Monthly Archives: September 2018

The Gates Of Delirium… Fulci’s CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD on 4k.

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Ol’ Purple Eyes is back…

BD. Arrow. Region B. 18.

City Of The Living Dead (1980), initiating Lucio Fulci’s celebrated “Gates Of Hell trilogy”, was only his second Horror film and clearly evidences the crash course in H.P. Lovecraft recommended to him by co-writer Dardanno Sachetti after their collaboration on that unexpected international box office champ, Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979).

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Evil New England clergyman Father Thomas (Fabrizio Jovine) hangs himself in a Dunwich cemetery, thereby opening the very Gates of Hell (the initial manifestation of which is a bunch of grungey zombies clawing their way out of their graves). All of this is witnessed by psychic Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl) during a drug crazed seance in New York City, resulting in convulsions and her apparent death. Presiding medium The Great Theresa (Adelaide Asti), an authority on The Book Of Enoch, warns the investigating cops that “at this very precise moment, in some other distant place, horrendously awful things are happening… things that would shatter your imagination!” 

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After Mary’s been rescued from living internment by bibulous hack reporter Peter Bell (Christopher George), they set off for Dunwich, intent on closing those Gates Of Hell before All Saints Day, when Hell’s dominion over the Earth will be irreversibly completed. Hooking up with Dunwich psychiatrist Gerry (Carlo De Mejo) and his patient Sandra (Janet Agren), they learn that Theresa wasn’t bullshitting about those “horrendously awful” things, principle among which are the gruesome demises of genre icons Daniela Doria (who vomits up her entire gastro-intestinal tract), Michele Soavi (skull ripped off) and (as misunderstood vagrant sex-case Bob) John Morghen, who gets treated to an impromptu spot of amateur brain surgery by a red neck vigilante. Penetrating the bowels of Dunwich cemetery (and indeed of Father Thomas himself), the surviving protagonists Mary and Gerry save the day… or do they? Your guess is as good as mine, on the strength of COTLD’s proverbially baffling conclusion.

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This film has already appeared in so many editions (several from Arrow alone) that the above synopsis is probably superfluous, though one entertains the hope that it might galvanise some new viewer, in some other distant place, into connecting with the imaginationshattering milieu of Lucio Fulci, much as Alan Jones’ accounts of these films in Starburst magazine galvanised Your Truly, oh so many years ago. What’s important these days, I guess, with each successive reissue, is the quality of both the film transfer and any supplementary materials. Subjecting the negative of a 1980 film to 4k scanning, while shedding further, er, light on the subtleties of DP Sergio Salavati’s handiwork, is arguably an upgrade too far in terms of ramping up screen grain... you pays your twenty quid and you takes your choice. Sound wise, we’re offered the usual language alternatives and a 5.1 option… Arrow’s previous steel box edition offered 7.1 but I’m not certain that my home set up (nor those of most people) extracted any discernible benefit from that anyway… suffice to say Fabio Frizzi’s celebrated score fair throbs from the speakers this time out.

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The pizza girl’s here…

It’s the sheer breadth and depth of its extras that ultimately promote this City Of The Living Dead from a debatable purchase to an indispensable one. You’ll already be familiar with some of those… audio commentaries from Catriona MacColl and John Morghen (the latter moderated by Calum Waddell) and Waddell’s video interview with Carlo De Mejo… from previous editions. The disc is creaking with a veritable cemetery load of cracking new stuff, though… Stephen Thrower’s take on these films is always worth listening to and here he challenges the received wisdom that Fulci couldn’t get a gig after the success of Zombie Flesh Eaters (what’s indisputable is that producer Fabrizio De Angelis was slow to see the possibilities and continued to think small even after he did reconvene with Fulci). For once Thrower’s presentation, as diligently researched and passionately felt as ever, takes a back seat, given the wealth of primary sources testifying on this set. Among the most compelling is a lengthy new interview with Dardano Sacchetti, in which the irascible writer pursues his familiar theme of De Angelis’ short-sightedness while throwing out all manner of interesting insights re what was going on behind the scenes. Never one to hold back on his opinions, it would seem that Signor Sacchetti is not the biggest fan of Catriona MacColl. 

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“Oui, whatever…”

MacColl herself is duly interviewed, sounding a lot more French than I remember from my own encounter with her (then again that was nearly 25 years ago and she’s spent the intervening quarter Century living in Paris)… interesting  to hear that when she wasn’t being buried alive and showered with maggots, Catriona was required to dub and scream over multiple takes of the same shots, prior to the definitive editorial decisions being taken. 

