Blu-ray / DVD Reviews

My Brain Hurts… Siberian Khatru On Board Eugenio Martin’s HORROR EXPRESS.

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 15.

If you’ll indulge me in a spot of nostalgia (and why wouldn’t you?), Eugenio Martin’s Horror Express (Pánico En El Transiberiano, 1972) was – along with the likes of Witchfinder General, Tales From The Crypt, et al – a regular fixture on the Friday late night horror slot with which Granada TV used to enliven my humdrum adolescence. In those days of course (sit up and pay attention, Junior, this is for your own good!) we didn’t yet have the benefit of VCRs and given that the gaps between transmissions of certain films might be as long as two years, it was a catastrophe of global proportions if you succumbed to sleep half way through this or some or other horror gem, usually waking up during the credits with a stiff neck and another significant wait in prospect.

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Flash forward past the VHS era and into incipient middle age, at the dawn of DVD, where Horror Express became one of the most widely released titles on the nascent format, mostly in scuzzy looking and not necessarily authorised editions on fly-by-night labels, apparently because of a misconception that it had entered the public domain. Indeed, if memory serves me well, this is the first title I ever saw on DVD, round at David Flint’s place. Image Entertainment’s managed a decent R1 version that has been deleted for some time now and was followed  by a R2 incarnation from Cinema Club’s Horror Classics imprint, very welcome despite its absence of extras, full screen presentation and rather tired, solarised-looking print, which seemed identical to the one that subsequently got screened by the BBC. In 2011 Severin managed a predictably pristine BD / DVD combo edition chock full of impressive extras that you’re going to get another chance to catch on the new Arrow release under consideration here.

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Born in 1925 and now (if indeed he’s still alive) long retired, Eugenio Martin was an able journeyman director of adventure yarns until the success of Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy (shot in Spain) initiated a vogue for Paella Westerns in which he enthusiastically participated with the likes of El Precio De Un Hombre (aka Bounty Killer, 1966) , Requiem Para El Gringo aka Duel In The Eclipse (1968) and as late as 1971 with El Hombre De Rio Malo (“Bad Man’s River” aka Hunt The Man down)

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By this point Martin had already started dabbling in the horror genre, his 1969 offering Una Vela Para El Diablo (“A Candle For The Devil”) showing a preoccupation with hidebound social concealing psychotic deviance that would be amplified in later efforts up to and including the early ’80s brace Sobrenatural and Aquella Casa En Las Afueras (“That House On The Outskirts”). The latter turns on a memorable, Sheila Keith type turn from the venerable Alida Valli and features abortion as a plot point in a way that would have been impossible scant years earlier, under Franco’s regime.

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There’s a similar faith vs secularism motif in the Spanish / British co-production Horror Express (1972), easily the best of Martin’s fear flicks… how could it fail to be, combining as it does a truly stellar cast (including Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in their strongest non-Hammer outing) with some totally wacked out plotting. Said action commences with Sir Alexander Saxton (your basic Professor Challenger type, as essayed by Lee) unearthing some kind of deep frozen yeti in scenic Szechuan (in fact all the impressive locations in this picture are actually Spanish) at the turn of the Century. Later he runs into old scientific adversary Dr Wells (Cushing) at Shanghai railway station, as both are about to board the Transiberian Express. The prickly professional rivalry between these two leads to Wells bribing a porter to take a peek at the contents of Saxon’s crate. Oh, mister Porter… what he finds is a thawed out troglodyte whose glowing red medusa stare leads to prolific bleeding from the victims’ own eyes (which rapidly cloud over with cataracts), followed in pretty short order by death. Cushing’s autopsy (pretty graphic stuff for its day) reveals that the victim’s brain is smooth as a baby’s bum, every wrinkle (and piece of information that is potentially useful to a space Yeti) sucked right out of it.

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Having bailed out of his crate, Trog now mooches around the train, disturbing the genteel travellers with further eye-bleeding, brain-sucking antics. His victims’ ordeals, effectively conveyed via dissolves and quick cuts, still pack a horrific punch and really shook me up as a kid. I’m convinced that they also made a big impression on Lucio Fulci who, it became apparent to me after meeting and interviewing him, was a bit of a Spanish horror buff. The mistreatment to which various characters’ eyes are subjected in Fulci’s 1980 schlock opera City Of The Living Dead are unmistakably reminiscent of these scenes, ditto the ping-pong eyeballs which pop up at the conclusion of his masterpiece The Beyond (1981).

