Monthly Archives: December 2018

Scream & Scream Again… And Again… And Again! Severin’s AMICUS Box Set Reviewed

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BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

In between my childhood fixation on Ray Harryhausen’s Dynamation epics and subsequent exposure to the world of Exploitation all’Italiana, one of my most fervent cinematic passions was for the portmanteau Horror flicks (e.g. Tales From The Crypt and Vault Of Horror) that Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg cooked up at Amicus in the ’60s and ’70s. Maybe it was my Catholic upbringing, but there was just something irresistible about the cod moralising of the various crypt keepers, sideshow Satans, card-sharping train-to-Hell commuters and lunatics-turned-asylum keepers dispensing poetic justice to cameoing faded stars, up’n’comers and miscellaneous miscast “personalities” for their assorted lecherous, hubristic and acquisitive transgressions…

Amicus didn’t just do portmanteau horrors, of course, nor even deal exclusively in Horror… their lengthy filmography covered everything from the works of Harold Pinter to those of Helen Shapiro and even, along the way, packed in a few rubber-suited dinosaur efforts that you might know Doug McClure from (and on account of which the aforementioned Mr Harryhausen was unlikely to lose any sleep…)

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Milton Subotsky, Paul Annett & Max J. Rosenberg

On Severin’s Amicus Collection BD box set those multi-story constructions are represented by Roy Ward Baker’s Asylum (1972) and you also get the company’s ill-timed foray into Gothic territory, Baker’s And Now The Screaming Starts (1973) plus Paul Annett’s messy but hugely enjoyable The Beast Must Die (1974). Anchor Bay’s previous DVD collection, as well as coming in an attractive coffin-shaped box, added Freddy Francis’s Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors (1965) and Peter Duffell’s The House That Dripped Blood (1971) to those titles, but Severin make good those omissions with a bonus “Vault Of Amicus” disc, boasting all manner of treats for the Subotsberg-inclined… on which more later.

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Robert Powell’s search for a Starr takes a discouraging turn…

Written by frequent Amicus collaborator Robert Bloch, Asylum involves young psychiatrist Robert Powell auditioning for a job at an isolated funny farm by attempting to work out which of the inmates is his predecessor Dr Starr (my money’s on the big-nosed, mop-topped dude with the drumsticks), who’s taken an unfortunate turn for the hopelessly insane. As orderly Geoffrey (“Crowman”) Bayldon takes him on a whistle-stop tour of the loony bin we learn how Richard Todd and then Barbara Parkins were chased around a basement by the dismembered remains of Sylvia Sims… how financially strapped tailor Barry Morse attempted to bring back Peter Cushing’s dead son by making up a black magic suit which, when carelessly placed on a mannequin, brought on the stiffest acting since Alan “Fluff” Freeman in Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors… how Charlotte Rampling and her imaginary evil friend (Britt Ekland) prefigured the events in Psycho (Bloch penned this one several years before chronicling the murderous antics of Norman Bates)… and how Herbert Lom builds killer homunculi to get his retaliation in first against Patrick Magee, the psychiatrist who intends to lobotomise  him.

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Though a bit of an “Old School” director, Baker piles on the gore and grue with great gusto and the Grand Guignol is perfectly complimented by selections from the most bombastic orchestral works of Modest Mussorgsky. The commentary track (on which moderator Marcus Hearn misattributes a portion of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition to Douglas Gamley) from Baker and camera operator Neil Binney is a little dry and technically fixated,  indeed at times the two old boys are so content sitting back and admiring their handiwork that you can almost hear Hearn  poking them in an attempt to elicit more commentary.

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Freddie Francis’s The Skull, 1965.

Older readers might remember this disc’s bonus featurettes Inside The Fear Factory (including interviews with Baker, Freddie Francis and Max Rosenberg) and Two’s A Company (an onset report featuring Baker, Subotsky, Rampling, James Villiers, Megs Jenkins, art director Tony Curtis and production manager Teresa Bolland) from that Anchor Bay box and even older ones will recall the latter from its broadcast on the BBC in 1972.

In original bonus materials Splatterpunk author (is Splatterpunk still a thing?) David J. Schow gives us the benefit of his considerable Bloch expertise and Milton Subotsky’s widow Fiona (who’s a historian of psychiatry… bet she could have worked out who Dr Starr was!) provides an amusing and touching memoir of the Amicus honcho, in which she relates writing the treatment for Montgomery Tully’s The Terrornauts  (1967) in one night and recalls how Amicus films were so moralistic and conservative, the company often had to beg the BBFC for an ‘X’ to maintain their Horror credibility! Yeah, you get an Asylum trailer, too…

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If RWB seems more animated on the commentary track for And Now The Screaming Starts (as indeed he does) it’s no doubt because he’s in the enlivening presence of Stephanie Beacham, who redefines the term “heaving bosom” in this bodice ripper from beyond the grave. On account of a generational curse rooted in Herbert Lom’s arrogant exertion of droit de seigneur, blushing bride Beacham has hardly arrived at her new husband (Ian Ogilvy)’s) plush ancestral pile (Windsor’s oft-seen-on-screen Oakley Court) before she’s being stalked (and, it is strongly suggested, raped) by a stumpy-wristed ghost, not to mention his (and Subotsberg’s omnipresent) disembodied crawling hand…

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With ANTSS Amicus were staking a clear claim to the period Gothic territory that had recently been vacated by Hammer, without giving too much thought to the possibility that there was a very good reason for their rivals to vacate it (i.e. a radical  change in Horror audiences’ tastes), though the lavish location, period setting and costumes (not least when they are struggling to contain Beacham’s ample charms), as captured by DP Denys Coop, are beautifully presented on this disc, which boasts the best BD trade-off between gain and grain of this collection. Check out also Baker’s early adoption and agile deployment of the Louma crane, a decade (give or take) before Argento went totally bananas with one on Tenebrae.