Camera operator Roberto Forges Davanzati talks, among other things, about the difficulties of making sunny Savannah, Georgia look like an autumnal New England location, neatly illustrated by his private “behind the scenes” 8mm footage, for which he also supplies an audio commentary. Production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng also talks about “the Savannah problem” and his own difficulties breaking the ice with Fulci, after having been parachuted in by producers Medusa over the director’s original pick, Massimo Lentini. Fulci’s misgivings were predictably assuaged by Geleng’s amazing work on this picture.

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Cinematographer Sergio Salvati clearly loved Fulci but acknowledges and regrets the director’s sadistic treatment of some of his actresses… also his overuse of the zoom lens. As an unexpected bonus, Salvati supplies some fascinating incidental revelations about how The Beyond’s stunning denouement was contrived, against all the odds, in the face of producer De Angelis’s constant budget cutting.

Giovanni Lombardo Radice / John Morghen (these days sporting a beard of Biblical proportions) reiterates that he never had any problems with Fulci but confesses that he’s never been able to watch Daniela Doria’death scene all the way throughGino “Bombardon” De Rossi talks us through that and several other of his gory FX tours de force for City Of The Living Dead et al. He also mentions the prank played on Fulci, referenced by several of the participants in these featurettes, by which maggots were placed in the ol’ goremeister’s pipe. De Rossi initially got the blame for this, but turns out the culprit was actually Christopher George, who obviously figured that one good maggotty turn deserved another.

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Father and son acting team Venantino and Luca (“Jon Jon”) Venantini recall their experiences on the picture, which have become somewhat sanitised in the telling, compared to the version they offered in Mike Baronas’ documentary Paura: Lucio Fulci Remembered. Venantino, clearly still very much a character in his late ’80s, now resembles an over-baked spud. Luca’s obvious love and concern for his dad make for touching viewing. There’s also a previously unseen interview with Fulci’s go-to OST man Fabio Frizzi, who suggests that Fulci’s personal sufferings made him a person of substance.

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Fulci fan boy Andy (Ghost Stories) Nyman, though obviously not a member of the inner circle, recounts his encounters with Giannetto De Rossi and Richard Johnson in appropriately enthusiastic style and the ubiquitous Kat Ellinger contributes another of these here video essays, concerning Fulci and his seminal role in the busy Italian zombie cycle.

Among the more predictable extras are the alternative US “Gates of Hell” credits sequence and assorted trailers and radio spots. The extensive image gallery features over 150 stills, posters and other ephemera from the FAB Press and Mike Siegel archives. You also get reversible sleeve options (choose between Charles Hamm and pals in all their original glory and newly commissioned artwork by Wes Benscoter), a double-sided fold-out poster and 6 lobby card reproductions. As usual we HOF drones haven’t set eyes on that stuff yet, nor the limited edition 60-page booklet featuring new writing by Travis Crawford and Roberto Curti, an archival interview with Fulci and contemporary reviews.

Just make sure you grab your copy before All Saints Day, or there’ll be Hell to pay…

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How Does It Feel To Be One Of The Beautiful People? HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN Reviewed

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 18.

Prior to the advent of the internet (if you pampered millennials can actually imagine such a thing), Phil Hardy’s Aurum Horror Encyclopedia was the hard-pressed Horror hack’s bible. Before the dawn of VHS, in fact (“Dawn of what, now?” – A Pampered Millennial) we would drool over its reviews of films we thought we’d never live to see… The House That ScreamedThe House With Laughing Windows, Don’t Torture A Duckling, et al. A lot of those titles are now in general circulation, of course, but Hardy’s tome also alerted us to the existence of and tantalisingly synopsised a whole subset of forbiddingly entitled Japanese efforts such as Koji Wakamatsu’s Violated Angels (1967), Teruo Ishii’s The Joys Of Torture (1968) and Shiro Toyoda’s Portrait Of Hell (1969)

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Arrow have been making some impressive inroads into Japanese territory recently, notably (for our purposes) with their Bloodthirsty Trilogy box. Now here’s Ishii’s 1969 effort Horrors Of Malformed Men (“Kyofu Kikei Ningen”) which, startling as it is to Occidental eyes, is typical of the edgy sex / crime / horror fodder that the Toei studio were churning out during the ’60s and early ’70s.

