Blu-ray / DVD Reviews

Kind Of Blue Beard… High Stakes And Thigh Steaks In Lucio Fulci’s TOUCH OF DEATH.

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BD. Region B. 88 Films. 18.

Lester Parsons (Brett Halsey) is so far into the hole betting on horses that he stars answering “lonely hearts” ads taken out by wealthy widows, divesting them of their dough then bumping them off (Jeez, those guys in The Pina Colada Song thought they had problems!) Lester should have remembered that line: “When the fun stops… stop!” Then again, it’s a line which could be as well applied to watching Lucio Fulci films as to gambling…

… unfortunately we here at The House Of Freudstein have sworn a sacred oath to shirk no shitshow when it comes to bringing you the straight poop about Italian exploitation cinema, so here it is – despite public demand – a review of Touch Of Death aka When Alice Broke The Looking Glass (1988), just one of the zero budget clinkers that Fulci cranked out in his declining years for producers Antonio Lucidi and Luigi Nannerini.

We’re introduced to Lester as he digests the news of yet another betting debacle, cheering himself up by cooking up and consuming a rare steak while he watches an introduction tape in which an anorexic, facially disfigured bimbo cavorts for his erotic delectation. You might well think that she didn’t make much of an effort, though she looks significantly better in the tape than she does now, lying dead in Lester’s basement, a raw excision from her thigh making it clear where that steak came from. Having consumed this prime cut and fed some of the remaining choicer morsels to his cat, Lester minces the balance of Miss Lonely Heart / lungs / spleen / liver / kidney / et al and feeds it to the pigs in his back yard.

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Nice disposal job, but the TV news subsequently informs Lester that said mortal remains have turned up in plastic bags on a local tip and the police are investigating. Somewhat perturbed by this turn of events, Lester talks them over with his only confidante, a pre-recorded voice on an audio cassette. Confused? Not as confused as Fulci was when he wrote this thing… come back Dardano Sacchetti, all is forgiven!

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He’s just a gigolo… form an orderly queue there, ladies!

Having offed his next victim – a lady with significant facial hair problems – by beating her hairy face in with a tree branch then microwaving her head (with the oven door open?), Lester elects to do away with the evidence in alternative fashion, burying her in cement on a building site which he conveniently seems to have the run of. This leaves him open to the threat of blackmail by a floridly overacting crusty witness (Marco Di Stefano), a threat he neatly heads off by chasing down this derelict in his car and running it over him…. several times….

… and still the TV newscaster reports that his latest victim’s hirsute remains have been discovered, also that the tramp is recovering in hospital and will provide a fotofit of the perpetrator when he’s sufficiently recovered. Lester continues to consult the voice on the tape which, it subsequently emerges, is that of his shadow. Is any of this making any sense? Like I said, Fulci wrote it so don’t blame me (though I guess it’s perfectly possible that, unbeknownst to me, my shadow had a spectral hand in the script).

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So far (and subsequently) Lester’s victims have been in some way disfigured. Fulci’s comment on superficial societal attitudes / body shaming? A mischievous retort to Argento’s notorious stated preference for beautiful female victims (and its obvious inspiration, Poe’s dictum that: “The death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world”)? Whatever, Lester’s next date, Alice Shogun (?!?) suffers from no such disfigurement… not till she’s encountered Lester, anyhow. Is this why the film is named after her? Who can say? As embodied by Ria De Simone, she’s not a bad-looking woman at all (albeit a little over-voluptuous) though her penchant for performing operatic operas while participating in rough sex (a moral disfigurement?) make her an easy mark for Lester. He takes her corpse out for a drive, looking for an ideal place to stash it, leading to an allegedly comic bit of business with a traffic cop writing him a speeding ticket but overlooking the stiff in the passenger seat.

Every day, the newscasters bring worse news for Lester… that fotofit of “The Maniac” (as the police have imaginatively tagged him) is apparently coming along nicely and Lester’s DNA profile has been identified and announced (though it’s never made clear exactly how one would go about doing such a thing).

