Monthly Archives: May 2019

Beating The Bishop… MAGDALENA – POSSESSED BY THE DEVIL Reviewed

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West Germany, 1974) aka Beyond The Darkness / Devil’s Female. Directed by “Michael Walter”.

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Just another Winter’s Tale…

We’ve already surveyed Spaghetti Exorcist clones, but Italians were by no means the only ones trying to join the post-Blatty box office bonanza during the 1970s, Catholic countries proving to be predictably fertile soil for the Devil’s cinematic seeds. In Spain, Jess Franco did his bit with Lorna The Exorcist (1974) … Paul Naschy took on Father Karras’ mantle in the 1975 Juan Bosch effort Exorcismo… and Templars director Amando De Ossorio pitched in with Demon Witch Child the following year. In 1978 the long overdue French release of Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture A Duckling adopted the title Long Night Of Exorcism. Must try harder, France. By that point, Catholic southern Germany had already contributed an absolute cracker to the cycle with “Michael Walter”s Magdalena – Vom Teufel Besessen (1974).

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Walter, better known to his Mutti as Walter Boos, had hitherto laboured in that particular German specialty genre, the cautionary tale of curious German college girls (generally played by actresses… and I use the term advisedly… in their 20s and 30s) and their sexual misadventures. The title of Boos’ own What Parents Should Know (1973) tells you all you should know about the News Of The Screws-style cod moralising that justified these films’ shagtastic shenanigans. MPBTD represents a welcome respite from all this tit-and-ass tedium by throwing demonic possession into the sexploitive mix and true to form, the engaging Dagmar Hedrich was nearly forty (making Stockard Channing in Grease look positively pubertal) when she essayed the title role of troubled schoolgirl soul Magdalena Winter.

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The film kicks off in the wee small hours of a beery Bavarian night before, at the end of which a hooker (her ensemble pitched somewhere between Pussy Cat Doll and New York Doll) discovers some hapless guy crucified on his own front door. The MO of his demise and tattoos found on him suggest that he was a Satanist who fell foul of like minded evil dudes. As he stirs on the mortuary slab, his grand daughter Magdalena starts undergoing seizures at her boarding school (each signalled by flies buzzing on the soundtrack), writhing around in agony and / or sexual ecstasy, foaming at the mouth and spitting out the expected blasphemous obscenities (though there’s a conspicuous absence of pea soup… very disappointing for a film with the word “Vom” in its original German title). Alfie the dog (he’s no Dickie but you can’t have everything) begins cowering and growling in her presence and up in the attic, there’s more rickety furniture flying around than at an MFI clearance sale (I know I’ve used that gag before but it’s one of my favourites… apologies to any readers who are too young to remember the shambles that was MFI). After a particularly epic mong attack during which Magdalena kicks in a sturdy door with her bare feet, a doctor is called in but says that none of this is anything to worry about. He changes his tune the next day, after she’s been told about her grandfather’s death and responds with the announcement that she “despises” the dead, before shinning up a wall and running away. Thumbing a lift, Magdalena breaks the arm of a driver who tries it on with her… which will, ironically, make him more rather than less likely to pester women for hand-jobs in future. Concerned teachers take her to see kindly old village priest Father Conrad (Rudolf Schundler from Suspiria!) to whom she expresses a desire to take Communion “but not in my mouth… down here in my pussy!” More tea, vicar?

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Professor Falk (Werner Bruhns) and Dr Stone (Michael Hinz) spirit Magdalena away to a country retreat, from which she’s soon absconding for more unbridled rumpy-pumpy. Attracted to a beer hall knees-up by flatulent oompah music (conclusive proof that the Devil doesn’t have all the best tunes) she prick teases two burly brothers until one stabs the other to death then adds insult to injury by disappearing (literally) before the winner can claim his prize. She’s soon trying the same tactics on the Prof and Dr Stone. “Surely you don’t believe in The Devil?” gasp Falk when Fr Conrad suggests exorcism. Damn silly question, really… I mean, is The Pope a Catholic?