Freely adapted from the popular weird tales of Edogawa Rampo (think about it), the film starts with amnesiac Hirosuke Hitomi (Teruo Yoshida) finding himself in a mental institution, the general vibe of which is Marat / Sade-a-go-go, with wall-to-rubber-wall sex-crazed, semi-naked mad chicks. Security seems pretty lax in this joint and during one of his regular nocturnal rambles around its grounds, Hirosuke strikes up a friendship with pretty young circus performer Hatsuyo (Teruko Yumi)… gotta have a circus right next door to the nuthouse, right? After singing a lullaby that sparks a vague childhood memory in his head, she agrees to try to recall its origin but when he meets her next day (after donning a joke shop beard, for some reason) she’s bumped off and Hirosuke is framed for her murder. She says enough before dying to convince him that he can locate his home town “somewhere along the coast of the Sea of Japan”… narrowing things right down, there! Improbably, he does make it back home and even more improbably, passes himself off for his dead doppelganger Genzaburou (also played by Yoshida). It helps that they’ve both got a swastika tattooed on one of their feet… very PC. Most improbably of all, Hirosuke is accepted by the dead guy’s family, the difficulties attendant on carrying off this masquerade briefly slowing the loopy action for a bit…

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… no worries, things are back from flat to barking batshit crazy in a nano-second after our man has sailed over to Panorama island in search of his long-lost dad, Jôgorô Komoda. This guy’s played by one Tatsumi Hijikata, a kind of Japanese equivalent to the recently deceased Lindsay Kemp. No surprise then that when we’re introduced to him he’s doing a spot of, er, interesting interpretive dancing on a wave-lashed stony outcrop of the island.

When not busting radical moves at the seaside, Jôgorô likes to experiment on his kidnapped victims, transforming them into freaks… so we get goat girls, another chick with a hand sewn to her head, non-identical Siamese twins… other dudes seem to have some feathers stuck to them or to have simply been given a quick splash of silver paint.

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Despite professing indirect inspiration from the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Horrors Of Malformed Men is clearly based largely upon H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel The Island Of Dr Moreau, though Jôgorô gets things arse-ways about by reducing humans to the level of beasts rather than speeding up the evolution of animals, as was Moreau’s modus operandi. The resulting human oddities and horrors foreshadow those of the Emperor Tiberius’ own island getaway in Tinto Brass’s Caligula (1979) and I wonder if Tom Six had certain scenes from HOMM in mind when he dreamed up The Human Centipede (2009). Japan’s censors sensed other allusions when they banned Horrors Of Malformed Men… although no more sexy or graphic than other contemporary Toei releases it could, they figured, be construed as an allegory for certain unfortunate events that happened in Japan during 1945.

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Love Island’s new policy re recruiting contestants proved controversial with viewers…

What’s Jôgorô’s motivation for these crazy surgical antics? Well, he wants to flood the world with an army of mutants as revenge for the way he was rejected by polite society on account of his webbed fingers (sense of perspective needed here, Jôgorô!) His beautiful wife turned against him and took a lover. He’s just telling Hirosuke how he resolved this little marital spat (by chaining them up in a cave, feeding him to crabs then obliging her to eat the crabs… I couldn’t seem to find this one anywhere in the Relate training manual) when Edogawa Rampo’s regular Sherlock Holmes figure, Kogoro Akechi (Minoru Oki) turns up and proceeds, in know-it-all fashion, to explain everything that’s been going on (I must admit, I was still more than a tad baffled when he was finished).

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Edogawa Rampo, yesterday.

Kogoro persuades Jôgorô not to pull the lever that will blow up the whole island (an inadvisable design feature previously popular in Universal Frankenstein movies) but Hirosuke, having recently discovered that he’s been shagging his sister, opts to blow up with her during a firework display, a spectacle that just about tops all the other weird shit we’ve been sitting through for approximately the last two hours… it’s like the climax of Zabriskie Point, albeit even more dementedly druggy. As the star cross’d lovers heads fly through the air, you ask yourself why, if he was such a shit hot surgeon, Jôgorô didn’t just separate his webbed fingers. Well, that would have been a lot simpler but a lot less fun for us, the viewers.

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Apart from the stuff you’d expect (if, indeed, you’ll ever trust your expectations again after watching Horrors Of Malformed Men) the generous bonus materials include two audio commentaries, by Japanese cinema buffs Tom Mes and Mark Schilling (perhaps things will become a little clearer after I’ve heard those), Schilling’s rather touching video account of Ishii’s visit the Far East Film Festival in Udine (followed by a tourist trip to Venice… I don’t believe he was attending that city’s film festival), a new video interview with veteran Toei screenwriter Masahiro Kakefuda and the featurette Malformed Memories, in which filmmakers Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo The Iron Man) and Minoru Kawasaki (The Calamari Wrestler) talk of their admiration for the Cinema of  Teruo Ishii. These interviews did manage to resolve one outstanding issue for me, that of cultural relativity … do these films just look (very) weird (indeed) to our round eyes while being consumed as commonplace by domestic Japanese audiences? No… turns out that they alternate between picking their jaws up off the floor and laughing their asses off, too!