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In the featurette The Haunting Of Oakley Court, screaming old farts Allan Bryce (editor of Amicus – The Friendly Face Of Fear) and David Flint (co-editor of Fab Press’s Ten Years Of Terror tome) give us a guided tour of that mansion (where Mr and Mrs B spent their wedding night, apparently), taking in the remains of Bray Studios and the Asylum asylum along the way. Denis Meikle gives us the benefit of his thoughts on ANTSS and his audio interview with Peter Cushing. There’s an alternative and very engaging commentary track with Ian Ogilvy plus the expected trailer and a radio slot. Great stuff.

If 1973 was indeed a bad time to movie into Gothic Horror, Subotsberg showed how quickly they’d learned their lesson with the following year’s The Beast Must Die, pretty much the Amicus equivalent of Hammer’s Dracula A.D. 1972 and like Alan Gibson’s film, its contemporary trapping have only made it age all the more awkwardly… which is, of course, a significant part of the ongoing appeal of both pictures to aficionados of such kitschy fare.

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Tom Newcliffe’s search for a werewolf is also about to take a discouraging turn…

Calvin Lockart (above) stars as Tom Newcliffe, equal parts Shaft, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Count Zaroff. Having narrowed down his search for a werewolf to a motley crew of characters (including Peter Cushing, Charles Gray, Anton Diffring, Michael frickin’ Gambon and Tom Chadbon as a particularly effete hippy type), he invites them round to his gaff for a weekend of hi-surveillance investigation while he ponders their lycanthropic credentials and waits for the full moon to bring out the hairs on the guilty party’s knuckles. It’s preposterous codswallop, of course but hugely enjoyable, not least for the moment when the film grinds to a halt and the sepulchral tones of Valentine Dyall talk us through a gimmicky climax “freely adapted”from William Castle’s Homicidal, 1961…

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In his bonus interview and feature commentary, debutant feature director Paul Annett (who, perhaps wisely, returned to a solid career in TV directing after TBMD before passing away last year) relays his astonishment at copping a first glimpse of “the werewolf break” during an early public screening of the picture. The other bonus materials on this disc comprise a trailer and Troy Howarth’s video essay And Then There Were Werewolves, which takes the unexpected but entirely appropriate tack of treating Annett’s film as yet another (albeit decidedly oddball) screen adaptation of the Agatha Christie yarn now best referred to as “Ten Little Indians”, pointing out along the way that George Pollock’s 1965 rendering of the same tale (produced by Harry Alan Towers) featured (“for the first time in film history”) a “whodunnit break”.

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This box is rounded out by the appropriately named Vault Of Amicus disc, a veritable cornucopia of collected resources for Subotsberg devotees. Dr Terror’s House Of Trailers comprises over an hour of Amicus coming attractions and TV spots, encompassing the company’s de facto maiden effort, John Llewellyn Moxey’s City Of The Dead / Horror Hotel (1960, above… officially a Vulcan Films production) and taking in such post-split Subotsky slight returns to the portmanteau format as Denis Héroux’s The Uncanny (1977) and Roy Ward Baker’s The Monster Club (1981), in which the spectacle of B.A. Robertson doing his sub Frank N. Furter routine makes, admittedly, for pretty horrific stuff. Once you’ve enjoyed all of those you can go right back to the beginning and enjoy them all over again with a Kim Newman / David Flint commentary track that combines insight, opinion and humour to good effect.

“All” that remains after that is four hours (!) of audio interview, three-quarters of which are given over to selected highlights from the late Phil Nutman’s 1985 audio interview with Milton Subotsky, followed by approximately 60 minutes of Max Rosenberg’s reminiscences, as elicited by Jonathan Sothcott. Keep your wits about you and you’ll discover a nice Easter egg too, featuring several scuzzy looking but rather jolly TV spots.

Grab this box or its constituent parts over at Severin’s website and tell ’em I sent you…

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Happy Christmas!

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Creatures From The Cack Lagoon… THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH Reviewed

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Who ate all the hot dogs?

BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

“…and you’ll never hear surf music again!”  – James Marshall Hendrix.

Somebody… I don’t quite recall who it was… maybe Celine (one of those light-hearted guys, anyway)… once said that “if you want to see people at their most desperate, watch them while they are enjoying themselves”… something along those lines, anyway. Bear these sage words in mind as you watch the bikini babes and gym bunnies busting their best beach party moves to the melodious tones of The Del-Aires in “The First Horror-Monster Musical”, The Horror Of Party Beach.

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“Everybody do The Zombie Stomp… You bring your foot down with an awful bomp!”(Beginning to get the picture?)

This, er, distinctive creature feature, directed by Del Tenney (aka “Connecticut’s own Ed Wood”)  first entered my consciousness as one of The Fifty Worst Movies Of All Time, so designated by Harry Medved in his influential 1978 book of that title. I’m grateful to Severin for the arrival (with an awful bomp) of this fine BD edition and the opportunity to finally see for myself if THOPB lives up / down to Medved’s estimation.

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Hunky Hank Green (John Scott) is certainly having a hard time enjoying himself at The Del-Aires’ beach gig. His wildcat girlfriend Tina (Marilyn Clarke, the Ruby Wax lookalike pictured above) taunts him about his dweebish devotion to Science and when a bunch of bikers turns up she starts flirting outrageously with them, leading to a rumble that’s almost as badly choreographed as the dance routines (incidentally, Tenney appeared as an extra in Laslo Benedek’s seminal The Wild One, 1953). Serves Tina right when she’s the first to get mutilated and murdered by one of the mutant fishmen spawned after the casual dumping of radioactive waste into Stamford’s bay.

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The situation escalates rapidly as two fish men gatecrash a rather tame sorority sleepover party (folk songs, hair combing, pillow fights) and kill twenty girls (the bloody aftermath of this attack, routinely cut from TV broadcasts and many VHS releases, has been restored here in all its gory glory by Severin). It’s readily apparent that the budget only stretched to two fishmen costumes but some nifty split screen work increases their ranks to six at certain salient moments. During the “climactic” confrontation, various extras with sacks over their heads provide unconvincing fishman backup, with Tenney obviously figuring that you won’t notice this if he cuts quickly enough. Suffice to say, he doesn’t cut quickly enough.

