Monthly Archives: December 2017

80 Glorious Years: “BARBARA STEELE in L’Aldila”… and in conversation with The House Of Freudstein.

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Friday the 13th of December, 2013 was a lucky day for your humble correspondent Bobby Freudstein, being the day that my longest, most soul-destroying and hopefully final stint of conventional employment mercifully terminated. Invited to what was, doubtless, going to be an unseemly office-closing knees-up, I was prepared with the perfect pretext for non-attendance. “Can’t do it, mate… I’m interviewing Barbara Steele tonight” (talk about a reaffirmation of intent!) “Who’s Barbara Steele?”, came the philistine reply. Another compelling reason not to go… I mean, would you want to socialise, if you could possibly avoid it, with the kind of person who doesn’t know who Barbara Steele is?

To mark La Steele’s 80th birthday, the following is a potted, Italian-biased version of a career-embracing interview that originally appeared, in its entirety, over issues 158 and 159 of Dark Side magazine. The original data file having gone AWOL and my scanner being on the blink, I’m grateful to the lovely Mrs Freudstein for retyping the relevant passages… also to Calum Waddell for hooking me up… and of course to the Queen Of Horror herself, for her participation.

We pick up the interview at the point where Barbara has just stood up Elvis Presley on Flaming Star, occasioning a blazing row with its director, Don Siegel. Having burned her Hollywood bridges, she started over in The Land Of The Big Boot…


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One of the memorable quotes that’s been attributed to you, so many of which seem to be apocryphal, is: “I went to Hollywood with very little and came back with nothing”.

I can’t remember what’s real or not myself, but that sounds about right.

And so, off to Italy… it’s said that Italian directors are more concerned with lighting the iconic face in the beautiful scene than they are with actually directing actors. Did you find yourself having to fall back on your Rank Charm School training?

Italian directors were, for the most part, so generous and enthusiastic and abundant and loving and you just felt it, felt you could do no wrong. When you are in this very safe place and you don’t have this sort of awkward, silent, critical eye around you, you can do something that you really wouldn’t otherwise think of doing. Now Mario Bava was a very conservative, shy and private man, didn’t get too involved with his actors because he was preoccupied as we all know with his camerawork and his lighting and the beauty of his films. He was very removed from his actors.

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Did your own background in the visual arts make you more simpatico with Bava’s vision and better equipped to participate in it?

Well, we didn’t see dailies and you’re not aware of what anything is until you’ve seen dailies. It was only ages afterwards that you got an idea of what was going on. You didn’t see the slow motion, you didn’t see the high contrast, you didn’t see the whole German Expressionist look… you didn’t see it, you just felt it, you just felt the huge intelligence and focus and that he really cared about his framing and so on, that absolutely nothing was random.

Was it disconcerting to find yourself acting on a noisy set with an international cast, some of whom where spouting stuff like “rhubarb, rhubarb” and with all the dialogue being re-dubbed in post production?

Well I never actually heard anybody saying the rhubarb, rhubarb thing! (Laughs) Obviously direct sound is so much better. Italy was extremely noisy in those years, there was always somebody singing songs, repairing a church bell, people having all sorts of crazy arguments… I guess all the walls must have been very thin so they couldn’t possibly do direct sound. Not exactly a disaster, but sad for me because I never heard my voice on these films. By the time they got round to looping the film, I was usually making another one in another country and couldn’t do it and the voice to me is, you know, two thirds of the way or at least half the way there. It’s strange how patterns follow you, or it seems, in such a random way, all your life because my voice has barely been used and you know that’s extraordinarily frustrating.

It’s such a shocking waste of such a distinctive voice… your performance in the pre-titles sequence of Black Sunday is one of the most iconic cinematic moments of all time, but we heard that you remain displeased with it, find it too mannered and would have welcomed the opportunity to do it again and differently.

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I’ve been thinking about that recently, you could really go one or two ways with it, when you’re paralysed with terror because someone is approaching you with death and agony, like the iron mask… your eyes are transfixed, you’re out-of-body and frozen in some kind of other worldly terror, or you can choose to do it the other way, which is to really go berserk! It would be interesting to see it both ways. Actually I think Mario Bava had a very firm idea of how he wanted it and he was right, I think it worked that way.

Well, Asa could afford to be sanguine about it because she was confident she’d return to do more evil deeds… I imagine that somewhat takes the edge off her ordeal (Barbara laughs). As an actress is it more satisfying to see yourself on the screen in moody chiaroscuro or the kind of lurid colour schemes favoured by Roger Corman, for whom you starred in the Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and indeed later by Bava himself?