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Back on that train, as if all of the above weren’t entertaining enough, Martin chucks in Eurobabe Helga Line as the beautiful Polish Countess Natasha and her Rasputin-like personal chaplain Father Pujardov, played by Alberto de Mendoza in a performance possibly patterned on that of Patrick Troughton as Lee’s sidekick Klove in Roy Ward Baker’s Scars Of Dracula (1970). The Argentinean Mendoza was a busy actor (right up  till his death in 2011) whose notable Eurotrash credits include Bitto Albertini’s Nairobi-based giallo oddity L’Uomo Piu Velenoso Del Cobra (“Human Cobras”, 1971), Sergio Martino’s The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh (1970) and Case Of The Scorpion’s Tale (1971) plus the Fulci brace One On Top Of Another / Perversion Story (1969) and Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (1971.)

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His mad monk maintains that the Troglodyte is Satan incarnate (”There’s the stink of Hell on this train… even [Line’s] dog knows it”) and Saxton’s attempts at rational explanations (“Hypnosis! Yoga!”) are somewhat less than compelling. When the train’s resident detective manages to shoot Trog, Mills performs an autopsy that presents some startling results. This missing link’s retina has retained images of dinosaurs and even a view of The Earth seen from Outer Space (Martino taking his cue here from a pinch of the pseudo-science that informed Dario Argento’s Four Flies On Grey Velvet, made the previous year). The conclusion is that the evil entity comprises pure energy that must inhabit a host body to make its way around terra firma. The train dick’s hairy hand (hope I got that the right way round) indicates that he is the new host, and a fresh cycle of brain sucking and The Thing-type paranoia kicks in when he sets out to absorb the engineering expertise that will allow the construction of a spaceship with which to check off of planet Earth. Ultimately Pujardov volunteers to host the Elemental and, as if the passengers hadn’t already suffered more than their fair share of commuting misery, he now raises the bodies of all the previous hosts and victims as a horde of marauding zombies!

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By this point the express has been boarded by a macho bunch of cossacks, under the command of Captain Kazan, played by Telly Savalas. Ah yes, Telly Savalas… never the subtlest of actors, the future Kojak star raises the bar here for all subsequent outbreaks of scenery-chewing thespianism… but how else was he going to steal the show from the legendary Lee / Cushing axis? Obviously labouring under the delusion that he’s performing in a Spag Western (an impression enhanced by frequent, tuneless whistling on the soundtrack) Savalas swaggers around gargling with vodka, smashing glasses, ranting xenophobic invective and delivering such impenetrable aphorism as: “A horse has four legs, a murderer has two arms and The Devil must be afraid of one honest Cossack.” “What’s he raving about?” demands Mills, reasonably enough, only to be punched out by Kazan of this trouble. “Everybody’s under arrest!” howls the Captain before handing out a few lumps to Saxton, a propos of nothing in particular and horse whipping Pujardov into the bargain… Oh, those Russians! Savalas’ overripe performance had such an impact on my impressionable mind that I long misremembered him as dominating the entire picture, and it came as quite a shock on my first adult rewatching of Horror Express to realise that this character doesn’t make his entry until well into the film’s final third.

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Thankfully, Saxton and Mills manage to de-couple the zombie-infested carriages and send them down the line that sends them careering over a cliff. Great miniature work throughout, but which bright engineering spark decided to lay down a line that would send trains careering over a cliff? Even Southern Rail commuters expect better than this… and speaking of stiff upper lips, Cushing gets to utter the best line in the film –  “Monsters? We’re British, you know!”, one that still resonates loudly in the wake of Brexit…

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Bonus materials include an interview with director Martin in which he reveals that the film’s motivating “high concept” was producer Philip Yordan’s desire to get his money’s worth out of the train that he had purchased for Pancho Villa, in which Martin had already directed Savalas earlier in 1972. He also describes how Lee coaxed the recently widowed and deeply depressed Cushing back into a working mood. In the featurette Notes From The Blacklist producer Bernard Gordon talks about his run-in with everybody’s favourite Commie-baiter, Senator Joe McCarthy. Telly And Me comprises an interview with composer John Cacavas, who acknowledges how his scoring career flourished under the patronage of Savalas. There’s an enthusiastic intro piece from erstwhile Fango editor Chris Alexander and of course you get a trailer.