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But we’re getting ahead of ourselves… Hanks finds a new love interest in the more deserving, shapely shape of Elaine (Alice Lyon), daughter of Dr Gavin (Allan Laurel). This guy’s got all manner of preposterous theories about how the fishmen were spawned and what to do about them. Personally (call me a stickler), I can’t give much credence to any scientist incapable of pronouncing the word “protein” correctly, but Dr G has definitely hit on something when he speculates that the Party Beach horrors might react adversely to sodium (bit like throwing salt on the slugs in your back garden… one of Mrs F’s favourite activities, by the way). You might well think that the required element would be shipped in, lickety split, by the military but no… Hank has to jump into his sports car, drive over to NYC and jolly well buy some sodium (?!?) After a few bags of that have been chucked around the monsters disintegrate into fizzing piles of goo and the world is saved forever from the perils of irresponsible nuclear technology. If only…

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Extras (aside from the inevitable trailer) include an archival interview with the late Del Tenney, an agreeable bloke who expresses himself satisfied with what he’d achieved in life. His widow Margot Hartman appears in Dan Weaver’s retrospective documentary Return to Party Beach. Surviving Del-Aires Bobby Osborne and Ronnie Linares (who’ve got a great future as teen idols behind them) reminisce, knock out a few numbers and test the water re a possible comeback. In the featurette Shock & Roll, film maker Tim Sullivan agues that “horror movies are to movies what rock’n’roll is to music” and based upon this persuasive proposition, mounts an entertaining survey of Rock & Roll Horror Movies.

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As ever, Severin have come up with an appropriate assortment of marketing knick-knacks and indeed gee-gaws to accompany this release and if you’re planning on hosting your own Beach Party this Christmas, check out their Bundle of Party Beach, which includes an Inflatable Beach Ball and an Enamel Pin with which to burst it. Personally, this dancin’ fool could do with one of those dance step diagrams to work on my Zombie Stomp but hey, you can’t have everything…

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I Really Hate Your Tiger Feet… BLACKENSTEIN Reviewed

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BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

“To Stop This Mutha Takes One Bad Brutha!”

One of the standby narrative tropes of Blacksploitation (see also Fred Williamson‘s Mean Johnny Barrows, 1975) is the black Vietnam Vet who gets welcomed back States-side with a big “fuck you very much!”, invariably fouling foul of gangs and / or The Man while trying to piece his life together. Eddie Turner (Joe De Sue) has it worse than most. Losing all his limbs to one of Charlie’s land mines, he’s now trapped in a crappy Veterans’ hospital where one of the male nurses (John Dennis) taunts and mistreats him. On the plus side, his loyal and foxy fiancée, Doctor Winifred Walker (one shot film actress Ivory Stone) works for Doctor Stein (TV’s former Lone Ranger, John Hart) who’s just won a Nobel Prize for “solving the DNA code” (methinks he’d totally clean up if they ever held a Dick Van Dyke lookalike competition, too) and he agrees to take Eddie on for experimental treatment in his plush LA mansion, which boasts a basement lab fitted out with props from James Whale’s original Frankenstein (1931)… more Van Der Graaf Generator than in Fabio Frizzi’s record collection!

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Before he gets carried away with optimism, though, Eddie might care to consider the, er,  mixed results of the Doc’s treatments so far. There’s a 90-year-old woman who now looks several decades younger than she should but will crumble like Christopher Lee at the first rays of dawn if she doesn’t top up her injections every twelve hours… and what about Bruno, who due to “unresolved RNA issues” seems to have grown a tiger leg? Nevertheless, Eddie’s limb transplants seem to be going well until Dr Stein’s assistant Malcomb (Roosevelt Jackson)… yes, Malcomb (why didn’t they just call him Ygor and get it over with?) makes a move on Dr Winifred and is firmly rebuffed. Figuring that she’ll fall into his arms if Eddie’s don’t take, Malcomb switches his all-important DNA injections with Bruno’s (I particularly cherish the scene where Winifred sniffs the bottles of DNA suspiciously, suggesting that each batch bears its own distinctive bouquet…)

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You’re probably suspecting that Eddie grows a tiger leg like Bruno’s but no, nothing so ridiculous… instead, he develops a bad case of acromegaly and (his head swelling into a reasonable approximation of Jack Pierce’s iconic make up job on Boris Karloff) becomes… Blackenstein! He also sets off out on a bloody kill spree. Now, I can understand the poetic justice of pulling his former nurse’s arm off (above) but after that our boy seems to pick his victims (whom he mostly disembowels) pretty much at random. He does display a certain penchant for “courting couples”, among whom we find the legendary Liz Renay, though my favourite victim is Beverley Haggerty as one half of “couple in car”.

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She abandons said car after a particularly lame make out attempt by her date, to wit:

Him: “You’ve got beautiful hair!”

Her: “I know I’ve got beautiful hair!”

Him: “Are you proud of it?”

(Taking notes there, boys?)

Blackenstein returns to the hospital to find Malcomb forcing himself on Winifred and soon makes him wish he hadn’t. As Dr Stein’s lab goes up in flames, Blackenstein can’t bring himself to kill Winifred and the Dobermanns of the LA County Canine Corps roll up to pull him limb-from-recently acquired-limb for an abrupt and anti-climactic ending, though trash movie fans will surely have enjoyed their fill by this point.

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On this disc Severin serve up both the 78 minute theatrical release and the extended video version which clocks in at 87, with the extra footage scattered throughout it clearly having been sourced from lower grade elements. Narratively, it might well have made more sense for cinema distributors looking to fit this one more comfortably into a double bill to have just excised the padding of the nightclub scene, though admittedly Cardella Di Milo (geddit?) sings pretty well and MC Andy C tells a couple of good jokes. One of the most keenly felt omissions in the theatrical cut is that of John Dennis’s apologia for his rotten behaviour, in which he deplores “the Patriotism scam”.

Although Blackenstein was directed by William “The Happy Hooker Goes To Washington” Levey, the bonus materials concentrate, understandably, on the eccentric life and violent, unsolved death of its flamboyant, polymath writer / producer Frank R. Saletri. His sister, June Kirk, gives a touching interview to David Gregory and we also get the reminiscences of Saletri collaborators Ken Osborne And Robert Dix. An audio interview with creature designer Bill Munns and theatrical trailer round things off nicely.