I think black and white is more satisfying for horror, it reaches much deeper into the subconscious, just as black and white photographs have an appeal truer and more profound than a colour photograph. I don’t know if it’s just because the eye receives colour differently in a darkened movie theatre, I don’t know what happens to your peripheral vision but it always takes one time to accept the colour, however gorgeous it is, you know, however beautiful and well done it is…

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We’re getting more used to it now thanks to colour television, which is really very good now in America, a lot of it so beautifully shot that it looks like Storaro on some of these series, but having grown up on black and white cinema and all the great imagery of the ’40s and ’50s and German Expressionism, etc, there’s nothing for me quite as spectacular as great black and white. I do think that Italian cameramen have a third eye and I can actually identify if a film is Italian, even if I don’t know, just by the way it is lit. The light of Rome, the light of Italy, this transcendental light with these glowing threads that kind of go through it, it seems to be absorbed by film and the Italian cameramen are so sensitive to light, fabulous, as they grew up in this. I think this is why they are so very conscious of light and they talk about it… I mean, even the guy who’s selling you peaches on the market will talk about light, he won’t just say it’s a beautiful day, he’ll say: “Oh it’s a beautiful morning, isn’t the light incredible?” and it is this kind of thing and yeah…voilà!

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Another of your “gothic” directors was Antonio Margheriti… were you aware of the animosity that allegedly existed between him and Bava?

No I was not, though it may have well been the case between them in private.

Another of those myths that’s become associated with you is that you wouldn’t go on to the Black Sunday set one day because you feared that Bava had developed a “see through” film technique that would render you naked on the screen.

Bullshit! Yeah, this was published in that guy’s book about Bava, I couldn’t believe it! How could someone say something so profoundly idiotic?  I mean I was just amazed, it’s the most whimsical and demented thing imaginable… “I’m not coming to the set today in case you’ve got X Ray film”? Just hilarious!

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Bava’s secret “see through” film stock was working only too well…

Supposedly Bava tried several times to get a colour remake of Black Sunday off the ground and apparently he wanted you for The Whip and The Body (1963) in the role that eventually went to Daliah Lavi.

These are things that were never communicated to me, because I was really a gypsy and all over the place. But yes, that’s what I heard and they were films that the French director Yves Boisset really wanted me for and I never heard about. Sometimes you wouldn’t find out until two years after the event…

It would’ve been wonderful to watch the sado-masochistic sparks fly between you and Christopher Lee, though you did later work with him on Vernon Sewell’s Curse Of The Crimson Altar. Another male horror icon you appeared alongside, in Corman’s aforementioned the Pit and the Pendulum, was Vincent Price. How did that go professionally and personally?

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Everyone who ever worked with Vincent Price will tell you that they just adored him. He was such an intelligent, civilised guy, he was just as beautiful a man as he appears to be on film, with his sort of edgy irony rather than cruelty. Very supportive, and of course he loved Art, was a great Art collector, we had a really good communication about Art and yes, I really liked Vincent Price very much. I always said that if he had been an Englishman, or if he had moved to England, he could and would have been one of those titled actors, the Gielguds and so on, he would’ve been one of the great classic actors. I think he had something of an ambivalence about not using more of his powers as an actor in great roles. I know your readers all love Horror and you’re thinking about great roles in that genre but I’m talking about really great roles.

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When you had lunch with people like Price, Lee and Karloff (your other Crimson Altar co-star), would you compare notes on your experiences with people like Mario Bava?

I’ve had lunch with Christopher Lee on several occasions and I’ve taken tea at his house, I mean I’ve met him many many times and I can’t remember our conversations in that much detail frankly, but I just expounded over everything, I mean I don’t remember anything that he said particularly about Mario Bava but he’s very grand and very courteous and it’s marvellous, just too fabulous that he’s still working.

8 1/2 is just the most audacious, ostentatious display of creativity…. it’s about Fellini’s creative block but it’s like he’s saying that even blocked, his work is more engaging than that of others working at full throttle.

Well, what he actually said about this in the movie is in the scene at the press conference when Mastroianni is under the table and this is really true of so many artists, writers and so on. He says “I have nothing to say but I have to say it anyway”.

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Didn’t you have a lot off scene cut from the film?

I did, it is still a very long movie about 3 hours but the first cut was something like 5 and a half hours long! Oh god I did, yes and I’m so upset about it, I think I had about the scenes cut, most of which are very sarcastic about the Vatican. Oh and there’s a little dig at Antonioni where I have a tiny dog called Michelangelo and I’m saying: “Michelangelo, you’re so slow! Faster please, please, come on! Come on!”

He was so slow with the horror film in which he intended to star you alongside Monica Vitti that it never got made!

Ah, that would have been great, would’ve been just marvellous, but fate for actors is like walking on a high wire of luck, you could have one thing that could turn you around completely. The thing about the horror films I did in Italy in those days, of course, they are always set in the past… and why? Because the past has a fairytale quality and they are always done, as we said, very elegantly, beautifully shot, but that feeling of the past, in a strange way…

It gives a film greater longevity, compared to e.g. the later films in the Hammer cycle which tried for a very “early ’70s” feel and look and just look incredibly dated now, whereas something like Black Sunday is completely outside of any temporal frame of reference.