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Ishii’s “Pink” classic Orgies Of Edo, another 1969 effort, is next up from Arrow so hang onto your hats.

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Little Sawdust Hearts, Torn At The Seams… WHO KILLED TEDDY BEAR? Reviewed

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BD. Network. Region B. 15.

Sal Mineo, whose finest hour-and-a-half came as Jimmy Dean’s sidekick in Rebel Without A Cause (1955) had a great future firmly behind him by the time he wound up in Joseph Cates’ Who Killed Teddy Bear?, ten years later. Here he plays Lawrence Sherman who, during adolescence, was supposed to be baby-sitting his kid sister Edie but snuck away for a bit of slap and tickle with the neighbourhood floozy. Happening upon and grossed out by their furtive fumblings, Edie fell down the stairs, still clutching her beloved teddy bear and sustained a head injury that left her mentally handicapped. Lawrence has been trying to make amends ever since, serving as carer for the adult Edie (Margot Bennett) and working as a busboy in a Times Square bar to support her. Upon developing an unrequited passion for aspiring actress / bar hostess Norah Dain (Juliet Prowse) though, he undoes years of good work by decapitating Edie’s teddy and leaving it in Norah’s apartment (and what better way to win the heart of any young lady?) He also spies on her from his adjacent apartment, follows her around and bombards her with obscene phone calls (it’s strongly suggested that he’s flobbing off while doing so).

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Though not actually confirmed till halfway through the picture that it’s Sherman pulling all these sick stunts, you’d have to be equipped with the IQ of Edie not to have worked it out long before this point. I mean, he’s angry and alienated and when not working out obsessively, this guy is trawling Times Square’s grind houses and dirty book shops. You can’t help wondering if Schrader, Scorsese and De Niro screened Who Killed Teddy Bear? before coming up with the character of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976)…

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“You talkin’ to me?”

Norah seeks the support of bar boss Marian (Elaine Stritch, giving probably the best performance in the film… though Prowse is pretty good) and troubled cop Lt Dave Madden (Jan Murray). Marian tries to parlay her comforting routine into a lesbian encounter, for which transgression she is bumped off by the jealous Sherman. Madden is an even more complicated piece of work… his apartment is littered with textbooks on deviant sexual behaviour that are clearly intended to mirror Sherman’s collection of pornographic publications, some of which he shares. He rationalises his obsession as an attempt to understand the minds of sex criminals after the rape and murder of his own wife. The lingering suspicion that he’s a bit of a flake himself is reinforced when his attentions towards Norah become a little over affectionate (she needs to change her deodorant… or maybe stop using one) and are rebuffed, causing him to rant: “Every scrawny broad thinks she’s entrusted with the crown jewels and that she’ll die if she loses them!” I’m reminded of Lucio Fulci’s comment on his own slice of the big apple, The New York Ripper (1982): “Every excess in that movie is an excess of fantasy because every character is extreme… (it’s) a film without salvation”. Sure enough, things don’t work out too well for anyone by the end of Who Killed Teddy Bear?

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Mineo’s loyal gay fan base will enjoy the scenes of him working out, bare-chested and his tight-fitting outfits during some of the ludicrous funky dance sequences with which this film is freighted. Hill St Blues buffs will recognise the “Dan Travanty” who plays Carlo (the bar bouncer who gets stabbed by a drunken customer) as Daniel J. Travanti / Capt. Frank Furillo. Otherwise WKTB?, while no masterpiece, emerges as an engagingly torrid little pot-boiler and incidentally, an invaluable visual record of Times Square before Rudi Giuliani cleaned it up (looking all the more immediate for Joseph Brun’s gritty monochrome photography). Don’t start me on Leslie Uggams’ infuriating ear-worm of a theme song, which failed to even ruffle the Queen of Atlantic Records laurel on the late Aretha Franklin’s brow.