Another corking release,  Severin dudes… are you proud of it?

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Bringing Up Baby… ABSURD, ANTHROPOPHAGOUS Antics On Severin BD.

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Joe D’Amato’s Anthropophagous Beast (1980) and Absurd (1981).

BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

“Respectable” journalists and media outlets seem to spend most of their time, these days, angsting about “fake news” and its potentially pernicious effects on gullible schmoes like you… which is pretty ripe considering the constant stream of bullshit these jokers have themselves been pumping out at us over so many years. UK readers of a certain age might well recall tuning into News At Ten during the early 1980s only to find themselves being leered at by Luigi Montefiori as he stuffed his hand up a pregnant lady’s skirt, pulled out a skinned rabbit and started chowing down on it. This, we were earnestly informed by the stern-faced newsreader, was “a scene from a snuff movie”! Get a fucking brain, pal…

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“Video  Nasties” hysteria has, fortunately, abated to the point where that alleged foetus-eating feast, Joe D’Amato’s Anthropophagous Beast (1980), is (alongside most of the other “nasties” on the DPP’s dreaded list) readily available and uncut on the shelves of legitimate retail outlets over the full length and breadth of these sceptred isles. 88 Films released it here on Blu-ray in 2015, rapidly followed by a “remastered special edition” boasting a previously deleted scene. Unwilling to splash out more of the readies to witness what might, for all I know, amount to no more than six seconds of Mr Montefiori walking across a beach, gurning, I’m unfamiliar with that edition.

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What I am clutching in my sweaty little hands though is a Severin box set comprising their releases of Anthropophagous and its sort of sequel, the following year’s Absurd. The original film, as you’re probably already only too well aware, alternates passages of unrelenting tedium (as an ill-matched party of tourists wander around the Greek islands waiting for something to happen… then wish it hadn’t) with sporadic outbursts of ultra-violent, inventively gory action every time our heroes (Tisa Farrow, Saverio Vallone, “Vanessa Steiger” / Serena Grandi, et al) cross paths with hulking cannibal Klaus Wortmann (or Nikos Karamanlis, depending on which print you’re watching), who got the taste for human flesh after several days adrift on an open boat obliged him to eat his wife and child. Less, er, visionary Horror directors than D’Amato would have contented themselves with that, the foetus eating and a rather grisly scalping, but Joe could always be relied on to go that extra exploitive mile and Mr Beast tops all of it (and arguably anything else in the truly wild annals of Italian splatter cinema) at the climax of this picture… disembowelled with a pick-axe, he pulls out yards of his unravelling intestines and (still gurning madly) starts stuffing his face with them.

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Severin have commemorated this unforgettable (try as you might) movie milestone in the plush doll pictured above and a host of other man-eating merch available on their website.

While much of Marcello Giombini’s synth OST still sounds (appropriately enough, perhaps) like an acute attack of IBS, Severin’s 2k scan from the original 16mm negative will come as a revelation to anyone who’s heard about Uncle Joe’s reputation as a DP but suffered previous VHD and DVD editions. Don’t get me wrong (we’re not talking Days Of fucking Heaven, here) but relative to those, the cinematography (officially credited to Enrico Biribicchi, which might or might not be yet another D’Amato alias) is pretty good.

A predictable profusion of bonus interviews are chock full of hot gossip from the inner circle of pasta splateratti. Monterfiori rates Anthropophagous as”shit” and who’s going to argue with the big guy? In fact he rewrote the script only on condition that he wouldn’t be “credited” for having done so and attributes the film’s cult success to the fact that “there are a lot of weirdos out there” (guilty as charged, eh readers?)

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Everybody agrees that working on a D’Amato set was always a laugh riot (FX man Pietro Tenoglio recalls a lot of bantering back and forth during the scene that freaked out our man at News At Ten) and nobody has a bad word to say about Tisa Farrow. Zora Kerova (looking fab, despite her countless cinematic tribulations) disputes the oft-repeated story about Farrow having one eye and gives us the lowdown on who was romancing whom. Several interviewees comment on the emergence of Margaret Mazzantini as one of Italy’s leading literary figures… who could have extrapolated that from her show stopping turn in Anthropophagous (above), jumping out of a barrel clutching a big knife, arm pit hair akimbo?!? Editor Bruno Micheli recalls how the cutting of  D’Amato’s films devolved to him because his sister jumped ship when Joe started steering a porno course and Saverio Vallone finally gets the credit he deserves for skewering Montefiori’s duodenum on that pick axe.

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Whatever guts Montefiori’s character still packed after Anthrophophagous are unpacked on a spiky railing at the commencement of the aptly named Absurd, when he’s attempting to evade Edmund Purdom’s obsessive priest (“I serve God with biochemistry rather than ritual”). Needless to say, this doesn’t cramp his style re menacing a houseload of children (Katya and Kasimir Berger… yes, they’re William Berger’s kids) and their baby sitter (Annie Belle). John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) seems as salient an antecedent here as Anthropophagous and Montefiori’s monstrous dude (boasting a much clearer complexion last time out) doesn’t actually eat anybody (he even resists the urge to consume his own intestines when they put in their inevitable appearance) though he does hang Michele Soavi’s juvenile delinquent upside down from a tree, bake Ms Belle’s bonce in an oven and penetrate the heads of various other dudes with axes, black’n’deckers and bandsaws. This predisposition towards the ol’ ultraviolence is on account of a genetic mutation (a scientifically induced one, the script darkly hints) that also, as (bad) luck would have it, renders him virtually indestructible. Katya Berger, who spends most of the film screwed to some fiendish orthopedic device, ultimately rises from it (begging certain obvious questions that D’Amato clearly couldn’t be arsed to answer) and proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that when it comes to challenging the alleged indestructibility of hulking home invaders, eye pokings and decapitation trump biochemistry every time!

