Monthly Archives: January 2019

Yellow Telly: Italy’s Hitchcock Opens THE DOOR INTO DARKNESS

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DVD. Region Free. Dragon Film Entertainment. Unrated.

Over the years, Dario Argento has blown hot and cold over the “Italian Hitchcock” label that’s so often attached to him (and frankly, the worst of his post-Opera output makes comparisons with Ed Wood seem more appropriate) but his high media profile in Italy is largely down to four hour-long TV movies that he presented under the “La Porta Sul Buio” banner on RAI (the Italian equivalent of the BBC) in 1973, a clear attempt to emulate Universal’s iconic “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, which ran between 1957 and 1962 in The States (and syndicated world-wide).

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The enormous domestic viewing figures (in the region of 30 million) racked up by Argento’s mini-series are often contextualised with the observation that Italy only had two TV channels (RAI Uno and Rai Due) at the time, but in fact the playing field was even more uneven than that, as Rai Due had only recently started broadcasting and still couldn’t be picked up by more than 50% of the Italian population.

The captive audience digesting their Cena in front of the first episode on a September evening in 1973 were greeted by the spectacle of Argento, in a fetching ’70s pullover, fretting over his dead car. Aldo Reggiani (one of the doctors in Four Flies On Grey Velvet) and Laura Belli offer him a lift and after a desultory bit of conversation (Argento compliments them on the cuteness of their baby) our master of ceremonies alights and waves them off into the first episode…

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“The Neighbour”

That young couple are off to spend their first night in the seaside apartment that will be their new home. It seems improbable that Belli’s character would put up with this ramshackle property, sight unseen. Even more so that Reggiani could sit up to watch a Frankenstein film when much has already been made of the fact that the apartment’s electricity is off. As for the killer upstairs, who goes out to dig a grave for his wife, whom he’s just drowned in the bath, oblivious to what the new neighbours might think of such shenanigans… well!

Despite the deficiencies in Luigi Cozzi’s script, his competent direction keeps this zero budget variation on Rear Window (whose themes Cozzi would expand into the rather excellent giallo The Killer Must Kill Again later in the same year) just about watchable, right up to a climax that’s taken straight out of the Edgar Allan Poe playbook. For anyone who didn’t spot the Hitchcock allusion, the killer is played by Spagwest heavy Mimmo Palmara (who also supervised the series’ post production sound-synching), conspicuously greyed up to look like Raymond Burr.

Il Vicino Di Casa was the second episode shot and originally planned as the broadcast follow-up to its predecessor in the shooting schedule…

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… but at the last minute this order was reversed. Argento wrote and edited The Tram utilising the pseudonym “Sirio Bernadotte”, because after three theatrical features it was felt that TV directing might be construed as a retrograde step in his career. “Sirio” introduces this episode with a bit of inconsequential waffle and by bringing on Commisioner Giordani (Enzo Cerusico, who would star in Argento’s non-giallo feature Five Days In Milan the same year). The mystery facing this guy is how a woman could be stabbed to death and stuffed under the seat of a busy tram without anybody noticing. To crack it, the obsessively finger-snapping cop restages that fatal tram ride with the participation of as many of her fellow passengers as the police can trace. The solution isn’t that hard to work out (and with it, the killer’s identity) but Argento’s polished direction of The Tram makes for a more consistently engaging ride than Il Vicino Di Casa, right up to a half-assed ending which pays lip service to the suggestion that white collar criminals regularly commit worse crimes and get away with them, a theme explored with more conviction and clarity by, among others, Aldo Lado in any number of his films.

RAI’s ambivalence about the whole project, in which their desire for new cutting edge material rubbed up against their conservative instincts, is nowhere better illustrated than in their veto of any depiction of knives in the climactic stalking of Giordani’s girlfriend Giulia played by Paola Tedesco (whose blonde locks in this one make her a bit of a Barbara Bouchet looky-likey)… so instead she’s stalked with a (presumably more politically correct) meat hook! If this character’s name hasn’t already clued you in, the whole episode is an expansion of a scene cut from the screenplay for The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970). Likewise…

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… the third episode (whose introductory section, in which Argento quizzes a fat cop about the most colourful cases he’s ever conducted, suggests it was originally conceived as the series closer) is a stripped down version of plot and themes from the recently wrapped Four Flies On Grey Velvet. Argento rewarded his long-term assistant Roberto Pariante with the direction of The Eye Witness but the dailies apparently revealed that he had been promoted beyond his competence and after a few days Argento enlisted Cozzi (his co-writer on this section) to reshoot Pariante’s existing footage while he handled the remaining scenes. In the finished article (still officially credited to Pariante), Liz Taylor clone Marilù Tolo (with whom Argento promptly embarked upon a two-year affair) is driving home late one night when a stabbed woman staggers out in front of her car. Our heroine calls the cops but by the time they arrive, there is no sign of the corpse. Is Marilù losing the plot or is somebody (maybe her apparently devoted husband?) trying to drive her bonkers? Anyone who’s seen Four Flies On Grey Velvet will have little difficulty in supplying the answer…

RAI insider Mario Foglietti (who co-wrote Four Flies with Argento and Cozzi) was given a rare chance to direct on the final  episode to be broadcast, which he co-wrote with Marcella Elsberger…

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The Doll

This one kicks off with a dangerous schizo absconding from a medical unit, all rendered via the nutcase’s POV. In fact throughout, Foglietti deploys techniques from Argento’s bag of visual tricks in the service of a bloodless thriller (the murder of genre icon Erika Blanc in an iconic fashion house setting plays out as a disappointingly stylised, anaemic affair) that runs more on existential angst than violence. This depressing giallo tendency would reach its nadir in Umberto Lenzi’s Spasmo the following year and anyone who’s ever suffered through that one will break out in a cold sweat when they clock the presence here of its star Robert Hoffman, stalking Mara Venier with apparent psychotic intent, though you’d have to be pretty slow on the uptake not to spot the climactic narrative switcheroo coming. I particularly cherished the deployment of police resources in this episode, i.e. the chief investigating officer is driven up and down the high street observing pedestrians in the hope that he’ll spot his quarry!