Well yes, they are out of time, you’re absolutely right. They are timeless and it gave them a kind of elegance. It felt, in a strange way, as though it could be truer and more real, because then you step back a bit and you feel you can expect it more as opposed to something being contemporary. Those films are all deeply engrossed in the psyche and l’aldila, the other world… it’s not the horror of, you know, you suddenly see somebody approach you in the dark with a knife… it’s a different horror, it’s psychological. It’s anticipation of the horror that’s about to come, which is always worse than the actuality because in the actuality you can react and you’re caught up in your rage and your blood flowing and everything and you react, the anticipation of the act is always far worse than the act itself.

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Another colour shot from the set of a b/w film… Fellini 8 1/2

Absolutely. In this age of DVD and Blu-Ray collectors’ editions, with all the extras you get on those, it would be nice to think that one day we’re going to see, for instance, your missing scenes from Fellini 8 1/2 or the stuff that was shot for his Casanova…

Well, nothing was ever shot of me for Casanova, whic is a great pity/ My sequence was completely cut before shooting started and it was a phenomenal role. I mean, this was before they invented Viagra and I was this kind of Venetian alchemist wearing this amazing head dress, sat on a throne in Venice, who came up with these marvellous bottles of stuff that would cure anybody of impotence, which would have been just the most spectacular, campy thing on the planet!

Wow! Were you ever connected to any Pasolini projects? That would have been another marriage made in heaven / hell…

No! I loved Pasolini, he used to live just three or five doors down the street from me, I saw him all the time and I just loved his poetry, all of his work, but no, our paths never crossed professionally.

That’s a shame, to me out of all those guys, he was The Master…

I think you’re right.

For a long time there was this dichotomy, a false one in my belief, between worthy Italian Arthouse cinema and that country’s populist “B movie” tradition. Do you sense that we are moving beyond that now when people like Scorsese and Tim Burton are rhapsodising about Mario Bava (and of course Fellini himself was a big admirer of Bava) and a Hollywood heavyweight like Quentin Tarantino is citing Antonio Margheriti and Enzo Castellari as his masters?

I do and I think particularly in American that’s the case, to me what is amazing that so many people are so conscious of the films, I cannot believe the amount of fans they have and the amount of fan mail I get for these films, which are ancient. This is even before there were DVDs, people were collecting videos, it’s just extraordinary because a lot of these films didn’t get any kind of release… just incredible!

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What one hears about Ricardo Freda is that if he really cared about a project he was full on and involved in it, but if he wasn’t he would just phone it in and farm it out to his assistants to complete the picture… which indeed is how Mario Bava made the transition from DP to director.

I never knew that.

I guess Freda was “on it” for the two “Dr Hichcock” pictures he made with you…

He was very “on it”, he was a very theatrical, energised guy, always chomping on a cigar. He had his little tantrums, which actually I quite liked because I could have a tantrum back. It’s a form of communication, you didn’t have to take it as a disparaging thing and he’d have his little things with the crew and this and that but in the end everybody just loved him. To me he was like an Italian opera star, second lead! (Laughs) He was very operatic, in other words, I really liked his theatricality and energy, I really loved Ricardo Freda… he was great.

Another guy who developed a reputation for tantrums and became a horror icon in his own right, relatively late in his career, was Lucio Fulci. I gather you had a good time with Fulci, you must have caught him when he was young and relatively relaxed. He did subsequently develop this reputation for being crusty and difficult and increasingly eccentric…

Yes, I heard that and I was sorry to hear it.

I met him in the last year of his life and he was very charming but absolutely barking, thoough there was a suspicion that he was kind of playing up to that image.

You’re kidding! Dear, oh dear…

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You played two roles in his 1964 comedy I Maniaci and very well, too… it’s a pity you didn’t accumulate more credits in that genre and that those in which you did appear never got any distribution outside of Italy.

I know, I love comedy, very few people can write it these days. I feel, you know, that somebody else had my actress career. I was just like living on the ceiling or something and these sort of things just fell in and I did them and it’s so strange that I’ve ended up with this collection of horror in my past.

Many of the gothic films you made in Italy deal with such taboo subjects… were you aware how the versions of them that got released in English speaking territories were tweaking to eradicate any suggestion of lesbianism, incest, necrophilia and so on?

It’s interesting because there we were in a highly Catholic country and that is where we were doing all that stuff, you’d think it would be the other way round, no?

So Many acerbic and startling statements have been accredited to you and most of them you probably never even said. “I never want to climb out of another freaking coffin as long as I live…”

No I never said that, I really hate that and that’s another one which I REALLY hate which I think was in a French magazine Midi Minute Fantastic or something, the magazine which I gather is now being republished in a series of books, but the one that really infuriates me…

I think I know what’s coming…

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“WTF?!?”

You’ve got to put this straight! I’m quoted as saying in several articles that, I wanted to “fuck the world” and that’s just a word that I don’t use. I probably said something like” “I want to have a love affair with the whole world”…

… or to embrace the whole world…

Yeah, which is completely different but that is just grotesque.