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Extras on the Absurd disc include the alternative Italian cut (as Rosso Sangue), with optional English subtitles and a trailer. You’ve possibly also seen the interviews with Michel Soavi and Joe D’Amato on other releases. In the latter, the genial director explains yet again (possibly for the benefit of News At 10 journalists) that he never actually killed anyone in any of his films, i.e. that there are these things called “special effects” (even if they’re not always all that special). Montefiori talks some more about his working relationship and friendship with D’Amato and of his often anonymous work as a script doctor (well, despite his best efforts, the scripts often died on their ass!) Evaluating the development of his Klaus over the two films, he sagely offers: “My character doesn’t have any lines… he just rasps and whines!” Indeed.

My copy came with the limited edition accompanying soundtrack CD but there was no sign of the T-shirt. Still, bloggers can’t be choosers… and anyway, I could never carry it off as jauntily as Darrell Buxton does.

With this / these release/s the Severin boys strike another retrospective blow against the “nasty” witch hunters who contrived to spoil their fun in the 1980s… and you’ve gotta love ’em for it!

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“Bong!”

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Alienated With Extreme Prejudice… And Can You Put Some Chilli Sauce On That? Shedding Light On SHOCKING DARK.

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BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

“Can’t you smell that stink of shit?” Geretta Giancarlo Field.

The last time we embarked on a Severinian binge here at THOF we were up to our asses in Bruno Mattei / Claudio Fragasso monstrosities but in a rare display of trash film fallibility, we managed to miss this one. It seemed only right, therefore (and even more appropriate in light of the film’s increasingly relevant and no-doubt sincerely heartfelt ecological concerns) to kick-start our Several Days Of Severin with a look at Mattei’s Shocking Dark (1989), billed by the Sevsters themselves (who certainly know a thing or two about this stuff) as “the most infamous mash-up in Eurosleaze history!”

Never known for their reluctance to pad out a film with stock footage, Mattei and writer Fragasso (billed here under their sho’nuff “Vincent Dawn” and “Clyde Anderson” aliases… in fact Fragasso’s identified as “Clayde” Anderson this time out) commence the proceedings with travelogue shots of Venice while some voice over schmuck wonders what the ravages of pollution will have done to it by the turn of the Millennium… and indeed, who could possibly have predicted that it would be an abandoned wasteland, under the ruins of which elite Marine units battle it out with mutant aliens and time travelling cyborgs? Anybody who’s ever watched a Mattei and / or Fragasso flick before, that’s who! Altogether, now: “Just one gorenetto, give it to me…”

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Though Demons’ Geretta Geretta (billed under the altogether more feasible handle of Geretta Giancarlo Field) and her fellow grunts from Operation Delta Venice Megaforce try hard to emulate the ruffty-tuffty troupers in James Cameron’s Aliens (did I mention yet that Shocking Dark owes rather a lot to Aliens? How remiss of me!) in truth they look more like refugees from a gay porn movie… and not a particularly macho one, either, the way they squeal and blurt every time one of those aliens (which resemble nothing so much as ambulatory kebabs and prove disappointingly easy to gun down) hoves into view.

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Ms Geretta is always agreeably sassy in these things (in 1984 she had graced Mattei and Fragasso’s hysterical Rats: Night Of Terror, of course) but unfortunately she gets killed off relatively early in Shocking Dark, before she can celebrate a heart-warming reconciliation over a hand grenade with the Italian guy she’s spent most of her screen time racially abusing. Otherwise, all of your favourite Aliens scenes are recreated in predictably am-dram fashion… Dr Sarah Drumbull (Haven Tyler in her only screen credit) as the Ripley figure even manages to rescue and bond with Newt surrogate Samantha Raphelson (the similarly uni-credited Dominica Coulson).

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Clive Riche, in contrast to both of those ladies, has kept commendably busy since making his debut here… Christ knows how, given his ripe overacting (one of his more subdued moments, below) as “Drake”, a character driven mad by his earlier run in with the kebab creatures.

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Christopher Ahrens is Samuel Fuller (!), an all-purpose kung fu special forces dude who’s along for the ride to represent the interests of the sinister and corrupt Tubular Corporation (!!), whose property speculation scam and clandestine chemical / bacteriological weapon tests (“cybernetics applied on a molecular basis”) devastated Venice in the first place. Fuller is ultimately revealed as part Ash from Alien, part Terminator (as if his increasingly Arnie-esque tones hadn’t already tipped you off) and is even described as a Replicant… so Mattei and Fragasso have managed to stir a pinch of Blade Runner into this indigestible concoction, too.

“I’m immortal… the most perfect (sic) thing ever created by the Tubular Corporation” announces cybernetic Sammy as Drumbull and Raphelson scramble to escape a nuclear reactor (did I forget to mention the nuclear reactor?) facility that will self-destruct (you guessed) in T-10 minutes. Just as their time is about to elapse, the girls happen upon a time machine (what were the odds on that?) which takes them back to the present day (or the tail end of the 20th Century, anyway) where Fuller follows them for a twist ending that will rip a new asshole in your space / time continuum.

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Much as I love those Severin boys, I’d have to take issue with their assessment of Shocking Dark as “the most infamous mash-up in Eurosleaze history!” It’s an admittedly awesome Italo-schlock milestone but throughout it I get the sense of a director building himself up to such mashed masterpieces as 2004’s Land Of Death (“Cannibal Holocaust meets Predator”) and his 2007 swan-song “everything but the kitchen sink… hang on, there’s a kitchen sink in there as well” zombie brace Island Of The Living Dead and Zombies – The Beginning.

Also known (before James Cameron’s lawyers got wind of it) as Aliens 2, Alienators and Contaminator, initial orders of Shocking Dark were dispatched by Severin in “an extremely unofficial limited edition (Terminator 2) slipcover that will be available until a cease and desist arrives”. Punters picking up that edition might well have been in for a nasty surprise, though I guess if you’re reading this blog you would have been hip to the gag…

Extras include another chunk of Severin’s ongoing interview with co-writers Fragasso and his missus Rossella Drudi (remembering their final collaboration with Bruno Mattei) and a characteristically lively audience with Geretta Geretta / whatever her bloody name is. Plus alternative Italian Titles.