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Giorgio Gaslini scores all the episodes with Morricone-esque suspenseful flurries and for the main series theme, stabbing, Emersonesque piano passages. Each instalment is passably presented (the original elements having long disappeared) on this 2004 double disc set from German outfit Dragon. Interviews with Luigi Cozzi give the background to the series and introduce each episode individually. For the authentic experience, he requests that the viewer watch La Porta Sul Buio in black and white, as broadcast, rather than colour (as shot and presented here).

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Possibly conceived as a goodbye to the giallo (before the failure of Argento’s projected breakout feature Five Days In Milan sent him back to the genre, with Deep Red and Tenebrae to come), La Porta Sul Buio is a historically interesting but compromised affair, part of whose historical interest resides in the very compromises that it had to make. Its episodes are a lot more watchable (on every level barring that of kitschy trash) than the vignettes Argento (and Lamberto Bava) contributed to RAI’s short-lived (October 1987 to January ’88) TV game show Giallo.

Devised and hosted by veteran presenter Enzo Tortora (coming back after his acquittal in a notorious drugs case) and broadcast in a much more heterogeneous and competitive, post-Berlusconi Italian TV environment, Giallo was an indigestible concoction of game show (contestants had to guess the killer) and chat show (a surviving clip shows Dario interviewing a tangibly listless post-Roger Waters Pink Floyd), with glamorous hostesses thrown in for good measure but regrettably no sign of Dusty Bin.

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No “Sirio Bernadotte” subterfuge, this time out, for a director whose career after Opera would consist of nothing but retrograde steps…

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Dizzy Blondes… VERTIGO Goes Go-Go In Lucio Fulci’s PERVERSION STORY.

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BD. Region Free. Mondo Macabro. Unrated.

By 1969 Lucio Fulci, the self-proclaimed “terrorist of the genres”, had compiled a solid track record of domestic box office success with every filone he ever waded into… youthsploitation pictures, comedies, caper movies, spaghetti westerns… it was inevitable that he would be given the opportunity to try his hand in the newly faddish field of giallo. His maiden entry in the thriller stakes, with Una Sull’Altra (“One On Top Of The Other” aka Perversion Story… the original Italian title resonating far more cleverly with what actually goes on in the film) preceded the model that Mario Bava had been refining since The Evil Eye (1963) and Blood And Black Lace (1964) hitting critical mass with Dario Argento’s international crossover hit The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970). Before that smasheroo prompted descriptions of Argento as “The Italian Hitchcock”, Fulci was fusing the bonkbusting formula of Romolo Guerrieri and Umberto Lenzi‘s Carroll Bakerthons with his own take on The Master’s Vertigo (1958), with a few noirish clichés (e.g. waiting on a gubernatorial reprieve in the condemned cell) thrown in a for good measure).

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Ah, The Jacey. Subsequently an evangelical church, then knocked down to build a shopping mall.

Jean Sorel had starred in Guerrieri’s template-setting The Sweet Body Of Deborah (1968) and would take the male lead in such subsequent variations on that theme as Umberto Lenzi’s A Quiet Place To Kill (1970) and José María Forqué’s The Fox With The Velvet Tail (1971). His bland, masculine good looks will inevitably tempt viewers of these films into suspecting that he’s got to be up to something nefarious although sometimes, of course, there’s a double bluff going on and there really is nothing more than an ineffectual numpty lurking beneath that smooth exterior.

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In Perversion Story Sorel plays Dr George Dumurrier (a subliminal Hitchcock nod in itself), director of the San Francisco clinic that takes his name. Ever the opportunist,  George has got more of an eye for the bottom line than the Hippocratic oath and wastes no opportunity to hype the clinic with such gimmicks as announcing heart transplants that he’s in no position to deliver. In the process he pisses off his sensible brother / junior partner Henry (Alberto De Mendoza) no end and his neglectful careerism and indiscrete affair with Jane (Elsa Martinelli) alienate his sickly wife Susan (Marisa Mell). When a mix up between her asthma medication and sedatives lead to Susan’s death, the discovery of a life insurance policy with George as her beneficiary looks bad enough … but things take an even more sinister turn with the discovery of Monica Weston, an “exotic dancer” who’s a dead ringer for Susan. George and Jane’s investigations into the ever-deepening mystery lead him further and further down a dark path which will terminate in the gas chamber at Alcatraz…

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Perversion Story proves that Fulci hadn’t been wasting his time since assisting Steno in the early ’50s (including on the first Italian features to be shot in colour) and directing nearly 25 of his own pictures in the meantime. Throughout this one he alternates spacious panoramas of San Francisco in automative action with claustrophobic, geometric compositions and deep focus shots that testify to his visual imagination and the technical virtuosity of DP Alejandro Ulloa and camera operator Giovanni Bergamini.

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Ditto the periodic eruptions of split screen work. Coincidentally, round about the time Fulci was making Perversion Story, Martin Scorsese was splitting Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (released 1970) into panels and Brian De Palma (for whom split screen and depth focus would become part of his directorial signature) was incorporating more of the same into Dionysus In ’69 (another 1970 release). As for the sex scenes apparently shot from inside red satin sheets…

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All of this distracts admirably from Perversion Story’s many glaring narrative failings (on which more in a moment…)

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Perversion Story represents the first occasion during which Lucio Fulci was let loose on American locations and the film fair crackles with his love of that country’s cinema and of America itself. To the appropriately beatnik jazz stylings of Riz Ortolani’s overheated OST, Fulci presents a visual paean to Neal Cassady’s vision of the USA as cars, girls and an endless road… although of course the road comes to an end on the West Coast and had already run out for Cassady, dead at 41 by 1968. The beatnik / hippy scene was also dead on its feet by the time Fulci arrived in San Francisco, with straight tourists trying to snatch a fleeting sniff of its remains in seedy “swinging” establishments like the one wherein Monica plies her exotic trade.