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Under pressure from his bookie Randy (an uncharacteristically fresh-faced Al Cliver), our “hero” tries for another big score from hare-lipped Virginia Field (billed as Zora Ulla Kesler but easily recognisable to any self-respecting spaghetti splatter fancier as Zora Kerova of Anthropophagous / Cannibal Ferox / New York Ripper infamy). It’s suggested that she’s a fellow con artist out to give Lester a dose of his own medicine but when she thwarts his attempt to kill her with nutcrackers (?!?) by shooting him, it’s revealed that she was tipped off re his murderous intent by seeing that much-anticipated fotofit on TV… and of course when we finally to see it, it bears no resemblance to Halsey whatsoever! Lester staggers off into a corridor and, before pegging it, exchanges a few rueful philosophical observations with his shadow… nothing like as rueful as the viewer, contemplating 80 wasted minutes of his life that he / she will never be able get back.

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Touch Of Death is unquestionably the work of a Pasta Paura maestro who’s gone more than a touch beyond his prime… it was conceived as part of a season of TV movies under the “Lucio Fulci Presents” banner, attempting to evoke Dario Argento’s successful La Porta Sul Buio (“Door To Darkness”) series from the mid-70s (or even his rather less successful Turno Di Notte / “Night Shift” from the late ’80s) while simultaneously making a virtue of necessity in that the deregulation of Italian TV was closing most of the country’s cinemas. Perhaps Fulci intended the film as a toast to this brave new world of commercial TV from a poisoned chalice (the cinematic equivalent of The Rolling Stones’ Cocksucker Blues?)… could anything as violent as this ever have stood a realistic chance of playing on the box? Whatever, TOD and the film that Fulci shot virtually simultaneously with it (the woeful Ghosts Of Sodom), along with Hansel & Gretel (co-directed by Fulci and Giovanni Simonelli in 1990), Mario Bianchi’s Don’t Be Afraid Of Aunt Marta aka The Murder Secret (1988), Leandro Luchetti’s Bloody Psycho and Andrea Bianchi’s  Massacre (both 1989), promptly disappeared, only to be filleted for footage by Lucidi and Nannerini to pad out the astonishing atrocity attributed to Fulci and entitled Nightmare Concert (aka A Cat In The Brain) that assaulted such Italian cinema screens as remained standing in 1990.

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The individual films from the abortive TV series have emerged, piecemeal, via obscure fly-by-night video releases (they’re also viewable on Youtube, for those of a hard-core masochistic bent)… a proposed Synapse release of Touch Of Death was abandoned when no original elements could be located and Don May’s outfit declined to source it from video. For the sake of unfussy Fulci completists, Shriek Show, Red Edition and others put out ropey looking DVD editions in the first half of the noughties. The BD release under consideration here looks pretty good (as well as this movie, in its original  4:3 aspect ratio, is ever going to look on your state-of-the-art widescreen telly, anyway) and 88 claim to have remastered it from an original negative. It would have been nice to see something in the bonus materials or liner notes about the film’s restoration, but no dice. The notes comprise Calum Waddell’s entertaining and informative interview with “Al Cliver” (Pierluigi Conti), whom he tracked down in Bali, while on the disc you get Phillip Escott’s documentary featurette Reflections in a Broken Mirror…

… in which (mostly) assistant director Michele De Angelis and Marco Di Stefano reminisce about the making of this movie. Cue the familiar anecdotes of Fulci singing happily to himself on set when not chewing out tardy collaborators. De Angelis confirms that the complicated co-production deal which made these movies possible ensured that very little money actually trickled down to the set. We also learn more about the up-and-down relationship between Fulci and Argento during pre-production of the Wax Mask that Fulci never lived to make and the claim that Fulci’s diabetes-related death was actually a suicide pops up again. Loose accusations are thrown around that “certain people” could have done more to prevent this from happening. We’ll never know the full story and it’s profoundly sad that Fulci’s amazing career should wind down amid such unedifying disputes.

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DP Silvano Tessicini makes a decent first of passing a Roman suburb off as Florida, though his indoor shots display all the finesse of a drunken camcorder record of Christmas Eve. Carlo Maria Cordio’s score is weedy, straight-out-of-the-library stuff. Only editor Vincenzo Tomassi remains from the glory days, though he has very little to work with here.

