they had blowing up a derelict high school in Seattle. Lester says he was hoping that some of Malcolm McDowell’s charisma would rub off on Bradley Gregg (yeah, good luck with that!) Mazzola remembers how Stacy Keach talked him into stumping up for a $6,000 albino wig, before reminding us that Vestron went out of business shortly afterwards. Good to know that Keach was such a stickler for method acting, portraying here the only albino ever to sport bushy black eyebrows and moustache.

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C. Courtney Joyner talks about writing the flick, we also hear from legendary DP Mark Irwin and there’s a joint interview with Special FX men Eric Allard and Rick Stratton (who worked pre-CGI wonders), during which we learn that Pam Grier (who nobody has a bad word for) had to wear prosthetic legs cast from the actual pins of Michael Jackson. There’s a contemporary video promo, theatrical trailer, TV spots and stills gallery. That’ll learn ya…

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A sequel to this sequel was made (by Spiro Razatos) in 1994, entitled Class Of 1999 II: The Substitute, though its action is actually set in 2001. So go figure… I haven’t seen it but I’m not losing any sleep over that.

As companion pieces from the Vestron archive, Lionsgate are simultaneously releasing Bob Balaban’s Parents (1989, below) and Camilo Vila’s The Unholy  (1988, even lower).

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My Brain Hurts… Siberian Khatru On Board Eugenio Martin’s HORROR EXPRESS.

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 15.

If you’ll indulge me in a spot of nostalgia (and why wouldn’t you?), Eugenio Martin’s Horror Express (Pánico En El Transiberiano, 1972) was – along with the likes of Witchfinder General, Tales From The Crypt, et al – a regular fixture on the Friday late night horror slot with which Granada TV used to enliven my humdrum adolescence. In those days of course (sit up and pay attention, Junior, this is for your own good!) we didn’t yet have the benefit of VCRs and given that the gaps between transmissions of certain films might be as long as two years, it was a catastrophe of global proportions if you succumbed to sleep half way through this or some or other horror gem, usually waking up during the credits with a stiff neck and another significant wait in prospect.

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Flash forward past the VHS era and into incipient middle age, at the dawn of DVD, where Horror Express became one of the most widely released titles on the nascent format, mostly in scuzzy looking and not necessarily authorised editions on fly-by-night labels, apparently because of a misconception that it had entered the public domain. Indeed, if memory serves me well, this is the first title I ever saw on DVD, round at David Flint’s place. Image Entertainment’s managed a decent R1 version that has been deleted for some time now and was followed  by a R2 incarnation from Cinema Club’s Horror Classics imprint, very welcome despite its absence of extras, full screen presentation and rather tired, solarised-looking print, which seemed identical to the one that subsequently got screened by the BBC. In 2011 Severin managed a predictably pristine BD / DVD combo edition chock full of impressive extras that you’re going to get another chance to catch on the new Arrow release under consideration here.

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Born in 1925 and now (if indeed he’s still alive) long retired, Eugenio Martin was an able journeyman director of adventure yarns until the success of Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy (shot in Spain) initiated a vogue for Paella Westerns in which he enthusiastically participated with the likes of El Precio De Un Hombre (aka Bounty Killer, 1966) , Requiem Para El Gringo aka Duel In The Eclipse (1968) and as late as 1971 with El Hombre De Rio Malo (“Bad Man’s River” aka Hunt The Man down)

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By this point Martin had already started dabbling in the horror genre, his 1969 offering Una Vela Para El Diablo (“A Candle For The Devil”) showing a preoccupation with hidebound social concealing psychotic deviance that would be amplified in later efforts up to and including the early ’80s brace Sobrenatural and Aquella Casa En Las Afueras (“That House On The Outskirts”). The latter turns on a memorable, Sheila Keith type turn from the venerable Alida Valli and features abortion as a plot point in a way that would have been impossible scant years earlier, under Franco’s regime.

