Liberté, Équalité, Fraternité Über Alles… FRONTIERS Reviewed

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Die screaming, Marianne…

DVD. Region 2. Optimum Home Entertainment. 18.

Since the days of Méliès, France has made a considerable contribution to genre cinema,  albeit one that is often glossed over in the standard Anglo-Saxon accounts. In terms of horror and suspense,  Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955) exerted a massive influence over what are probably Hitchcock’s two greatest films, Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), while Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face (1960) spawned countless good, bad and Jesus Franco excursions into surgical horror. Only last year, Julia Ducournau’s Raw (reviewed in my Mayhem 2016 Festival report) allegedly had punters fainting in the aisles with its upfront depictions of cannibalism. The high watermark of confrontational French horror, though, was undoubtedly the noughties, a decade that kicked off with Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s ugly paean to the joys of indiscriminate fucking and killing, Baise Moi (unaccountably misperceived as some kind of noble feminist call-to-arms over here.) Whatever happened to them? Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002) remains one of the most mortifying cinematic experiences that many of us will ever endure. Now he’s just embarrassing. Alexandra Aja impressed with High Tension aka Switchbade Romance (2003) before being sucked into formulaic Hollywood shit. Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury finally found Beatrice Dalle a post Betty Blue role that was worthy of her in their chilling Inside (2007.) Subsequently authoring the disorienting but rather misfiring Livid (2011), they’re now involved in yet another desecration of the corpse of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Pascal Laugier (whose 2004 effort House Of Voices was, amongst other things, a public love letter to Lucio Fulci) made the fierce Martyrs in 2008, a film not to be confused with its limp 2015 Hollywood remake. Have I left anyone off? Pardonnez moi…

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Xavier Gens’ Frontiers (2007) isn’t the pre-eminent flowering among this decade’s garden of gallic gore (though it’s pretty damn good)… in terms of political prescience, though, it remains nonpareil. The day after I’m posting this review, the French turn out to vote in a presidential election which, it is widely believed, will result in a Far Right candidate making it to the final run off. Gens saw it coming ten years ago…

Riven by social, ethnic and religious tensions, the banlieues are ablaze after the first round of a French presidential election has resulted in a run off between the right and far right candidates. A bunch of muslim youths, secularised but terminally disaffected,  manage to get out town with some money they’ve ripped off and drive towards the Dutch border, only to take a rest stop at a farmhouse in the armpit of nowhere. As luck would have it, this is where decrepit, hold out Nazi officer Von Geisler (Jean-Pierre Jorris, who just happens to be a dead ringer for Jean Marie Le Pen) presides over a creepy family he’s variously fathered on a now demented local biddy or kidnapped as children. The two likeliest lads among our protagonists think they’ve landed on their feet when they bed the two sluttiest sisters but the latter have an ulterior motive for checking out their virility… the boys should have been alerted to the fact that something is seriously up by the presence of a fat sweaty dude, with too much body hair, wearing a butcher’s apron… those guys are always bad news!

Sure enough, the carnal hors d’oeuvres concluded, it’s time for the cannibal main course, the balance of the picture playing out as a mutant marriage of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Sorrow And The Pity. The guys are variously chained up with the pigs, beaten, hamstrung, mutilated, shot, boiled, hung up on meat hooks, skinned and salted for later consumption.

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Yasmine (Karina Testa) gets off more lightly than her male associates (give or take a few submersions in slurry) as Von Geisler, having decided that she’s just about white enough, is preparing her for the role of brood mare to propagate his decrepit dynasty (a sly comment on the FN’s current drive to convince people that it’s not as racist as it used to be.) Yasmine’s refusal of his generous offer is stated with a purloined shotgun. Who will survive? What will be left of them? And what awaits them in the wider world they will emerge into? Keep telling yourself it’s only a movie… even though it isn’t!

Made two years after Hostel but a decade before the political situation we currently find ourselves in, Frontiers is a timely… timeless… reminder about how people who’ve become overly concerned with national frontiers can quite easily overstep the boundaries of human decency. A salutary lesson, and my dear old Dad (the former desert rat) must be spinning in his grave over the prospect of us needing learn it all over again.

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Nice Places To Visit But You Wouldn’t Want To Live There… HIGH RISE and KONG: SKULL ISLAND Reviewed

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From the days before The Guardian embraced Neoliberalism, Austerity… and all that cal.

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Hairy palms… the first sign of insanity… or was it wanking?

The House Of Freudstein is a wonderful but sometimes strange and frightening place. There is no rule book. There was one, but it’s currently being used to prop up the short leg on The Doc’s operating table, so you’ll have to have it out with him if you want to read it. In the absence of the rule book, the standard operating procedure that’s evolved around here is to write about low-budget horror, schlock and sleaze. Yet here I find myself, on Good Friday 2017, about to pen reviews of two Tom Hiddleston films… strange and frightening indeed.

1 ) Get Off Of My Cloud… HIGH RISE Reviewed

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DVD. Region 2. STUDIOCANAL. 15

It’s become a cliché of lazy film critique (one on which I’ve frequently fallen back myself) to describe the works of Poe and Lovecraft as “unfilmable.” Plenty of film makers have had a go and some have done rather well, invariably by injecting new plot elements into the tenebrous sketches of EAP and HPL. The ’60s / ’70s countercultural holy trinity of Ballard, Burroughs and Dick have fared demonstrably worse at the hands of screen adaptors… well, PKD’s done OK, with major plot additions making not one but two lucrative Total Recalls (Kate Beckinsale’s in one of them… more on this attractive guitar-sucking actress later) out of We Can Remember It For You Wholesale and a cocktail of additions and surgical extractions transforming Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep into the all-conquering (apart from at the box office) Blade Runner. As for Ballard and Burroughs, two words are sufficient to convey what fucked-up film fodder their fiction can become… and those words are “Cronenberg” and “David”, though not necessarily in that order.

There are friends and peers who roll their eyes and wiggle their fingers around their temples whenever I have the temerity to question anything Cronenbergian, but guys… when DC’s Naked Lunch was released, in 1991, I had already spent the best part of two decades enthralled and repelled by the Burroughs novel and its immediate “sequels.” With their deployment of “cut up” and “fold in” techniques, these incendiary works were designed to advance the novel’s narrative techniques to the level of cinema so arguably the very act of adapting them to the screen was a salutary lesson in defeating the object of the exercise… but if there was any way to translate work of such challenging complexity to the visual medium, the spectacle of Roy Scheider ripping a Mission Impossible mask off to reveal that he is (da da!) Doctor Benway sure wasn’t it.  As for “Sexual ambivalence? I thought you said sexual ambulance”?… give me a fucking break! I concede that Cronenberg had the humility to dub this mess “Naked Lunch” rather than The Naked Lunch but then again, this is a film that has rather a lot to be humble about. Nor was I significantly more impressed by Cronenberg’s adaptation of Crash (1966), despite my innate predisposition to favour anything so despised by the Dailys Mail and Express. Once could even argue that Cronenberg’s feature debut Shivers (1975) was the closest he (or anyone) ever came to the literary spirit of Ballard and, by dint weird of weird synchronicity, High Rise was originally published in the same year. Must have been something in the air, or possibly the air conditioning… whatever, each provided a prescient taste of unpleasant things to come. The very next year Harold Wilson resigned under never-quite-explained circumstances and Callaghan and Healey (not, as is commonly misremembered, Thatcher) signed the UK up to the great neo-liberal experiment that is still sucking most of us dry today.

Fortunately there’s no longer any need to make that argument (the one I mentioned towards the end of the previous paragraph, bozo! Pay fucking attention, alright?) as Ben Wheately (A Field In England, Sightseers, Free Fire, et al) has directed High Rise (2015.) If Danny Boyle was the ideal man to stage the London Olympics’ opening ceremony (or was it the closing ceremony? Couldn’t bring myself to watch any of that stuff) then Wheatley’s the guy to orchestrate TV coverage of The Apocalypse. And while we’re all waiting for that…

Tom Hiddleston, who looks a bit like that kid out of Home Alone on steroids, plays Robert Laing (I was waiting in vain for characters named Janov and Szasz.) By day he teaches physiology in a hospital. Slicing into the scalp of some dead dude to peel his face off and reveal the skull beneath is as good as any a precis of the dionysian / dystopian dehumanisation that is to follow… more importantly, the fact that it causes one of Laing’s wise cracking students to faint is a gratifying (as far as I’m concerned, anyway) nod to the greatest TV program of all time…

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… Quincy M.E.

When he gets back to his swishy apartment in the eponymous High Rise, Laing’s just looking to be alone, but gets inexorably drawn into the complexly nuanced social nexus of his ultra-class conscious co-High Rise dwellers. Shit like this happens. I know, I’ve experienced it during the regrettable periods when I’ve been obliged to take day jobs. Thankfully, none of those degenerated into the “eating dogs and throwing people off roofs” scenario depicted here. Nor, rather regrettably, did they evolve into the kind of sordid sex orgies that seem to break out in High Rise at the first suggestion that the lifts aren’t working properly or the supermarket is out of sugar puffs.

As the High Rise goes to hell in a hand cart beneath him, its designer Anthony Lord (Jeremy Irons) squats atop it in the swishest apartment of them all (complete with rooftop recreation of an ancien regime garden), rather like Dr Eldon Tyrell in the Tyrell Corporation pyramid in Blade Runner. Rather like Roy Batty in Blade Runner, Wilder (Luke Evans) wants some face-to-face time with the man at the top… he wants more swimming pool privileges for his kids, fucker! James Purefoy (as Pangbourne) portrays the kind of psychotic smoothie he’s been specialising in since his Mark Anthony in that splattery mini-series Rome… he’s getting very good at it, too. If they ever decide to remake The Professionals, I’m hoping he gets the call for Bodie. I’ve always had problems telling the Siennas Miller and Guillory apart. Wheatley casts both of them here (I think they’re having a lesbian affair or something) to clear up… or possibly intensify any such confusion.

So often in the past I’ve expressed myself bewildered, exasperated and / or infuriated by the decisions of the BBFC but on this occasion I’m coming at it from an unaccustomed angle. I’m genuinely surprised that our pals at Soho Square deem the litany of atrocities trotted out in High Rise worthy of a ’15’ certificate. I remember an earnest young man who wrote a book in which he railed against the hypocrisy of the “video nasties” witch hunt, who would no doubt roll his eyes and wiggle his finger around his temple at my concern over the prospect of my daughter being exposed to Wheatley’s film. It’s a moot point anyway, as High Rise ticks precisely none of the boxes that might have tempted her to watch it… it’s not Japanese, it’s not animated and there are precisely no sensitive gay characters discussing their emotional problems in it.