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Frustrated fuddy-duddies would also rub up against happening hep cats, again with discouraging results, in Fulci’s next giallo, the following year’s Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (click the link for a discussion of the impressive job Mondo Macabro already did on that title). The Summer of Love is over and the world belongs to suited’n’booted bastards like George Dumurrier. He’d like to think so, anyway, but as the man says: “If the finger print matches, it’s the gas chamber for you, Doc!”

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The go-to edition of Perversion Story prior to this one was Severin’s 2007 DVD release (now out of print) which came with a nice bonus CD of Ortolani’s score. Mondo Macabro’s Blu-ray provides a predictable step up in image quality (unimpaired by any significant grain gain) and clocks in ten minutes longer but if you’re hoping for any clarification of the film’s wayward plotting… well, don’t hold your breath (unless of course you’re reading this in a gas chamber, in which case by all means hold your breath!) I do love Perversion Story but every time I rewatch it, I become more aware of how little sense is made by its storyline (concocted by Fulci, Roberto Gianviti and Jose Luis Martinez Molla, though the latter is conceivably billed merely to fill co-production quotas). Yes, I know that Vertigo itself  seriously stretches credibility at certain points but “far-fetched” barely begins to do justice to Fulci’s film. Not only does it beggar belief that Mell’s character could set up such an elaborate parallel life for herself (I’ve got no qualms about dropping “spoilers” here, I mean we’ve already established that PS is a Vertigo variant)… indeed, that she could carry off two such fabrications (“Susan Dumurrier” is ultimately revealed to be as ersatz a construction as “Monica Weston”) but it’s difficult to see what she might ever have gained from the arduous effort that must have gone into creating Monica. Surely, having framed George for the killing of Susan, she should have just disappeared into a discreet and anonymous alias (though of course in that event, Fulci would have had significantly less of a saga to unfold and we the viewers, considerably less eye candy to contemplate).

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A likely story…

Fittingly for a Hitchcock pastiche, Fulci himself pops up in probably the most substantial of his early cameos, as a forensic scientist, looking well fed but thinning a bit on top (though what he’s got has been teased into impressive quiffage of which even Adriano Celentano might have been proud). After a couple of minutes presenting slides of handwriting that seem to push George even closer to his appointment at Alcatraz, Fulci signs off with: “I’ll be next door, writing up my report”, though in fact he hangs around, badgering some laboratory underlings at the back of the shot for another minute or so, old ham that he is.

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No bonus CD here but there’s the now mandatory overview from Beyond Terror author Steven Thrower, who’s always worth listening to, plus interviews with Elsa Martinelli and Jean Sorel, who just seems to look more distinguished with every passing year and here remembers Fulci more as a collaborator and family friend than via the usual recitation of flakey behaviour. You also get a trailer, which points out that death chamber attendants and technicians actually appear in the film, as they do (but can’t resisit gilding the lily by claiming that they were hot from a recent execution) and a truly wild reel of excerpts from current and upcoming Mondo Macabro releases.

This looks like being the definitive presentation of Perversion Story for quite some time to come.

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You might think she’s crazy, but Marisa Mell wants you to lick her decals off, baby…

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Caesar’s Wife’s Blues… FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION on Arrow BD.

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 15.

Minou (Dagmar Lassander) lives a privileged life of pampered ennui as the neglected wifey of workaholic industrialist Peter (Pier Paolo Capponi). Comfortably marooned in Jacqueline Susann territory, her most significant daily decisions include what colour to paint her toe-nails, which wig to wear (she and her snooty pals all boast extensive wig collections, any of which pale into insignificance in comparison with the legendary lacquered Capponi comb-over) when she hits Barcelona’s hot and happening nite spots (FPOALAS is clearly shot in Barcelona, though at several points in it characters can be seen waving wads of US dollars around) and how early in the day she can get away with downing a tumbler or two of J&B and popping a few prozacs. Yep, Minou is bored off her delectable arse and longs for a little excitement in her life, but you know what they say… be careful what you wish for! Attempting to see off the blahs with a moonlit walk on the beach, Minou is waylaid by a menacing dude (Simón Andreu) with a sword stick who cops a feel off her and demands that she “beg for me… plead for my kisses”. When he’s done groping he disappears, but not before advising her that her husband is “a fraud and a murderer”.

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Pier Paolo Capponi and friend… anybody noticing a recurring visual motif yet?

You have to keep reminding yourself that all of this is taking place in pre #metoo days, otherwise the general reaction to Minou ordeal at the hands of a sword stick wielding weirdo might seem a little… off-key. “It was probably just a prank”, hubby helpfully suggests and the victim herself seems to take the incident in her stride, refusing to alert the police on the grounds that “they just make you fill in forms”. Later, at a hep party where ageing swingers bust their funky moves to delirious dollops of Morricone Hammond heaven, Minou meets up with pal Dominique (“Susan Scott” / Nieves Navarro) to discuss her run in with the kinky maniac. “It means you’re bursting with sex appeal”, gibbers Dominique (who’s at it with Peter behind Minou’s back, incidentally) : “I’d adore being violated!”. No big deal then, it’s unanimous… indeed, there seems to be the suggestion that a bored, spoiled woman is just getting carried away with her Angie Dickinsonesque sexual fantasies.

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Stoking the fire, Dominique shows Minou some (rather tame) nuddy photos she’s had taken of herself and her pals (which had to be developed in Copenhagen!) Who should turn up in one of them, but Mr Menacing Dude from the beach?! He subsequently contacts Minou, claiming that the recent death of one of her husband’s creditors (from the bends, of all things) was no accident. Taped telephone conversations seem to lend credence to this version of events, and Minou is only too well aware that Peter has been suffering some serious cash flow problems, so she agrees to meet the blackmailer… but was it really wise to go in that mini skirt?