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There’s a similar faith vs secularism motif in the Spanish / British co-production Horror Express (1972), easily the best of Martin’s fear flicks… how could it fail to be, combining as it does a truly stellar cast (including Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in their strongest non-Hammer outing) with some totally wacked out plotting. Said action commences with Sir Alexander Saxton (your basic Professor Challenger type, as essayed by Lee) unearthing some kind of deep frozen yeti in scenic Szechuan (in fact all the impressive locations in this picture are actually Spanish) at the turn of the Century. Later he runs into old scientific adversary Dr Wells (Cushing) at Shanghai railway station, as both are about to board the Transiberian Express. The prickly professional rivalry between these two leads to Wells bribing a porter to take a peek at the contents of Saxon’s crate. Oh, mister Porter… what he finds is a thawed out troglodyte whose glowing red medusa stare leads to prolific bleeding from the victims’ own eyes (which rapidly cloud over with cataracts), followed in pretty short order by death. Cushing’s autopsy (pretty graphic stuff for its day) reveals that the victim’s brain is smooth as a baby’s bum, every wrinkle (and piece of information that is potentially useful to a space Yeti) sucked right out of it.

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Having bailed out of his crate, Trog now mooches around the train, disturbing the genteel travellers with further eye-bleeding, brain-sucking antics. His victims’ ordeals, effectively conveyed via dissolves and quick cuts, still pack a horrific punch and really shook me up as a kid. I’m convinced that they also made a big impression on Lucio Fulci who, it became apparent to me after meeting and interviewing him, was a bit of a Spanish horror buff. The mistreatment to which various characters’ eyes are subjected in Fulci’s 1980 schlock opera City Of The Living Dead are unmistakably reminiscent of these scenes, ditto the ping-pong eyeballs which pop up at the conclusion of his masterpiece The Beyond (1981).

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Back on that train, as if all of the above weren’t entertaining enough, Martin chucks in Eurobabe Helga Line as the beautiful Polish Countess Natasha and her Rasputin-like personal chaplain Father Pujardov, played by Alberto de Mendoza in a performance possibly patterned on that of Patrick Troughton as Lee’s sidekick Klove in Roy Ward Baker’s Scars Of Dracula (1970). The Argentinean Mendoza was a busy actor (right up  till his death in 2011) whose notable Eurotrash credits include Bitto Albertini’s Nairobi-based giallo oddity L’Uomo Piu Velenoso Del Cobra (“Human Cobras”, 1971), Sergio Martino’s The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh (1970) and Case Of The Scorpion’s Tale (1971) plus the Fulci brace One On Top Of Another / Perversion Story (1969) and Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (1971.)

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His mad monk maintains that the Troglodyte is Satan incarnate (”There’s the stink of Hell on this train… even [Line’s] dog knows it”) and Saxton’s attempts at rational explanations (“Hypnosis! Yoga!”) are somewhat less than compelling. When the train’s resident detective manages to shoot Trog, Mills performs an autopsy that presents some startling results. This missing link’s retina has retained images of dinosaurs and even a view of The Earth seen from Outer Space (Martino taking his cue here from a pinch of the pseudo-science that informed Dario Argento’s Four Flies On Grey Velvet, made the previous year). The conclusion is that the evil entity comprises pure energy that must inhabit a host body to make its way around terra firma. The train dick’s hairy hand (hope I got that the right way round) indicates that he is the new host, and a fresh cycle of brain sucking and The Thing-type paranoia kicks in when he sets out to absorb the engineering expertise that will allow the construction of a spaceship with which to check off of planet Earth. Ultimately Pujardov volunteers to host the Elemental and, as if the passengers hadn’t already suffered more than their fair share of commuting misery, he now raises the bodies of all the previous hosts and victims as a horde of marauding zombies!

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By this point the express has been boarded by a macho bunch of cossacks, under the command of Captain Kazan, played by Telly Savalas. Ah yes, Telly Savalas… never the subtlest of actors, the future Kojak star raises the bar here for all subsequent outbreaks of scenery-chewing thespianism… but how else was he going to steal the show from the legendary Lee / Cushing axis? Obviously labouring under the delusion that he’s performing in a Spag Western (an impression enhanced by frequent, tuneless whistling on the soundtrack) Savalas swaggers around gargling with vodka, smashing glasses, ranting xenophobic invective and delivering such impenetrable aphorism as: “A horse has four legs, a murderer has two arms and The Devil must be afraid of one honest Cossack.” “What’s he raving about?” demands Mills, reasonably enough, only to be punched out by Kazan of this trouble. “Everybody’s under arrest!” howls the Captain before handing out a few lumps to Saxton, a propos of nothing in particular and horse whipping Pujardov into the bargain… Oh, those Russians! Savalas’ overripe performance had such an impact on my impressionable mind that I long misremembered him as dominating the entire picture, and it came as quite a shock on my first adult rewatching of Horror Express to realise that this character doesn’t make his entry until well into the film’s final third.