It is grotesque, it’s kind of ironic though that while you would obviously have never said such a thing, that is pretty much the plot of the David Cronenberg picture you appeared in, Shivers… libidomania!

Yes, well, he loved his bodily fluids, did Cronenberg!

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Categories: Interviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

That’s The Sound Of The Men Working On The Chain Gang… DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING on Arrow Blu-ray

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BD/DVD Combi. Region B/2. Arrow. 18.

As previously mentioned, review copies receive priority attention (reasonably enough) here at The House Of Freudstein. I’ve been enjoying Arrow’s BD edition of Don’t Torture A Duckling (1972) for a few months now, but the fact that I had to shell out for it put it to the back of the review queue. Having panned a few misfiring 11th hour Lucio Fulci duds on this Blog in 2017, it’s a relief to finally be able to devote some time to one of my favourite director’s unalloyed masterpieces. Fulci’s third giallo is undoubtedly his finest hour-and-a-halfish in that genre (bearing favourable comparison with anything Dario Argento chalked up in the thriller stakes) and arguably Fulci’s finest achievement, period (he often argued that it was, though he alternated between DTAD and the similarly under-distributed Beatrice Cenci, 1969).

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DTAD’s plot concerns a series of murders in a rural back water of southern Italy, in which all of the victims are pubertal boys. Suspicions fluctuate between (and varying degrees of retribution are meted out to) those whom the locals regard as “outsiders”… derelict peeping Tom / inept shake-down artist Giuseppe (Vito Passeri)… Florinda Bolkan’s disturbed, delusional would-be witch Martiara… and such city slicker intruders as the sexually provocative (as ever) Barbara Bouchet (whose character Patrizia has been banished to the boondocks by her rich dad in an attempt to get her off drugs) and Tomas Milian (a Milanese newspaper reporter covering the sensational murder spree).

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The true identity of the killer is ultimately revealed (to the total non-surprise of anyone who’s seen Lizard In A Woman’s Skin, Fulci’s tour de force giallo from the previous year) not as some social pariah but a pillar of the local establishment, whose grisly misdeeds proceed from impeccable Catholic casuistry…

The gob smacking impact of Don’t Torture A Duckling is based upon firm foundations. Fulci’s obviously impressive cast (which also includes Mark Porel as the village priest Don Alberto, Irene Papas as his mother and Georges Wilson as a reclusive folk mystic) had a strong script (courtesy of Fulci, Roberto Gianviti and Gianfranco Clerici) to work from and enjoyed, it would seem, cordial relations with the director… which wasn’t always exactly a given on a Fulci picture. Bouchet’s delineation of her character’s development, in particular, is another undoubted career peak and speaking of peaks, her nude indoor sunbathing turn herein reminds me why my heart was in my mouth when I found myself knocking on her hotel room door in Manchester in September 2013… I mean, was I going to find her topping up her tan?

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DP Sergio D’Offizi (whom, we gather, didn’t enjoy such cordial relations with Fulci and didn’t work with him again) renders the endless Italian countryside in suitably epic fashion and OST composer Riz Ortolani contributes an exceptional score, even by the standards of a career as exceptional as his was (not forgetting the angel-voiced input of Ornella Vavoni).

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Ornella Micheli (and brother Bruno) had been editing Fulci flicks for some time and would continue to do so until the relationship subsequently soured. Make up FX men Maurizio Trani (debuting for Fulci here) and Franco Di Girolamo (on board since Lizard In A Woman’s Skin) would stick with the director into his gory glory years of the late ’70s / early ’80s (sometimes working in tandem with the De Rossi clan), by which time Fulci had assembled a second dream team for his zombie-fuelled career Indian summer.

With all these talents aligned under his assured direction, Fulci was able to produce such marvels as the six and a half minutes between Bolkan’s arrival at the town cemetery and her death by the side of the autostrada, minutes which plumb the depths of human brutality (obviously) but also scale the cinematic heights of suspense, pathos and yes, tenderness.

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Fulci directs Florinda Bolkan in Don’t Torture A Duckling

DTAD also stands as a peak Fulci moment by dint of how closely it aligns the director with the central concerns of his mirror image Pier Paolo Pasolini. Both were troubled renegade Catholics. Both had tortured private lives. Pasolini was an Art house intellectual who yearned for the “authenticity” of the working classes. Fulci was a working class terza visione artisan with auteurist pretensions. As well as its obvious pessimism and anti-clericism, Don’t Torture A Duckling reiterates Pasolini’s uneasiness… and anger… about the degrading effects of globalisation and consumerism (specifically the Italian “economic miracle”) on “authentic” regional identity, the collapse of “popular culture” into “mass culture” and the widening gulf between those who benefit from alleged progress and those whom it leaves behind… issues whose relevance hardly abated in the four-and-a-half decades since Fulci shot Duckling and which have been thrust to the top of the news agenda during the current reaction against the neo-liberal experiment which had kicked off around the time he was shooting it.