Cast interviews in the bonus material give you the chance to decide which of the participants are playing ninnies and which of them are actually just ninnies. Hiddlestone sounds quite intelligent and thoughtful until asked what his dream, Anthony Lord designed apartment would look like and specifies that there would have to be a gym in it… bloody ninny! Sienna Miller, who seems to have made a career (at least if the things I’ve seen her in are anything to go by) playing underfed crumpet has never actually appealed to me but in these interviews she not only sounds a lot more intelligent than you’d give her credit for, but also looks absolutely incandescent… better than she does in the actual feature. It’s as though she’s taken the high rise elevator out of pleasant-looking Elizabeth Hurley mid-table mediocrity into the upper echelons where the grateful carpets are trod by the Kate Beckinsales of this world.

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Kate Beckinsale. Treading on a capet. Yesterday.

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Kate Beckinsale. Treading on a carpet. Sucking on a guitar. The day before yesterday.

 

Who shot these bonus interviews? Maybe Miller should put him / her on a permanent retainer. I’d definitely do so, were I not a penniless blogger.

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Just about the only mishap that doesn’t befall the residents of The High Rise (or at least, the only one it would be tasteful to make wise cracks about) is to encounter a giant gorilla climbing to the top of it. Hiddleston dons a vest and cargo pants to cross off this particular entry on his bucket list in…

2) Too Much Monkey Business… KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017) Reviewed

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Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.
Produced by Alex Garcia, John Jashni, Mary Parent, Thomas Tull, et al.
Written by John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connelly

Edited by Richard Parent.

Cinematography by Larry Fong.
Music by Henry Jackman.
Special FX by Chris Brenczewski and shedloads of others…

Starring: Tom Hiddlestone, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C, Reilly, John Goodman, Houston Brooks.

You wouldn’t want to live in Mansfield and it’s not even a particularly nice place to visit, nevertheless that’s where our Meerkat Movie vouchers have brought the Freudstein family on an expedition to check out Kong: Skull Island. The Odeon has dispensed with its ticket office since we were last here, you’ve got to print out your tickets on some infernal self-service device. Presumably this was intended to cut down the staff wage bill but there still seem to be countless callow youths standing around awkwardly in their cute uniforms, resolutely refusing eye contact in case – heaven forefend – they might be called upon to help you with something.

During the endless trailer reel we suffer Jason Statham running the gamut of emotion from A to B in a trailer for The Fast And The Fatuous Part 38 or whatever it is. “That looks shit!”, opines Freudette to her Mum… Christ on a fucking bike, wherever does she pick up language like that?

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Rather like our previous foray into mainstream cinema, Doctor Strange, which I reviewed elsewhere on this site (not that any of you fuckers bothered to read it!), Kong: Skull Island has had so much money chucked at it, there’s no way it wasn’t going to be entertaining, albeit in a stupid ass, knuckle-headed kind of way. There’s a prologue, during which we witness a Japanese and an American airman, who’ve just shot each other out of the sky in a WWII dogfight, about to conclude their death match when they’re interrupted by you-know-who raising his ugly, hairy head. Cut to the early 70s, where Tricky Dicky has just announced “peace with honour” in Vietnam and Lieutenant Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) feels that he and his grunts have been sold out. They don’t need much convincing to sign up to a geological study on Skull Island, under the direction of Professor Bill Randa (John Goodman), whose motivations aren’t exactly as stated. Nobody seems suspicious about a geological survey on a permanently storm surrounded rock (glorifying in the name of Skull Island) that requires a heavy-duty military attachment… not hunky James Conrad (Hiddleston, who would have done better to stay in the chic opium den where they found him), nor busty war reporter Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), whose along for the ride as Kong candy because Fay Wray is no longer available. Joseph Conrad is no longer available either, but because he penned Heart Of Darkness, from which this film, Apocalypse Now and many others have pinched so much, they thought they’d name a character after him. Kind of. Alongside the uncredited input of original Kong writers Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper, you’ll easily spot elements of Moby Dick, Lord Of The Flies and Treasure Island just for starters. I did and I wasn’t really paying attention.

Anyway, Packard’s chopper squad fearlessly navigate their way through those perpetual storms but before you can whistle Ride Of The Valkyrie, the hundred foot ape turns up and starts swatting them out of the sky like Dinky toys. Conrad, who’s a pretty touchy-feely guy for the kind of black ops specialist he’s vaguely suggested to be, argues that KK was only defending his territory but Packard has conceived a mortal grudge against that monkey, unconvinced by the argument that his removal will lead to the island being overrun by H.R. Giger rejects from the centre of the Earth. In other words, Kong’s a big ugly monster bastard but he’s our big ugly monster bastard. The allegory of recent US foreign policy isn’t too difficult to discern and there are a few throwaway gags at Trump’s expense, but we’re mostly here to gawp at big beasties fighting each other rather than critique current geopolitical trends and it has to be said that the CGI creations are impressive, if lacking the charm of Harryhausen and O’Brien’s stop motion masterworks. I would have preferred to see KK slugging it out with some authentic looking dinosaurs than those Gigeresque jobbies, but what do I know?

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The soundtrack is nicely peppered with 70s rock classics and the Ben Gunn character gets to go home and enjoy the ballgame with a beer and a hotdog, not to mention his miraculously well-preserved wife. Conrad’s viewpoint vindicated, Kong is left lording it over Skull Island and multiple sequels are already in the works.

Sorry to get all prissy about ratings again, but Mrs F felt rather forcefully (and I’m inclined to agree with her) that this was pretty violent stuff for “12A.” Thankfully, Freudette doesn’t seem to have incurred any significant mental scars on account of it. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of my Mum taking me to see One Million Years B.C. when it came out in 1966 and now I’ve taken our kid to see a monster movie, it feels like the circle of life is being completed. Or something. At the time I was more enthused by the dinosaurs than the spectacle of  Raquel Welch in her fur bikini…

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… I dig the dinosaurs in that movie to this day, though my priorities did shift somewhat with the onset of puberty. What about Freudette… did she find the Hiddleston hot? (Dunno if I’ve mentioned this already, but I find him a bit of a ninny) Only, she tells me, in so far as she could imagine him in a passionate clinch with Benedict Cumberbatch. Apparently there’s a whole wing of the internet that’s obsessed with the possibility of such a romantic coupling. Perhaps that makes more sense to you than it does to me. Parenthood, like life at The House Of Freudstein, is a wonderful, sometimes strange and frightening thing.

The main feeling I was left with after consuming Kong: Skull Island was a desire to root out some of those batshit crazy Japanese Kong movies and review them on this site. So I’ll be doing precisely that, shortly.

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Hampstead Smiles On A Murderer… My Breakfast With JOE D’AMATO

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The incredible Joe D’Amato with his business partner, Donatella Donati.

This account of a “most unusual dining adventure” (to paraphrase Faces Of Death) was originally filed in the aftermath of Eurofest ’95, held in Hampstead on 7th October that year. Thanks are due to the organisers. Both of them.

Aristide Massaccesi, Michael Wotruba, Tom Salina, John Bird, Michael Holloway, Alexandre Borsky, Hugo Clevers, Pierre Bernard, Peter Newton, Federico Slonisco, Richard Franks, David Hills, O. J Clarke, Jim Black, Dirk Frey, Philippe Fromont, John Newman, Robert Hall, Steve Benson, Kent Bruno, Kevin Mancuso, Peter Mancuso, John Larson, Alex Carver, Dario Donati, James Burke, Joan Russell, Jeiro Alvarez, Robert Yip, Hsu Hsien, Boy Tan Bien, Young Sean-Bean Lui, Chang Lee Sun, and most (in)famously, Joe D’Amato (Jeez, I’ve nearly used up my entire word allocation already!): many names, all of which (and more) can be linked to one face. It’s a grizzly, tanned visage, trimmed with silver stubble. The nose is Roman, the eyes are lively, and the mouth is flashing a smile that reminds me of that shark in “Mac The Knife” as its owner emerges from the lift into the lobby of his Knightsbridge hotel to clasp my hand in one of his own disproportionately large mitts and wish me “Buongiorno”. This is the Sunday morning after the busy Saturday before (D’Amato has spent the previous day lapping up the adulation of Britain’s gore-hounds and sexual deviates at the stonkingly successful Eurofest ‘95 in Hampstead; yesterday evening he was wined and dined at a bash held in his (and fellow star-guest Catriona MacColl’s) honour; and his companion, Donatella Donati, has spent the weekend shopping ‘til she dropped). Now, over our breakfast, we’re going to discuss the films that have made many people lose theirs. Eyebrows have already been raised at the spectacle of Joe on his hands and knees, unfolding and signing several of my quads from his Black Emanuelle series, but for the repectable diners of Knightsbridge far, far worse is to come…

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Indeed, my opening gambit concerning the impact of AIDS on the hard-core porn scene having caused much choking on kippers and rustling of Daily Telegraphs among our genteel fellow fast-breakers, I opt to follow up by enquiring about a somewhat less contentious aspect of the D’Amato oeuvre, his stint as camera operator for Jean-Luc Godard. “I worked on Godard’s Le Mepris,  an adaptation of a book by Alberto Moravia”, he recalls: “Godard is  really a genius, no doubt about it”. He’s certainly regarded as a “worthy”, Art-house director, whereas D’Amato’s own approach has always been ruthlessly commercial. “Yeah, that’s true…”, he concedes: “… myself, I have absolutely no interest in being an artist”.

This candid self-assessment has been borne out by D’Amato’s recent return to hard-core porn, cranking out an unlikely series depicting the sex lives of such historical, legendary and fictitious figures as Aladdin, Tarzan, Hamlet, Marco Polo and Al Capone (you get the impression that he’s waiting for Mother Theresa to pop her saintly clogs and pass into history, so he can begin detailing her covert participation in anal sex orgies). “We don’t have much of a film industry in Italy these days, unfortunately”, he explains: “So it’s purely a business decision to go back to hard-core. The market for these films is very big in The United States  and all over Europe… apart from Britain, of course! (laughs) Everywhere else in Europe, people are terribly interested in these movies”. I assure him that we Britons are equally fascinated by the hitherto-undisclosed raunchy antics of these esteemed personages, but the powers that be over here take an unenlightened view of such things.