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Thankfully, Saxton and Mills manage to de-couple the zombie-infested carriages and send them down the line that sends them careering over a cliff. Great miniature work throughout, but which bright engineering spark decided to lay down a line that would send trains careering over a cliff? Even Southern Rail commuters expect better than this… and speaking of stiff upper lips, Cushing gets to utter the best line in the film –  “Monsters? We’re British, you know!”, one that still resonates loudly in the wake of Brexit…

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Bonus materials include an interview with director Martin in which he reveals that the film’s motivating “high concept” was producer Philip Yordan’s desire to get his money’s worth out of the train that he had purchased for Pancho Villa, in which Martin had already directed Savalas earlier in 1972. He also describes how Lee coaxed the recently widowed and deeply depressed Cushing back into a working mood. In the featurette Notes From The Blacklist producer Bernard Gordon talks about his run-in with everybody’s favourite Commie-baiter, Senator Joe McCarthy. Telly And Me comprises an interview with composer John Cacavas, who acknowledges how his scoring career flourished under the patronage of Savalas. There’s an enthusiastic intro piece from erstwhile Fango editor Chris Alexander and of course you get a trailer.

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All of these were on Severin’s BD, which also included an audio interview with Peter Cushing that you could listen to while watching the film. Arrow replace that with a useful Kim Newman / Stephen Jones commentary track. The main feature here looks marginally grainier but more a tad more nuanced, colour wise, than the now out of print Sev disc, for which this disc constitutes the perfect replacement.

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Death Disco… Hipster Hoofers Fail The Electric Vino Acid Test, Big Time, In Gaspar Noé’s CLIMAX.

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Gaspar Noé… shaman or shammin’?

BD. Arrow. Region B. 18.

“Quousque tandem abutere, Gaspar, patientia nostra?” (After Cicero in “Against Catiline”).

Cumming soon to a screen near you… actually the spuming cocks that decorate several of Gaspar Noé’s previous cinematic outrages are ironically conspicuous by their absence from his latest, though the ugliest of all human organs can be found doing its inimitable thing in some of this disc’s supporting featurettes. Whatever, Climax (2018) still packs enough sex, drugs and violence to outrage the Daily Heil and excite vacuous thrill seekers everywhere on account of its daring, taboo-busting blah, blah, blah

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Described on its poster as being “like Fame directed by the Marquis de Sade with a steadicam”, Climax has also been likened by its director to Irwin Allen’s disaster movies from the ’70s, a description which did, I must admit, raise a chuckle with me. Beyond that, though, there’s precious little to smile about here.

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Yowza, yowza, yowza…

The proceedings open with a troupe of painfully cool dancers celebrating the end of strenuous rehearsal sessions for their upcoming US tour. Naturally, they decide to celebrate the cessation of all this physical exertion by staying up all night for even more frantic dancing in some remote hall, to the accompaniment of some seriously shit music. Little do they know that some malcontent has slipped a lysergic kicker into the communal sangria bowl. The acid seems to take an eternity coming on, allowing Noé the opportunity to introduce us to his cast of characters and their signature insecurities (“Irwin Allen disaster movies”, indeed) plus their scarcely concealed racist and sexist prejudices. As soon as the assembled dancin’ fools are all tripping off their tits, mob rule sets in… lots of fucking, fighting and self-mutilation… a child freaks out when locked in a room with cockroaches and a girl who’s stingy with her coke supply has her hair set on fire… there’s a spot of incest and a pregnant woman is savagely beaten… well, it seemed to go over OK in Irreversible (2002) and the slight return of that film’s reverse chronology gimmick reeks of an attempt to turn the clock back to a time when Noé could actually be mistaken for a director with something to say, rather than just another bozo competing with Lars Van Trier and Tom Six in the vapid “self promotion via pointless shocks” stakes.

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Tried it. It didn’t agree with me.