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Falk is finally persuaded after Magdalena (having seemingly been fucked by some invisible entity or other) tries to stab him, bursts out of strait jacket, set a fire and starts threatening people with an axe. The “climactic” exorcism turns out to be a pretty light touch affair. Magdalena is browbeaten into reciting The Lord’s Prayer, at which point a joke shop snake jumps out of her mouth, is stamped on and disappears. “There are things between Heaven and Earth” pronounces the Prof, sagely as Magdalen and Doctor Stone wander off, arm in arm. That’s all, folks.

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Dagmar Hedrich goes for it full throttle throughout and if there was any justice, she really would have got an Oscar for her performance as Magdalena. Instead, she never made another film. Perhaps she figured she’d be able to get by just fine on her old age pension….

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This is arguably the best among the legion of Exorcist clones and a superb exploitation film, full stop. How often do you find yourself watching one of these things and fast-forwarding through bothersome bits of exposition to get to the next outrage? There’s really never a dull moment in M-PBTD, it just flies by. Maybe it’s been cut? The version I saw clocked in at around the 90 minute mark but the packaging for this Super 8 release suggests a two hour (!) running time. How accurately were such listings, Super 8 collectors?

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Let’s get one little thing straight (as the actress said to the bishop): a boarding school girl in Germany with an affinity for supernatural Phenomena and a strange connection with insects… and at one point she even has EEG wires strapped on her head? Makes you wonder if Dario Argento ever donned a shabby raincoat and went to see Magdalena – Possessed By The Devil.

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Move Like Jagger… THE ANNIHILATORS Reviewed

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This is what you want…

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… this is what you get. Try not to shoot each other, boys.

BD. Arrow. Region B. TBC.

While Joe Zito was filming Invasion U.S.A. for Cannon in Atlanta, with a $10 million budget and Chuck Norris in the starring role, another action film was being made just down the block… Charles E. Sellier Jr was shooting The Annihilators (1985) for Roger Corman’s New World outfit, with a considerably less starry (albeit interesting) cast and predictably meaner financial resources at his disposal. Zito’s film made something in the region of seven and a half million dollars profit and was, until 2007, MGM’s second highest selling home video title (only Gone With The Wind kept it off the top spot). As for The Annihilators, well…

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The action commences with a crack team of American special forces operatives socking it to the slopes in Vietnam. Apparently nobody questioned this kind of thing back in 1985… nobody at New World, anyway. It definitely occurred to somebody that the local park setting of these shenanigans wasn’t entirely convincing, so we also get a bit of actual ‘Nam stock footage, some of it looking suspiciously similar to that used in the title sequence of Antonio Margheriti’s Cannibal Apocalypse (1980).

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The Atlantan cannibal outbreak depicted in that classic has thankfully now subsided,  only to be replaced by the scourge of gangs such as The Scorpions, The Turks, and The Rollers. It’s the latter, led by (I kid you not) Roy Boy Jagger (as played by Paul Koslo, arguably the oldest and bushiest coiffed gang banger in Cinema history) who enter the grocery store of Joe Nace (Dennis Redfield), one of the special forces guys we saw in the film’s opening but now confined to a wheelchair, to have a word with him about the resistance he’s been organising to their protection racket. This involves groping and fatally stabbing one of his female customers and beating his head in with a steak tenderiser. Perhaps Charlie Bukowski and his buddies are, after all, still living and dining in the area? Whatever, Dekalb County has definitely seen better days…

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Swept aside by the simple act of annihilation… murder! (Nice hair, Roy Boy.)

Obviously a fan of such Vet Vigilante opuses as James Glickenhaus’s The Exterminator (1980) and Patrick G. Donahue’s Kill Squad (1982), Colonel Bill (Christopher Stone) decides to reconvene his crack ‘Nam team to seek justice for their buddy. Ray Track (Gerrit Graham) is now a successful yuppy but years behind a desk have left him just itchin’ for action. Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs (as martial arts ace Garrett Floyd) is a happily married man, possibly seeking atonement for the part he played in Death Wish (“Mugger in Park #2… uncredited”). Woody (Andy Wood) has been fighting a losing battle with the bottle since being demobbed, but a mission to clear the scum off the streets (plus the prospective love of a good woman) is exactly the kind of motivation he needs to turn himself around.