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D’Amato’s prolific, commercially driven career has frequently led to him being compared with two directors in particular – Jesus Franco and Roger Corman. How does he feel about these comparisons? “It’s OK, I don’t mind these comparisons at all”, he reveals: “I like Jess Franco, he’s just like me in many ways. I’ve never met him, but I know his work” (indeed, he supervised the assembly of a Franco anthology culled from De Sade’s Juliette, Midnight Party and Shining Sex for the Italian market). “For sure, Corman is better than the two of us put together”, he admits. Corman, of course, is famed for his knack of knocking up a film out of nothing in a couple of days, and D’Amato once made the fascinating remark that he doesn’t set much store by a lot of pre-production, feeling that this “flying by the seat of your pants” approach sharpens his spontaneity and creativity. “Yeah, yeah, this is true. If you have everything organised, then you are obliged to shoot that way, but when I come to a place and nothing is ready, I use my fantasy to come up with something and for me this is better, gives more feeling”. Isn’t it risky, though? “Usually we have everything that we need, but I’ve had so much experience I can usually resolve any problem that arises”.

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D’Amato actually made a film for Corman, La Rivolta Delle Gladiatrici aka The Arena, in 1973. “The film is credited to Steve Carver, but was just a supervisor, sent over by Roger Corman. I directed the picture, then it was sent over to The States and edited by Joe Dante”.  His involvement in muscle-man pictures goes much further back than that, though, featuring as he does in certain filmographies as a contributor to Mario Bava’s 1961 Gothic Peplum Hercules In The Centre Of The Earth. Understandably, given the sheer volume of films he’s worked on over the years, D’Amato isn’t sure: “We made so many pictures in that period, about ‘Ercole’, you know, mythological films… Peplums, yeah, and for sure I remember that I worked with Bava, but I can’t remember if it was on that movie. Eugenio, the father of Mario Bava, had a small company that made the credit sequences for the movies and I worked with him, maybe an 85 year-old man then, but I learned so much from him, then later I worked my way though the various jobs, loading the film, and so on until I became a director myself. At one time I was assistant cameraman to the younger Bava, Mario. Mario was… perhaps not a genius, but like his father, a man who knew absolutely everything there was to know about making a movie… he was a craftsman… and in the same way, I’ve worked my way up through all the steps in the industry, and now I can do any job it takes to make a film”.

Again like Mario Bava, D’Amato progressed from cinematography to directing, and another parallel is that their directorial careers both had obscure beginnings, because each in their early days directed several pictures that were credited to other people. In D’Amato’s case, as is usual, there was a sound commercial reason for this: “At the same time as I started directing, I was still working as a Director of Photography, and I wanted to keep that work up, because it was my bread and butter. But a director like, let’s say Alberto De Martino… ” (for whom D’Amato shot The Tempter, The Killer Is On The Phone, The New Mafia Boss, etc) “… would not be happy to have another director working on his film, you know?” This, of course, was the origin of our Joe’s pseudonym addiction…

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“When I first started directing I made three movies, and the credit was going to ‘Dick Spitfire’ or whoever, because I wanted to keep cinematography as my main job, then Death Smiles On A Murderer came out under my real name, Aristide Massaccesi, because I had decided at that point that I wanted to pursue this career in directing. Then there was a period in Italy where East European directors were in vogue, so I called myself ‘Michael Wotruba’ for a while (laughs), purely as a marketing move. Later it seemed that all the successful American directors – Scorsese, Coppola, De Palma – so we tried to find a name that would make people think of an Italian-American director, and we saw the name ‘D’Amato’ on a sexy calendar, so that was it. It was the same thing recently when I made Chinese Kama Sutra, because in Italy movies like The Red Lantern were making a fortune. So I made this movie in the Philippines in 1993, I took a Chinese name, (Chang Lee Sun) and nobody knew that it was me, and when newspapers reviewed the film they said it was OK, ‘too hard’, perhaps, but they warned their readers that the movie wasn’t really Chinese… they said it was Japanese!” D’Amato is particularly tickled by this anecdote, his laughter segueing into an attack of smoker’s cough (the dapperly dressed director is seldom seen without a fag seemingly surgically attached to his lower lip). Presumably just to see how far he could take this gag, Coughin’ Joe credited the same year’s Sex And Chinese Food to Young Sean-Bean Lui (!)

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The first film which our hero owned up to, the aforementioned Death Smiles On A Murderer (1973), was confusingly plotted and more visually stylised than would often later be the case (“I was trying to evoke a certain atmosphere in that film”). It starred the late, great Klaus Kinski, an actor with a reputation for being difficult, but D’Amato disagrees: “For sure he was crazy and yes, not very normal, but he was very professional and would do exactly what you wanted him to do, so to work with him was in fact very nice. We had a good feeling when we worked, it was fantastic for me, though I know some people had a problem with him, because he was crazy…”

Still on the subject of “not very normal” folk, D’Amato shot second unit footage on Lucio Fulci’s White Fang (1973) and some eighteen years later would produce the great goremeister’s Door To Silence. “We also worked together many times over the years, when I was a cameraman…”, D’Amato remembers: “Fulci is nice, really very nice. Maybe he acts the part of ‘the character’ a little, but it is just a part he plays, he’s not really mad, you know… he’s a regular man, and very professional to work with”. D’Amato concedes that Fulci wasn’t too pleased over the alterations he had made to the film and its soundtrack. “Maybe it’s my fault. You saw the movie… when I read the story I liked it very, very much but when I watched the results it seemed a little static to me, so I went back to Louisiana where it was made and tried to shoot a small amount of stuff, just some bullshit that would make the film a little more pacey, you know. I changed the first soundtrack… we spent a fortune on the soundtrack because we used the best jazz band in Italy, but jazz is not to everybody’s taste, so I changed the first part of the music to something a bit more modern”. Fulci was also peeved that the film went out credited to H. Simon Kittay, and one might have thought that his name already had sufficient cult following to sell a film without the benefit of a pseudonym, but D’Amato insists: “Just before this, Fulci had made a couple of shit movies which didn’t do too well in foreign territories, so we thought it was better to use the other name from a sales point of view, you know?”

“Umberto Lenzi is also very professional, another nice guy” opines D’Amato, who produced Lenzi’s Ghosthouse and Hitcher In The Dark. Donatella, who has just joined us at the table, pulls a face that indicates a marked difference of opinion on this score. “Well, Fulci’s mind is much better than Lenzi’s… ” her companion continues: “… though as directors, they’re pretty much as good as each other”.

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One long-time collaboration which D’Amato remains unreservedly enthusiastic about is the one he’s enjoyed with Laura Gemser, the striking Eurasian actress who occupies pole position in his pantheon of sex / horror cross-over stars. Indeed, he’s keen to churn out another batch of Gemser bonk-fests, “… but the man who is now her lover doesn’t like her doing sex scenes. As a favour to me she has appeared  in several small roles in my recent films, because we are good friends, but she doesn’t really want to be an actress anymore”.

I ask him about the history of their association, and he tells me: “Laura made the first Black Emanuelle film with Adalberto Albertini, and the producers of that movie wanted to put her under contract to make ten movies. They were looking for a young director to do the movies, so I went to Holland, where she lived, to make this contract with her. We had this good feeling because she was very friendly, so we began the collaboration. The first movie I made with her was Andrea’s Complex (aka Voto Di Castita – BF), with Jacques Dufilho and a lot of Italian actors, a story about a guy who likes to watch people having sex, which is something that often happens in my movies (laughs). Then I made Laura’s second ‘Black Emanuelle’ movie – we made five of those, altogether”.

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I put it to D’Amato that his Emanuelle And The Last Cannibals (1977) in many ways anticipates Ruggero Deodato’s more celebrated / vilified Cannibal Holocaust from a few years later, and he shrugs a modest assent. D’Amato, like Deodato, has been dogged through the years by stupid rumours about real cannibalism, “snuff movies” and the like, but whereas Deodato has only suffered this shit on account of Cannibal Holocaust, several D’Amato pictures have been scrutinised under the moral microscopes of morons. Blue Holocaust (aka Beyond The Darkness), 1979’s heart-warming, heart-munching saga of a necrophile taxidermist, attracted accusations that a human cadaver had been mutilated in one of its scenes; the South American “snuff” loops unearthed by Gemser’s investigative reporter during Emanuelle In America looked a little too realistic for comfort to some people; and the unforgettable scene from Anthropophagous Beast, in which Luigi Montefiori aka George Eastman scoffs down a skinned rabbit, masquerading unconvincingly as a newly-aborted foetus, has even been screened on News At Ten as “a clip from a snuff movie”!

“Mad, absolutely mad!” declares an understandably peeved D’Amato “Because it was just a rabbit, you know – from the butcher’s shop! And Blue Holocaust was only a movie – we had cow intestines next to the girl, and we shot from an angle that made it look as though they were being pulled out of her body… so no dead body! It’s so funny that people in other countries believe we Italians are really killing people and putting their corpses in our films!” (laughs)

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“As for Emanuelle In America, we shot the ‘snuff’ scenes in 35mm, later we scratched the negative and printed it in 8mm, then blew it up again to make it look realistic… just bullshit, it’s only a movie, you know? I don’t why people would think this stuff is real”. Did he know that David Cronenberg was allegedly inspired to make Videodrome after seeing Emanuelle In America? “Yeah, I heard that…” laughs D’Amato: “Maybe I should ask Cronenberg for some money!”(Laughs) Sorry Joe, I don’t think Videodrome actually made any money…

In the piece I wrote for Dark Side #42 about the many mysteries associated with Giannetto De Rossi, one of the enigmas I pondered (and offered some cynical explanations for) was the fact that this special FX ace appears on the credits of Emanuelle In America only as boom operator, but D’Amato offers a perfectly prosaic explanation for this rum turn of events: “De Rossi certainly did the effects… there must have been a mistake, a mis-translation in the credits of the English-language version”.