Climax has been dragged into the trendy and detestable nouveau giallo category on the grounds that it ends with the revelation of who actually perpetrated the 2018 equivalent of putting the benzedrine in Mrs Murphy’s ovaltine (*). Unfortunately the only possible response to the revelation that one of these unbearable characters (rather than any of the others) was the culprit is a bemused shrug of the shoulders… BFD! As well as Argento, Noé and his supporters have invoked the likes of Zulawksi (there’s an am-dram recreation of Isabelle Adjani’s epic Possession mong-out at one point) and Kenneth Anger in an attempt to boost his credentials. The director gets to blow his own trumpet on a commentary track and in a “bonus” interview. In another featurette entitled Shaman Of The Screen, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas assesses Noé’s career so far (plenty of XXX-rated career highlights in this one). Elsewhere, Alan Jones dissects the film’s soundtrack and suggests that it constitutes a concise history of late 20th Century Dance Music, for those that want one. Fine for those who do. I don’t, personally. There are obvious areas where Mr Jones’ artistic tastes coincide with my own but equally obviously, music is not one of them. Another bonus bit comprises interviews with thespians Kiddy Smile, Romain Guillermic and Souhelia Yacoub. Trailer, reversible sleeve, limited edition booklet, etc…

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“You got Hi, Ho Silver Lining, mate?” Gaspar Noé hits the decks…

Climax is allegedly based on a real life incident, but one has one’s doubts… I mean, how many of those warehouse parties and Hacienda nights, insufferable as they undoubtedly must have been, ended with a significant proportion of participating revellers being carried out in body bags? At least Noé records the whole sorry spectacle with cold, detached objectivity, resisting the temptation to render everything in cheesy POV tripovision, but ultimately this comes as small comfort.

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In case you haven’t already picked up on this, I really didn’t like Climax. In fact I’m really anti-Climax. That said, the sex, drugs and violence on display here, together with the inevitable tabloid hand wringing it will provoke, should ensure that enough units are shifted to contribute towards keeping  HMV ticking over for another month or two.

It’s no Murder-Rock, though…

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(*) The Harry “The Hipster” Gibson tune recorded by Slim And Slam, among others… now that’s what I call dance music.

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Truth With A Capital “T”? Luigi Bazzoni’s THE LADY OF THE LAKE, Released On Arrow Blu-ray As THE POSSESSED.

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 12.

Successful novelist Bernardo Giovanni (Peter Baldwin from Freda’s The Spectre Of Dr Hichcock and Michele Lupo’s The Weekend Murders) winds up an unsatisfactory relationship and returns, out of season, to a hotel in the Alpine village where he grew up. Keen to rekindle an involvement with Tilde (Virna Lisi), a maid he encountered on his previous visit, he is shocked to learn that she has committed suicide and withdraws into obsessive musings about what happened to her, fuelled by gossip he picks up from local photographer Francesco (Pier Giovanni Anchisi) and his own observations of the outwardly respectable but seriously dysfunctional family who own and run the hotel… Enrico (Salvo Randone), his son Mario (Philippe Leroy), daughter Irma (Valentina Cortese) and clinically depressed daughter-in-law Adriana (Pia Lindström). Fuelled by a flu bug he picks up, Bernard’s memories, dreams, speculations and fantasies fuse in a fashion that causes the viewer to constantly question what they’re seeing. Just as you’re beginning to think that Bernard’s suspicions might be the product of an overheated imagination, Adriana drowns under mysterious circumstances… meanwhile, who is the mysterious lady whose presence haunts the lake?

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Made in 1965, a year after Mario Bava’s Sei Donne Per L’Assassino / Blood And Black Lace, La Donna Del Lago / The Possessed is as much ghost story as giallo (in the wide definition offered by Tim Lucas during his commentary track) or even proto-giallo (as suggested in Arrow’s publicity blurb), Luigi Bazzoni’s psychological thriller having more in common with Bergman or Borges than Bava. Although it’s generally accepted that he contributed very little to the film’s actual direction, Franco Rossellini (nephew to the great Roberto and future producer of several Pasolini efforts, also Caligula) is officially credited as co-director, the film is scored by his father Renzo and Pia Lindström, as Ingrid Bergman’s daughter, was of course related to the Rossellini family by marriage… things behind the camera on this one were nearly as incestuous as the familial relationships portrayed in it, inspired by Giovanni Comisso’s book documenting the notorious “Alleghe killings”. Giulio Questi (later the director of Django, Kill! and Death Laid An Egg) collaborated with Bazzoni and Rossellini on the screenplay, which can’t exactly have detracted from the overall quirkiness of the proceedings, then again Bazzoni rendered similarly surreal psychological malaise without Questi’s collaboration in Footprints On The Moon (1975) and even his straight(ish) giallo The Fifth Cord (1971) plays out as an existential crisis suffered by its protagonist / chief murder suspect Franco Nero.