 

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When this film was shot, director Cates had already turned in his masterpiece anyway, in the shape of his daughter Phoebe, for which we are duly thankful (and no, I’ve never felt the temptation to send her a decapitated teddy bear…)

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You get a take-it-or-leave-it 1966 episode of Court Martial (“The House Where He Lived”)  starring the ill-fated Mineo (and the even worse-fated Frank Wolff) but the other principal extra here is as worthy of the admission price as the main feature… LSD: Insight Or Insanity?, an 18 minute high school educational reel narrated by Mineo, promises to dispel all the sensationalist myths about acid, then proceeds to trot out and elaborate on every last one of them (people staring at the sun, jumping off tall buildings, et al) and introducing a new one on me: “Other trippers attempt to merge their being with a large fast automobile”. “What do America’s leading doctors, scientists and psychiatrists have to say?” asks Sal the square.

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Well, the assembled worthies (a scary-looking bunch who would surely harsh even the mellowest of trips) are unanimous: “The LSD fad… is more than a fad. Because of it, people are disturbed and even dead”. The most telling indictment of all? “LSD doesn’t inspire one’s desire to perspire”. Hot diggety dog! As well as this threat to the Protestant work ethic, “there’s always the chance of a bad trip, a bummer, a freak-out… or even a flip out!”, dutifully re-enacted by an overacting kid in a strait-jacket. Yep, “a real kick has become a real kick in the head”. And if getting stuck in a psychological “never-never land of no return” isn’t enough to deter you, Insight Or Insanity? ends with a bunch of kids playing Russian roulette. Are they tripping or this merely a metaphor? Powerful stuff, either way… how odd then, that the film makers follow this harrowing spectacle with a pro-acid song playing over the credits. Like Sal says… “It’s up to you!”

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Vicious Sydney… Flavio Mogherini’s THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE Reviewed.

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 15.

During a career in which he was more active as an art director and production designer, Flavio Mogherini managed just this one certified giallo (his swan song, 1994’s Delitto Passionale, sounds like it might be a borderline case) among his directorial credits… but it’s a fascinating one and not only because it’s based on a notorious and perennially enigmatic true life murder mystery (a new cinematic treatment of which is pending as I write these words)… the Antipodean equivalent of the Black Dahlia case .

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The overwhelming majority of gialli are set in an urban Italian milieu and even the most jet-setting efforts of Umberto Lenzi and Sergio Martino tend to play out in recognisably European cosmopolitan locations. The action of Mogherini’s The Pyjama Girl Case (1977), in contrast, apparently unfolds beneath the rolling blue skies and between the wide open spaces of Australia, the land of opportunities and new starts… though its principal characters’ attempts to lay the ghosts of their pasts prove unsuccessful, with tragic consequences. For instance…

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The film kicks off like a commercial for the Sydney Tourist Board, with off-road bikers and a cute little girl enjoying a golden beach… until the latter discovers a dumped, burned out car with a dumped, burned up girl inside it. Sydney’s finest (who make The Sweeney’s Regan and Carter look like by-the-book softies) are happy to pin the murder on shanty-dwelling sex case Quint (Giacomo Assandri) but reluctantly retired Inspector Thompson (Ray Milland), who’s bored with tending his orchids and can’t be kept out of the station house, thinks that’s a little bit too convenient. Besides, who is the mysterious burned woman? This film is at least as much a “who’sbeendonein?” as a “whodunnit”.

In an attempt to answer that question, the cops arrange for the body, stripped of its yellow pyjamas and dunked in a tank of formaldehyde, to be put on public display in an improbable and gristly attempt to jog somebody’s memory or elicit a suspicious reaction from a viewer… a snarky comment on us, for watching this sort of thing?

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Meanwhile, we are introduced to the troubled love triangle of three struggling immigrants – Dutch former prostitute Linda (Dalila Di Lazzaro), her oversensitive Italian husband Antonio (Michele Placido) and Roy the German, played as a priapismic Iago by “Howard Ross” (Renato Rossini)… just to further complicate matters, Linda is still making it with long-standing sugar daddy Professor Douglas (Mel Ferrer). The culmination of this romantic tragedy is played out in parallel with the ongoing, ill-fated investigations of Inspector Thompson (a character that anticipates the one played by Max von Sydow in Dario Argento’s Sleepless, 2001) and at some point in this bifurcated narrative you’ll twig  (and I guess this constitutes a SPOILER ALERT!!!) that the time frames are not what you’d initially imagined them to be, the past and present having been crunched together as if to underline that message about the impossibility of escaping one’s own past. Mario Landi, of all people, attempted something very similar in his considerably less accomplished and altogether grubbier Giallo A Venezia (1979) and while TPGC contains nothing like the outré imagery of that film, I was surprised (in view of some rather gruesome moments and an icky gang bang scene) to find that our pals at the BBFC have knocked it down from an ’18’ to a ’15’ Certificate.