Returning to Montefiori’s raw rabbit repast… how did he feel about eating that and all those animal guts at the end of Anthropophagous? Didn’t he ever say “Oh no, Aristide, I can’t do it!”? “Montefiori just takes a bite…”, laughs his mentor: “… he doesn’t eat it really. When he was supposed to be eating the intestines of that cow, he just ran his mouth over it, that’s all!” (laughs)

Most people just see Montefiori as a big, brooding heavy (“Yeah, just put him in a mask and he’s the monster”) but he acts, writes, directs… so he must be a pretty bright guy, no? “No!” guffaws D’Amato, finding this suggestion particularly hysterical. “No, he’s not very intelligent, believe me!” “He’s a good writer” chips in the horrified Donatella, diplomatically.

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“Montefiori has made many movies with me”, D’Amato continues. “He’s a good guy to work with. I produced his directing debut Regenerator, a nice film. He was supposed to direct 2020 Texas Gladiators, but after five days he lost confidence and I stepped in to finish the movie. He wrote a very good script for another film I made about people after the atom war, Endgame and it’s a nice story, with the duel between these two people”.

I put it to D’Amato that Endgame  is one of the best movies in a pretty dire genre, the Italian post-apocalypse cycle, and point out that it and another entry in that cycle, Lucio Fulci’s Rome 2030: Fighter Centurions, were shamelessly ripped off by Paul-Michael Glaser’s big-budget Arnie vehicle, The Running Man. “Sure, I know what you mean”, he replies: “It could be, because I made a movie called Sharks – Deep Blood in The States with Raf Donati, a friend of mine who worked in Martin Scorsese’s archives. He told me that Scorsese has a big library of Italian movies and that sometimes when Scorsese shoots a movie, he calls Raf and asks for something by Vittorio Cottofavi, Riccardo Freda, or Mario Bava, because he wants to screen these movies before he makes his, he wants to achieve the same shot or lighting effect or something as in one of these movies”.

I’m not sure if Martin Scorsese has ever cribbed any plot-points from a Montefiori script, but further evidence for Donatella’s high estimate of the big lug’s writing prowess is provided by the bang-up job he did on the script of Stagefright, providing a solid platform from which Michele Soavi could launch his impressive feature directing debut.

Was D’Amato aware, from Soavi’s days as a bit-part player and assistant in his own films, that this protégé would go on to make it as a respected genre director in his own right? “Sure, and it was me who actually persuaded him that I should produce Stagefright for him rather than the other way… Michele had worked as my assistant on many movies. Before that he was an actor, he was obsessed with being the new James Dean, had his haircut like James Dean and everything (laughs). I gave him his first opportunity to shot some scenes, on 2020 Texas Gladiators, and now for me, he is the best Italian director of these movies, better even than Argento and Fulci, who I would put in third place. He likes to do horror movies more than any other type, but mainly he just wants to make movies. This is very important because some people in Italy just want to be a director, I mean they want to sit there giving orders and looking important, but Michele truly loves movies, he works very hard, he will do anything… he’s just fantastic! Dellamorte Dellamore is a very good movie, and yes, I would love to work with Michele again. It might happen in the future”.

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Although, with Stagefright, D’Amato produced what is arguably the last great giallo, he has never directed a thriller of this type himself. “This is just because I never found a script that was really good” he explains, before elaborating: “ Maybe it’s a little complicated to do such a movie, with a low budget it’s much easier to do some gore effects. To make suspense you need time, you need to think, you need to do many shots and it’s much easier to make impact in a horror movie with blood. In Rome right now we have people very interested to do a classic horror move, not like Nightmare On Elm Street with all these expensive effects, but with the monsters, and I called Montefiori about making another movie, like Anthropophagous or something like this, where the scares would come totally from the dark, the creaking of the door, the use of sound to scare the audience, because I really believe the time is right for this kind of movie”.

A glimmer of optimism there that the current poor state of genre film-making in Italy might be about to pick up? “I don’t believe there is any future, unfortunately”, he demures:  “because now there is just Berlusconi and Cecchi Gori who own all the theatres, and it’s cheaper for them to buy a movie from the United States, any bullshit, really American bad movie, than to produce an Italian one, you can put them in the theatres and then show them on TV for $50,000 – $100,000.” I mention that English fans of Italian exploitation films find it hard to understand how there were so many being made in the ‘80s, and now – nothing! “Yeah, I know!” sighs D’Amato, and the interview winds down on an appropriately down-beat note.

As he signs some bits and pieces for me, we chat about this and that, including the fact that William Berger’s children featured in the cast of Absurd. D’Amato tells me that he worked as DP on many of the late star’s films, and regards him as “a fantastic actor and a very nice person”. “Didn’t Berger live in a hippy commune at one point?”, I ask. “I can’t believe that… he seemed like a really normal person!” frowns D’Amato, momentarily looking for all the world like a scandalised bourgeois… then he’s off, no doubt meditating his latest historical hard-core thrash. Hey Joe, didn’t Prince Albert have a pierced cock? Gotta be some possibilities there… and I did hear that Florence Nightingale was a bit of a goer!

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One of the calmer moments from Joe’s notorious Blue Holocaust…

 

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When Two Tribes Go To War… Calum Waddell’s CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST Tome Reviewed

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Cannibal Holocaust by Calum Waddell: Auteur. ISBN paperback: 978-1-911325-11-6 ISBN ebook: 978-1-911325-12-3

When I interviewed Ruggero Deodato in the ’90s I mentioned the obvious (to me) affinities between his 1980 films Cannibal Holocaust and House On The Edge Of The Park, only for him to pointedly dismiss any such parallels. Well, I persisted, both films deal with a group of feral outsiders who are ultimately revealed to be less morally culpable than the “civilised” sophisticates whom they encounter… but the director was having none of it. Although both films had been lumbered with the moronic “video nasties” label in the philistine climate of early ’80s Britain, by the time I spoke to Deodato the reputation of his little anthropophagous epic had made the transition from international pariah to postmodern phenom worthy of serious critical – and even academic – attention. House On The Edge, in the meantime, has undergone no such re-evaluation (and admittedly, it’s nowhere near as good a film)… it remains, in the eyes of the world, an irredeemably tacky little knock off of a Wes Craven knockoff (I personally find much to “like” in HOTEOTP but this isn’t the place to go into that) and Deodato didn’t want anybody besmirching his suddenly respectable cause celebre with any comparisons to it. Have it your way, Ruggero…

From my earliest scribblings in Samhain, during the aforementioned video witch hunt, I was agitating for (and I hopefully contributed towards) a criticism that would fuse fannish enthusiasm for such genre films with an intelligent, analytical approach. Subsequently (blame me if you want to… I’ve frequently had the impression that I’m being shot by both sides) there have been comings together of the zine scenesters and the ISBN-totin’ academics, who’ve generally snarled at each other before withdrawing to their respective corners. One gathers there was a particularly mean-spirited poker game at one point but, as yet, nobody’s managed to find the found footage that documents this…

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Calum Waddell is not (and this won’t come as news to him) everybody’s cup of tea or bowl of monkey brain mush. He notably declared himself horrified by Cannibal Holocaust. Gore hounds, horrified by the fact that he was horrified by it, then alleged hypocrisy when he continued to write (very well) about it in genre publications and get paid (nothing like as well, believe me!) to do so, interviewed and befriended several of its principal creators, toured the festival circuit with them and collaborated on the film’s Blu-ray release in The States. But come on, guys… isn’t anyone who’s fascinated by this most notorious “video nasty” also appalled and repelled by it? Isn’t that the very essence of its ongoing “appeal”? Cannibal Holocaust isn’t Marmite (even if one of its most persistent chroniclers seemingly is.) Waddell’s proven track record of willingness to take a wider view, plus his extensive connection with the film’s creators (Carl Yorke – the hateful Yates himself – contributes a thoughtful and witty foreword) guarantee that anyone who picks up this latest entry in Auteur’s (Columbia University Press in the U.S. of A) ongoing Devil’s Advocates  series will find a lot to, er, get their teeth into… much food for thought in, e.g. his survey of which Italian cannibal movies got distributed in which Third World territories, from which you can draw your own conclusions.

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The author gives cursory treatment to Cannibal Holocaust’s seminal role in the aforementioned “nasties” hoo-hah and its roots in the “mondo” school of shockumentary, satisfied that enough has been written on both of these scores, elsewhere (not infrequently by myself.) My own particular interest in these films has always been the extent to which they represent a range of domestic reactions to the failure of Mussolini’s abortive (and ultimately absurd) attempt to refound some sort of Roman Empire. Waddell casts his net wider, framing his (persuasive) arguments in the wider context of The Cold War, which still had a decade or so to run when Deodato took his band of cinematic conquistadores up the Amazon. The proximate inspiration was no doubt Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), though Cannibal Holocaust makes a starker statement about the impact of imperialism on the bodies of “gooks” and “savages” than FFC’s bloated folly, with its relentless focus on the mindset of its American characters, could ever hope to achieve… if, indeed, it was ever interested in doing so. When Alan, Jack, Faye and Mark massacre the yanomami in their huts for the purposes of their tacky little mondo movie it is, as Waddell points out, the spectre of My Lai that haunts our screens…

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“A clump“?

… Cannibal Holocaust could as easily be read as an allegory of the 16th Century European (specifically Latin) conquest of South America and a much more finely nuanced one than, for example, Neil Young’s celebrated Cortes The Killer, which combines musical fireworks with a portrayal of life under Moctezuma and his warrior priests so naively sanitized as to amount to inverted racism. Trust Bernal Diaz, who was actually there with Cortes and whose account, in The Conquest Of New Spain, of brutal life and death in the Aztec empire is all the more trustworthy because he pulls absolutely no punches at all about what a bastard (and indeed a killer) his master was.

Similarly, it’s a moot point (and one made eloquently in the final section proper of Waddell’s book, “Patriarchy In Cannibal Holocaust”) whether the indigenous women here (not to mention Faye) suffer more at the hands of the mondo crew, casual rapists and killers as they are, or their own jealous menfolk, casual abortionists and honour killers that they are.

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Hip as he is to such moral relativism and the irony of an exploitation movie that’s exploiting its own expose of exploitation movies to put bums on cinema seats, Waddell can’t help but multiply rather than resolve the ethical ambiguities of Cannibal Holocaust… as would any self-respecting discussion of Deodato’s film, which remains a hall of distorting mirrors in which the moral high ground is impossible to locate, let alone claim. Nevertheless, those seeking a guide through the arterial byways of Deodato’s Heart Of Darkness (perhaps towards a verdict that will be – to paraphrase a line in another notorious “nasty” – one of self-incrimination) will wait in vain for a better one than this.