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Pasolini eventually connected with his ideal authentic working youth on the beach at Ostia in November 1975, which is to say that (at least according to the official account of his death) this youth, one Pino Pelosi, connected the director’s head with a spiked plank. Fulci, in contrast, lived on through the depredations of personal decline and the precipitous collapse of the Italian film industry. As late as 1988’s The Ghosts Of Sodom, he was striving to maintain some affinity with Pasolini, though the mediocre resources at his disposal condemned that one to risible failure, economic circumstances determining all others (… now who was it that promulgated this formula?)

Back in 1972 though, Fulci’s righteous ire was a force to be reckoned with. It’s with almost palpable joy that he paints the killer’s washing powder commercial fantasy of clean-limbed, asexual soccer innocence, a vision so ludicrous that it ultimately has to be bashed out of the culprit’s head in slow-motion. What’s the last thing that goes through a fly’s mind before it’s squashed on a windshield? Or that of a killer cleric tumbling off a cliff? Or, for that matter, Pasolini’s during his final moments at the beach in Ostia?

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Don’t Torture A Duckling was shot, incidentally, in pretty much the same neck of the woods where Pasolini had filmed The Gospel According To Mathew, misidentified in Troy Howarth’s commentary track as “The Gospel According To Saint Michael”. Although I’ve picked the prolific Troy up on a few things recently, I bear him no grudge. We all drop clangers and the busier you are, the more likely you are to drop a few (not that anybody ever seems inclined to cut me any slack for mine…)

Fulci was often in variance – and in error – with producers regarding the ingredients that made some of his films so great. I’m a lot fonder of Manhattan Baby (1982) than many pundits, but it would have been seriously compromised by the omission of its Egyptian prologue, which producer Fabrizio De Angelis had to strong arm the reluctant director into undertaking. Nor did Fulci want to include any zombies in The Beyond (1981) and his original intention for Don’t Torture A Duckling (scuppered by producer Edmondo Amati) was to set it in Turin, among the Southern emigres whose labour fuelled that “economic miracle”.

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Arrow seem to have made considerably more fuss about their recent Argento boxes than about this crucial release but any doubts that they possibly didn’t “get” Don’t Torture A Duckling are soon dispelled when you see the restoration job that’s been undertaken here (fascinatingly detailed by Torsten Kaiser – who also helmed TLE’s epic conservation job on Suspiria – in the accompanying booklet). From the opening scene you’re struck as never before by the Earth tones with which D’Offizi renders both the Basilicata soil and the complexions of the wretches who scratch a living from it (ashes to ashes, dust to dust)… the inhospitably rough terrain which ultimately rips the killer’s hypocritical false face from his skull.

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The bonus materials with which Arrow have adorned this edition are equally impressive. Elsewhere in its accompanying booklet Barry Forshaw writes about the film, Howard Hughes about its soundtrack composer, Riz Ortolani. On the disc itself, Dr Mikel Koven expands engagingly on one of the main themes from his indispensable 2006 book La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film, concerning how genre films would typically be consumed in Italian “terza visione” cinemas, whose socially interactive and often just plain rowdy patrons might completely  lose interest in a film if it didn’t serve up some violent set-piece spectacle every 15 minutes or so. It would be difficult to conceive of a director more equal to this task than Lucio Fulci and I’m reminded of a hysterical anecdote, related from the grooves of Graveside Records’ House By The Cemetery / Manhattan Baby soundtrack CD by the late Sage Stallone, concerning his and Fulci’s visit to precisely such a venue and the near riot that subsequently broke out. The authentic Italian cinema flavour of Arrow’s print is enhanced by the presence of the “fine primo tempo” caption, a device of which I’ve always been very fond although its appearance in the middle of e.g. Lamberto Bava’s Demons clearly winds up some viewers. In Hell Is Already In Us, Kat Ellinger argues cogently that to address misogyny (an issue without which no discussion of Fulci seems complete) is not to endorse it, deftly employing quotes from various interviews with the director to help make her point. Apparently some people have taken this impressive video essay as “an indictment of Fulci’s misogyny”… ah well Kat, we do what we can. Nice to see that Ms Ellinger’s obsession with The Monk shows no sign of abating, either.

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We’re also treated to a 1988 audio interview with Fulci and filmed ones with a batch of his collaborators on this film. Bruno Micheli talks about editing Fulci flicks with his sister and how they were both arbitrarily dismissed, a memory that’s clearly so emotional for him that he asks for the shooting to stop. Maurizio Trani (who assisted Franco Di Girolamo on the special effects of DTAD) chips in with a few of his own “barmy Lucio” anecdotes and confirms that the director was very active in conceptualising and realising FX shots, contrary to the depiction of him in the Aurum Horror Film Encyclopedia (anybody remember that?) as a passive figure faithfully capturing whatever his talented collaborators placed in front of the camera. Trani also gets to comment on Florinda Bolkan’s, er, mortifying death scene in a split screen presentation (“It’s not all bad, though we did make a lot of mistakes”).