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The Lady Of The Lake occupies the crucially important but critically under-explored hinterland between Italian Arthouse Cinema and the B Movie tradition that underwrote it. Bazzoni and his closest circle of collaborators never made it into the august company of erstwhile associates Pasolini, Bertolucci, Antonioni et al, nor did they ever descend to the lowest common denominators of Italian genre cinema. The dynamic between these cinematic demi-mondes is incarnated here by the presence of Francesco Barilli, reminiscing about his friends and collaborators the Bazzoni brothers, Luigi and Camillo, throwing in random bits of tittle-tattle as he goes (“Steve Reeves was rumoured to have a very small cock”). Having played the protagonist of Bertolucci’s Before The Revolution in 1964, Barilli went on to write Aldo Lado’s memorable giallo Who Saw Her Die and Umberto Lenzi’s seminal Deep River Savages (both 1972) before directing his own unforgettable, indefinable oddity Perfume Of The Lady In Black (1974).

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Arrow’s 2K restoration from the original b/w camera negative does ample justice to the beautiful b/w cinematography of Leonida Barboni (Enzo’s big brother), whose camera team included the up and coming Sergio Salvati (subsequently to pull off so many lighting miracles for Lucio Fulci). Bonus materials include a video appreciation by cultural critic and academic Richard Dyer, who identifies the film’s central thesis as “the monstrosity of The Family in Italian life”. Interviews with assistant art director Dante Ferretti and make-up FX ace  Giannetto De Rossi are highly watchable but neither of them touches upon The Lady In The Lake to any great extent. De Rossi’s is particularly entertaining. During it he identifies the personal attributes that smoothed his career trajectory (“My deep voice, my big eyebrows and my assassin look! That’s why people feared me. Everyone behaved when I was around”), recalls a run in with Anne Parillaud and confirms that it was his hand pushing Olga Karlatos’s head towards its celebrated intersection with a splinter in Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters. You also get some trailers and then there’s the stuff I never get to see, including a reversible sleeve that features original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips and – in this edition’s first pressing only – an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Andreas Ehrenreich and Roberto Curti, plus reproductions of contemporary reviews.

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Lucas’s commentary track is every bit as informative and insightful as you’d expect. Bonus points for twice referring to Pasolini’s Jesus biopic by its correct title, The Gospel According To Mathew. Deduct one point for subsequently misidentifying it as “The Gospel According To Saint Mathew”. TL makes much of TLOTL’s sliding perspectives and the difficulty of arriving at Truth with a Capital “T”, a point nicely underlined by the fact that his interpretation of the story’s resolution deviates markedly from my own. I think he watched it with Italian dialogue and English subtitles (as you might well care to, this option reducing as it does the on-the-nose portentousness of Bernardo’s introspective musings) while I oped for the English dubbing. Try running the English language version with English subtitles, which also throws up some significant discrepancies. An already substantial plot thickens…

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Figures like Questi, Barilli and the Bazzoni brothers represent a significant but long concealed stratum of Italian Cinema, further illumination of which is long overdue. Arrow’s new edition of La Donna Del Lago constitutes a solid step in that direction.

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Here Comes The Mirror Man… Cocteau’s ORPHÉE On BFI Blu-ray.

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BD. BFI. Region B. PG.

Despite (or perhaps on account of) his celebrity status (really?) as a feted poet, Orphée (Jean Marais) is fated to a discontented and moody existence, devoting more time to his poetry than to his devoted wife Eurydice (Marie Déa). His eye is taken, though, by another young poet, the dissolute Jacques Cégeste (Edouard Dermithe) who has barely enough time to register his degenerate credentials before he’s run over by black clad bikers (archetypal emissaries of Death who will recur in films as diverse as those of Kenneth Anger, Freddie Francis’s Tales From The Crypt, Anthony Balch’s Horror Hospital, 1973 and Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy, among others).