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People Get Ready… TRAIN TO BUSAN Reviewed

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DVD. R2. StudioCanal. 15.

Just had your top ten favourite zombie movies engraved in stone? Better get your chisel out! Just had ’em tattooed on your back? It’s back to the clinic and a spot of laser treatment for you, then…

During the noughties, when I was writing a regular DVD review column for Dark Side magazine, I was required to spend a lot of time watching J-Horror… K-Horror… all things contemporary Far Eastern had become very popular. Not with me, I have to say. It’s not that these films are badly made or anything (Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “much anticipated” Creepy struck me as a very slick piece of work when I caught it at last year’s Mayhem Festival in Nottingham, even as it was lulling me off to sleep)… and invariably they piss all over their inevitable, blanded-out Hollywood remakes… it’s just that doomed alt.schoolgirls with sinister stuff coming out of their TV sets don’t particularly do anything for me. Something, though, must have seeped out of my own TV and infiltrated my seminal vesicles at a crucial moment, as young Freudette is just bonkers about this stuff.

Writer / director Sang-ho Yeon’s achievement is to expand K-Horror beyond its accustomed claustrophobic chamber horror confines and into the best episode of the Demons franchise that Dario Argento never produced, in which – after a toxic spill from a biotech installation has reduced much of South Korea’s population to hyperactive flesh-eating ghouls – a trainload of Seoul commuters attempt to make it to the government hold out at Busan.

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No, Mr Yeon (or mister Sang-ho, depending on which Koreanologist you consult) didn’t exactly  burn the midnight oil coming up with an original scenario but it’s the furious inventiveness with which he concocts new scrapes for his characters to overcome that will keep you riveted for the duration of the ride… that, plus the fact that these characters are so well written and performed, you actually care about what’s going to happen to them. Asian film makers are particularly good at this, of course… I still curse Takashi Miike for establishing Ryo Ishibashi’s character as such a likeable guy in Audition (1999) before unleashing that disturbed girl on him.

Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) is the hard-working salary man who’s been neglecting his cute daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim) and is trying to make amends by taking her to see her mother (who he’s in the process of divorcing) in Busan. When the biotoxic shit hits the fan he forms an unlikely dynamic duo with taciturn, salt-of-the-Earth tough guy Song-hwa (Dong-seok Ma), who has pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Yu-mi Jung) in tow.

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In between fighting off zombies they get in a lot of  angsting over the right things to do in terms of family and your fellow man, in stark contrast to both the feral legion of deadites and Yon-suk  (Eui-sung Kim), the selfish corporate big wig who’s not above using innocent dupes to decoy his attempted escape (if you remember Fernando Sancho’s corrupt mayor in Amando De Ossorio’s Return Of The Evil Dead, 1973, you’ll know what kind of a sleazebag we’re talking about here.)

Train To Busan is that rarest of things, a high-octane, suspenseful action movie with a sense of proportion. It’s a violent zombie film that isn’t particularly gory (the spastic zombies are plenty scary looking and blood flows freely as they get stuck into their prey but there’s none of the expected unfurling intestines) and uses its CGI sparingly, to great effect.

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That a zombie movie could be simultaneously so hard-hitting and so subtle is a revelation… I loved the fact. for instance that the transformation of the protagonist’s mother into a zombie is rendered not by visual pyrotechnics but the coarsening of her conversation during a phone call. As for Seok-woo’s climactic scene of redemption… yes, I wept ( I am, after all, “the biggest fucking cry-baby in fandom”!)

Bonus materials comprise a 15 minute “making of” featurette from which one gleans how  harmonious and hard-working the shoot was (“discipline is a vehicle for joy” in the sagacious words of Robert Fripp) and two tasters (trailer and brief excerpt) from Yeon’s prize-winning animated prequel, Seoul Station.

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Undoubtedly Train To Busan will piss all over the inevitable, blanded-out Hollywood remake that’s allegedly (and sadly) in the works.

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With Apologies To Proudhon… Daria Nicolodi in Elio Petri’s PROPERTY IS NO LONGER A THEFT

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. Arrow Academy. 15.

“What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?” – Bertolt Brecht.

“Money doesn’t smell!” – the emperor Vespasian, dismissing his son Titus’ qualms about a tax on piss collected from public urinals.

Some directors (as we shall shortly see) reacted to Italy’s “years of lead” (the pandemic criminal and political violence of the late ’60s and ’70s) by packing heavily moustached detectives and all manner of ballistic hardware into trench coats and unleashing them on the bad guys, whoever they were perceived to be that week. Elio Petri responded with darkly comic satires of the official corruption that had accompanied Italy’s “economic miracle” and was implicated, in ways not yet fully explained, with the turmoil that followed it. His films from this period (as suggested in the title of the 1973 offering under consideration here) also constitute an arch critique of the contemporary state of class consciousness and the Left’s fitness for purpose. Petri’s cinematic approach to these questions had less to do with the balletic bullet fests of Enzo Castellari than with such theatrical antecedents as Dario Fo’s celebrated Accidental Death Of An Anarchist and – as here – tends to be theatrically lit by Luigi Kuveiler. In Property Is No Longer A Theft he grants Shakespearian soliloquies to his principle cast members…

… and what a cast it is.Flavio Bucci (who made his screen debut in Petri’s 1971 effort The Working Class Goes To Heaven but will probably be more familiar as the blind pianist in Suspiria and one of the two murderous rapists on board Aldo Lado’s Late Night Trains) gives a superbly twitchy performance here as Total, a downtrodden bank teller who quits his job after developing a fixation on one of the bank’s clients, an affluent butcher identified simply as “The Butcher” (Italian comedy legend Ugo Tognazzi), whose wealth Total reckons (with some justification) to have been amassed via criminal means.

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Total resolves to steal The Butcher’s property, his reputation and his mistress Anita. The latter is played by another HOF Hall-of-Famer,  Daria Nicolodi, who emerges as a revelation when armed with a proper script and strong characterisation to sink her teeth into (and without the cruddy dubbing that have so often disfigured her screen performances.) There’s a gialloesque murder in a lift and a Diabolik gag or two thrown in for good measure as the blackly comic complications multiply, nicely complimented by one of Ennio Morricone’s quirkiest scores (though it’s not as flat-out bonkers as the one he contributed to Petri’s Investigation Of A Citizen Under Suspicion, 1970.)

Limited to the first pressing of this release, you also get an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Camilla Zamboni (upon which I can’t comment because I haven’t seen it.) The other bonus materials comprise interviews with make-up artist Pierantonio Mecacci, a knackered looking Flavio Bucci… who gets quite emotional talking about producer Claudio Mancini…

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… and Mancini himself, who restores the balance with some light-hearted, gossipy reminiscences. He pokes gentle fun at Petri (above) for being what British right-wing rags now call a “champagne socialist” (a charge they routinely level at any Lefty who doesn’t live in a mud hut) and recalls the perils of dealing with Maoist trades unions on location. Intriguingly, for such a cerebral effort, he attributes the box office success of PINLAT to the amount of prurient punters who wanted to see the sex scene in which Nicolodi takes the upper berth, a scene on account of which this film was originally banned (a decision promptly rescinded) by Italian censors. You might well want to check it out, too.

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Immoral Men… Walerian Borowczyk’s THE STORY OF SIN Reviewed

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. Arrow Academy. 18.

I’ve been pondering the possibility of a Walerian Borowczyk Weekender for a while now but Arrow, still mopping up the treasures that didn’t make it onto their epic Camera Obscura box set, have forced my hand with this handsome release of the last feature he completed in Poland, a 1975 adaptation of Stefan Zeromski’s bodice-ripping literary classic, a kind of Slavic answer to Madame Bovary.
The film opens with pious but ironically named small town girl Ewa Probatynska (Grazyna Dlugolecka) being warned in the confessional that sin begins with the imagination and admonished not to look at erotic books or art… nor should she respond to the lustful looks that men might give her in the street. Of course the priest can’t resist checking her out as she leaves, setting the scene for a cautionary tale of one woman’s decline and fall at the hands of a series of variously vain, hypocritical, weak and unreliable, opportunistic and murderous men.

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First she falls, head over heels, for Lukasz Niepolomski (Jerzy Selnik), one of the lodgers that her respectable parents are obliged to take in to keep solvent. In a masterly touch, Borowczyk intercuts their initial flirtation in a park with shots of a little girl getting lost in the undergrowth. Lukasz tries to put Ewa off by telling her that he’s married and having difficulty in obtaining a divorce… but he’s not exactly fighting her off with a pointed stick. When her pulls the first of his signature disappearances she is devastated but word later reaches her that her beau has been wounded in a duel and she unquestioningly heads for the village where he’s recuperating to take a menial job as a seamstress and nurse him back to health. After recovering enough to impregnate her, Lukacs disappears to Rome in pursuit of that divorce. Alone, Ewa undergoes a traumatic delivery and immediately does away with her baby. Count Zygmunt Szczerbic (Olgierd Lukaszewicz), an associate of Lukacz (in fact, the guy who wounded him in that duel) informs Ewa that her lover has been incarcerated in Rome but when they get there he has already been released and disappeared again without notice. The Count (who clearly worships Ewa, though she only has eyes for Lukasz) shepherds her around Europe in a vain search until she learns by chance that Lukasz got his divorce and promptly married a rich woman with whom he has returned to Poland. Hitting rock bottom, Ewa falls in with a bunch of con men and cut throats who string her along with promises that they can reunite her with Lukacz. At their behest she takes the devoted Count to bed and is tricked into killing him so that they can make off with his worldly goods.

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Thereafter they pimp her out to all comers until a social reformer with a kinky interest in criminal women enrolls her in his utopian agricultural community. Her former cohorts lure her away from there with yet another promise that they’ll hook her up with Lukasz. Realising that they plan to rob and kill him too, she sacrifices her life to warn him. At the very moment of death, she finally receives some tenderness, some acknowledgement from the love of her life.