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Like a cut-price Seven Samurai, the gang conduct crash courses in martial arts for the besieged citizenry and – even more crucially – teach them to knock three times on the nearest worktop, drainpipe or whatever, whenever threatened by bad guys. Sorry, I couldn’t resist it…

 

These tactics are improbably successful in degrading The Rollers’ power base but Colonel Bill ups the ante by hijacking their latest drug shipment, prompting Roy Boy to walk up and down the high street with a flame thrower, demanding his dope back. Faced down by a bit of a drainpipe tapping, he commandeers a school bus a la Scorpio in Dirty Harry (1971) at which point the kids he’s been grooming as future Rollers turn on him… jolly good thing, too. During the narrative wrap up, the ongoing mystery concerning the identity of the squad’s intelligence handler in Vietnam is finally revealed… as if you could give an actual rat’s ass!

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Despite its magpie borrowings from all of them, The Annihilators is no Seven Samurai, it’s no Assault On Precinct 13… it’s not even The Exterminator… but it is a cheesey urban Western, so very cheesey that its elements probably have to be stored at or below 35 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. From those elemental chunks of emmental, Arrow have fashioned a nice 2K restoration, whose extras include an in-depth examination (a little too in-depth, probably) of the boobs’n’blood stabbing scene that the BBFC excised from previous editions, new Graham Humphreys art work and interviews with Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs and David O’Malley, an erstwhile collaborator of the late Chuck Sellier (below).

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O’Malley talks about Sellier’s unlikely involvement in the Grizzly Adams movies and a series of “Chariots of The Gods” type speculative schlockumentaries and suggests that he didn’t really like introducing any element of confrontation into his films. Those viewers for whom The Annihilators doesn’t really live up to its title (we’re promised “heat on the street” but those sidewalks barely get tepid) might well see the justice of this observation… Sellier must certainly have got out of the wrong side of the bed when he dreamed up the Daddy of all the Killer Santa flicks, the ultra mean-spirited Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984).

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Rules Is Rules… Teruo Ishii Addresses A Significant Gender Gap In YAKUZA LAW

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BD. Region B. Arrow. Cert 18.

Although a perennial, prolific and promiscuous genre-jumper, Teruo Ishii is undoubtedly most famous… nay, notorious… in the West for the series of “pinky violence” epics he initiated in 1968 with Tokugawa Onna Keibatsi-Shi (The Joy Of Torture / Shogun’s Joy Of Torture) and we’ve already covered his Zankoku Ijô Gyakutai Monogatari: Genroku Onna Keizu (Orgies Of Edo, 1969). Constrained by contemporary domestic censorship restrictions on images of the naked female form, these films routinely doubled (and indeed tripled) down on imagery of women’s BDSM debasement, to increasingly delirious and (from today’s vantage point… “the Sadism inherent in The Male Gaze” and all that) decidedly troubling effect.

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Although women are routinely insulted, groped and slapped around for getting uppity in 1969’s Yakuza Law (original title Yakuza Keibatsu-Shi: Rinchi!), it’s main thrust is the dire punishments handed out to (male) Yakuza members who break the code of the underworld (give or take the moll who ends up in a cement block with her gangster boyfriend)… and it’s unrelentingly grisly stuff, at levels consistently way above and beyond the well known scene in Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza (1974) where Robert Mitchum cuts off one of his finger as honourable atonement for a misdeed.

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After a mind bogglingly gruesome opening compendium of tortures that don’t even occur in the main body of the feature, Yakuza Law begins to unfold, like Orgies Of Edo, as a portmanteau movie told in three instalments though, unlike that film, they play out over discrete historical eras. In that Edo Period, various samurais plot against and double cross each other for advancement in the organisation. I must admit that I found the plot of this section quite difficult to follow (Jasper Sharp’s commentary track helped a bit) but the outcome was clear enough – a stack of mutilated corpses. Fast forward to the Meiji Period, where Ogata (Minoru Oki, later one of the dreaded Masters Of Death in Shogun Assassin) comes out of the slammer, having taken the fall to protect his Yakuza master. No gratitude or payback is forthcoming and when Ogata sees how his allegedly honourable brethren mistreat the locals, he relinquishes his vows, resulting in another predictable pile of mutilated corpses. Stand out moments include somebody hacking out his own eyeball and throwing it in the face of the guy to whom he owed a debt of honour. A word of advice to Mino (Ryôta Minowada), whose criminal colleagues beat and piss on him for some misdemeanour… probably best to register your protests over this treatment with your mouth closed, dude!