Looking for the perfect junk movie to accompany a late night fast food binge? Naan better than Bruno Mattei’s Shocking Dark…

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At Least It’s Not Telly Bloody Savalas… WHEN A STRANGER CALLS Reviewed

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BD. Second Sight. Region Free. 12.

Although it’s clearly a stab at making a classy slasher film (skilfully directed from a thoughtful script, with strong performances by a quality cast), Fred Walton’s When A Stranger Calls (1979) will probably never live down the taint, in UK viewers’ minds, of debuting over here on a theatrical double bill with Barbara Peeters’ schlock riot Monster (Humanoids From The Deep), itself conceived as an eco-conscious feminist parable but turned into an explicitly violent, tit-infested Horror Of Party Beach variant after the addition of new footage by producer Roger Corman (and yes, a review of that particular trash classic is in the pipeline for 2019, here at the HOF).

Not entirely uninfluenced, one would imagine, by the runaway success of John Carpenter’s Halloween the previous year, Walton and co-writer Steve Feke decided to re-shoot and expand their taut, suspenseful 1977 short The Sitter, with Carol Kane taking over the role that had previously been played by Lucia Stralser. That one and the first 20 minutes of When A Stranger Calls (which recaps it virtually shot for shot) turn on the old urban legend / campfire story about the threatening phone calls that are eventually traced as coming from inside the house! Anyone out there who knows their slasher movie shit (and I’m sure that includes all HOF readers) will have no problem also recognising this as a pinch from Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), perhaps the most under-acknowledged seminal influence (now that Bava, Argento and Martino are routinely granted their due credit) on the whole stalk’n’slash phenom.

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Kane (whose supersweet face would have made her a megastar in the silent era… where she would, no doubt, have spent more time getting lashed to railway lines than being threatened over the phone) plays Jill, the babysitter being bugged by some bozo who keeps asking her why she hasn’t checked the children. Suspense builds relentlessly until the above mentioned revelation, Jill’s scramble to get the hell out of that house and the superbly edited entrance of Charles Durning as the cop John Clifford, prior to the discovery of the dismembered Mandrakis children upstairs.

Once the original material has been played out, we learn that the perpetrator, a certain Curt Dunkley (Tony Beckley), was confined to a booby hatch from which, several years after the grisly event, he’s escaped. No prizes for guessing that, by the end of the picture his path is going to intersect (via a fortuitous bit of scripting) again with Jill and the children she has subsequently borne. In the build up to that Walton follows the obsessed Clifford, who’s quit the cops, gone freelance and accepted a contract from the bereaved, aggrieved Dr Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano) to whack the wacko. Simultaneously, we track the Hogarthian, down-and-out progress of the clearly disturbed Dunkley. Walton takes the brave decision to prevent him as a pathetic, almost sympathetic character, a gambit that pays off thanks to a sterling performance by the respected British stage actor Beckley, splendidly complimenting the performances of Kane, Durning, Ron “Super Fly” O’Neal and Rachel Roberts (who, like Beckley, would die the following year) in this little gem of an ensemble piece.

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There was further evidence of Fred Walton’s directorial skill and intelligence in April Fool’s Day (1986), a late arrival in the stalk’n’slash stakes that managed a witty, Postmodern take on that sub-genre a full decade before Wes Craven’s inferior Scream (whose taunting phone killer will seem strangely familiar to anyone who’s seen When A Stranger Calls). Disappointing, then, that Walton was largely confined to TV Movies thereafter, though his stint in this milieu did lead to the sequel When A Stranger Calls Back (1993).

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Included as an extra on this disc, WASCB resists the temptation to resurrect Curt Dunkley but throws in too many other improbabilities for its own good, e.g. that Jill (now a women’s counsellor, gun advocate and martial arts ace) and Clifford have teamed up to advise and protect imperilled baby sitters (as though this was the crime epidemic of the early ’90s)… specifically here, to advise and protect Julia played by Jill Schoelen (there was a time there when Jill Schoelen seemed to be in every Horror flick that came out… wonder what she’s doing now?) The baby sitter stalker in this one is cleverly written… in fact way too cleverly, Walton granting him what virtually amount to superpowers that wouldn’t disgrace a super villain in a big budget sci-fi adventure pic, though if you’re prepared to suspend your disbelief from a great height, this makes for some effective shock moments. All things considered, this sequel is a bit of a mish-mash, though.

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Simon West’s 2006 remake (not included on this set) unfolds in an improbably hi-tech house that wouldn’t disgrace a super villain, either. Inexplicably more successful than the original, this one’s main points of interest come from the aptly named Camilla Belle (above) as its imperilled ingenue, filling a skimpy vest every bit as perkily as Jessica Biel did in Marcus Nispel’s 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When A Stranger Calls – The Musical remains, at the time of writing, a figment of my imagination, but among the other extras here you do get interviews with director Fred Walton, Rutanya “Mrs Mandrakis” Alda and soundtrack composer Dana Kaproff. If you’re sufficiently quick off the blocks, you’ll also get his OST as a bonus CD on the limited edition release, together with a slipcase, reversible poster and collector’s booklet.

‘Scuse me, I’ve got to go and make a phone call…

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Bring Me The Head Of Cisco Delgardo! TEXAS, ADIOS Reviewed

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Django unradicalised?

BD. Arrow. Region B. 12.

Sharp shooting Texan Sheriff Burt Sullivan (Franco Nero) takes his kid brother Jim (Alberto Dell’Acqua) south of the border to on a mission to collar Cisco Delgado (José Suárez), the sadistic grandee who murdered his father. Along the way they encounter Mexican insurgents but are less concerned with Revolution than the revelation that Delgado fathered Jim after raping their mother…

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Ferdinando Baldi’s Texas, Adios and Lucio Fulci’s Massacre Time were the earliest Westerns to star Franco Nero in the immediate aftermath of Sergio Corbucci’s seminal Django (all three films hail from 1966). Consequently both of them were among the first of countless Italian Oaters to suffer retitlings as phoney entries (Baldi’s film became “Django The Avenger” for its German release) in a “Django series” that actually only ever included one official sequel, Nello Rossati’s Django Strikes Again (1987).

