“Their madness engulfs everything and affects innocent victims such as children or animals…” Francis Thrive (Who he? *)
“I believe that research is taking place and it will show that these films (‘video nasties’) not only affect young people but I believe they affect dogs as well… it goes far too far!” The ironically named Graham Bright MP, father of the 1984 Video Recordings Act.
Franco Prosperi and Gualtiero Jacopetti (above)… sincere and fearless proponents of the documentarian’s Art or shameless showbiz charlatans, devoid of any moral scruple in their ruthless determination to get bums on seats for their tawdry shockumentaries? As Blue Underground employees, Carl Daft and David Gregory played their part in the debate, amassing most of the relevant evidence for that label’s monumental 2004 box set, The Mondo Cane Collection. Now running their own show at Severin, the boys have settled the argument definitively, in Prosperi’s case anyway (Jacopetti went to meet his maker and account for his cinematic misdeeds in 2011) with this release of his 1983 directorial swan song, Wild Beasts (Belve Feroci), brought to you by the mighty Shumba International Corporation.
As well as generating mucho dinari and intense controversy (it’s safe to say that none of J&P’s documentary collaborations would ever find themselves being endorsed by PETA and there were serious concerns that some of the executions of hapless soldiers in 1965s Africa Addio had been arranged for the benefit of their cameras), the Mondo movies also spawned the Italian cycle of Third World cannibal movies that ran through the ’70s and ’80s. The best of that cycle, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) critiques the dubious ethics of such mondo efforts and while nobody (OK, hardly anybody) was daft enough to claim that people were actually killed in it, Holocaust and its inferior imitators were content to render human carnage via the special FXpertise of Gino De Rossi et al, while doubling down on genuine animal abuse. Prosperi underscored the connection between Mondo and these maverick man munching movies in 1980 by producing White Cannibal Queen, Jesus Franco’s piss awful Deodato / Lenzi / Martino / D’Amato rip off (below), though to the best of my recollection (I’m certainly not planning on watching it again, any time soon), no creatures – great or small – suffered anything particularly outrageous in that one.
Three years later in Wild Beasts (with Mondo Cane 2 editor Mario Morra along for the ride), it was a very different story…
Lulling the viewer into a false sense of security, Prosperi takes an eternity establishing his earnest eco-conscious credentials with shots of pollution in “a north European city” (looks like Frankfurt though most of Wild Beasts was actually shot in Rome, after Prosperi’s Africa Addio notoriety got him and his crew kicked out of Zimbabwe, then South Africa in quick succession). Nor are there any grounds for optimism in the boring “human interest” stuff that follows, in which “Rupert Berner”, played by wild animal wrangler turned one-shot “actor” Tony Di Leo (aka “John Aldrich” and his dodgy moustache certainly suggests a fair resemblance to his near namesake, the free-scoring ’80s LFC icon) attempts, in vain, to chat up ice queen Laura Schwartz (Lorraine De Selle, who’s already had plentiful cinematic experience with such wild beasts as David Hess and John Morghen). Add all of this to Daniele Patucchi’s lame wallpaper jazz score and you could be forgiven for resigning yourself to another anodyne effort from the fag end of the Italian horror cycle … until somebody (who, why or how is never really established) slips a megahit of PCP into the city’s water supply and a bunch of elephants, big cats, polar bears, etc, all tripping off their furry faces, break out of the local zoo and embark on an evening of serious riot and rampage.
At this point you might reasonably raise the objection that PCP is supposed to tranquilise animals but before there’s any time to mull over such pharmacological niceties, we’re up to our asses in mondo carnage… a parked-up couple find their heavy petting session interrupted by ravenous rats, who turn their carnivorous attentions to the emergency service personnel who attempt a rescue. “Help… they’re attacking me!” points out one of their number, helpfully. Good job that in this “north European city” the emergency services are routinely equipped with flame throwers (for a minute there I thought I was watching a Bruno Mattei picture). Elsewhere a blind avant-garde composer, attempting to complete his symphony of animal noises, is dealt a devastating critical thumbs down when his guide dog goes all Dicky on him.