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Arrow have done ample justice to Carlo Carlin’s ravishing photography with this 2k scan from the original camera negative, piling on the bonus materials for good measure. Michael Mackenzie presents a featurette concerning the giallo’s globe-trotting tendencies and Troy Howarth supplies a commentary track which I’ll no doubt enjoy when I’ve had a chance to listen to it. Again, I haven’t seen the collector’s booklet (confined to this edition’s first pressing) which features new writing by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. Of course you get a trailer, image gallery and reversible sleeve options.

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Best of all are three cracking new interviews with Howard Ross, editor Alberto Tagliavia and assistant director Ferruccio Castronuovo, plus a re-edited archival interview with composer Riz Ortolani, all of them competing to lavish the most praise on Mogherini as a collaborator and a man. Ortolani’s OST for Pyjama Girl Case is probably one of its weaker components (at times he seems to be aiming for Giorgio Moroder but falling short at Throbbing Gristle… the dirge-like croonings of Amanda Lear don’t exactly help much, either) but in his featurette Ortolani doesn’t dwell on this rare misfire, giving instead a potted auto-biography that takes in his ongoing chagrin over people misspelling his name, being ripped off by The Chemical Brothers and his impressions of the cinematic controversies he was dragged into via his famous collaborations with Gualtiero Jacopetti and Ruggero Deodato.

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Sly old silver fox Howard Ross gives fantastic VFM in a candid, gossipy confessional that could have gone on ten times longer and left me wanting more. He’s certainly got a lot to tell, about a career that started with a literal spear-carrying bit part in Raoul Walsh’s Esther And The King (1960), where he came to the attention of uncredited co-director Mario Bava by saving a girl from drowning. What he does manage to tell us about during the confines of this half-hour featurette includes his 12th place finish in the Mister Universe contest of 1970 (a certain Arnold Schwarzenegger took the laurel that year) and lessons on screen kissing with confidence from Walerian Borowczyk. Re The Pyjama Girl Case, Ross remembers that Di Lazzaro insisted on a double for her nude scenes, feeling that her bod wasn’t up to it… Jeez, we should all look so shabby! Howard’s not looking too bad himself these days, but complains “nobody ever calls me anymore”. For shame…

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Editor Alberto Tagliavia and assistant director Ferruccio Castronuovo provide between them several valuable insights into the making of TPGC. We learn from Tagliavia that the film’s distinctive structure was arrived at after two previous edits failed to impart any oomph to the narrative. After all these years, Castronuovo reveals that apart from obvious establishing shots captured in Sydney, much of this Italo-Spanish production was actually shot in Spain (much of his AD duties involving such mundane tasks as covering Spanish number plates with Australian ones). As any Argento amateur sleuth could have told you, nothing is ever quite as it seems in a giallo…

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The Dollhouse By The Cemetery… MISS LESLIE’S DOLLS Reviewed.

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BD. Network. Region B. 15.

The concept of gender fluidity seems to have slipped, surprisingly easily (give or take the odd outbreak of tabloid hand-ringing and knicker-wetting) into general acceptance over the last few years. ‘Twas not always thus. Not so very long ago, the phenomenon’s existence was only acknowledged in the realm of horror and thriller films, where it was invariably treated without too much sympathy, generally going hand-in-skin-glove-with psychosis and murder. Of course the true-life trans-necrophile antics of Ed Gein didn’t exactly help and the spirit of “The Plainfield Ghoul” hangs over such biggies as Psycho (not to mention its countless imitators), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence Of The Lambs.

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Miss Leslie’s Dolls (1973) is nowhere near as well-polished a piece of Cinema as any of those (Tobe Hooper’s film, an almost exact contemporary, underlines just how far off the contemporary pace it was) nor anything like as compelling as, e.g. David Schmoeller’s Tourist Trap (1979), a film with which it bears many affinities (ditto any amount of  “Wax Museum” variants).  What it is, is a ripe slice of indie American gothic which moves at a funereal pace for much of its length but contains enough incidental oddities to maintain your interest to the bitter, baffling end. Anyone who’s sat through all 72 “video nasties” will have suffered far worse… Unhinged, I’m looking at you!

SPOILER ALERT!!!

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“After murdering the girl students she is unmasked as a homosexual”? Now that’s really serious!