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Often misguidedly dismissed as some kind of sexist monster or “mere” pornographer, Borowczyk does a remarkable job here, telling his story from the point of view of a strong (albeit doomed) female character with whom he clearly identifies… and well he might. The opening clerical admonition about imagination and eroticism having no place in Polish society might well have been aimed at the director himself, who was about to leave his homeland to follow more faithfully the muse that he had begun to indulge in such French productions as Immoral Tales (1973) and its notorious off-shoot, The Beast (1975.) Had he been granted the gift of foresight, Borowczyk might conceivably have enjoyed a wry chuckle at the way his subsequent career curve was perceived to parallel that of Ewa, with the accusation that he was somehow “prostituting” his formidable talent… it didn’t exactly help, admittedly, that he ended up directing the likes of Emmanuelle 5 (1987.)
As a valediction to interdiction, Story Of Sin is an exceptionally strong sign off, built around a powerhouse central performance from Dlugolecka (a very feisty woman indeed, as her bonus interview here attests.) With it, Borowczyk waved goodbye to his reputation as a “serious” film maker but, more importantly for his creative integrity, to not one but two tyrannies. After 1975 he was no longer subject to the strictures of Soviet ideology, although of course the insidious shadow of the Vatican proved harder to shake off.

Is Ewa, in her rejection of society’s mores, experiencing “freedom” when she follows her obsession through degradation into annihilation… or is she just the slave of her ovaries? By the same token, did Borowczyk, in the ongoing pursuit of his erotomania, merely replace the tyranny of The New Testament with that of his own testosterone? Is l’amour fou literally “the drug” (manifested as “solicor” in WB’s Dr Jekyll Et Les Femmes, 1981)? Is this why Borowczyk routinely depicts inanimate objects as having more character than the people who move among them? Frankly, I don’t know but I’m going to have a long, hard think about it…

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Those familiar with Arrow’s previous Borowczyk releases won’t be surprised to learn that this 2K restoration from the original negative looks great (I’ve only seen the DVD but it’s reasonable to suppose that the Blu-ray looks even better) and is jam-packed with edifying bonus materials, over and above the aforementioned, riveting Dlugolecka interview. You also get an introduction to the film by poster designer Andrzej Klimowski plus new restorations of the WB shorts Once Upon a Time, Dom (both of those co-directed with Jan Lenica) and The School, with optional audio commentaries by the ubiquitous Daniel Bird and co. Bird also contributes a witty video essay, a sort of “how to do Borowczyk” guide. Various WB associates and intimates are interviewed and we are further treated to a documentary on Borowczyk documentaries and a very early one that he co-wrote on poster art, which contains the manifesto line: “In our times, objects take centre stage…”

… of course you get a trailer… and reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Klimowski…
… but by far the jewel in this disc’s bonus crown is the audio commentary by Diabolique magazine’s Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger. Since my prehistoric first scribblings in the pages of Samhain, I’ve agitated for (and would like to think I’ve contributed towards) a criticism that is every bit as informed as it is passionate, enthusiastic and erudite in equal measure. That’s exactly what you get here. When Ellinger and Deighan aren’t rhapsodising about French saints masturbating with cucumbers they’re invoking Flaubert, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Hardy and Dostoevsky or reading passages from Baudelaire… marvellous stuff and quite possibly the best, most thought-provoking audio commentary I’ve yet encountered. Let’s hear it for the girls!

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– KONIEC –

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The 104 Minute Technicolor Nightmare… LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN on Blu-Ray

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Blu-ray. Region Free. Mondo Macabro. Unrated.

I’ve already commented elsewhere on this blog about how the reputation of various Lucio Fulci pictures have been salvaged by successively better proportioned and more complete releases in increasingly high definition. Take his 1971 giallo Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (1971)… for a long time all we had to go on was VIP’s pre-cert VHS release, a washed out, panned-and scanned transfer of a print that had been significantly cut. Compared to the full throttle zombie stompers that were exercising the attention of the DPP at this time, it was easy to dismiss the film as of only marginal interest to the rapidly growing legion of Fulci devotes. Shriek Show began the film’s rehabilitation in the mid noughties with their much-anticipated, much delayed Region 1 double discer, which came with a useful selection of bonus interviews and a nifty repro of the U.S “Schizo” press book. Concern was expressed though that with its dual presentation of widescreen / cut and full screen / (allegedly) uncut versions, this edition rather fell between two stools. The label responded shortly afterwards with an “uncut” anamorphic 1.85:1 jobby (with 5.1 soundtrack option to boot) that contained inserts of varying picture quality (inevitably, in view of the tangled censorship history outlined in one of its bonus features) and was still, according to avid internet posters, missing a few minor bits of business here and there. The UK edition released by  Optimum Home Entertainment (Studiocanal) in 2010, looked and sounded rather lovely, was billed as “the longest version ever available” though (according to the internet diehards) it came in shorter still. Finally (well, about a year ago but – as previously mentioned – the wheels grind slowly here at The House Of Freudstein), LIAWS has made it, courtesy of Mondo Macabro, to region free Blu-ray where it looks absolutely stunning but (stop me if you’ve heard this before…)

It won’t have escaped your attention, you perceptive buggers, that much of what I’ve written so far has been heavily hedged around with qualifications… “alleged”, “people claim” and such weasel worded shit… truth is, I have neither the time, the attention span nor the sheer gluteal fortitude to sit, stopwatch in hand, glued to a succession of versions of the same film. There are plenty of people who pack all of those qualities in abundance and  as I say, their findings are on the internet, where you shouldn’t have too much trouble locating them. If you are the kind of consumer who wakes up in a cold sweat, suspecting that you might have missed a few frames of a minor character walking across a room, then you’ll find much there to divert you. Otherwise, the Mondo Macabro BD is LIAWS in excelcis… let’s wallow in it, people!

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Florinda Bolkan stars as Carole Hammond, pampered daughter of a high-flying barrister (Leo Genn). Her marriage to rising legal eagle Frank (Jean Sorel) isn’t in particularly good shape though, and the dullness of her family’s bourgeois existence is thrown into sharp relief by the loud, drug-crazed sex parties regularly thrown by their next door neighbour Julia Durer (silicon-stuffed Swedish giallo stalwart Anita Strindberg). Fulci makes great use of split screen to emphasise the gulf between the dreary life Carole leads and the edgy alternative that seems to repel and fascinate her in equal measures. She confides in her psychoanalyst that she is having erotic dreams about Durer which end in her stabbing the swinger to death (all rendered in gratifyingly sexy and psychedelic style by Fulci.) The doc interprets these apparent flights of fantasy in comfortingly cod Freudian terms but when Durer’s corpse is actually discovered in her flat, along with a shedload of clues that point to Carole as the perpetrator (including her own paper knife), things start getting really interesting… has Carole gone nuts? Did she really do it… or is she being set up?

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Enter Stanley Baker as Inspector Corvin, an irascible cop with barely suppressed fascistic tendencies (“Scour the city, Brandon… find anyone who has red hair and put the screws to him”) and an irritating habit of whistling Ennio Morricone’s (rather wonderful) theme music out of tune while pondering various suspects, their motives and opportunities. Fulci keeps us guessing through the convolutions of a plot which is considerably tighter than, e.g. that of its predecessor, 1969’s One On Top Of Another / Perversion Story, but not to the detriment of the director’s increasingly flamboyant visual style and way with a suspenseful sequence, as various family members are messily dispatched and Carole herself comes under threat from the more sinister elements among Julia Durer’s boho circle. There are tremendous cat and mouse scenes, amid the shabby gentility of the Alexandra Palace (which sequence features a bat attack that is much more convincing than the one in Fulci’s later The House By The Cemetery and, as Howard Berger has pointed out, seems to have exerted an influence over a very similar one in Argento’s Suspiria) and in the grounds of a sanatorium, where Carole’s attempts to escape the murderous attentions of improbably named killer hippy Hubert aka “Red” (Mike Kennedy, best known as the singer in “Black Is Black” combo Los Bravos) lead her to the notorious lab of vivisected dogs, a much cut scene which nearly landed Fulci in jail before Oscar-winning FX ace Carlo Rambaldi proved to the satisfaction of a judge that the unfortunate canines were actually animatronic constructions devised by himself (it has even been claimed that they were knocked up under the uncredited supervision of Mario Bava).

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Fulci has a ball packing the film with visual quotations from the likes of Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Francis Bacon’s screaming Popes, and although he always waxed cynical about the value of psychoanalysis (“Freud was a fraud who stole psychoanalysis from the Catholic confessional to finance his cocaine habit!” the director once told me) LIAWS employs fur coats, geese, and plenty of other symbolically charged objects in a style that Freud would have recognised only too well.

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When Hubert and his studio tanned girlfriend Jenny (Penny Brown) testify to the shocking truth (or at least, every cliché ever dreamed up in a tabloid) about LSD use, supplying this film with its enigmatic title in the process, it becomes apparent that the real culprit for Julia Durer’s murder has given themself away in an attempt to refute evidence that would never have stood up in court anyway. D’oh…

During my interview with Fulci, he rejected a comment I made along the lines of Lizard In A Woman Skin’s being “in the post-Blow Up tradition of swinging London gialli” (or some such flip formulation.) He didn’t perceive any such influence and, while acknowledging Antonioni’s stature, described Blow Up as “nothing special.” Well, I beg to differ on both counts. If Blow Up pokes beneath the surface and finds swinging London dead on arrival (which is precisely why its Metropolitan hipster detractors have always hated it so much), LIAWS returns to that scene a few years later to see what acid had added to (or subtracted from) what was already a cultural and spiritual void.

It has been suggested (notably and repeatedly in Phil Hardy’s Aurum Horror Film Encyclopedia) that Fulci was a reactionary stuffed shirt who bridled at any hint of social liberalism / permissiveness and punished it relentlessly in his films… and of course this is a narrative that ties in conveniently with the whole tired “misogyny” chestnut. But it’s clear in LIAWS that Carole Hammond’s simultaneous repulsion towards / fascination with the groovy goings on next door are actually projections of Fulci’s own mixed feelings towards such shenanigans. Nor does he present a particularly sympathetic portrait of the straight life, to the extent of depicting those involved in it as rotting corpses!