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All of these were on Severin’s BD, which also included an audio interview with Peter Cushing that you could listen to while watching the film. Arrow replace that with a useful Kim Newman / Stephen Jones commentary track. The main feature here looks marginally grainier but more a tad more nuanced, colour wise, than the now out of print Sev disc, for which this disc constitutes the perfect replacement.

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Death Disco… Hipster Hoofers Fail The Electric Vino Acid Test, Big Time, In Gaspar Noé’s CLIMAX.

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Gaspar Noé… shaman or shammin’?

BD. Arrow. Region B. 18.

“Quousque tandem abutere, Gaspar, patientia nostra?” (After Cicero in “Against Catiline”).

Cumming soon to a screen near you… actually the spuming cocks that decorate several of Gaspar Noé’s previous cinematic outrages are ironically conspicuous by their absence from his latest, though the ugliest of all human organs can be found doing its inimitable thing in some of this disc’s supporting featurettes. Whatever, Climax (2018) still packs enough sex, drugs and violence to outrage the Daily Heil and excite vacuous thrill seekers everywhere on account of its daring, taboo-busting blah, blah, blah

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Described on its poster as being “like Fame directed by the Marquis de Sade with a steadicam”, Climax has also been likened by its director to Irwin Allen’s disaster movies from the ’70s, a description which did, I must admit, raise a chuckle with me. Beyond that, though, there’s precious little to smile about here.

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Yowza, yowza, yowza…

The proceedings open with a troupe of painfully cool dancers celebrating the end of strenuous rehearsal sessions for their upcoming US tour. Naturally, they decide to celebrate the cessation of all this physical exertion by staying up all night for even more frantic dancing in some remote hall, to the accompaniment of some seriously shit music. Little do they know that some malcontent has slipped a lysergic kicker into the communal sangria bowl. The acid seems to take an eternity coming on, allowing Noé the opportunity to introduce us to his cast of characters and their signature insecurities (“Irwin Allen disaster movies”, indeed) plus their scarcely concealed racist and sexist prejudices. As soon as the assembled dancin’ fools are all tripping off their tits, mob rule sets in… lots of fucking, fighting and self-mutilation… a child freaks out when locked in a room with cockroaches and a girl who’s stingy with her coke supply has her hair set on fire… there’s a spot of incest and a pregnant woman is savagely beaten… well, it seemed to go over OK in Irreversible (2002) and the slight return of that film’s reverse chronology gimmick reeks of an attempt to turn the clock back to a time when Noé could actually be mistaken for a director with something to say, rather than just another bozo competing with Lars Van Trier and Tom Six in the vapid “self promotion via pointless shocks” stakes.

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Tried it. It didn’t agree with me.

Climax has been dragged into the trendy and detestable nouveau giallo category on the grounds that it ends with the revelation of who actually perpetrated the 2018 equivalent of putting the benzedrine in Mrs Murphy’s ovaltine (*). Unfortunately the only possible response to the revelation that one of these unbearable characters (rather than any of the others) was the culprit is a bemused shrug of the shoulders… BFD! As well as Argento, Noé and his supporters have invoked the likes of Zulawksi (there’s an am-dram recreation of Isabelle Adjani’s epic Possession mong-out at one point) and Kenneth Anger in an attempt to boost his credentials. The director gets to blow his own trumpet on a commentary track and in a “bonus” interview. In another featurette entitled Shaman Of The Screen, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas assesses Noé’s career so far (plenty of XXX-rated career highlights in this one). Elsewhere, Alan Jones dissects the film’s soundtrack and suggests that it constitutes a concise history of late 20th Century Dance Music, for those that want one. Fine for those who do. I don’t, personally. There are obvious areas where Mr Jones’ artistic tastes coincide with my own but equally obviously, music is not one of them. Another bonus bit comprises interviews with thespians Kiddy Smile, Romain Guillermic and Souhelia Yacoub. Trailer, reversible sleeve, limited edition booklet, etc…