Touch Of Death is often described as being influenced by American Psycho, though it actually predates that film (2000) and also Bret Easton Ellis’s source novel (1991). For that matter it also anticipates, to a certain degree, Jonathan Demme’s Silence Of The Lambs (1991), although of course with the meagre means at his disposal, Fulci was never going to come up with anything remotely as polished as those. Nor was he able to he do justice to those influences which he attempts to reference, several superior pictures including Robert Siodmak’s  The Spiral Staircase (1946), Jack Smight’s No Way To Treat A Lady (1968), Mario Bava’s Hatchet For The Honeymoon (1970) and his own The New York Ripper (1982). The film’s pitiful stabs at black comedy fall flat on their arses (I admit I laughed when Lester kicked the cat) and Angelo Mattei’s clumsy splatter FX (the surname should have tipped us off), delivered without a fraction of the expertise and elegance which Giannetto De Rossi previously brought to such proceedings, are merely revolting. In the light of these failings Touch Of Death represents a wasted opportunity to definitively address the “misogyny” chestnut that plagued Fulci throughout his career.

Having thought long and hard about it, I’ve managed to find two things I could say in favour of Lucio Fulci’s Touch Of Death. Firstly, it’s not The Ghosts Of Sodom. Secondly, it’s required viewing for anybody intent on unpicking the splatwork quilt that is Nightmare Concert / A Cat In The Brain… which Herculean task we’ll be attempting soon.

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Who’s That Ghoul? Ghostly Goings On At The Villa Graps In Mario Bava’s KILL, BABY… KILL!

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. Arrow. 18

This review is respectfully dedicated to the memory of John Austin Frazier…

Any remote chance that noted Arctic Monkeys fan Gordon Brown ever had of winning the 2010 General Election and carrying on Tony Blair’s bullshit brand of pale blue Toryism evaporated, you may remember, after his unfortunate and inadvertently broadcast encounter with “that bigoted woman” Gillian Duffy. The balance of Gord’s political ambitions foundered on his inability to answer one of her questions… probably one of the most profound philosophical posers that has ever troubled the acutest minds in the entire history of human ideas… namely, “Where are all these Eastern Europeans coming from?”

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… somewhere in Eastern Europe… in what might be the late 19th Century… or possibly the early 20th… there’s a village in which the death rate is starting to approximate that in Midsomer Murders. People who recently reported sightings of a bratty little girl with a ball following them around have been stabbing themselves in the neck, throwing themselves onto spiky railings and so on…

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The latter demise prompts Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli) to call in Dr Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) in an attempt to find out what the hell is going on. A rugged rationalist in the mould of Dana Andrews’ character in Night Of The Demon (1957) or Peter Wyngarde’s in Burn Witch Burn (1962), Eswai dismisses all the local yokels’ mumblings about a curse while romancing comely nurse Monica (Erika Blanc), but the accumulating weight of  eldritch evidence forces him to face up to the unpalatable truth and, in a technically brilliant climactic chase scene, to the repressed streak of irrationality lurking deep within himself…

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In the rare interviews he granted, Mario Bava – a man for all horror seasons – would state his preference for subtle, suggestive scares over explicit gore, gristle and grue. Both traditions were represented in his (official) directorial debut, 1960’s La Maschera Del Demonio (“The Mask Of Satan” aka Black Sunday)… his 1963 brace I Tre Volti Della Paura (“The Three Faces Of Fear” aka Black Sabbath) and The Whip And The Body developed the understated gothique strand of his cinematic sensibility but it’s in 1966’s Kill, Baby… Kill! that he arguably brings to perfection his formula for creating an otherworldly phantasmagoria by the application of a gel or two here, a tricky camera angle there and a few puffs of smoke.

Cited by Bava as his personal favourite among his own movies, Operazione Paura (“Operation Fear”), to give it its original title, has suffered at the hands of theatrical distributors who’ve lumbered it with even sillier titles than that (Curse of The Dead, Curse Of The Living Dead and – in Germany- Die Toten Augen Des Dr. Dracula / “The Dead Eyes Of Dr. Dracula”!) and cut significant chunks out of it (a whole reel for one US grindhouse release). On VHS and disc it’s suffered similar cuts in obscure public domain editions that play havoc with Bava’s artfully wrought colour palette.