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Minou offers to buy Menacing Dude’s silence but he scorns her paper dollars: “You don’t know me, Minou…” he emotes: “You must submit your mind and body… you must suffer and be my slave!” What this florid nonsense boils down to is the blackmailer bonking her while taking pictures. With the eponymous forbidden photes in his possession, Minou’s tormentor reveals that he has faked the incriminating evidence against her husband but now has a strong bargaining position from which to demand her ongoing sexual favours… which she seems to dispense, shall we say, not without enthusiasm. Deduct several credibility points if you haven’t worked out there’s more to this debauched scenario than meets the eye and that there are several twists still to come…

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On the evidence of his Death Walks On High Heels (above, 1971) and Death Walks At Midnight (1972), each of which has its moments but both of which ultimately amount to less than the sum of their convoluted parts, I’d long considered Luciano Ercoli a bit of a second stringer, an underachieving Sergio Martino wannabe. While researching a piece on how the “bonkbusting” strain of giallo (presiding goddess Carroll Baker) gave way to the “psycho slasher” variant (and the divine Edwige Fenech) after the success of Argento’s Bird With The Crystal Plumage, however, I rewatched Ercoli’s Forbidden Photos Of A Lady Above Suspicion (1970) and completely revised my long-standing, complacent opinion.

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Martino’s gialli are clearly key transitional works between the sexually overheated, money-motivated murder mysteries of Guerrieri and Lenzi and the post-Crystal Plumage sagas of deranged sex killers, mix-and-matching elements from both strains to keep their audiences guessing while simultaneously, director Sergio, producer Luciano and writer Ernesto Gastaldi  furiously attempted to figure out which side of the equation was going to put the most natiche on Italian cinema seats. No fewer than four aspiring assassins are interacting in their attempts to eliminate Edwige during The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh (1971). Just one of them is a full-blown nutzoid sex case, while the others coolly calculate the financial benefits potentially accruing from her demise. Subsequent Martino efforts essentially reshake the mix while refreshing the flavour with such incidental distractions as a black magic cult (in All The Colours Of The Dark, 1972) and the boho / Poe stylings of the same year’s Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key.  Martino finally came down firmly in psycho killer territory with Torso (produced by Carlo Ponti in 1973), which stripped the narrative right down to “pretty girls vs drooling loony” basics, with the most sexually conservative girl surviving the kill spree… establishing, in the process, the template for the whole American slasher / splatter phenom.

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From Copenhagen with love…

FPOALAS was released over the last two months of 1970 in Northern Italian cities and during early ’71 in the South. In other words, it was an earlier response to TBWTCP than any of those Martino pictures and anticipates several of their recurring narrative strategies. Like Fenech’s Mrs Wardh, Minou responds to marital neglect by drifting into an abusive S/M relationship with a cad, here the prolific and still busy Simón Andreu, who would combine the neglectful and sadistic male roles in Vicente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride, two years later (his roles in both films are so archetypal that his characters in each remain unnamed!) Just like Ivan Rassimov, who would subsequently take the corresponding role in Martino’s thrillers, Andreu tends to lurk in the shadows or barely glimpsed through rain-streaked windows, turning up at pivotal plot moments to further turn the screws on the increasingly desperate heroine. The ease with which Dominique converts Minou to the joys of amateur Porn prefigures Edwige Fenech’s rapid recruitment to a Satanic cult when Marina Malfatti suggests it might remedy her conformist malaise in All The Colours Of The Dark… jeez, Lassander even does the “take a shower in your slip” thing before it ever occurred to Edwige Fenech to do so!

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What really clinches FPOALAS’s place as a seminal text in the discourse between the bonkbusting and Argentoesque substreams of giallo is the self-consciousness with which the conspiring characters discuss precisely this dichotomy.  “You want to defeat me with your money… you’re trying to make a fool of me!” chides Mr Menacing when Minou attempts to buy him off: “Both of you think that your money can buy anything. You’re like animals, yet you call me mad!” “He’s crazy…” Minou confides to Dominique ” he doesn’t think like other people, there’s no way of knowing what he’ll do next”. As it happens, he’s only playing a role, but acts it out so (over)enthusiastically that he ends up spoiling the scam that his puppet-master (guess who) had devised. “He enjoyed playing the maniac and forgot I was paying him to follow instructions” complains the actual culprit behind this whole tawdry affair, before the cops arrive and gun him down… but if Andreu’s anaemic antics during this film (which amount to handing out a few superficial scratches with that sword stick) constitute him “going over the top” as a sex killer, one can only wonder what a half-assed attempt by him could possibly have looked like! The “rational” motive for all the unseemly shenanigans in Ercoli’s film, furthermore, when ultimately revealed, makes no sense whatsoever… I mean, I know there was all sorts of crazy stuff going on in Italy during the ’70s, but has there ever been a time (anywhere?) when insurance companies paid out on suicides?

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Luciano Ercoli (who also produced FPOALAS… Ernesto Gastaldi, still working through his obsession with Les Dialoboliques, wrote it) retired from the film biz after inheriting a fortune in the mid ’70s, presumably to enjoy the J&B quaffing, leisured lifestyle with his muse Navarro (who carried on acting – in several Joe D’Amato titles, among others… till 1989). Hopefully they spent their time until Ercoli’s death in March 2015 more harmoniously than Peter and Minou. The interviews with them on the supplementary materials for this release, conducted in their ostentatiously luxurious Barcelona apartment, rather suggest that they did. Indeed, Ercoli seems so happy with his lot that in his closing remarks he expresses the desire to live another 82 years, setting up the featurette’s final ironic caption. Gastaldi also has his say on their collaboration. Much of this material seems to have been re-edited from Arrow’s earlier releases of Death Walks On High Heels / At Midnight.