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“You got Hi, Ho Silver Lining, mate?” Gaspar Noé hits the decks…

Climax is allegedly based on a real life incident, but one has one’s doubts… I mean, how many of those warehouse parties and Hacienda nights, insufferable as they undoubtedly must have been, ended with a significant proportion of participating revellers being carried out in body bags? At least Noé records the whole sorry spectacle with cold, detached objectivity, resisting the temptation to render everything in cheesy POV tripovision, but ultimately this comes as small comfort.

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In case you haven’t already picked up on this, I really didn’t like Climax. In fact I’m really anti-Climax. That said, the sex, drugs and violence on display here, together with the inevitable tabloid hand wringing it will provoke, should ensure that enough units are shifted to contribute towards keeping  HMV ticking over for another month or two.

It’s no Murder-Rock, though…

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(*) The Harry “The Hipster” Gibson tune recorded by Slim And Slam, among others… now that’s what I call dance music.

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Truth With A Capital “T”? Luigi Bazzoni’s THE LADY OF THE LAKE, Released On Arrow Blu-ray As THE POSSESSED.

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 12.

Successful novelist Bernardo Giovanni (Peter Baldwin from Freda’s The Spectre Of Dr Hichcock and Michele Lupo’s The Weekend Murders) winds up an unsatisfactory relationship and returns, out of season, to a hotel in the Alpine village where he grew up. Keen to rekindle an involvement with Tilde (Virna Lisi), a maid he encountered on his previous visit, he is shocked to learn that she has committed suicide and withdraws into obsessive musings about what happened to her, fuelled by gossip he picks up from local photographer Francesco (Pier Giovanni Anchisi) and his own observations of the outwardly respectable but seriously dysfunctional family who own and run the hotel… Enrico (Salvo Randone), his son Mario (Philippe Leroy), daughter Irma (Valentina Cortese) and clinically depressed daughter-in-law Adriana (Pia Lindström). Fuelled by a flu bug he picks up, Bernard’s memories, dreams, speculations and fantasies fuse in a fashion that causes the viewer to constantly question what they’re seeing. Just as you’re beginning to think that Bernard’s suspicions might be the product of an overheated imagination, Adriana drowns under mysterious circumstances… meanwhile, who is the mysterious lady whose presence haunts the lake?

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Made in 1965, a year after Mario Bava’s Sei Donne Per L’Assassino / Blood And Black Lace, La Donna Del Lago / The Possessed is as much ghost story as giallo (in the wide definition offered by Tim Lucas during his commentary track) or even proto-giallo (as suggested in Arrow’s publicity blurb), Luigi Bazzoni’s psychological thriller having more in common with Bergman or Borges than Bava. Although it’s generally accepted that he contributed very little to the film’s actual direction, Franco Rossellini (nephew to the great Roberto and future producer of several Pasolini efforts, also Caligula) is officially credited as co-director, the film is scored by his father Renzo and Pia Lindström, as Ingrid Bergman’s daughter, was of course related to the Rossellini family by marriage… things behind the camera on this one were nearly as incestuous as the familial relationships portrayed in it, inspired by Giovanni Comisso’s book documenting the notorious “Alleghe killings”. Giulio Questi (later the director of Django, Kill! and Death Laid An Egg) collaborated with Bazzoni and Rossellini on the screenplay, which can’t exactly have detracted from the overall quirkiness of the proceedings, then again Bazzoni rendered similarly surreal psychological malaise without Questi’s collaboration in Footprints On The Moon (1975) and even his straight(ish) giallo The Fifth Cord (1971) plays out as an existential crisis suffered by its protagonist / chief murder suspect Franco Nero.