While the lab team compete with each other to come up with the hippest street names for PCP (if you want a few more, season 4 episode 17 of Quincy – Dark Angel, directed by Ray Danton – comes highly recommended), a cheetah chases a dopey girl around in her vomit coloured car (serves her right for that eye watering paint job and for listening to a lame rap radio channel) until the inevitable pile-up ensues. Further RTA action is guaranteed as panicked livestock plus PCP-powered pachyderms promenade down main street and when the latter adjourn to the city airport, their presence on the runway causes a plane to crash into the city’s main power station (smart move to put that right next to a runway, right?) Among the general blackout mayhem, Laura’s subway train grinds to a halt and is soon attacked by tigers… what were the odds on that?
When all that PCP has been successfully metabolised, the fugitive animals re-caged to contemplate their comedowns and the big clear up has commenced, it might appear that everything is done and, er, dusted but Prosperi still has one boffo twist up his sleeve. Laura goes to collect her bratty daughter from dance school, only to find that the tiny dancers who managed to survive a polar bear attack have, under the leadership of an insufferable little shit named Tommy, butchered their Terpsichorean tutor. Yep, fame costs and she paid in sweat and blood… never work with children or animals, eh? Then the most anticlimactic ending in living memory leaves us pondering further questions…
…. such as why, how and by whom was that PCP introduced into the drinking water? Why did it only effect the zoo inhabitants, those rats, that guide dog and those sawn-off Kids From Fame? Still, Prosperi has had way more troubling questions to respond to in his career, some of which he addresses on the bonus materials of this disc, stonewalling in the teeth (and bloody claws) of the evidence on view here that no animal was injured or killed during the making of his picture (!) and that all of them were handed back to the handlers when the cameras stopped rolling (some of them in considerably crispier condition than before they “starred” in Wild Beasts, he might have added).
FP would prefer to talk about WB as a warning against pollution / drugs / terrorism / genetically modified crops… you name it… anything apart from an exercise in animal cruelty. He does admit, though, that “We’ve never been PC”. No foolin’…
Tony De Leo does admit to personal discomfort about the fate of some of his animal co-stars in Wild Beasts, when not flexing his muscles to prove “Ol’ Tony’s still here!” Form an orderly cue, ladies and casting agents… There’s also an interview with amiable circus hunk Carlo Tiberti, whose dad Roberto wrangled the unfortunate creatures in this film.
Mario Morra has a lot of interesting things to say about the personal chemistry and working relationship between Jacopetti and Prosperi (“those two scoundrels!”) and his own excursions into Mondo Africa. He retired from movie editing in 1994 (“… because of the arrival of the despicable computer!”) but is proud and happy to show off the moviola on which he cut Pontecorvo’s Battle Of Algiers (1966), among many other classic (and not-so-classic) pictures.
Not to be bettered, Prosperi shows the men from Severin around his lavish country retreat in footage that was intended for a documentary that would unite him with his estranged collaborator Jacopetti, unfortunately scotched by the latter’s rapidly declining health. Chez Prosperi is predictably decked out with all kinds of non PC animal artifacts, pride of place among which must go to the genuine Triceratops egg. Just imagine the potential rampage should that one ever hatch… no doubt Franco still sits on it every night.
The way animals are treated in Wild Beasts is problematic, to state the bleeding obvious, but it’s difficult to claim the moral high ground if your shelves contain (as I suspect many of them do) copies of Cannibal Holocaust and / or Ferox… or even Argento’s Phenomena, given some of the revelations in the recent Arrow box set about how that poor chimp was “trained”.
(*) As for the unanswered question which opened this posting… “Francis Thrive” sounds suspiciously like a clumsily literal translation of “Franco Prosperi”. Draw your own conclusions.