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Orphée is roped into a phoney attempt to save Cégeste by the black presence of Death herself (Maria Casares) with whom, as a moody artist, he naturally develops an obsession (a mutually felt one, as it happens). Increasingly preoccupied with deciphering cryptic radio messages that are apparently broadcast from The Beyond, he neglects Eurydice even further, until she is felled by those bikers and carried off to Hades. Under the guidance of Death’s ambiguous chauffeur / PA Heurtebise (François Périer), Orpée passes through the looking-glass into The Underword (cue can-can music…)

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Stating his case to a tribunal of judges who appear to be Death’s employers, Orphée reclaims his bride, with the proviso that if he ever looks at her, he will lose her again. After some comic bits concerning the convoluted domestic arrangements entailed by this, the inevitable happens, but Heurtebise puts an additional spin on the original Greek legend (which might well have influenced Mario Puzo when coming up with the climax of Superman II, 1980). Heurtebise  and Death (compliant in this reversal of the ordained order of things) are led off to their punishment by the bikers and Orphée is permanently reunited and reconciled with Eurydice in marital bliss…

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Jean Cocteau was, among other things (many, many other things) a gay film maker. Having taken the opportunity afforded, by this characteristically lush BFI restoration, to re-watch his spell-binding Orphee (1950), I was left wondering about the distinction between a gay man directing a film and a man directing (if indeed there is such a thing) a gay film. In one of the supporting extras on this disc, John Maybury director of Love is the Devil and The Edge of Love argues that as homosexuals don’t have children (not necessarily true, these days), the works of artists such as Cocteau constitute part of the “Queer Family Tree”.  Cocteau, however, was working in an era whose prevailing mores obliged him to be more reticent about revealing his orientation than might be the case in present day France and as such the choice of Orpheus, a figure of multifarious mythic manifestations, was a particularly useful one from which to take an oblique tack…

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Orpheus doesn’t appear in Hesiod’s seminal Theogony but in Virgil’s classic telling of the tale, his poetic mastery of the lyre and the beauty of his singing voice wins over animals, plants and yes, inanimate objects. Simonides adds that he even managed to charm Charon, Cerberus and Pluto into surrendering Eurydice, back to the land of the living, though his regard for her does not extend to complying with the instructions that will prolong her revival. In Cocteau’s film, moreover, Orphée makes a similar journey through The Zone in search of the handsome young poet Jacques. Apollonius of Rhodes tells us that Orpheus played his lyre for Jason to neutralise the feminine lure of the Sirens’ song and one version of his death, as recounted by Ovid, is that he was torn apart by female celebrants of the Dionysian rites, enraged by his renunciation of the love of  women for that of young men. In Cocteau’s film Juliet Greco (below, with the director) plays Aglaonice (a name associated with witchcraft in Greek mythology), who stirs up the local rabble against Orphée under suspicion that he has plagiarised the work of Cégeste and might have something to do with his disappearance. Perhaps the implication is that he has in some other way “outraged” Cégeste?

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Developing the theme of his 1932 short Le Sang D’un Poète, Cocteau presents the otherness of The Poet / “Artistic Type” as virtually interchangeable with that of the homosexual, to the point where “poetical” becomes as much of a euphemism as “earnest” or, indeed, “gay”. As for that happy hetero ending… well, I’m not old enough to have any way of knowing how that went over at initial screenings of Orphée, but I do remember reports of riots breaking out in cinemas during screenings of Nancy Walker’s Can’t Stop The Music (1980) when allusions were made in it to The Village People having girlfriends!

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Apart from the aforementioned extra, you get an audio commentary, courtesy of Roland-François Lack and interviews with such Cocteau associates and collaborators as Jean Pierre Mocky, Pierre Bergé and Dominique Marny. Cocteau’s AD Claude Pinoteau discusses the director’s many ingenious, in-camera effects in the featurette Jean Cocteau And His Tricks, which deploys many of those itself. La Villa Santo-Sospir is a 1951 short directed by Cocteau, revealing the walls he “tattooed” for a friend’s villa on the Côte d’Azur. Plus original and re-release trailer, reversible sleeve with new artwork by Edward Kinsella and fully illustrated booklet containing an essay by Ginette Vincendeau, an interview with Jean Cocteau from 1950 and much else.