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The Lady Of The Lake occupies the crucially important but critically under-explored hinterland between Italian Arthouse Cinema and the B Movie tradition that underwrote it. Bazzoni and his closest circle of collaborators never made it into the august company of erstwhile associates Pasolini, Bertolucci, Antonioni et al, nor did they ever descend to the lowest common denominators of Italian genre cinema. The dynamic between these cinematic demi-mondes is incarnated here by the presence of Francesco Barilli, reminiscing about his friends and collaborators the Bazzoni brothers, Luigi and Camillo, throwing in random bits of tittle-tattle as he goes (“Steve Reeves was rumoured to have a very small cock”). Having played the protagonist of Bertolucci’s Before The Revolution in 1964, Barilli went on to write Aldo Lado’s memorable giallo Who Saw Her Die and Umberto Lenzi’s seminal Deep River Savages (both 1972) before directing his own unforgettable, indefinable oddity Perfume Of The Lady In Black (1974).

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Arrow’s 2K restoration from the original b/w camera negative does ample justice to the beautiful b/w cinematography of Leonida Barboni (Enzo’s big brother), whose camera team included the up and coming Sergio Salvati (subsequently to pull off so many lighting miracles for Lucio Fulci). Bonus materials include a video appreciation by cultural critic and academic Richard Dyer, who identifies the film’s central thesis as “the monstrosity of The Family in Italian life”. Interviews with assistant art director Dante Ferretti and make-up FX ace  Giannetto De Rossi are highly watchable but neither of them touches upon The Lady In The Lake to any great extent. De Rossi’s is particularly entertaining. During it he identifies the personal attributes that smoothed his career trajectory (“My deep voice, my big eyebrows and my assassin look! That’s why people feared me. Everyone behaved when I was around”), recalls a run in with Anne Parillaud and confirms that it was his hand pushing Olga Karlatos’s head towards its celebrated intersection with a splinter in Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters. You also get some trailers and then there’s the stuff I never get to see, including a reversible sleeve that features original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips and – in this edition’s first pressing only – an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Andreas Ehrenreich and Roberto Curti, plus reproductions of contemporary reviews.

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Lucas’s commentary track is every bit as informative and insightful as you’d expect. Bonus points for twice referring to Pasolini’s Jesus biopic by its correct title, The Gospel According To Mathew. Deduct one point for subsequently misidentifying it as “The Gospel According To Saint Mathew”. TL makes much of TLOTL’s sliding perspectives and the difficulty of arriving at Truth with a Capital “T”, a point nicely underlined by the fact that his interpretation of the story’s resolution deviates markedly from my own. I think he watched it with Italian dialogue and English subtitles (as you might well care to, this option reducing as it does the on-the-nose portentousness of Bernardo’s introspective musings) while I oped for the English dubbing. Try running the English language version with English subtitles, which also throws up some significant discrepancies. An already substantial plot thickens…

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Figures like Questi, Barilli and the Bazzoni brothers represent a significant but long concealed stratum of Italian Cinema, further illumination of which is long overdue. Arrow’s new edition of La Donna Del Lago constitutes a solid step in that direction.

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Here Comes The Mirror Man… Cocteau’s ORPHÉE On BFI Blu-ray.

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BD. BFI. Region B. PG.

Despite (or perhaps on account of) his celebrity status (really?) as a feted poet, Orphée (Jean Marais) is fated to a discontented and moody existence, devoting more time to his poetry than to his devoted wife Eurydice (Marie Déa). His eye is taken, though, by another young poet, the dissolute Jacques Cégeste (Edouard Dermithe) who has barely enough time to register his degenerate credentials before he’s run over by black clad bikers (archetypal emissaries of Death who will recur in films as diverse as those of Kenneth Anger, Freddie Francis’s Tales From The Crypt, Anthony Balch’s Horror Hospital, 1973 and Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy, among others).

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Orphée is roped into a phoney attempt to save Cégeste by the black presence of Death herself (Maria Casares) with whom, as a moody artist, he naturally develops an obsession (a mutually felt one, as it happens). Increasingly preoccupied with deciphering cryptic radio messages that are apparently broadcast from The Beyond, he neglects Eurydice even further, until she is felled by those bikers and carried off to Hades. Under the guidance of Death’s ambiguous chauffeur / PA Heurtebise (François Périer), Orpée passes through the looking-glass into The Underword (cue can-can music…)

