The Night Evelyn Came Back In A Pawn Film: Arrow’s KILLER DAMES Box Reviewed

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Blu-ray / DVD combi edition. Regions A&B / 1&2. Arrow. 18.

Arrow’s tasty “Killer Dames” limited edition box set collates a giallo brace from the  elusive Emilio P. Miraglia… 1971’s The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave and the following year’s The Red Queen Kills 7 Times. The mysterious Miraglia never returned to the Italian whodunnit genre thereafter… indeed, he managed only one more movie, the spagwest Joe Dakota (1972) before concluding a directorial career that had begun five scant years previously, after an apprenticeship that included assisting Carlo Lizzani, Steno and a certain Lucio Fulci. In both of the films under consideration here he cross fertilises familiar giallo tropes (high fashion, slick “modern” settings and the louche lifestyles of affluent swingers) with elements from the earlier Italian gothique cycle (cobwebbed castles and dank dungeons, inheritances and family curses, closeted mad characters, bats in the belfry and ghosts.) Incorporating any kind of supernatural element can be the kiss of death for a giallo… see, for instance (come to think of it, don’t bother) Mario Colucci’s Something Creeping In The Dark (1971) or Giuseppe Bennati’s The Killer Reserved 9 Seats (1974)… though Antonio Margheriti’s Seven Deaths In The Cat’s Eye, (1973) just about pulls it off. Thankfully Miraglia handles his ghoulies with similar aplomb and also packs Evelyn with lashings of the old ultra-violence and kinky sex a-g0-go… hardly surprising when you consider that writer Massimo Felisatti later penned Andrea Binachi’s deliciously grubby Edwige Fenech vehicle Strip Nude For Your Killer (1975.)

Django The Bastard and Crimes Of The Black Cat alumnus “Anthony Steffen” (Antonio De Teffe) was the son of a Brazilian diplomat, which (sort of) makes him ideal casting for the role of depraved English aristocrat Lord Alan Cunningham, who shares Hugo Stiglitz’s questionable sexual predilections from Night Of A Thousand Cats not to mention his lurid Austin Powers wardrobe and woodentop levels of thespian attainment.409b834edd73e414becf1d4d43904c1b.jpg

This guy haunts the swinging night spots of an England that has never existed outside the imagination of Emilio Miraglia, cruising for dolly birds. They’ve got to be red heads, mind you, and to check that they’re not cheating him with wigs, he makes a point of tugging sharply on their tresses. Any gold digging ginger bint not sufficiently discouraged by this suggestion of sadism (not to mention Steffen’s collection of cheese cravats) is taken to his country pile, encouraged to try on leather thigh boots, then soundly thrashed with a bull whip before His Lordship succumbs to convulsions and unconsciousness. Lord C’s politically incorrect attitude towards the fairer sex can apparently be traced back to the infidelity of his dead wife Evelyn (rendered by endless flash back shots of her running around bare-assed in slow motion, to the accompaniment of a Bruno Nicolai theme that vaguely recalls the famous one his mate Ennio Morricone furnished for Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker!) Round about this point it starts dawning on the astonished viewer that Lord Cunningham is actually being presented as a sympathetic character… yes, you’re expected to start rooting for this loopy libertine! Ah well, it was 1971… and of course his antics make it very easy for him to be framed for murder.

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Evelyn’s brother Albert (Roberto Maldera) who works as groundsman at the mansion, is blackmailing his employer about the apparent disappearance of all these girls. The noble nut case is on the verge of branding one such unfortunate pick up when a surprise appearance by Evelyn, notably decomposing, causes him to throw a particularly epic mong attack. His psychiatrist (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) urges him to quit the mansion and try to get over Evelyn before he goes totally off his rocker (hm, that particular stallion has already departed the paddock, methinks…)