Some commentators have had a chuckle at the expense of Barbara Bouchet’s “marijuana dependent” character in Fulci’s Don’t Torture A Duckling…

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… and indeed, how we used to laugh at The Man’s attempts to harsh our mellow with dire warnings about addiction and reefer madness. Decades later, some of us look at the state of some of our mates and wonder if maybe The Man had a point. As for the advent of skunk… have you caught an episode of The Jeremy Kyle Show recently? Suffice to say, Fulci was no babe in the wood on this score… indeed, it’s an open secret that he proved adept (albeit reluctantly so) at scoring for doomed junkie jazz trumpeter Chet Baker when nothing else would get his poorly chosen celebrity guest star back on the set of 1960’s Howlers In The Dock. There’s more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in your philosophy, Aurum Horror Film Encyclopedia…

Stephen Thrower traces Fulci’s indulgence (which was not entirely unmotivated, of course, by commercial considerations) at least as far back as his second directorial outing, Juke Box Boys (1959) and expands engagingly on the establishment’s ambivalent attitude towards the encroachment of an energetic ’60s counter culture in the appropriately named featurette When Worlds Collide… pop festivals at Woburn Abbey, beatnik poetry at the Royal Albert Hall (he might also have mentioned Keith Emerson burning The Stars And Stripes there) and The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream at that bastion of establishment broadcasting, The Alexandra Palace…

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The Pink Floyd on stage at Ally Pally, 29.04.67

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Florinda Bolkan on the roof of Ally Pally, three years later.

In an interesting sidebar on the film’s title, Mr T mentions that for much of the project’s production schedule LIAWS was a mere subtitle, which supplanted original choice “The Cage” late in the day and, pointedly, in the wake of Dario Argento’s game changing giallo hit The Bird With The Crystal Plumage. Apparently Argento was a bit peeved by the perceived opportunism of this retitling but it has to be said that, while The Cage is a perfectly fitting title for a tale of the torrid passions seething behind the facade of bourgeoise respectability (how apt that the film’s cast includes Anita Strindberg), Lizard In A Woman’s Skin is an even more appropriate handle on the notion of an eminently civilised character who’s ultimately undone by the eruption of basal, basilisk passions from their reptilian back brain… from this perspective, the title by which Fulci’s second giallo has become known couldn’t be further removed from such throwaway titlings as Riccardo Freda’s Iguana with a Tongue Of Fire, Umberto Lenzi’s Red Cats In A Glass Labyrinth or, dare I say it, Argento’s The Cat O’Nine Tails…

Thrower, who’s update of his already herculean Beyond Terror tome is almost upon us courtesy of FAB Press, also offers some interesting observations on why it has proved so difficult to assemble a “definitive” cut of LIAWS or even to decide on what such a thing might possibly look like.

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The audio commentary, by the redoubtable Pete Tombs and Kris Gavin, is well worth a listen… Gavin does go on rather a lot about his friendship with Florinda Bolkan and co but it would be rash of me to start slinging bricks around in this connection, the House Of Freudstein being so palpably constructed on foundations of glass. He and Tombs offer plenty of interesting insights into dialogue differences between the Italian and English soundtracks  and the attendant nuances of meaning. They also point out the few lines of a minor character that were dubbed by giallo icon Suzy Kendall and helpfully identify Fulci’s second wife amid the minor players.

“Shedding the Skin” is a documentary pinched from the first Shriek Show release, hosted by Penny Brown (who looks just great) and including additional interviews with Bolkan, “Mike Kennedy” (the stereotypical Irishman turns out to be a German), Carlo Rambaldi and the (also rather well-preserved) Jean Sorel. Curiously, you get the option to watch this while listening to more of Gavin’s reminiscences.

There’s also an interview with Tony Adams… yes, Crossroads fans, it’s “Adam Chance”… here playing a rookie cop whose rough treatment at the hands of Baker’s character is apparently pretty faithful to their actual on set relationship.

You get the expected original trailers and radio spots but the real jewel in the crown, bonus wise, is Dr Lucio Fulci’s Day For Night, an interview by Antonietta De Lillo in which the director, no doubt with an eye to posterity, offers the closest glimpse we’ll probably ever get of that elusive essence, “the real Lucio Fulci” (I was aware, when interviewing him, that I was barely scratching the surface.) This is an extra that really warrants a review of its own and I intend to post one on this blog at some point in the near future (but please bear in mind that constant caveat about wheels grinding slowly here at THOF.)

A sublime release… now, when are we going to see Don’t Torture A Duckling on Blu-ray? At an affordable price? The bank manager refused my application for a second mortgage so that German mediabook is out of the question…

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“Hey, how d’you like our new dado rail?”

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The Art Of Falling Apart… FREE FIRE Reviewed

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Directed by Ben Wheatley.
Produced by Andrew Starke, et al.
Written & Edited by Amy Jump & Ben Wheatley.

Cinematography by Laurie Rose.
Music by Geoff Barrow, Ben Salisbury.
Starring: Enzo Cilenti, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Brie Larson, Cillan Murphy, Armie Hammer, Sharito Copley, Babou Ceesay, Noah Taylor, Jack Reynor, Mark Monero, Patrick Bergin.

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” – The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats.

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There’s a buzz about Ben Wheatley and no mistake. Theatre 1 of Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema on the evening of 07.03.17 was sold out for their preview screening of / Q&A session for his latest effort Free Fire (many thanks, as ever, to Mayhem’s Chris Cooke for saving me a ticket… and to Ollie Morris for actually finding me a seat!) Hell, more people attended this than last September’s Broadway screening of Doctor Butcher M.D. There’s no accounting for tastes, I guess…

… only kidding. Among the countless British directors who have been touted in recent decades as the next big thing /  great white hope / second coming, very few – IMHO – have actually merited such excessive investment of high hopes… off the top of my head (and no doubt I’ll offend some by not mentioning them and piss myself off for forgetting others), Nick Broomfield and Michael Winterbottom have rarely disappointed. Though it’s still early days, Wheatley has been justifying the hype via relentless pursuit of his (and his muse Amy Jump’s) favoured theme, a truly Shakespearian one, namely the bad things that happen when things break down … things as diverse as the self-control of banal, frustrated people (Sightseers), the Utopian dreams of urban planners (High Rise) and the Stuart dynasty (A Field In England).

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This Billericay Dickie having already dabbled in the UK gangster genre (to significantly more intelligent effect than is generally the case) with Down Terrace and Kill List, Free Fire is a step across the pond and hopefully up the ladder, in which the expected entropic  narrative is boiled down to the contents (human and ordnance) of a derelict Boston factory in 1978. It’s not quite the uninterrupted “90 minute shoot out” you might have primed to expect. The first half hour sets up the quirky dramatis personae in a twitchy drug deal and how it all goes tits up, starting with the revelation that a foot soldier on one side recently glassed the cousin of a guy in the other camp because she wouldn’t give him a blow job. After that charming spark has ignited the tinder box, you do get pretty much the climax of Taxi Driver (and just look whose name pops up among the list of executive producers) stretched over the remaining hour of the picture and played for queasy laughs, none of the characters allowing themselves to be distracted from the serious business of aiming profane wise cracks at each other by the fact that new chunks are being blown out of them at regular intervals. Nice to know that when things are falling apart, the last thing people lose (after several gallons of their blood) is their sense of humour. It’s as though Laurel And Hardy’s Them Thar Hills had been directed by Quentin Tarantino… or Tarantino’s own early efforts had been directed by somebody with a grasp of the Aristotelian unities.

More than anything, Free Fire reminded me of the hip “heroic bloodshed” epics that I used to watch at The Broadway a quarter of a Century ago, though there’s precious little heroism in it… everyone’s in it for themselves and it’s revealed, at the death, that the fix was in even before the goonish underlings started butting heads. Somebody had the whole thing stitched up all along and they would have gotten away with it but for those pesky… but for a timely reminder that although we have, for the last hour-and-a-half, been engrossed in a microcosm of man’s venality and buffoonery, there’s a world outside intent on reimposing order… however transiently.

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During Wheatley’s Q&A session, moderated by Mayhem’s other main man, Steve Sheil and enlivened by the prospect of a free T-shirt for anyone who asked a question, the director deployed a dry and deadpan wit. It was difficult to tell if he was kidding or not when he claimed to have enlisted the help of his producer’s son to plan out the film’s set on Minecraft. He frequently had the audience in stitches, which moved somebody at the back to start shushing people, which was a bit weird. I don’t know why they were in such a vibe-busting mood… maybe someone they knew had recently been glassed? Wheatley revealed that the film he’d watched most before shooting Free Fire was Evil Dead 2 and when he finally disposes of Sam Riley’s infuriating and hitherto indestructible-seeming character, he certainly honours that central zombie movie tenet… you’ve gotta get ’em in the head!

Much of the onstage discussion (at least before I had to leave to catch a bus) was about the technicalities of discharging guns on rifle ranges and sets, but one statement of personal philosophy did slip out, about the re-emergence through Wheatley’s films of the theme that “smart people get dragged down by the stupidity of the crowd.” Will his upcoming films get dragged down to the LCD level of Hollywood product? The director revealed that his next two will be “a science fiction film… and something else.”

Watch this space.

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Simon Slays… Arrow’s Blockbusting 4K BD Edition of PIECES Reviewed

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BD / DVD / CD Combi. Regions B/2. Arrow. 18.

Lucio Fulci always seemed a bit touchy on the question of possible influences on his films and so it proved when I interviewed him in 1994. He adopted a pained expression (like somebody had just stepped on his ski boot) when I invoked the spectre of H.P.Lovecraft and claimed he hadn’t even heard of Ambrose Bierce (let alone read An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge) until after he completed The Doors To Silence (1991.) Unpredictable as ever, Fulci (who, it transpired, was quite the Spanish horror film buff) then amazed me by volunteering the information that he had pinched the idea for The House By The Cemetery (1981) from Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s La Residencia / The House That Screamed (1970.)

Although arguably the ever popular (at least in the venerable Aurum Horror Encyclopedia) “body-in-pieces fantasy” has cinematic antecedents that go at least as far back as James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), Serrador’s gothique girls school adventure hit the spot with its daring satire of Spain’s ossified fascist society, in which the sexually repressed son of an authoritarian headmistress finishes off several young ladies at her finishing school so that he can build himself an idealised “pure” woman.

When Generalissimo Francisco Franco died in 1975 and his appointed successor King Juan Carlos opted to become a constitutional monarch in a modern liberal democracy, things thawed pretty rapidly. In “It’s Exactly What You Think It Is!”, one of the many extras on this handsome package, The Pact director and Pieces lover Nicholas McCarthy identifies it as a film coming “at the ass end of the Spanish horror boom” which honours the Iberian tradition with its hommage to La Residencia and via such touches as the casting of tapas terror titan Jack Taylor. Late Phases director Adrian Garcia Bogliano, in the same featurette, notes that things had been buttoned down for so long in Spain that exploitation film makers made up for lost time by packing as much sex, violence and plain craziness into their films as the creaking plots would bear… and no film exemplifies this tendency more brazenly than Juan Piquer Simon’s Pieces (1982.)