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Finally, the action is brought bang up to date (ish) with another tale of internecine gang conflict, headlined by Teruo Yoshida (who plays the idealistic doctor Gentatsu in Orgies of Edo). Technological advances mean that in the late ’60s, traditional swordplay has been replaced by guns, faces are burned with cigarette lighters and renegade yakuza can be locked in cars that are then crushed into cubes. The “guy dangled out of helicopter” sequence and casino scene are straight out of the James Bond franchise (which had visited Japan two years previously with Lewis Gilbert’s You Only Live Twice) and the unlikely feats of marksmanship, eccentric whistling henchmen and prominent poignant poinging of a jew’s harp on Masao Yagi’s soundtrack, not to mention the plot device of a maverick / Ronin playing two factions off against each other, suggest a desire to cop a dollop of Spaghetti Western box office…

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… and yes, I know that virtually the whole of Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars (1964) was an outrageous pinch from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) but Ishii was undoubtedly oblivious to such niceties, more concerned instead to pack a plethora of audience attracting elements into these portmanteau pictures to tempt contemporary viewers away from their beloved TV sets. Sharp points out that like contemporary Amicus releases, these films ran on narrative patterns more in tune with people’s telly watching habits, while simultaneously serving up stuff that couldn’t possibly be broadcast on the box.

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Ishii always was a commercial film maker rather than auteur with any kind of message, as he is at great, er, pains to point out in the bonus interview here. The late director was not without a social conscience though, explaining that he stopped directing episodes in the ongoing Supergiants franchise (below) after reports that kids wearing capes were jumping out of windows  and injuring themselves.

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Tom Mes contributes new writing to a collector’s booklet that will appear in the first pressing only. Jasper Sharp’s commentary track, as previously mentioned, is useful in maintaining a running score card on who’s doing what to whom and periodically drawing our attention away from the ongoing outrages to e.g. a particularly painterly piece of composition or the merits of Yagi’s score. He also name checks Morihei Magatani’s Girl Divers At Spook Mansion (1959, below) whose IMDB synopsis makes it sound like an especially deranged episode of Scoby Doo. Any chance of releasing that one, Arrow?

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It’s indicative of this film’s severe imagery that Mr Sharp can introduce its second episode with the observation that it’s the least violent of the three, his comment coinciding with Ogata storming into a rival gang leader’s place and chopping his arm off… that’s  Yakuza Law for you!

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“Hardboiled eggs and NUTS! Huh…”

 

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Park Your Taxonomy, Mister … THE GRAND DUEL Reviewed

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BD. Region B. Arrow. Cert 15.

The Grand Duel aka The Big Showdown (or, in Germany, “Three Our Fathers For Four Scoundrels”) begins with Philipp Wermeer (“Peter O’Brien” = Alberto Dentice) besieged by a plague of bounty hunters after being framed for the killing of Samuel Saxon, the Saxon City “patriarch”. Although he’s no mean sharp shooter himself, for the first of several occasions he is rescued against overwhelming odds by the intervention of his unlikely guardian angel, the former Sheriff Clayton (Lee Van Cleef), who was dismissed for calling out corruption in the Saxon’s political operation. After butting heads through a series of shoot outs and foiled ambushes, Clayton and Wermeer make it into town to confront not only the patriarch’s bad-ass sons but also the truth about who killed him and why…

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After serving his apprenticeship as assistant director to Sergio Leone (not to mention Giulio Petroni on Death Rides A Horse, 1967), Giancarlo was all set to take up the directorial reins on Duck, You Sucker! (1971) until its stars (most vocally, Rod Steiger) insisted that Leone direct that one, too. His directorial debut finally came the following year on this, often claimed as one of the last of the “classic” Spaghetti Westerns, a genre that was already well into its self-parodic phase with the advent of the Trinity films and their ilk, wherein elegies for the sacred myth of The West were becoming elegies for the Spagwest itself.