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Among the other extras, aside from the expected trailer, soundtrack nabob Lovely Jon illuminates the working relationship between “The Big Three” (Ennio Morricone, Bruno Nicolai and Alessandro Alessandroni (from the privileged position of having himself collaborated with Alessandroni) and suggests that Nicolai, in particular, has been given short shrift, credits-wise, in relation to Morricone (Billy Strayhorn suffered much the same in his collaborations with Duke Ellington). Lovely Jon also takes the time to credit the contributions of the angelically voiced Edda Dell’Orso, among others. There’s a lengthy and revealing interview with Lassander, conducted by the inestimable Steve Green on stage at Manchester’s Festival Of Fantastic Films in 2016. During her commentary track, Kat Ellinger eloquently champions pre-Argento, non-Bava gialli with reference to Michael Mackenzie’s “F-giallo” / “M-giallo” schemata. I’m not altogether convinced by this distinction… is Lucio Fulci’s Perversion Story (which we’ll be reviewing shortly), for instance, an “F-giallo” or an “M-giallo”? A social media friend (and if I could remember who it was, I’d give them due credit) drew what is, for me, a wittier and more useful distinction between “60s scheming gialli and 70s stabby gialli”. If anything, the current background buzz over Umberto Lenzi and Romolo Guerrieri’s early Italian thrillers gives me grounds for optimism that Arrow might be preparing long overdue BD releases for them. Mr Mackenzie, incidentally, contributes an essay on FPOALAS in the illustrated collector’s booklet that accompanies the first pressing of this edition, but not the screeners that we hacks get.

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Quite aside from all the worthy extras, the main feature’s colour palette is presented here with significantly more nuance, vibrancy and general oomph than on Blue Underground’s previous DVD release… suitable grounds for an upgrade.

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“I hope you threw that cucumber in the bin afterwards!”

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Sette Studentesse Per L’Assassino… THE MINISKIRT MURDERS Reviewed.

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Directed by “Anthony Dawson” (Antonio Margheriti) in 1968. Produced by Lawrence Woolner, Virgilio and Giuseppe De Blasio. Written by Antonio Margheriti, Giovanni Simonelli, Franco Bottari and (all uncredited) Mario Bava, Tudor Gates, Brian Degas. Cinematography by Fausto Zuccoli. Edited by Otello Colangeli. Production design by Antonio Visone. Music by Carlo Savina. Starring: Michael Rennie, Mark Damon, Eleonora Brown, Sally Smith, Patrizia Valturri, Ludmilla Lvova, Malisa Longo, Silvia Dionisio, “Alan Collins”, (Luciano Pigozzi).

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Antonio Margheriti was, by the general consent of anyone who ever met him (among whose number I’m fortunate to count myself), a total sweetheart. Much the same is said,  by those who encountered him, of Mario Bava. Between these two great Italian genre directors, though, little love seems to have been lost. One possible contributory factor to this alleged frostiness might have been Margheriti’s string of Gothic horror efforts which, while constituting a respectable body of chillers in their own right (The Virgin Of Nuremberg, 1963, Danse Macabre and The Long Hair Of Death, 1964) unquestionably shadowed such Bava classics as Black Sunday (1960), Black Sabbath and The Whip And The Body (both 1963). Perhaps such copy-catting was considered par-for-the-course in the Italian B-movie tradition… but maybe not by everybody.

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Whatever, it is suggested (notably by Tim Lucas in his epochal Bava tome All The Colors Of The Dark) that Bava quit as director of the picture under consideration here (at that point known as Cry Nightmare) when he learned that the producer he’d be answerable to was none other than Antonio Margheriti. Inheriting the direction of the project, Margheriti definitively established that he was nowhere near as good a copyist of Giallo Bava as he was of Bava in Gothic mode. Margheriti’s 1973 spaghetti slasher Seven Dead In The Cat’s Eye is pretty watchable stuff, precisely because of the way it allows him to indulge his gothic inclinations… whereas this effort more closely resembles one of the more schoolbound krimi (those West German Edgar Wallace adaptations which are shading off into gialli proper round about this time) than the great giallo leaps forward that Bava seemed to manage every time he worked in the genre.

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For such a pedestrian effort, Marghereti’s film boasts a plethora of lurid titles aside from its original designation, Cry Nightmare. There’s Nude… Si Muore (“Naked You Die”), Sieben Jungfrauen Fur Den Teufel (“Seven Young Girls For The Devil”), The Young, The Evil And The Savage, Schoolgirl Killer and – my favourite – The Miniskirt Murders. Under whatever name, its alleged “action” unfolds, at a very sedate clip indeed, within the walls of St Hilda’s College, a boarding school for the daughters of the well off, whose dormitories are populated by some of the oldest looking “schoolgirls” since Stockard Canning slipped on her Pink Ladies outfit… Sally Smith was thirty when she appeared in this picture, for Chrissakes! Most irritating by far, though, is Lorenza Guerrieri as “Jill”, exactly the kind of mandatory, misfiring “comic relief” that is again strongly reminiscent of the krimis. All of these superannuated students are busily lusting after supposedly hunky teacher Mark Damon, whose penchant for jail bait immediately marks him out as the chief suspect when various girls and faculty members start getting bumped off (in disappointingly perfunctory style). The fact that he likes to hang around the college’s lime pit (yes, St Hilda’s has a lime pit… I imagine that it features prominently in the school prospectus) looking menacing does nothing to ease our suspicions. Another possible culprit is Margheriti and Bava’s ubiquitous character player “Alan Collins” alias Luciano Pigozzi (“the Italian Peter Lorre”), the school handyman who spends his time lovingly polishing his scythe (Freudian, much?) while relentlessly ogling schoolgirls from the bushes.