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The star herself, during a compelling interview, gets to watch this celebrated sequence (apparently for the first time) as we experience her reactions in the same split screen format. Her memories of it seem very hazy, considering it allegedly took three weeks to shoot and the fact that she now lives just down the road from its location. Bolkan’s recollections of her director recall the ambivalence I’ve previously heard from Catriona MacColl. He was a sadist on set but she loved him anyway. On balance, “Fulci was something else”… wasn’t he just?

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What do you mean… “gratuitous”?

Categories: Blu-ray / DVD Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dirty Pillows & Devil’s Dumplings … CARRIE Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

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

There was a time (and such a fine time it was) when Brian De Palma and Dario Argento  were bracketed together as whizz-kid master thriller technicians, heirs apparent to the Hitchcock crown, et al, but both careers have declined since then… hardly surprising for directors who have been plying and polishing their trade since the 1960s. Their respective declines, though, have been relative… for De Palma it means that a higher proportion of his regular output has become more Hollywood formulaic / less auteurial and no doubt he cries all the way to the bank, clutching his big pay check, on account of this… for Argento it means trading on past glories with Mother Of Tears, cranking out such banalities as Giallo and Dracula 3-D and struggling to crowd fund a film starring Iggy Pop. Having just had the memory of Dario’s recent screen misadventures knocked right out of our heads by the restored Suspiria, here’s a timely reminder for all of us that De Palma was once a bit special, too.

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I’m assuming that the viewer is already familiar with the plot of Carrie… ugly duckling turns beautiful swan and is doused with pig blood… which really sets the telekinetic cat among the pigeons… topped off with the mother of all shock endings. The film also marked De Palma’s own transformation from vaguely lefty underground film maker to Hollywood player, ready to flex the dazzling technical chops he’d built up on the innovative but obscure likes of Dionysus In ’69 (1970) before a mainstream audience… and didn’t he do well? Dazzlingly deploying every tool in his armoury – virtuoso tracking, crane and “figure of eight” shots, slow motion, multi-focus lenses, split screen, you name it – De Palma, for my money, out-Hitches Hitchcock here, with sequences of sensuously strung-out suspense that will still perch you, agonised, on the edge of your set, no matter how many times you’ve seen them before. Coincidentally of course, the success of De Palma’s movie put a rocket under the career of the guy who wrote its source novel, a certain Stephen King.

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Piper at the Gates of Hell…

To add to the strength of his material and his own cinematic virtuosity, BDP could call upon the contributions of a team of stalwart collaborators, just about all of whom are acknowledged and celebrated and get to have their say somewhere in the mind-bogglingly generous supplementary material with which Arrow have stuffed this set. Here, I’ll just mention his cast. De Palma held a joint casting session for the film with George Lucas, who was looking to fill the roles for Star Wars. Seems like Brian got George’s cast-offs but can you imagine anybody topping the ensemble playing that he got in Carrie? The Oscar nominations for Sissy Spacek in the title role and Piper Laurie as her religiously fanatical mother were almost unprecedented for a “mere” horror film. Amazingly, the director considered swapping Spacek and Amy Irving in their respective roles (has Irving spent a single second in her life looking dowdy?) and took a lot of convincing to have Nancy Allen in the film at all (thereby nearly depriving us of the most mouth-watering Bad Girl in screen history… never mind Carrie White burning in Hell, I wanna know what mischief Chris Hargensen is getting up to down there!) De Palma did insist on Betty Buckley slapping Allen (his soon-to-be wife) repeatedly and for real during the PE detention scene. Armchair psychologists may make of this what they will… and no doubt they will.

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The 4K restoration looks a tad grainy to these eyes but they’ve been a bit spoiled recently… it was probably a bad idea to watch Carrie (or anything, for that matter) right after CultFilms’ staggering release of Suspiria. The good news is that the film sounds great in 5.1 surround sound and as previously mentioned, Arrow have really gone to town on the extras, here… De Palma, writer Lawrence D. Cohen, DP Mario Tosi, composer Pino Donaggio (for whom Carrie was also the Hollywood breakthrough… he talks about George Lucas jumping out of his seat at the end of his first exposure to the finished film), editor Paul Hirsch (who had his work cut out for him, assembling the split screen footage), casting director Harriet B. Helberg and art director Jack Fisk (Spacek’s real life husband) talk at length about their participation in putting Carrie together (much is said, for instance, about the aborted “raining stones” prologue). All of the major thespian participants (with the exception of John Travolta, whom everyone agrees was a sweetheart) speak about the film in documentaries made at various times over the years… it’s interesting to see how they’ve aged.

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Homecoming Queen… the return of The Repressed

As well as the expected galleries, trailers, TV and radio spots, you get a brand-new visual essay, courtesy of Jonathan Bygraves, comparing the various screen adaptations of Carrie over the years. There’s an “alternate” (should be “alternative”, right?) title sequence created for network television screenings to obliterate any sightings of lady bits or direct references to menstruation (to put this in perspective, it’s only in recent months that UK TV has allowed commercials for sanitary products to feature red rather than blue blood!) Betty Buckley, who plays Miss Collins in the film, talks about her stint as Carrie’s mom in the riotously received theatrical flop Carrie – The Musical and in an episode of Horror’s Hallowed Grounds, some refugee from Green Day takes us on a present day tour of the movie’s iconic locations. He’s kind of irritating but I occasionally cracked a smile on account of his gonzoid presentational style.