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To be sure, TGD is larded with Golden Age tropes. There’s the mysterious gunslinger mentoring a younger man while pursuing his own, hidden agenda (which had by now become the laconic, cadaverous Van Cleef’s signature role in the SpagWest)… improbable feats of marksmanship…allusions to the outlaw origins of American capitalism… Oedipal shadings… and the telling use of flashbacks, incrementally developing towards a crucial revelation (here, the identity and motivation of The Patriarch’s killer… and no, it’s not who you thought it was going to be). Santi had clearly osmosed enough from his proximity to the master Leone to render (in concert with DP Mario Vulpianina and camera operator Pasquale Rachini) striking compositions and make optimal use of the picturesque Tuscan locations (Spanish jollies in Almeria were clearly considered an expensive indulgence by this point). The cast is populated with familiar faces from the genre: Van Cleef himself, Horst Frank (playing both David Saxon and, via the addition of mutton chop whiskers, his own Daddy in the flashbacks), Jess Hahn (who had played alongside LVC in two pictures from the previous year, Captain Apache and Eugenio Martin’s Bad Man’s River), Antonio Casale from the Leone films … no bonus points for spotting The Beast In Heat himself, Salvatore Baccaro as a saloon bar sniper (I mean, how could you miss him?) Klaus Grünberg, who plays the syphilitic, psychotic and (it is strongly suggested) gay Adam Saxon is best known (around here, anyway) for his 1969 appearance alongside HOF Hall-of-Famer Mimsy Farmer (below) in Barbet Schroeder’s cautionary drugs epic More (boasting a groovy OST courtesy of The Pink Floyd).

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Speaking of OSTs, in another tick of the “Classic SpagWest” boxes, TGD boasts a fab score from Django man Luis Bacalov (or so it is usually credited), so very fab that it’s one of those pinched by Tarantino for Kill Bill. In a bonus interview Santi leaves us in no doubt regarding his feeling about such cultural appropriation… also insisting that while Bacalov conducted the score, its actual composer was Sergio Bardotti.

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With the benefit of hindsight, such distinctions between prime time and parody can be too sharply etched… some of the comedic acrobatics that “Peter O’Brien” (or his stunt double) indulges in during the shootouts here would fit perfectly into any Gianfranco Parolini knockabout farce and anyway, even the cream of the Classics (e.g. Leone’s films) are shot through with humour, albeit of a distinctly gallows variety. You’re best advised to just park your taxonomy by the stable door, saddle up and enjoy the ride, during which you might care to consider the extent to which TGD, allegedly among the last  of the “real” Spaghetti Westerns, anticipates Enzo Castellari’s Keoma (1976).

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Arrow’s transfer does justice to the sub-Leone visuals and there are various image galleries, a reversible sleeve option and, for the first pressing only, a booklet containing contemporary reviews and new writing on TGD by Kevin Grant. A wealth of supporting featurettes include an enjoyable and informative profile of unsung character actor Marc Mazza (Eli Saxon in the film) from “tough guy film expert” Mike Malloy, director of the documentary Eurocrime! The Italian Cop And Gangster Films That Ruled The ’70s, though perhaps it was a mistake to kick off with the observation that Mazza never appeared in any of the stills or posters for his movies, then trot out a bunch of precisely such artefacts. Academic Austin Fisher provides a suitably scholarly overview of the main feature. Ubiquitous scripter Ernesto Gastaldi recalls the heady heyday of the SpagWest cycle (“You’d see key grips going to the races dressed like millionaires!”), also detailing how Damiano Damiani’s Nobody’s The Greatest (1975) derailed the Leone-produced trilogy initiated with My Name Is Nobody (Tonino Valerii, 1973) and offering a tantalising glimpse of the never shot final instalment. AD Harald Buggening also has his say and producer Ettore Rosboch reveals that Western veteran Van Cleef was actually afraid of horses. An interview with Alberto Dentice establishes that he remains a hippy at heart, with connections to avant garde theatre. In his own interview, larger-than-life director Santi reciprocates Quentin Tarantino’s devotion by calling him a thief and remembers his time with the likes of Antonioni and Ferreri, underscoring a theme that we’ve highlighted so often in this blog, the symbiotic relationship between Italian “high” and “low” cinema.

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