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Inspector Durand, the cop called in to investigate St Hilda’s alarming mortality rate, is played by a fast-fading Michael (The Day The Earth Stood Still) Rennie… fading so very fast that he was rather, er, tentative in his role, as Margheriti delighted in telling me when I interviewed him in 1995: “Rennie had suffered a heart attack about a year before we shot that picture. Every time we had to shoot a scene with some action, he would come to me and say: ‘Tony, what do you think? Maybe we could have Franco come in with all the policemen running and I arrive later and have a look…’ What he meant was: ‘Don’t make me run, I don’t want to die!’ Ha ha… a terrible story. He would open the door and step out before you could tell him to jump out, because he was really sick, you know? Ha ha ha!” Yeah, that’s very sensitive of you, Antonio…

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The biggest clue to the killer’s true identity lies with a corpse in a crate that we see being deposited in the school’s cellar towards the beginning of the film, and the ultimate revelation comes in a silly cross-dressing twist that really isn’t too hard to spot coming. Margheriti told me that he regarded The Miniskirt Murders as “a Dario Argento picture, ten years before Argento started to make movies!” Apart from the hazy grasp of chronology implied by this statement, it flagrantly disregards how much more Argento managed to achieve with the school setting in Phenomena (never mind Suspiria!) Nowhere in Schoolgirl Killer do we find the delirious levels of sheer stylised cruelty that Italian directors such as Argento, Bava, Fulci and Martino – even Carnimeo and Bianchi – brought to the genre. Even Sidney Hayers’ British girls school giallo wannabe Assault shows The Minskirt Murders the door. Margheriti clearly regarded this one as a job of work, taken on at short notice, rather than any kind of labour of love. He was an admirable jack of all cinematic trades but clearly no master of the giallo. He has left us with many enjoyable pictures but Naked You Die is not one of them.

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It must have been even more underwhelming when cut by 20 mins in States to fit on AIP double bills with “The Conqueror Worm” (that’s Witchfinder General to you, me and the late Michael Reeves). Gialli completists who feel compelled to catch it should be seeking out something close to the original Italian release’s 98 minute running time.

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Why Didn’t They Ask Evelyn? THE WEEKEND MURDERS Reviewed.

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The Weekend Murders aka Concerto For A Solo Pistol (1970). Directed by Michele Lupo. Produced by Antonio Mazza. Written by Sergio Donati, Massimo Felisatti and Fabio Pittorru. Cinematography by Guglielmo Mancori. Edited by Vincenzo Tomassi. Art direction by Ugo Sterpini. Music by Francesco De Masi. Starring: Anna Moffo, “Evelyn Stewart” (Ida Galli), Gastone Moschin, Peter Baldwin, Lance Percival, Giacomo Rossi Stuart, Chris Cjhittell, Marisa Fabbri, Quinto Parmeggiani, Beryl Cunningham, Orchidea de Santis, Claudio Undari, Franco Borelli,  Ballard Berkeley, Richard Caldicot, Harry Hutchinson

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Whenever the origins of the giallo are discussed, various tributaries that fed into that particular filone will inevitably be invoked… Hitchcock, film noir, such German components as Expressionism and the subsequent cycle of Edgar Wallace adaptations, American pulp fiction… but critics, fans and indeed the film makers who plied their trade in this murderous milieu seldom mention the influence of Golden Age (circa the interwar years) British detective fiction. Among the major exponents of the genre, Mario Bava, perhaps, came closest in Five Dolls For An August Moon (1970), a thinly disguised adaptation of the 1939 Agatha Christie novel whose name we dare not, these days, speak.

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In the same year (1970, that is) Michele Lupo was far more explicit in acknowledging this debt with The Weekend Murders, a comic country house murder mystery actually filmed in and around an English country house (Somerleyton Hall in Suffolk) and so broadly played that I kept expecting Miss Marple to pop up from behind a privet hedge or Lord Peter Wimsey to pull up in his Roller. After a flash forward to the discovery of a body in a bunker during a sedate round of golf, the action kicks off with the mustering of the ill-assorted Carter clan for the reading of the eccentric family patriarch’s will. Everything worth having goes to Barbara (Anna Moffo) and the grumbling has hardly subsided before an attempt is made on her life and a series of characters who would become beneficiaries in the event of her demise are bumped off. Co-writers Sergio Donati, Massimo Felisatti and Fabio Pittorru have the wit to do away with the butler (Ballard Berkeley) first… and yes, Berkeley would become more famous several years later as The Major in Fawlty Towers.

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There’s no shortage of remaining suspects (several of whom, naturally, find themselves on the growing pile of victims…) Ted (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) is a charming cad with his eyes on the prize… his wife Pauline (Beryl Cunningham), whom he seems to have married mainly to upset his racist family, is similarly on the make… Isabelle (Ida Galli) is involved in a tortured love triangle with two of the Carter men and Aunt Gladys (Marisa Fabbri) is a sinister battle-axe with terminally maladjusted son Georgie (future Tomorrow Person Chris Chittell) in tow… the latter’s penchant for morbid practical jokes complicate the police investigation at several junctures and his Oedipal hang ups (clearly inherited from those of Hywel Bennett’s identically named alter ego in Roy Boulting’s Twisted Nerve, 1968) are horribly exposed in a really cringe-inducing sexual encounter with nymphomaniac maid Evelyn (Orchidea de Santis).