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Nero himself states, in the bonus material on this release, that Texas Adios isn’t a “proper” Spaghetti Western, being more closely patterned on American avatars than the innovations of Corbucci and of course Sergio Leone. In another featurette, pundit Austin Fisher embellishes the point, observing that the film dips its toes into the Mexican Revolution without displaying any of the political consciousness that would subsequently emerge in the likes of Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet For The General (1967), Sergio Sollima’s Face To Face (also 1967), Giulio Petroni’s Tepepa (1969) or Corbucci’s Companeros! (1970).

 

 

Although its story is, at superficial glance, simple stuff (encapsulated in its trailer, above, as “the story of a Texan’s Fued”), a more considered viewing of Texas, Adios reveals that its SpagWest credentials can’t be dismissed quite so easily. Like the Leone films and Corbucci’s Django (channeling Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, 1961 and ultimately Goldoni’s 18th Century farce The Servant Of Two Masters) you get a protagonist who’s playing various factions off against each other and there is stuff here about the awakening revolutionary conscience, albeit not so artfully played as by Gian Maria Volontè, as El Cuncho, in A Bullet For The General (whose “Yankees go home” message was quite explicit, whereas in Baldi’s film the peons pine for an injection of American democracy / capitalism to help them throw off the shackles of Spanish feudalism). Baldi also deploys emotionally charged flashbacks in the Leone style, albeit nowhere near as effectively (then again, name me any director who uses flashbacks more incisively than Leone).

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The Gothic overtones of Django (pushed to their limits in Giuli Questi’s Django Kill! / If You Live, Shoot!, 1967) continue to reverberate in this film’s sickly Oedipal ambience and the many acts of casual sadism it contains. Or once contained… branding scenes have been clumsily excised from the print sourced here. It’s too long since I watched Aktiv’s VHS release of Texas, Adios for me to recall whether they were included in that, ditto the occasional print damage, variable colour and moments of wonky focus on this 2K BD restoration.

The redoubtable cinematography of Enzo Barboni (another Django holdover) allows the hills of Almeria to pass nicely for the Sierra Madre and an honourable mention must also go to the macabre mariachi music of Antón García Abril (working his way up to the  unforgettably atmospheric scores he conceived for Amando De Ossorio’s Blind Dead films) and his main title theme (available on Parade Records, apparently) is belted out in suitably melodramatic style by Don Powell (not the Slade drummer, surely?)

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Apart from the already mentioned extras, there’s an informative and amusing interview with Alberto Dell’Acqua (billed as “Cole Kitisch”!) Yes, Dell’Acqua is one of the legendary stunt specialist family that also produced Zombi 2 poster boy Ottaviano. Spagwest buffs C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Park supply the audio commentary and co-writer Franco Rossetti is interviewed, in what looks like an off-cut from a session that’s already featured on some other release which I haven’t caught up with yet. The trailer and a gallery of original promotional images from the Mike Siegel Archive complete the bonus materials… the ones I’ve seen, anyway. You’ll also benefit from a booklet including contemporary reviews and new writing on the film by Howard Hughes, if you buy the first pressing… and why wouldn’t you? Texas, Adios is perhaps more evolutionary than revolutionary in its approach but does enough to earn itself a respectable place in the SpagWest firmament.

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As if anticipating the accusation that his Westerns were somehow too conservative, Baldi subsequently made such Oater oddities as 1971’s Blindman (starring Ringo Starr) and the 3-D effort Comin’ At Ya (1981) also the execrable Terror Express (1980), a late arriving entry in Italy’s interminable series of Last House On The Left clones and arguably the most reprehensible of the lot.

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A pistol for Ringo…

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(Not) Mucho Denero… DE NIRO AND DE PALMA, THE EARLY FILMS Reviewed

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 15.

For some time now, I’ve been promising / threatening “a major piece” on Brian De Palma (“major” in terms of the amount of time I’ve devoted to drafting and redrafting it, if nothing else) but every time I think I’ve got a handle on this subject, some new subtlety or bit of connectedness in something I watch or re-watch makes me despair of ever managing anything like a definitive take (or even my definitive take) on the complexities of his oeuvre. A review copy of Arrow’s Carrie BD previously obliged me to write something about that one in these pages and for the same reason, the necessity now arises to post something about that label’s “De Niro And De Palma, The Early Films” set, comprising the restored anti-establishment triptych The Wedding Party (1963/9), Greetings (1968) and Hi Mom! (1970).

Tim Lucas’s oft-quoted (frequently on this blog) axiom that “you can’t really say you’ve seen one Jesus Franco film till you’ve seen them all” is doubly applicable to the work of De Palma, whose schematic grasp of what he was going to do with his career is evident from his earliest days behind a camera, during which he lay down markers as bold and intentional as any classical historian embarking upon their magnum opus… indeed, the works of Thucydides, Sallust or Livy are probably more apt points of comparison for De Palma than the filmographies of such contemporaries as Spielberg or Lucas. That might seem like a bold and / or eccentric claim but stick with me and I’ll try to justify it as we go…

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The Wedding Party (co-directed with Wilford Leach and Cynthia Munroe) is a black and white comedy of manners in which young science fiction writer Charlie (Charles Pfluger), on the eve of his wedding to Josephine (Jill Clayburgh), gets cold feet about assimilating into her upper crust family. His misgivings are fuelled by his picaresque friends / ushers Alistair (Bill Finley) and Cecil (De Niro, billed as “Denero” though he didn’t make mucho on this movie… fifty bucks, legend has it). Charlie’s increasingly desperate attempts to escape are underlined by De Palma’s bag of silent movie tricks (always showing his directorial hand… always reminding you that you are watching a movie) but ultimately, the groom makes it down the aisle for an unexpectedly (in retrospect) conservative ending. The central characters are vaguely dissatisfied with what society has to offer them (TWP now reads like some kind of precursor to the likes of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, 1967) but no clear alternatives seem to be presenting themselves… yet.