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Despite Cocteau’s up and down relationship with Andre Breton and co, this is sheer Surrealism (no doubt informed by the copious amounts of opium that JC was imbibing at the time) of the kind that David Lynch could never begin to approach with his meretricious wannabe outpourings (Peter Gabriel came considerably closer with his whole Lamb Lies Down On Broadway concept).

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As for that distinction between “film made by gay man” Vs “Gay Film”… well,  check out the rumble at the Café des Poètes, just before Cégeste gets run over and note the pale youth who keeps withdrawing from the fray to arrange his lank locks. Orphée is A Gay Film and gloriously so.

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Yellow Telly: Italy’s Hitchcock Opens THE DOOR INTO DARKNESS

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DVD. Region Free. Dragon Film Entertainment. Unrated.

Over the years, Dario Argento has blown hot and cold over the “Italian Hitchcock” label that’s so often attached to him (and frankly, the worst of his post-Opera output makes comparisons with Ed Wood seem more appropriate) but his high media profile in Italy is largely down to four hour-long TV movies that he presented under the “La Porta Sul Buio” banner on RAI (the Italian equivalent of the BBC) in 1973, a clear attempt to emulate Universal’s iconic “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, which ran between 1957 and 1962 in The States (and syndicated world-wide).

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The enormous domestic viewing figures (in the region of 30 million) racked up by Argento’s mini-series are often contextualised with the observation that Italy only had two TV channels (RAI Uno and Rai Due) at the time, but in fact the playing field was even more uneven than that, as Rai Due had only recently started broadcasting and still couldn’t be picked up by more than 50% of the Italian population.

The captive audience digesting their Cena in front of the first episode on a September evening in 1973 were greeted by the spectacle of Argento, in a fetching ’70s pullover, fretting over his dead car. Aldo Reggiani (one of the doctors in Four Flies On Grey Velvet) and Laura Belli offer him a lift and after a desultory bit of conversation (Argento compliments them on the cuteness of their baby) our master of ceremonies alights and waves them off into the first episode…

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“The Neighbour”

That young couple are off to spend their first night in the seaside apartment that will be their new home. It seems improbable that Belli’s character would put up with this ramshackle property, sight unseen. Even more so that Reggiani could sit up to watch a Frankenstein film when much has already been made of the fact that the apartment’s electricity is off. As for the killer upstairs, who goes out to dig a grave for his wife, whom he’s just drowned in the bath, oblivious to what the new neighbours might think of such shenanigans… well!

Despite the deficiencies in Luigi Cozzi’s script, his competent direction keeps this zero budget variation on Rear Window (whose themes Cozzi would expand into the rather excellent giallo The Killer Must Kill Again later in the same year) just about watchable, right up to a climax that’s taken straight out of the Edgar Allan Poe playbook. For anyone who didn’t spot the Hitchcock allusion, the killer is played by Spagwest heavy Mimmo Palmara (who also supervised the series’ post production sound-synching), conspicuously greyed up to look like Raymond Burr.

Il Vicino Di Casa was the second episode shot and originally planned as the broadcast follow-up to its predecessor in the shooting schedule…

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… but at the last minute this order was reversed. Argento wrote and edited The Tram utilising the pseudonym “Sirio Bernadotte”, because after three theatrical features it was felt that TV directing might be construed as a retrograde step in his career. “Sirio” introduces this episode with a bit of inconsequential waffle and by bringing on Commisioner Giordani (Enzo Cerusico, who would star in Argento’s non-giallo feature Five Days In Milan the same year). The mystery facing this guy is how a woman could be stabbed to death and stuffed under the seat of a busy tram without anybody noticing. To crack it, the obsessively finger-snapping cop restages that fatal tram ride with the participation of as many of her fellow passengers as the police can trace. The solution isn’t that hard to work out (and with it, the killer’s identity) but Argento’s polished direction of The Tram makes for a more consistently engaging ride than Il Vicino Di Casa, right up to a half-assed ending which pays lip service to the suggestion that white collar criminals regularly commit worse crimes and get away with them, a theme explored with more conviction and clarity by, among others, Aldo Lado in any number of his films.