“Handled most capably”? Hm. In fact I’ve got several bones to pick with the compiler of this appraisal. The principal unmentioned elephant in the room is Miss Leslie’s plastinated tableau of dead young women (“My precious dolls!”) Other key elements which it glosses over  (possibly on the grounds that they wouldn’t be well received in big cities and small towns) include Miss L’s rambling monologues about the transmigration of souls (something [s]he appears to have achieved by the end of the picture) and his/her arguments with his/her dead mother (rendered by a skull, the budget obviously not stretching to a Mrs Bates maquette).

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That’s a weird bunch of shit to deal with right there and one of the girls’ observations that Miss Leslie’s house also “smells of death” reminded me of another grindhouse classic but none of this stops the college crowd from fornicating like bunnies as soon as Miss Leslie (having spiked their drinks) turns out the lights…

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Careful with that axe, Miss Leslie…

If pressed, I’d have to summarise MLD as a sexed-up Scooby-Doo episode (the one after the hungry hippy and that scabby dog were, at long last, taken out and shot), written by Thomas Harris (then re-written by a cretin) and directed by… well, directed by Joseph G. Prieto. This bare bones release doesn’t include any information on the elusive Mr Prieto. Certain scuzz film scholars have identified him with the Jospeh Mawra who directed Savages From Hell, Shanty Tramp and Fireball Jungle, but the usual sources (notably IMDB) are all over the place on this one…

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Miss Leslie’s Dolls might not have been Prieto’s first directorial credit, but it does seem to have been his last. Miss Leslie, similarly, turned out to be Salvador Ugarte’s only film role, which is a great pity. Lumbering around looking like Alice Cooper after a particularly epic night on the Brandy Alexanders, ineptly dubbed with a female voice… the kids’ surprise at the climactic unveiling of Miss L as a Mister defies credibility. Was it supposed to come as a shock to us, too?

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Thanks to Ian Caunce for this one…

Once again Network have raided the BFI’s archives to good effect (considering its age and lowly status in the cinematic scheme of things, the film looks surprisingly good in this transfer) and you should try to catch Miss Leslie’s Dolls, before it becomes the next Rocky Horror. Spiked bourbon might well enhance your enjoyment of it considerably.

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Murder Most Fowl… The Nucleus Gang Go To Work On Giulio Questi’s DEATH LAID AN EGG.

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BD. Nucleus. Region B. 18.

Like its companion piece in Nucleus’s “European Cult Cinema Collection”, Lady Frankenstein, Giulio Questi’s Death Laid An Egg (1968) concerns itself with the shenanigans of mad scientists. In the feudal set up of Mel Welles’ film the aristocratic protagonists own their serfs and servants, using them as experimental and sexual fodder under a Romantic patina of paternalism and progress. (*) Death Laid An Egg, in contrast, is set firmly in our own immiserated age, where rampaging technological advance connives at the neo-liberal free-for-all by which everybody’s free to, er, scramble for profit and frankly, fuck anyone who can’t keep up (well, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs!)

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Sunny side down…

Marco (Jean-Louis) Trintignant is the manager of a cutting-edge egg hatchery where automation has allowed most of the workforce to be laid off. The surplus help hang around outside, throwing insults and the occasional blunt object, much to the chagrin of Marco’s perfectly groomed, soulless wife Anna (Gina Lollobrigida). But are these luddites responsible for all of the sabotage that’s been going on at the plant? Marco is seemingly a model employee of The Association (a simultaneously menacing and ridiculous marketing board whose obsession with eggs surpasses even that of Edith Massie in Pink Flamingos) but secretly he harbours serious doubts about the way the job, society and his life are heading. When the plant’s resident GMF boffin manages to hatch a clutch of giant, headless, wingless birds, to the obvious delight of just about everyone else in the cast, Mario goes all eggs over uneasy and beats these avian atrocities to death with a wrench. His simmering discontent further manifests itself in the clandestine affair he’s conducting with Anna’s ditzy blonde cousin Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin, the Baby Spice of her day, from Joe D’Amato’s Death Smiles On A Murderer)… oh yeah, he also seems to have a penchant for butchering prostitutes in cheap motels. Slimy-slick ad man Mondaini (Jean Sobieski) is keeping tabs on Marco’s murderous side-line while pursuing a parallel affair with Gabrielle and planning a grab for Anna’s money… what could possibly go wrong?

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What the pluck?