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A great cast is topped off with Lance Percival (who, as previously noted in these pages, holds an inexplicable grip on Mrs F’s erotic imaginings) and Gastone Moschin (unrecognisable from his hard man roles in such poliziotteschi as Fernando Di Leo’s Milan Calibre 9, 1971) playing, respectively, the snotty Supt. Grey of Scotland yard and bucktoothed, bumbling bobby Sgt. Aloisius Thorpe. Although Grey regards Thorpe (and openly addresses him) as a “hobnailed country yokel bumpkin”, the local beat cop is more on the ball throughout and it’s he who ultimately identifies the culprit, their elaborate MO and motivation in a game-changing twisteroo that could have been dreamed up by Agatha Christie herself (and possibly was… I can’t claim to have worked my way through her complete bibliography). The knockabout relationship between these recalls the set up in many of those German krimi efforts which were, at this point, interchangeable with Italy’s gialli. Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, of course, was about to change all that…

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Francesco De Masi’s score, which riffs on Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (served up straight in Duccio Tessari’s The Bloodstained Butterfly, the following year) is more suggestive of the Spaghetti Western in the way it incorporates gun shots to punctuate the percussive cutting of (Fulci’s go-to editor) Vincenzo Tomasso, hence the original Italian title Concerto Per Pistola Solista. Throughout, the director’s visual flair, a witty script and very watchable cast elevate The Weekend Murders above the mundane run of drawing-room detection duds… in fact, Lupo’s solitary shot in the Italian slasher stakes makes for one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable gialli you’ll ever see. Should be required “after Sunday dinner viewing” and indeed, here at The House of Freudstein, it now is.

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Oedipus Wrecks… Riccardo Freda’s MURDER OBSESSION On Blu-ray.

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BD. Region B. RaroVideo. Unrated.

“For Centuries theologians, philosophers and poets have delved into the Universe in search of proof of the existence of The Devil. It would have sufficed to look into the depths of their own souls…” Hieronimus A. Steinback, 17th Century.

Renowned for his neo-realism spurning lavish costume dramas of the ’40s and ’50s, Riccardo Freda is probably better known to readers of this blog as The Father Of  Italian Horror Cinema, no less, though he seems to have been losing interest in his career round about the time that he inaugurated that great tradition with I Vampiri in 1957, going AWOL and leaving its direction to be completed by his cinematographer, a certain Mario Bava. In the same year, a similar disappearing act from the set of Trapped In Tangiers enabled Freda’s assistant on that picture, Jorge (Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue) Grau to make his uncredited feature directing debut. Even when he did stick around physically to complete a picture, the feeling remained that Freda was still, at least metaphorically “phoning ’em in”…

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Made nearly a decade after Freda’s delirious Tragic Ceremony (one of the more mutated manifestations of that great tradition), Murder Obsession (which he signed as “Robert Hampton”) kicks off with Beryl (Laura Gemser) being throttled by a man who was hiding behind her bedroom curtain. Freda’s camera pulls back to reveal a film crew recording this. Yes it was only a movie (… only a movie…) but actor Michael Stanford (Stefano Patrizi)’s throttling of Beryl has been a little too enthusiastic for comfort. The fact that she responds so casually and the abrupt way in which the “movie crew” set up is so cavalierly jettisoned (there’s nary a mention of the film they’re supposed to be making throughout the rest of this picture) suggest that Freda and quite possibly his screen writing collaborators Antonio Cesare Corti, Fabio Piccioni and Simon Mizrahi are, well, phoning this one in.

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Musing over his potentially murderous method acting, Michael conceives the sudden desire to go and visit his old Mum, Glenda (Anita Strindberg) and invites the cast and crew along to get their collective shit together at her country pile. Greeted by sinister and somnambulistic manservant Oliver (John Richardson) they are ushered into the Jocastaesque presence of Mrs S, who maintains such a tight grip over her son that he explains girlfriend Deborah (Silvia Dionisio, the one time Mrs Deodato) away as his secretary. Deborah subsequently suffers a daft (and interminable) nightmare sequence involving laughable giant spiders and bats, then a phony-looking black mass sequence. Presumably Freda had the notion to invoke the gothic glories of I Vampiri, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962) and The Ghost (1963) but once again he’s, you know, phoning it in…

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After a black gloved figure subjects Beryl to another throttling in her bath tub, she once again takes it philosophically and precisely none of Michael’s friends seem remotely alarmed when he confesses that as a child he killed his father during a psychotic episode. Beryl even consents to a little al fresco nookie with him, after which he wakes to find himself cuddling up to her eviscerated corpse. Has he returned to his juvenile psycho killing ways? Difficult to say, as just about everybody in the house is acting suspiciously and seems to own a pair of black leather gloves. Freda’s trying to spread the suspicion around among his red herrings, like a competent giallo director, but… how many times do I have to say it? He chucks in a predictable twist or two about what really happened to Michael’s dad (also played by Petrizi) but you’ve seen this primal scene before (in Profondo Rosso) and adding insult to injury, Oliver and Glenda are respectively awarded psychic powers and mastery of the black arts in an arbitrary spasm of 11th hour script “development”.

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All of this comes as too little, too late for genre icons Richardson and Strindberg, who are disappointingly underused throughout while Gemser, who is given rather more acting to do than usual, clearly isn’t up to it. The proceedings are further marred by a couple of misfiring splatter FX that will have you wondering if the Angelo Mattei who executed them is the same guy who fashioned the submerged corpse that Irene Miracle went skinny dipping with in Inferno. Incredibly, it is.

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The disc’s extras include an interview with Sergio Stivaletti, who assisted Mattei here before getting his big break on Argento’s Phenomena. We also hear Claudio Simonetti’s take on the development of OSTs in Horror cinema, a little puzzlingly as neither of the alternative cuts of Murder Obsession on this release are scored (and I’m trying to be diplomatic here) particularly memorably… the Italian version (clocking in at 1.37.18) is accompanied by lots of portentous plonking around on the piano while the English language variant (1.31.35) “boasts” synthesiser fartings that wouldn’t be out of place on Joe D’Amato’s Anthropophagous Beast. Supplementary materials are rounded off with an (unsympathetically edited) appreciation of Murder Obsession by Gabriele Albanese, director of Ubaldo Terzani Horror Show, et al) and a low-grade extended rendering of Gemser being attacked in her bath).