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I haven’t had time to check the commentary track by Lee Gambin and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, nor the opportunity to peruse the 60-page booklet, which features a new appraisal by Neil Mitchell, who wrote the Devil’s Advocates entry on Carrie, a reprint of a 40th anniversary fanzine, and an archive interview with De Palma. I’m unlikely to see that now, given that last time I checked this limited edition set was selling out all over the place.

If you do manage to get your hands on a copy… well, we can burn it together and pray for forgiveness!

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Sorry, couldn’t resist another shot of Satan’s favourite cheer leader…

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Stop Making Sense… TLE’s 4K Restoration Of SUSPIRIA on CultFilms Blu-ray, Reviewed (No “Green Puke”… Guaranteed)

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. Cultfilms. 18.

Synapse have been trailering their Suspiria restoration for something like four years but TLE’s rendition kind of crept up on the rails to emerge in a dead heat with it. Before most people have enjoyed the opportunity to watch even one of these efforts (let alone both) there has already been a lot of online argy-bargy, involving screen grab comparisons, about the relative merits of each, not all of which has been politely conducted. Indeed, more heat has been generated than light, along with a certain amount of alleged “green puke”. I’ve already blogged about TLE’s version on the big screen. Suffice to say, I detected no green puke whatsoever and I’m speaking as one who’s intimately acquainted with the sight, smell and yes, the taste of verdant vomit, given that we’re still cleaning up the Doc’s basement here after last year’s House Of Freudstein office party. Now’s our chance to evaluate how well TLE’s big screen triumph has translated to little silver discs, courtesy of CultFilms…

… but first, a warning from the director himself: “I am Dario Argento. Welcome! You are about to see Suspiria, a film in full Dario Argento style. It’s full of emotions, fright and fear. I hope you are ready to receive all of this”. Bring it on, my sinister-looking, half-Brazilian pal…

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… and a hundred or so minutes later, to nobody’s great surprise, we’ve watched the release of the year, beating off such strong competition as Arrow’s own Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Phenomena and Don’t Torture A Duckling sets, a series of Sergio Martino gialli on BD from Shameless and any amount of tawdry Severin treasures. Suspiria will light up your TV to truly gob-smacking effect and sounds even better than it did at the Mayhem Festival back in October… if you’ve invested in a 5.1 set up you’ll be able to join Suzy (Jessica Harper) and Sarah (Stefania Casini) in following the footsteps of Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) and co as they clunk around the hidden recesses of the Tanz Akademie, doing God knows what.

A few random thoughts that occurred while my senses were being battered “in full Argento style”. Doesn’t Pat Hingle (Eva Axén) have an… er, unusual walking / running style? Why does everyone make such a big deal out of her being so spectacularly murdered during the film’s most celebrated set piece without ever mentioning her friend, who was simultaneously bisected by falling glass and masonry? And does Madam Blanc (Joan Bennett) really believe that such grotesque carnage can be attributed to “questionable friendships”?

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“Nothing to see here, move along…”

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Joan Bennett in her Holywwod pomp.

Although people often moan about the alleged plotting implausibilities of Argento’s subsequent Phenomena, does the plot of Suspiria actually sustain serious scrutiny? The notion that a coven of witches could operate under God-fearing society’s radar by operating a dance school where they kill and possibly also (it is strongly suggested) eat the students makes about as much sense as Anton Diffring’s fugitive plastic surgeon opening a circus then shagging and killing all of his glamorous female performers in Circus Of Horrors (1960). Fortunately, the oneiric impact of Horror cinema has never turned on the dictates of logic or the banalities of “common sense”. Stop trying to make sense of it and just celebrate the arrival of Argento’s masterpiece in a format that befits its status as arguably The Greatest Horror Film Ever Made. At the same time, we are served a saddening reminder of how very far the director’s stock has slipped in the meantime. One very much doubts that, forty years after their original releases, fans are going to be buzzing over the prospect of e.g. Phantom Of The Opera, Giallo, Dracula in 3-D or, more pointedly, Mother Of Tears being revived and restored.

One question continues to nag at me, though… if it ever came to a knock-down, drag-out scrap, who would emerge victorious from a playground showdown between Suspiria’s knickerbockered Little Albert and Bob Boyle from House by The Cemetery? Readers views are welcomed…

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You calling my pint a puff, like?

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Is one talking to me or chewing a brick?

Extras wise, we get a couple of Cine-Excess featurettes that you’ll already be familiar with if you bought Nouveaux’s previous UK Blu-ray release of Suspiria, ditto the Jones / Newman commentary track. The original bonus materials comprise a 27 minute interview with the director and a fascinating hour(ish) long featurette on the actual restoration process.