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Slimy cousin George (“Rod Murdock” = Enzo Tarascio), a sexually ambiguous weekend hippy who’s next in line to inherit the family fortune (worth keeping an eye on, then) prescribes a recreational visit to London’s Krazy Kat club, a joint that panders to every psychedelic, swinging cliche in the book. Here Lord C. witnesses a hysterical strip routine by flame haired floozy Suzy (Erika Blanc), who exits arse-first from a coffin to shake her considerable booty in alarming fashion. Blanc complains in a bonus interview on this set that she was given no terpsichorean direction and had to make up her routine on the fly (should have received a credit for choreography… and probably an Oscar!) This scene is lent an extra level of surreality by the fact that its instrumental acid rock accompaniment clearly has no connection whatsoever with what is being played by the strip club house band, whose singer can be seen (but not heard) wailing away animatedly. His Lordship gets Suzy home and subjects her to the usual indignities. After her apparent disappearance, he causally drops Albert another wad of hush money.

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Never one to let a little brush with psychosis cramp his social style, Lord C throws a kicking garden party at the mansion, with another groovy beat combo entertaining the guests. Here he meets, is impressed by and instantly proposes to Gladys (Marina Malfatti.) Although slimy George will be permanently disinherited by this development, he seems to be all in favour of the match if it will sort out his cousin’s mental problems (perhaps he isn’t so slimy after all?) In fact, unwelcome reappearances by dead Evelyn, further fiendish twists, a series of double crosses and shocking revelations (not to mention a pile of corpses) ensue. Miraglia just about manages to restrain himself from throwing the kitchen sink into this overheated mix , but when all the surviving participants adjourn around His Lordship’s swimming pool for a climactic punch-up, the giallo gods have contrived to fill it with sulphuric acid(!)

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The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave did so well at the box office (as The Night She Rose From The Tomb, States-side…) that Miraglia was immediately required to knock out a follow up along similar lines and for all the haste with which it was put together, The Red Queen Kills 7 Times (The Lady In Red Kills Seven Times to U.S. punters, who were offered “blood corn” to nibble during both of these films) emerges as a more than adequate successor, another ghastly goulash of horror, supernatural and sleazy sex elements unfolding in an ersatz foreign location with liberal plot pinchings from Jayne Eyre, lashings of J&B product placement shots, another groovy Nicolai score and another elusive Evelyn. If TNECOOTG is a cheap and cheerful reimagining of Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, this one actually predates the Scream franchise! Another improbable but hugely entertaining saga, TRQK7T kicks off in “Castle Wildenbruch” (an impressive, for real Bavarian fortress) with two little  sisters asking their granddad (Rudolf Schündler) about a particularly lurid painting that hangs on one of its walls. He happily fills them in on the family curse… having been stabbed six times by her sister, the mythical “Red Queen” came back from the grave to return the favour, slaughtering six others into the bargain.

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This grisly event has apparently been repeated every hundred years, with the next repeat pencilled in for 1972. As “luck” would have it, by then one of the sisters (Kitty) has grown up in the most delightful way, in the shape of giallo stalwart and all-round luscious babe Barbara Bouchet. The other (Evelyn) has allegedly decamped to The United States, though a flashback reveals her dying after a teenage punch up with Kitty led to her falling into the castle moat. Kitty’s sister-in-law, Francesca (Malfatti again) was a witness to this apparent accidental homicide (helped Kitty hide Evelyn’s body in the castle crypt) and has been a conspirator in the cover up ever since. A slobbering greebo dope fiend has his suspicions though, and in another echo of TNECOOTG, he starts blackmailing Kitty .

The first 20th Century victim of the Wildenbruch curse is poor old granddad, who suffers some kind of thrombo after a red cloaked female appears in his bed room. No doubt the casual observer could mistakenly chalk that down to natural causes, but before long folks at the couture house where Kitty works as a photographer (cue much gratuitous female flesh) are being bumped off in a variety of grisly, er, fashions. This kind of establishment has always been a hotbed of depravity in giallo land, and TRQK7T doesn’t disappoint. The rarely clothed models who populate this one (including, among their number, a young Sybil Danning ) are a bitchy, manipulative bunch, intent on doing each other down and shagging their way to the top. In effect this means getting into the pants of fast-rising agency executive Martin Hoffmann (Ugo Pagliai, who would later wash up in Al Festa’s totally bonkers Fatal Frames, 1996), a guy whose wife currently resides in a booby hatch. He’s now an item with Kitty, but the girls don’t rate her as much of an obstacle: “Little Kitty’s so uptight, she isn’t exactly burning up the short and curls” observes Lulu (Danning), sensitively.