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Stating his case to a tribunal of judges who appear to be Death’s employers, Orphée reclaims his bride, with the proviso that if he ever looks at her, he will lose her again. After some comic bits concerning the convoluted domestic arrangements entailed by this, the inevitable happens, but Heurtebise puts an additional spin on the original Greek legend (which might well have influenced Mario Puzo when coming up with the climax of Superman II, 1980). Heurtebise  and Death (compliant in this reversal of the ordained order of things) are led off to their punishment by the bikers and Orphée is permanently reunited and reconciled with Eurydice in marital bliss…

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Jean Cocteau was, among other things (many, many other things) a gay film maker. Having taken the opportunity afforded, by this characteristically lush BFI restoration, to re-watch his spell-binding Orphee (1950), I was left wondering about the distinction between a gay man directing a film and a man directing (if indeed there is such a thing) a gay film. In one of the supporting extras on this disc, John Maybury director of Love is the Devil and The Edge of Love argues that as homosexuals don’t have children (not necessarily true, these days), the works of artists such as Cocteau constitute part of the “Queer Family Tree”.  Cocteau, however, was working in an era whose prevailing mores obliged him to be more reticent about revealing his orientation than might be the case in present day France and as such the choice of Orpheus, a figure of multifarious mythic manifestations, was a particularly useful one from which to take an oblique tack…

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Orpheus doesn’t appear in Hesiod’s seminal Theogony but in Virgil’s classic telling of the tale, his poetic mastery of the lyre and the beauty of his singing voice wins over animals, plants and yes, inanimate objects. Simonides adds that he even managed to charm Charon, Cerberus and Pluto into surrendering Eurydice, back to the land of the living, though his regard for her does not extend to complying with the instructions that will prolong her revival. In Cocteau’s film, moreover, Orphée makes a similar journey through The Zone in search of the handsome young poet Jacques. Apollonius of Rhodes tells us that Orpheus played his lyre for Jason to neutralise the feminine lure of the Sirens’ song and one version of his death, as recounted by Ovid, is that he was torn apart by female celebrants of the Dionysian rites, enraged by his renunciation of the love of  women for that of young men. In Cocteau’s film Juliet Greco (below, with the director) plays Aglaonice (a name associated with witchcraft in Greek mythology), who stirs up the local rabble against Orphée under suspicion that he has plagiarised the work of Cégeste and might have something to do with his disappearance. Perhaps the implication is that he has in some other way “outraged” Cégeste?

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Developing the theme of his 1932 short Le Sang D’un Poète, Cocteau presents the otherness of The Poet / “Artistic Type” as virtually interchangeable with that of the homosexual, to the point where “poetical” becomes as much of a euphemism as “earnest” or, indeed, “gay”. As for that happy hetero ending… well, I’m not old enough to have any way of knowing how that went over at initial screenings of Orphée, but I do remember reports of riots breaking out in cinemas during screenings of Nancy Walker’s Can’t Stop The Music (1980) when allusions were made in it to The Village People having girlfriends!

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Apart from the aforementioned extra, you get an audio commentary, courtesy of Roland-François Lack and interviews with such Cocteau associates and collaborators as Jean Pierre Mocky, Pierre Bergé and Dominique Marny. Cocteau’s AD Claude Pinoteau discusses the director’s many ingenious, in-camera effects in the featurette Jean Cocteau And His Tricks, which deploys many of those itself. La Villa Santo-Sospir is a 1951 short directed by Cocteau, revealing the walls he “tattooed” for a friend’s villa on the Côte d’Azur. Plus original and re-release trailer, reversible sleeve with new artwork by Edward Kinsella and fully illustrated booklet containing an essay by Ginette Vincendeau, an interview with Jean Cocteau from 1950 and much else.

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Despite Cocteau’s up and down relationship with Andre Breton and co, this is sheer Surrealism (no doubt informed by the copious amounts of opium that JC was imbibing at the time) of the kind that David Lynch could never begin to approach with his meretricious wannabe outpourings (Peter Gabriel came considerably closer with his whole Lamb Lies Down On Broadway concept).

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As for that distinction between “film made by gay man” Vs “Gay Film”… well,  check out the rumble at the Café des Poètes, just before Cégeste gets run over and note the pale youth who keeps withdrawing from the fray to arrange his lank locks. Orphée is A Gay Film and gloriously so.

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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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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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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 Eland) 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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