In the interview, Argento sticks steadfastly to one of the taller tales he’s ever spun, the one about the uncredited actress playing Helena Markos requiring no make-up because she actually looked like that in the first place (sure thing, Dario!) While we can dismiss this as a mischievous bit of whimsy, it’s harder to forgive the way that Daria Nicolodi has, once again, been written out of history vis-a-vis the writing of Suspiria, reversing the trend in previous editions (notably Anchor Bay’s 25th Anniversary 3 disc DVD set) to increasingly acknowledge her input.

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“… she even came with that skewer through her neck!”

In the riveting restoration featurette, TLE’s Torsten Kaiser talks us through “before”, “during” and “after” samples from key (in the technical rather than narrative sense) scenes from the movie, giving us the merest glimpse of what a Herculean labour it was to render such cinematic beauty from what was a pretty ropey bunch of elements. Throughout Herr Kaiser talks about what was done without giving too much away about how it was actually done. Maybe’s he overestimating the degree of technical savvy  at which the average viewer (certainly I) is (am) operating. Perhaps he calculates (correctly, in my case) that the average viewer is incapable of getting his head around such technical stuff. There could also be an understandable desire to keep the more sophisticated tricks of his trade to himself…

… whatever, for further invaluable insights from Torsten, check out the upcoming interview with him in Dark Side magazine. One of the things we discuss there, of which there is no mention in this featurette, is the magic moment at about 1:17:24 of Suspiria (in this presentation) where Professor Milius (Rudolf Schündler) tells Suzy that you can destroy a coven by severing its head, cue the spectacle of Dario Argento’s face, popping up in a window reflection as he directs the scene. Very noticeable in the previous Nouveaux Blu-ray, its been significantly “dialled down” this time around… and I kinda miss it!

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The Greatest Show On Earth, Part 3: Ooh, My Brain Hurts… MALATESTA’S CARNIVAL OF BLOOD Reviewed

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BD. Region Free. Arrow. 18.

Hived off from Arrow’s earlier American Horror Project Volume 1 set, here’s a stand alone release of the only feature release from documentarian Christopher Speeth. For many years this 1973 effort was considered a lost film and no doubt there will be many who wish it had stayed that way. In his introduction to the film, Nightmare USA  author Stephen Thrower advises that the best way to approach Malatesta’s Carnival Of Carnival Blood is to suspend one’s expectations of any sort of linear narrative. Better still, one could hoist them up into the rafters and beat them energetically with sticks, like some kind of piñata of preconceptions.

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Nice legs. Just saying…

The film does kick off with suggestions of a plot of sorts, albeit a very weird and weedy one. A couple of families have started living and working at the eponymous down-at-heel fairground but when not manning the coconut shy and hook-a-duck stands they are surreptitiously searching for their relatives, who disappeared while visiting it. Nobody thinks about calling in the police, it’s just business as usual, even when (and in this respect MCOB reminds me of nothing so much as Umberto Lenzi’s totally out-of-wack giallo, Eyeball) further people are gorily bumped off, e.g. in a roller coaster decapitation. Mr Malatesta is nowhere to be seen (probably dodging Health & Safety inspectors) until the end of the picture and his underling (below) Mr Blood’s attempts at reassurance fall

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predictably flat. Seems that these guys are running a cult whose members believe that drinking human blood and eating human flesh will prolong their lifespans… not exactly a novel idea here at The House Of Freudstein, though it has to be said that most of the cultists aren’t looking too great on this diet…

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…. and don’t start me on that fucking midget from Fantasy Island as “Bobo”!

Scriptwriter Werner Liepolt reveals, in a bonus interview here, that he was trying to say something about the Eucharist and the pagan festivals it superceded by updating the true story of Sawney Bean and his cannibal clan. Keep on taking the tablets, Werner. He complains that director Speeth (also interviewed herein) departed from his screenplay early on to mount the increasingly episodic, psychedelic and surrealistic spectacle that has been passed down to us as Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood.

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“We’ve had a lot of accidents…”

You could argue that the dilapidated fun fair, with its broken down attractions themed around pioneers and prospectors, suggests the American dream going to seed (MCOB’s Pennsylvania setting looks like “The Rust Belt” decades before that term came into vogue) and the savage realities behind both the frontier myths and the increasingly moribund capitalism which feeds on them… but if you don’t, we needn’t fall out about it, OK?

There are moments where Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood plays like a run-of-the-mill Romero re-run… other times, it suggests a time-travelling sequel to Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse which Alejandro Jodorowsky scripted but was then obliged, by previous commitments, to hand over to Ed Wood and Jean Rollin, who directed alternate scenes.

Own up… you want to watch it now, don’t you?

P.S. At the time of posting this review I hadn’t yet had the chance to check out the disc’s commentary track by film historian Richard Harland Smith, which no less a pundit than Darrell Buxton advises me is “the very best (he has) ever heard”. Will be rectifying this omission as a matter of urgency.

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