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It’s hardly surprising that she’s she’s uptight, given the escalating mortality rate at the agency. First to go is its chief executive Hans, stabbed to death by the Red Queen in a local park while out dogging with Lulu. There had been bad blood between him and Martin, who now inherits his job  and the mantel of chief suspect. Suspicions are hardly allayed when Elizabeth (Martin’s basket case wife) is sprung from the funny farm, only to be impaled on its security fence by The Red Queen. Another agency employee is stabbed in the back of a props van, the junkie blackmailer is dragged to his death by a car apparently driven by Her Majesty… and so it goes on.

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Bouchet looks fab throughout, wide-eyed and wide mouthed, divinely decked out and constantly under threat of becoming unlucky seven. She gets sexually assaulted when that junkie blackmailer adds rape to his repertoire and also gets sliced up a treat in a great psychedelic dream sequence, reminiscent of similar ones in  Luciano Ercoli’s Death Walks At Midnight and Fulci’s Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (not to mention Murder Rock.) Before the blackmailer’s death, Kitty learns that this campaign of persecution against her is being orchestrated by somebody else. Various other developments prompt her to go looking for corpses in the castle crypt, where she is soon menaced by rats and rising water levels, cue further emoting from the lovely BB. The film’s climax turns on revelations about Evelyn’s identity and exactly what happened on the day Kitty’s sister allegedly shuffled off her mortal coil in the cast moat… all of which is about as credible as the plot of TNECOOTG (i.e. not very)  but it remains a treat to see this rare giallo finally available in a beautiful UK edition.

One of the hobby horses with which I currently attempt to bore people to death is the issue of whether certain films of a certain vintage look any better, or (let be whispered) possibly worse on Blu-ray than on DVD. Sometimes with all those extra pixels all you gain is grain, with the option to smear equally unappealing DNR doodads all over it. Are the contents of this box set sufficiently better looking than NoShame’s impressive Italian DVD release from about ten years ago to justify their purchase? In a word… yes, in no small measure due to the lush cinematography of Gastone De Giovanni (Evelyn) and Alberto Spagnoli (Red Queen.) Kudos also to art / costume director Lorenzo Baraldi, who pulls off a low budget miracle in the staging of the second film’s watery finale.

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Baraldi’s reminiscences feature prominently on the bonus materials for this set, alongside interviews with Erika Blanc (growing  old disgracefully… she’s clearly pleasantly crackers), Sybil Danning (looking good and projecting an imposing presence) and Marino Mase, plus a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it micro-interview with Bouchet. Each of the films gets amusing and informative commentary tracks (the Jones / Newman team taking The Red Queen, while Evelyn is handled by Troy Howarth, who emerges as an unapologetic bum lover.) Stephen Thrower contributes sage observations on each of them. Of course you get the expected trailers, there’s an alternative “count down” title sequence for TRQK7T  and one of those reversible sleeves featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx. Some of this stuff already appeared on the NoShame box. What you don’t get from that is the collectable Red Queen action figure but hey, nobody’s perfect and there’s ample compensation in the form of a limited edition 60-page booklet containing new writing on the film by James Blackford, Kat Ellinger, Leonard Jacobs and one of my favourite bloggers, Rachael Nisbet.

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Though claiming that his contribution to these films was essentially to distract viewers from their insubstantial contents, Baraldi speaks highly of Miraglia and confirms that the director’s disappearance from the scene (which Thrower wonders about in his corresponding piece) was the result of an unfortunately early demise… another manifestation of the Wildenbruch curse? Whatever, Miraglia’s extant gialli, while not quite hitting the genre heights scaled by Bava, Argento, Fulci and Martino, show immense promise and it’s deeply regrettable that his premature passing robbed us of the opportunity to see how this particular talent might have developed. As it is, Arrow’s Killer Dames box serves as an ample memorial to his cruelly truncated legacy.

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The night Barbara met Bob Freudstein…

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