RAI’s ambivalence about the whole project, in which their desire for new cutting edge material rubbed up against their conservative instincts, is nowhere better illustrated than in their veto of any depiction of knives in the climactic stalking of Giordani’s girlfriend Giulia played by Paola Tedesco (whose blonde locks in this one make her a bit of a Barbara Bouchet looky-likey)… so instead she’s stalked with a (presumably more politically correct) meat hook! If this character’s name hasn’t already clued you in, the whole episode is an expansion of a scene cut from the screenplay for The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970). Likewise…

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… the third episode (whose introductory section, in which Argento quizzes a fat cop about the most colourful cases he’s ever conducted, suggests it was originally conceived as the series closer) is a stripped down version of plot and themes from the recently wrapped Four Flies On Grey Velvet. Argento rewarded his long-term assistant Roberto Pariante with the direction of The Eye Witness but the dailies apparently revealed that he had been promoted beyond his competence and after a few days Argento enlisted Cozzi (his co-writer on this section) to reshoot Pariante’s existing footage while he handled the remaining scenes. In the finished article (still officially credited to Pariante), Liz Taylor clone Marilù Tolo (with whom Argento promptly embarked upon a two-year affair) is driving home late one night when a stabbed woman staggers out in front of her car. Our heroine calls the cops but by the time they arrive, there is no sign of the corpse. Is Marilù losing the plot or is somebody (maybe her apparently devoted husband?) trying to drive her bonkers? Anyone who’s seen Four Flies On Grey Velvet will have little difficulty in supplying the answer…

RAI insider Mario Foglietti (who co-wrote Four Flies with Argento and Cozzi) was given a rare chance to direct on the final  episode to be broadcast, which he co-wrote with Marcella Elsberger…

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The Doll

This one kicks off with a dangerous schizo absconding from a medical unit, all rendered via the nutcase’s POV. In fact throughout, Foglietti deploys techniques from Argento’s bag of visual tricks in the service of a bloodless thriller (the murder of genre icon Erika Blanc in an iconic fashion house setting plays out as a disappointingly stylised, anaemic affair) that runs more on existential angst than violence. This depressing giallo tendency would reach its nadir in Umberto Lenzi’s Spasmo the following year and anyone who’s ever suffered through that one will break out in a cold sweat when they clock the presence here of its star Robert Hoffman, stalking Mara Venier with apparent psychotic intent, though you’d have to be pretty slow on the uptake not to spot the climactic narrative switcheroo coming. I particularly cherished the deployment of police resources in this episode, i.e. the chief investigating officer is driven up and down the high street observing pedestrians in the hope that he’ll spot his quarry!

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Giorgio Gaslini scores all the episodes with Morricone-esque suspenseful flurries and for the main series theme, stabbing, Emersonesque piano passages. Each instalment is passably presented (the original elements having long disappeared) on this 2004 double disc set from German outfit Dragon. Interviews with Luigi Cozzi give the background to the series and introduce each episode individually. For the authentic experience, he requests that the viewer watch La Porta Sul Buio in black and white, as broadcast, rather than colour (as shot and presented here).

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Possibly conceived as a goodbye to the giallo (before the failure of Argento’s projected breakout feature Five Days In Milan sent him back to the genre, with Deep Red and Tenebrae to come), La Porta Sul Buio is a historically interesting but compromised affair, part of whose historical interest resides in the very compromises that it had to make. Its episodes are a lot more watchable (on every level barring that of kitschy trash) than the vignettes Argento (and Lamberto Bava) contributed to RAI’s short-lived (October 1987 to January ’88) TV game show Giallo.

Devised and hosted by veteran presenter Enzo Tortora (coming back after his acquittal in a notorious drugs case) and broadcast in a much more heterogeneous and competitive, post-Berlusconi Italian TV environment, Giallo was an indigestible concoction of game show (contestants had to guess the killer) and chat show (a surviving clip shows Dario interviewing a tangibly listless post-Roger Waters Pink Floyd), with glamorous hostesses thrown in for good measure but regrettably no sign of Dusty Bin.

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No “Sirio Bernadotte” subterfuge, this time out, for a director whose career after Opera would consist of nothing but retrograde steps…

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