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Have I already mentioned how Freda phones this one in? Well, if you can stand a little SPOILER I’ll tell you how the former sculptor redeems himself, right at the death… by restaging Michelangelo’s fucking Pieta is all, before slamming the door on Dionisio’s character and taking his leave of us with an implicit “Up yours, you doubting bastards!” Try phoning that in, smart Alecs…

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As well as being Riccardo Freda’s directorial swan song, Murder Obsession was also the final leading role undertaken by Anita Strindberg… according to some filmographies, anyway. I’m eagerly anticipating clarification on this point and so much else from Peter Jilmstad’s upcoming Strindberg biography, The Other Anita.

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As You Were… The Third House Of Freudstein Annual Report.

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“Yep… still Number 1!”

“Who will challenge Warbeck, Miracle and Me Me Lay in 2018?” was the line with which I closed our Second Annual Report, 365 eventful days ago. Nobody, as it turns out… indeed, I should have roped in our report on TLE’s epic Suspiria restoration, which has maintained the position of fourth most visited House Of Freudstein posting that it occupied in 2017, while our David Warbeck interview, Irene Miracle interview and review of High Rising’s Me Me lay documentary continue to cling stubbornly onto the Gold, Silver and Bronze slots that they’ve respectively occupied throughout each year of this blog’s existence. It’s particularly gratifying that the interview with Irene continues to perform so strongly as it’s the first thing I ever posted on a blog that wouldn’t exist if her steady nagging / encouragement hadn’t overcome my doubts / inertia. Thanks and many happy returns, Pal!

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Another High Rising documentary, profiling Umberto Lenzi, places fifth this time out, while my interview with Lenzi and High Rising man Calum Waddell’s book on Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust fall out of the Top 10. Dropping down one position from last year, our review of The Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf maintains a respectable 6th placing… not entirely unconnected, one suspects, with the prominent part played in it by the following Gif.

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Slipping slowly down the Top 10 that it’s occupied since year 1, my account of lunch with Lucio Fulci is in seventh spot and keeping up the culinary theme, my breakfast with Joe D’Amato tickled our readers’ taste buds sufficiently to earn 8th place on our 2018 menu. Having run plenty of archive interviews on the blog, I was delighted to debut an all-new conversation with indefatigable spaghetti exploitation scribe Dardano Sacchetti earlier this year, which clocks in at #9. Reviews  of Sergio Martino’s Sex With A Smile and the Shameless BD release of his Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh both dropped out of the Top 10, leaving us (against all expectations) with precisely no Edwige Fenech-focussed features this year, though she gets an honourable mention in the Barbara Bouchet interview that completes out rankings, narrowly beating off the competition from Stephen Thrower’s Beyond Terror Fulci tome… I’m sure Stephen will cherish the mental image of himself being beaten off by Barbara Bouchet.

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Since we opened for business at the start of 2016, our all-time Top Ten performing posts (in the unlikely event of you actually giving a toss) are now 1) David Warbeck interview 2) Irene Miracle interview 3) Me Me Lay documentary 4) Suspiria restoration 5) Lunch with Lucio 6) Howling II 7) Lenzi documentary 8) Spaghetti Exorcist clones [e.g. Mario Bava’s bastardised House Of Exorcism, below] 9) Breakfast with Joe D’Amato and 10) Lenzi interview.

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It’s been a busy year (so busy that during the course of it we regretfully took the decision to close our sister blog devoted to Prog, Psyche and Fusion music), though the tally of 66 postings that we managed is marginally less than 2017’s total. These figures have become less reliable since we’ve started saving space by deleting reviews of releases now superseded by superior editions, ditto postings that just about nobody seems interested in visiting. Overall, traffic to the site was up in the healthy region of 20% over last year. We managed the grand total of zero Weekenders, though plans are in the pipe-line for “drug movies” and “Public Information Films” themed weekends, which might or might not see the light of day during 2019. We did fulfil our stated intention of covering more Spaghetti Westerns, while weird Japanese sex / horror / crime flicks have started to make welcome inroads on the blog due to the sterling efforts of Arrow’s PR people.

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Among that label’s impressive output in 2018, we were particularly knocked out by the epic 5-disc Complete Sartana box set. Arrow’s 4K City Of The Living Dead was probably an upgrade too far in terms of grain enhancement but the accompanying extras constitute an indispensable resource for any self-respecting Fulci fancier. Other candidates for Disc Of The Year? Nucleus stuck to their sparse but well-chosen release schedule with splendid state-of-the-art editions of Jess Franco’s Demons and Erotic Rites Of Frankenstein, then Giulio Questi’s Death Laid An Egg and Mel Welles’ Lady Frankenstein…. fantastic stuff. Powerhouse lived up to their name with stunning Night Of The Demon and William Castle box sets. Our pals at Severin continued to churn out definitive editions of various Italian Horror and Exploitation classics, though their top showings in 2018 were probably with that Amicus box and Combat Shock, whose many extras I’m still working my way through and which we’ll be reviewing in 2019. We’ll also soon be examining their Blood Island box and Mondo Macabro’s BD release of Fulci’s Perversion Story, both of which look like serious contenders.

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Big screen release of the year? That would be Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy, if indeed you managed to avoid blinking and missing its near-subliminal theatrical outing. We’re genuinely gob-smacked that such an audacious, amazing-looking / sounding film should go to disc so fast and to the discounted shelves shortly thereafter. Honourable mention to Shin’ichirô Ueda’s fiendishly-clever-and-funny-but-the-less-we-tell-you-about-it-the-better One Cut Of The Dead. We were fortunate enough to catch both of those at Nottingham’s mighty Mayhem Festival, one of those ultra-rare annual occasions when we actually venture out beyond the closeted confines of Oak Mansion.

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Happy New Year to all our fiends and followers. Thanks for your kind support and we’ll do our best to maintain your interest through 2019 and beyond.

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