Compounding  the complexity of its plot twists (co-authored as ever by Questi’s trusty collaborator Franco Arcalli), the film is shot in oblique style with little regard for conventional cinematic grammar. Questi’s camera will focus on. e.g. Trintignant’s back while he’s delivering a line or float off to concentrate on some insignificant visual detail as the action unfolds. The avant-garde OST from Bruno Maderna and Arcalli’s radical editing further exacerbate the viewer’s disorientation… at one point Arcalli folds what looks like an episode from J.G. Ballard’s Crash (a novel that wouldn’t be published for another five years, BTW) into a routine drive taken by Marco and Gabrielle.

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The black gloves donned by Marco before his assignations with those hookers are also strangely prescient pre-echos of the turn that the giallo genre would take with Dario Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970). But is Death Laid An Egg (as often claimed) a giallo? It’s more properly understood as a deconstruction of that genre, akin to how Questi exploded the spaghetti western with his feature debut If You Live, Shoot! aka Django, Kill! the previous year, in the process clueing Alessandro Jodorowsky into the mystical potential of the genre (and there are moments in Santa Sangre which suggest that El Jodo wasn’t exactly unfamiliar with Death Laid An Egg, either).

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Corrado Farina, one suspects, was also taking notes (check out the subliminal advertising imagery)… and don’t start me on David (insert expletive) Lynch! Elsewhere Questi seems to be cocking a snook at Antonio (“This is how you make an anti-giallo, Michelangelo… stick it in your family albumen!”)

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How more Post-modern can you get on the giallo’s ass than by deploying the whole serial kill stabbing match itself as a red herring? If DLAE isn’t, after all, a giallo in the as-yet-nonexistent Argento mould (I suppose it would be fair to characterise it as the Mario Bava tendency… or one of the Mario Bava tendencies… in 1968) then it certainly has affinities with Romolo Guerrieri’s contemporary thriller The Sweet Body Of Deborah and its bonk-busting descendants directed by Umberto Lenzi (in one of which, 1969’s So Sweet… So Perverse, Trintignant would also star).

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Giulio Questi… the real “terrorist of the genres”?

However you generify Death Laid An Egg, it’s a mesmerising work of Art. Craig Ledbetter was sufficiently mesmerised to devote a special issue of his seminal European Trash Cinema fanzine to it, reproduced here among the bonus materials along with CL’s thanks to Nucleus for finally bringing Questi’s 104 minute director’s cut to light… looking as beautiful as we have come to expect from this label, scanned as it is in HD from the original negatives with the “new” footage inserted from an Italian archival print. You get the truncated (91 minute) cut as well, of course, plus another Jones / Newman commentary track, featurettes (the BFI’s James Blackford on Questi’s work and radical politics… soundtrack collector extraordinary / DJ / Alassandro Alessandroni collaborator Lovely Jon on Bruno Maderna), an archive interview with the director himself (who passed away in 2014) during which he observes that movie-making is now within everybody’s grasp, if not access to major distribution networks, still hung up on the chicken farming model), a short appraisal from Italian critic Antonio Bruschini and another interesting insight into the cuts demanded by the BBFC for the film’s UK theatrical release (as A Curious Way To Love), alongside all the other stuff you’d expect.

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Not quite the lubricious girl-on-girl fest its UK distributors would have had you believe…

The restored 14 minutes reveal a whole new character, Renato Romano’s Luigi, whose role in the overall scheme of things is wide open to interpretation. It also amplifies a suggestion that remains in the shorter cut, regarding the European Union (which was really taking off in its current incarnation round about the time this film was made) and its role as a principal driver of austerity, increasing income disparities, declining public services and terms & conditions for working people, war as a tool for prising open new markets… the full neo-liberal, er, yoke under which we’ve been labouring for the last half Century or so. As such, DLAE comes a useful corrective for the baffling rose-tinted nostalgia for the EU currently sweeping the nation. The film predicts GM food and anticipates the coming tsunami of technological advance that’s going to wash away so many more jobs… talk about chickens coming home to roost! In addition to all these valuable services, Questi proves that avant-garde dialectical materialism in the cinema doesn’t have to be as simultaneously pleased with itself and downright dull as Godard and his ilk.

Pending the arrival from left field of some unexpected and unexpectedly astonishing release from another label, this is going to be the undisputed Disc Of 2018… clucking brilliant!

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(*) An early draft of this posting contained a line that ended: “… progress and enlightened paternalism derailed by the Cotten character’s hubris and the overweening impertinence of Rosalba Neri’s overheated clitoris”. Having penned that, I couldn’t resist sharing it with you.

You’re welcome.

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