On this outing neither Finley (who subsequently amassed a respectable CV, notably in De Palma and Tobe Hooper pictures) nor De Niro (no introduction required) particularly outshine Pfluger, who disappeared without a trace after The Wedding Party. The film itself, shot in 1963, remained on the shelf until interest in RDN started to take off, not least on account of Greetings, which predates by a year the more celebrated Easy Rider (1969) as the first alt.Hollywood film.

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Taking its title from the opening line of a draft induction letter, this one begins with a shot of a TV on which President Johnson is addressing supporters, explicitly linking victory in Vietnam to social progress at home (turns out, in hindsight, that neither was possible). One strongly suspects that De Palma is all-too hip to the parallels with (here it comes) Thucydides, whose History Of The Peloponnesian War (written circa 431 BC) struggles with the paradox of Athens’ Golden Age of Democracy being sustained by bully boy tactics abroad (“The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must…”) Of course domestic life in America’s nascent Golden Age (proclaimed by LBJ in a winking paraphrase of Harold MacMillan), as lived by another trio of proto-slackers (De Niro as “Jon Rubin”, Gerrit Graham as “Lloyd Clay” and another one shot actor, Jonathan Warden as “Paul Shaw”) consists less of civic virtue than pursuing their ongoing obsessions with getting laid (Paul) or at least copping a look at unsuspecting women (Jon), figuring out who killed Kennedy (Lloyd) and dodging that draft (all of them!) while serving De Palma’s own insatiable obsession with the act of filming, itself.

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The cinematic techniques calling attention to themselves here are, appropriately, more Bertolt Brecht than Buster Keaton, with jump cuts (Godard, of course, looms large) and scant regard for the proverbial fourth wall. De Palma repeatedly identifies looking / filming as an aggressive act of intrusion to the point where Rubin, the only character who does end up in Vietnam, closes the picture by re-staging one of his voyeuristic phony screen tests with a captured Vietcong girl… the proverbial “masculine gaze” writ geopolitically large.

Indeed, when one of Paul’s computer dates shows disturbing signs of autonomous sexual spontaneity he calls in Lloyd, who inks bullet entry and exits points on her naked body to illustrate a point from his relentless mission to debunk the findings of the Warren Commission, a scene which anticipates Ballard (whose The Atrocity Exhibition was published in 1970) as much as it echoes Blow Up (referenced implicitly and explicitly throughout Greetings and far from the last word on Antonioni’s 1966 masterpiece in the filmography of BDP), in the process earning Greetings American cinema’s first ‘X’ Certificate (beating out Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy by a fortnight). The boys’ haphazardly related amatory exploits recall those of Encolpius, Ascyltos and Giton in the pages of Petronius, usefully reminding us of the original derivation of the term “satire”.

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The radicalisation of Robert 1) Reading case studies on voyeurism in Greetings (1968)

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The radicalisation of Robert 2) Reading The Urban Guerilla in Hi, Mom! (1970)

By the end of Greetings Paul’s endless sexual quest seems to have consigned and confined him to a porno loop that Jon picks up from some guy in a dirty mac and Lloyd’s paranoia is vindicated when he’s shot down on account of whatever insight into the JFK conspiracy he might have gleaned. Jon, ironically the last man standing, returns home from ‘Nam to pursue his voyeuristic activities in Hi, Mom! (which co-writer / co-producer Chuck Hirsch insists should have been released as “Son Of Greetings”). When his pitch for a “Peep TV show” (which wouldn’t look out-of-place in the gallery of grotesqueries that is today’s “Reality TV”) gets turned down by a smut producer, Jon trades in his camera for a TV set and randomly tunes into a community arts channel covering an agitprop theatre troupe (including the blacked up Gerrit Graham) who are staging Be Black Baby, a “happening” designed to acquaint complacent whites with the realities of negro life in ’60s America. Rubin signs up to play “a Pig” and psyches himself up by having an argument with a mop in an astonishing dry run for De Niro’s celebrated “You talkin’ to me?” routine in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. It’s a toss up as to which is the more fun, watching this or the various bull sessions on draft dodging in Greetings, wherein De Niro (of all people) method acts a method actor… I wonder what method acting tricks he fell back on to pull off that performance?

The white middle class punters are duly roughed up, robbed and sexually assaulted but leave thankful for having been granted a “real experience”. “The more you rape their senses…” as Ruggero Deodato would have it “… the more they like it”. Presumably nowdays these guys would be sufficiently confident in their right-on personnas to refer to fellow whites as “gammon” (admittedly an equal opportunities bit of nastiness that’s obnoxious to Caucasians, Jews and Muslims alike).

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The continuing radicalisation of Robert: Hi, Mom! (1970)…

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… and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976)

When the Be Black Baby players progress to armed insurrection with fatal consequences (chiefly for themselves), Rubin appears to settle for the straight life, becoming an insurance salesman and setting up home with Judy (Jennifer Salt), only to conclude the picture by dynamiting their apartment block into rubble. It’s here that De Palma explicitly sets out the mission statement (joining the mainstream and using his privileged position within it to propagate his own subversive messages) to which he has adhered so impressively throughout his magnificent career. Hm, maybe I’ll write something about that one of these days…

Supplementary materials include a new Greetings commentary by Glenn Kenny (the author of Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor), Howard S. Berger’s authoritative and engaging take on De Palma’s early films and interviews with Chuck Hirsch. The Hi, Mom! trailer and PDF of the Greetings press book were present and correct on the two (out of three) discs I received but the advertised interviews with actors Gerrit Graham and Peter Maloney were conspicuous by their absence so I can’t tell you anything about those, nor the limited collector’s edition booklet featuring new writing on the films by Brad Stevens, Chris Dumas and Christina Newland, alongside an archive interview with De Palma and Hirsch. Then again, any attempt to see and comprehend everything is always doomed to failure in the De Palmian universe and even after an incomplete viewing, I have no problem declaring this one of the essential releases of 2018.

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Greetings: Howard Thompson’s perspicacious NY Times review included the line: “Of… Robert De Niro and Jonathan Warden, the latter at least gives some evidence of talent”.

Despite Mrs F’s urgings, I have steadfastly resisted the temptation to sneak another classical allusion into this piece about Italian-American film luminaries, namely that hoary old gag about Euripedes…

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