Somewhere in “Boston, 1942″(or a Madrid facsimile thereof) some four eyed little schmendrick is discovered labouring over a jigsaw of a naked Playboy playmate (which looks like it dates as far back as the early ’70s, tops) by his mom (May Heatherly, who bit that doctor’s tongue out in Cannibal Apocalypse.) Not knowing where all this is going to end (though masturbation would be a reasonable guess) she smashes a mirror (repeated in slow motion and shattervision, like she was in an Adam And The Ants video or something) before announcing that she’s going to bin said nudie jigsaw. Now The Beastie Boys wrote a rousing rap when their mom threw away their best porno mag, but this guy’s protest is rather more emphatic… he buries an axe in her head and starts sawing her into … Pieces!

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When the cops turn up he insists that “a big man… a big man” performed the murderous deed then scarpered and as forensic science wasn’t so hot in Boston, 1942, he gets away with it…

… “forty years later”…

… loose living, flash dancing bimbos at some Boston college are being carved up with a chainsaw by a black clad assassin. In broad daylight. At the same time, somebody is having another go at that jigsaw. Looks like Junior from the pre-titles sequence is replaying his primal scene… but who did he grow up to be?  Willard the burly gardener (Paul “Bluto” Smith) is strenuously touted for our consideration on account of his familiarity with a chainsaw and appetite for beating up cops trying to investigate the case, but c’mon… are we really expected to buy that the scrawny kid in the Quincy tank top grew up to be this ogre? Indeed, the Paul Smith interview included as another of the extras on this set is pointedly entitled The Reddest Herring.

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Other leading suspects include closet case anatomy professor Arthur Brown (!), played by Jack Taylor and the Dean of Studies (Edmund Purdom.) Curiously, Professor Chow the kung fu instructor (yep, the college has a kung fu instructor) played by Kin Lung Huang (*) is never in the frame, despite his penchant for wandering around the college at night, randomly picking fights with women he encounters (it’s a crazy world on this campus… then again, what do you expect when they employ an anatomy professor named Arthur Brown?)

The Dean is keen on a low-key investigation, which might seem like a tall order (what with these butchered co-eds turning up all over the place) until you consider the resources that Boston’s finest are prepared to commit to the case, i.e. Lt Bracken (Christopher George), his sidekick Sgt Holden (Frank Bana), and ex tennis pro May Riggs (George’s wife, Lynda Day), working undercover (sure thing, I mean who else would you send?) Bracken’s got the measure of the case, though – “We must catch the killer…” he advises Holden: “… that’s what it says in the rule book” (I bet he was the stand out candidate at police academy.) Smoothy student Kendall (Ian Sera) is initially a suspect but, having won the confidence of Lt Bracken (and with precious little alternative manpower available) he is soon seconded to the case. I think he’s supposed to be like Keith Gordon’s character in Dressed To Kill (1980) but in the event he’s way more irritating. Co-scripters Dick Randall and “John Shadow” seem to find him equally obnoxious, judging by the fate they’ve devised for him. First of all, after the killer has finally been unmasked, Kendall has to fight off his knife wielding attentions until Bracken turns up to shoot him in the head. While they’re congratulating themselves on that, the putrefying dream girl that the killer has been stitching together falls out of a cupboard and pins Kendall to the floor. Just as he’s recovering from that shock and joshing with the cops about it, in the mother of all Carrie quotations, the composite corpse reaches up and claws his balls off! I swear to Christ, I’m not making any of this shit up!

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The budget that the Boston PD allocated to the investigation of this case would seem to be significantly less than that afforded the FX crew on Pieces. Kudos to Basilio Cortijo for some of the stunning gore creations on display here (mostly centering, of course, on the after effects of chain saw attacks.) There’s stuff that Giannetto De Rossi wouldn’t turn his nose up at. Among all the silliness and non sequiturs, Simon also manages some suspenseful sequences and set pieces murders that look like they belong in an arty giallo rather than a run-of-the-mill American slasher effort. (**) The scene in which Isabel Luque’s nosey reporter is stabbed to death on a water-bed wouldn’t be out of place, if not quite in an Argento classic, than in a top-of-the-range Fulci effort, though better editing would have obscured the wobbliness of that rubber knife before it entered the girl’s skull and edited via her mouth, a la the pre-titles sequence of Fulci’s aforementioned House By The Cemetery.

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Bad chop suey strikes again…

People get snotty about Pieces in particular and JPS in general, while learned tomes get written about Jesus Franco. Now don’t get me wrong, people have a perfect right to enjoy the films of Jesus Franco and write learned tomes about them… I’ve read one or two of them and it proved a worthwhile investment of (rather a lot of) my time. But compare Pieces to e.g. its closest equivalent in the Franco canon – Bloody Moon (1981) – and really, there’s no contest.

I used to love the long-defunct magazine Continental Film Review (briefly recoined as Continental Film And Video Review before it disappeared forever from our newsagents’ shelves) for the way it would alternate analysis of the new Antonioni or Fellini offering with pages of stills from the likes of Danish Dentist On The Job and similarly, I do appreciate it when a label goes to town on a “mere” exploitation movie.

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Suffice to say, Arrow have done an astonishing job here. The 4K restoration of Pieces from its original negative looks just dandy, but video high fidelity probably isn’t a major reason why anyone would watch a movie like this. It’s the extras assembled here that make this release indispensible. People used to talk about “party tapes” but you could have your mates round for this set all weekend and still be discovering stuff long after all the snacks have been snacked on, drinks quaffed and the party favours have petered out. For starters, this is the ultimate “Musos edition” of Pieces with three (count ’em) score options and that’s before you even get onto the commentary track. I hope the original music by Librado Pastor is your favourite, because you also get that on a bonus CD. It’s not likely to keep Ennio Morricone off my deck for any length of time but I’m glad to have it. Thanks, Arrow.

That commentary track, courtesy of The Hysteria Continues (basically Justin Kerswell and his mates) is a real plus: skilfully moderated (it sounds like a couple of the participants are on some kind of conference call set up or maybe Skype), enthusiastic, entertaining, informative and insightful. I’m particularly grateful to Kerswell and co for clearing up an aspect of the film that has always mystified me, i.e. the bit where a certain “Virginia Palmer” (you’d think her family had suffered enough, considering what happened to Laura and everything) skateboards through a giant sheet of plate-glass in slow motion, apparently a propos of nothing. Turns out it was a propos of reminding jigsaw boy of his mother smashing that mirror, reactivating the killer inside him after years as a useful member of society, plying his trade as a… oops, nearly gave it away there! Sadly no explanation is offered (I’m sure they looked for one) as to why Professor Chow should launch an unprovoked flurry of kung fu kicks at Lynda Day (or why she forgives him so readily), over and above the clearly implausible one suggested in the (frequently piss-taking) English dub, i.e. “bad chop suey!” Just to clarify another bit of trivia they allude to, it’s true that the “John Shadow” who’s “credited” as co-writer of Pieces is NOT (as often rumoured) Joe D’Amato… the guilty party is actually Roberto Loyola, one of the many producers involved in the tangled saga of bringing Mario Bava’s Rabid Dogs (1974) to the screen.

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As if the guidance of The Hysteria Continues wasn’t immersive enough for you, you’re also treated to The 5.1 Vine Theater Experience…. a barker lures you (with lines like “Come and see tits getting sawn”… let’s face it, you’re never going to get that at the NFT) into the lobby of the eponymous LA theatre where you’ll have fun spotting trash film luminaries before taking your seat for a screening of Pieces, courtesy of Grindhouse Releasing. During that you’re able to enjoy the surround sound reactions of an up-for-it audience enthusiastically applauding every outbreak of nudity, guffawing at every last gobbet of gore and critiquing salient thespian missteps (Lynda Day’s “bastard… BASTARD… BASTARD!!!” predictably takes the cake!)

Not least among the bonuses offered on this set is the presence of two distinct versions of the feature, the US theatrical cut and Mil Gritos Tiene La Noche (“A Thousand Cries In The Night”), the slightly longer Spanish version. I must have the attention span of a goldfish or something but I never manage to work out what the extra stuff is in the longer cuts of these things. One thing I did learn from watching Mil Gritos Tiene La Noche, though, is the extent to which the American dubbers yocked things up by spicing up dialogue that was already pretty fruity to begin with (i.e. for once something gained a lot … of mainly trash … in translation), the “bad chop suey” crack being the most obvious example. The Spanish original also plays Stars And Stripes Forever over Suzy Billing’s murder but those who put the US release together obviously figured that such iconic American music shouldn’t accompany shots of a girl pissing herself and being dismembered by a chainsaw, so substituted the kind of jolly library music often played over sketches on The Benny Hill Show.

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The late JP Simon gets an hour-long interview / profile devoted to him and in a similarly lengthy interview with art director Gonzalo Gonzalo (so good they named him twice) we hear a lot of amusing stories about how resourceful the director was in stretching out his minimal budgets to maximum effect. A short audio Interview with producer Steve Minasian relates how everybody was shafted for their money by a fly-by-night distributor. Undeterred by this cautionary tale, JPS disciple Sergio Blasco relates on another featurette of his collaboration with the maestro on a sadly unrealised Pieces sequel.

Of course you get a trailer, image galleries and a reversible sleeve (featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Marc Schoenbach.) The collectors’ booklet apparently features new writing on the film by critic Michael Gingold… I’ll have to take Arrow’s word for that as I didn’t receive a copy of it.

Watching this set might not quite be “the most wonderful feeling in the world” (to paraphrase one of the most notorious lines of dialogue in Pieces) but in trash movie terms, it comes pretty close.

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(*) Kin Lung Huang  starred (as “Bruce Le”) in the likes of…Bruce’s Deadly Fingers (1976), My Name Called Bruce (1979) The True Game Of Death and Re-Enter The Dragon (both 1979)… and just in case the penny hasn’t dropped yet regarding his USP, The Clones of Bruce Lee (1980.)

(**) The producers of Pieces include Stephen Minasian (who put up money for Friday The 13th) and Dick Randall, who produced Ferdinando Merighi’s 1972 giallo The French Sex Murders… though on reflection, I’d be pushing it (over a fucking cliff!) to describe that one as “arty.”

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