Monthly Archives: April 2017

Toast Of Douglas… MINDHORN Reviewed

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Barratt gets the David Hess role in the upcoming House On The Edge Of The Park reboot…

Directed by Sean Foley
Produced by Jack Arbuthnott, et al
Written by Julian Barratt, Simon Farnaby
Edited by Mark Everson
Cinematography by David Luther
Music by Keefus Ciancia, David Holmes
Special FX by Niall Trask
Starring Julian Barrett, Simon Farnaby, Essie Davis, Harriet Walter, Russell Tovey, Nicholas Farrell, David Schofield, Richard McCabe, Jessica Barden, Steve Coogan, Simon Callow, Sir Kenneth Branagh

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29/04/17 … another great night at Nottingham’s Broadway cinema. Kudos to Mayhem honchos Chris Cooke and Steve Sheil for procuring a Mindhorn preview and Q&A with its stars / creators Julian Barratt (The Mighty Boosh “jazz maverick”) and Simon Farnaby (known, chez Freudstein, as “that guy from Horrible Histories”). Thanks for the ticket, Chris.

I’d been looking forward to this one for a while. Inestimable anti-social media friend @CosiPerversa warned me that Bunny And The Bull from the same(ish) team was pretty rank stuff (and I’ve never had any cause to doubt his judgement) but the premise of this one was irresistible…

Julian Barrat is Richard Thorncroft who was Mindhorn, a much-loved ’80s TV detective who used his bionic lie-detecting eye (don’t ask!), not to mention his mastery of Brazilian martial art Capoeira and his lady killing charm, to get to the bottom of various crimes on the Isle Of Man every week. Thorncroft was habitually beastly to his stunt double Clive Parnevik (Farnaby) and – his ego swollen by a Hollywood offer that never came to anything – he rubbished his screen side-kick Peter Eastman (Steve Coogan) and the IOM itself during a particularly drunken appearance on Wogan, with predictably disastrous career consequences. A quarter of a Century later, “the fame has faded and the waistline has expanded” (welcome to my world, pal!) He’s lost his hair as well (at least I’m hanging on to mine) and he’s been reduced to advertising man corsets and orthopaedic socks (though John Nettles has just bumped him off of that gig.) Just to exacerbate Thorncroft’s discomfort, Mindhorn was replaced with a spin-off series showcasing the exploits of Windjammer, the character played by Eastman, who’s now doing very nicely indeed for himself.

Opportunity knocks (probably for the final time) on our boy’s door when a murder occurs on the Isle Of Man and the unbalanced Paul Melly (Russell Tovey), who identifies himself as “The Kestrel”, warns that there’ll be more unless he gets to speak to Mindhorn, whom he believes to be a real person. Hopeful of reviving both his career and his relationship with former co-star Patricia Deville (the lovely Essie Davis, below), Thorncroft gets on the first ferry out of Liverpool and proceeds to make a total arse of himself with the local cops (flinty faced David Schofield and the bemused Andrea Riseborough.)  Along the way he has humiliating run ins with Eastman and the perennially buff Parnevik, who is now shacked up with Patricia. Ironic that the bionic eyed dick couldn’t see any of this coming…

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Every bit as deluded as his nut-job fan (who at least has the excuse of a learning disability), Thorncroft embarks on a redemptive journey (I’m only sticking that “character journey” shit in there to wind up Mrs F, whose current least favourite metaphor it happens to be) and we actually start rooting for the dopey no-hoper as the penny drops that several key characters are not quite what they seem. Along the way, of course, the cruel ironies and comic complications multiply exponentially…

Barratt and Farnaby allegedly spent ten years working on the script of Mindhorn and it wasn’t a waste of a decade. On top of a firm, fun premise (into which elements of Toast Of London, The Six Million Dollar Man, Bergerac, Shoestring and others have been shoe-horned) the gags are scattered thick and fast. It ain’t exactly Spinal Tap or Airplane, but if you were beginning to think that the words “British”, “screen” and “comedy” were mutually excluded from appearing in the same sentence, Mindhorn will certainly disabuse you of that notion… it’s everything that Coogan’s recent output has aspired, in vain, to be. Barratt and Farnaby’s central roles aren’t too much of a stretch from anything you’ve seen them in previously but the rest of the cast (which also includes Harriet Walter as Thorncroft’s two-faced agent, Richard McCabe as his dissolute publicist and bit-parting Ken Branagh and Simon Callow) are uniformly excellent. The Mindhorn memorabilia and “clips” from the TV show are a particular treat. I hope they manage some of the mooted spin-offs… at least a Mindhorn TV episode as an extra on the DVD release? We’ll, er, see…

Hats off to rookie feature director Sean Foley. Christ knows why they thought he could pull it off, but he did. One quibble… I’m too much of a technical ignoramus to work out if the film was in some way misprojected, but the cinematography of David Luther (an ASC award nominee!) made parts of it look like it was shot on VHS… and I’m not talking about the retro stuff that’s supposed to look like it’s on VHS!

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Barratt and Farnaby’s Q&A (ably moderated by Sheil) was every bit as amusing as you’d expect, though a little different from most of those I’ve attended, which have overwhelmingly featured horror / exploitation film makers. When faced with a question that’s been, frankly, a bit dumb, those guys always seemed to be tying themselves in knots, in defiance of audience giggles, to dignify it with a straight answer. Barratt and Farnaby, as comedians, took the alternative course of amplifying the dumbness of certain questions and milking them for maximum comic effect. It has to be said that some of the questioners were asking for it but I still felt vaguely uncomfortable. Then again, Freud argued that humour was intimately connected with the discharge of uncomfortable emotions… and you know Sigmund Freud wouldn’t shit you about something like that.

One thing that did become apparent, because Farnaby told us, was that Parnevik’s accent was supposed to be Dutch. Later in the session he attempted a Leeds accent that was similarly wide of the mark. Admittedly his Geordie is spot on (and was mercilessly deployed to take the piss out of Ridley Scott), then again he is a native of County Durham. Ah well, nobody’s perfect. The Q&A was enlivened by the presence of one Isle Of Man refugee (who conceded that all the flak it gets in the film falls under the category of fair comment) and an actual capoeira practitioner who (rather generously) complimented Barratt on his rendition of this esoteric Brazilian martial arts / dance crossover discipline. Oh, and there were plenty of cake-based cracks concerning Noel Fielding’s latest career move, too.

Never forget… you can’t handcuff the wind.

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The late Keith Moon leads The Who in spooky ’70s anticipation of Mindhorn’s capoeira moves…

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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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