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Yep, Arrow’s BD release has been well worth the wait, doing justice to the subtleties of Bava and Antonio Rinaldi’s cinematography while keeping grain gain within acceptable levels. Let’s get my major quibble out of the way right here… the titles play out over a clumsy freeze frame of the first victim’s impalement. The alternative rendering, included (as an out take from a German print) among the extras here, continues the action to suggest the presence of the ghostly girl responsible for all these deaths. This superior version has generally kicked off the DVD editions I’ve previously seen (most recently the one in Anchor Bay UK / Starz’s 2007 Bava box) and I wonder why it couldn’t have been integrated into the main feature here. Of course my wonderings proceed from a position of virtually total technical ignorance about what it takes to remaster a film in Blu-ray and presumably Arrow did their best with the elements that were available to them. There are probably notes on KBK’s restoration in this set’s liner notes and booklet, which were unfortunately unavailable to me at the time of penning this review.

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The supplementary materials I did get to check out were “Kill, Bava, Kill!”, an interview with Mario’s son (and assistant director on this film and several others) Lamberto Bava… “The Devil’s Daughter: Mario Bava and the Gothic Child”, a new “video essay” in which Kat Ellinger showcases her encyclopaedic knowledge of all things Gothic in a far-reaching discussion of the influence that KBK has exerted over subsequent film makers and those sources from which Bava might have drawn influence for it. Yellow, a short film by one Semih Tareen, seems to celebrate the visual influence that Bava had on Dario Argento’s Inferno (1980) more than anything. Tim Lucas handles the commentary track, relegating the recently ubiquitous Travis Crawford to an essay in that booklet I haven’t seen. Tim has barely drawn breath before he’s hitting us with a myriad of biographical details about the actress whose character perishes about thirty seconds in, so you know you’re in for a vintage Lucas performance, i.e. his patented mix of factoids and thought-provoking interpretations. We learn from him how the film was completed despite its already minuscule budget being cut to effectively nil (testifying, I guess, to the love and dedication Bava inspired in his collaborators), that you could actually (should the fancy take you) holiday in the Villa Graps and that yes, ghost girl Melissa was played (in a foreshadowing of our gender fluid times) by a boy named Valerio Valeri.

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This sublimely eerie achievement represents the peak of Bava’s ghostly dabblings (though spectral echoes would continue to be felt in the likes of Baron Blood, Lisa And The Devil, Shock and La Venere D’Ille) and brings the Golden Age of Italian Gothique to a suitably impressive close. Ironically, while Operazione Paura impressed the socks off of such Arthouse big hitters as Fellini and Visconti, it was his less personally felt forays into gore that had the biggest subsequent cinematic influence, over the interminable and lucrative stalk’n’slash cycle… ooh, the irony!

On account of some or other brainstorm I was suffering at the time, the initial posting of this review omitted any reference to the Erika Blanc interview and introduction to KBK that can be found among this set’s supplementary features… and how very pleasantly nuts she seems! Great girl…

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Premier League film, Sunday kickaround in the park poster…

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How Do You Like Your Clots? VAULT OF HORROR Reviewed

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BD. Region B. Final Cut Entertainment. 15.

After Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors (Freddie Francis, 1965), in which it’s difficult to fathom precisely what some of the damned commuters had done to merit their respective gristly fates, Amicus portmanteau horror epics increasingly focussed on bad people getting their just desserts, a tendency that would only be consolidated in their adaptations of EC’s notoriously moralising comic strips… the Peter Cushing segment in Francis’s Tales From The Crypt (1972) is entitled “Poetic Justice”, fer Chrissakes! Taking their cue from those comics, the aforementioned bad people would, furthermore, be increasingly identified with rapacious capitalism, making you wonder if the suppression of EC’s wares in the States during the mid-50s had more to do with this critique of The American Way than with any alleged tendency to inspire juvenile delinquency or whatever.

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Similar subversive tendencies are apparent in the title sequence of Roy Ward Baker’s companion piece to Tales, Vault Of Horror (1973), which locates the epicentre of evil as the Palace Of Westminster, alongside other Thames-side pillars of the establishment. Another mismatched bunch of geezers find themselves marooned in the basement of a Canary Wharf-type sky-scraper. There’s no sign of the hitherto mandatory malevolent Master of Ceremonies, but while they take advantage of the champagne, cigars and canapés that somebody has thoughtfully laid on, our boys settle down with great alacrity to a discussion of their recurring nightmares, all adapted from original strips in EC’s Tales From The Crypt and Vault Of Horror comics. In the opener Midnight Mess, Daniel Massey stabs his sister (real life sibling Anna) to secure an inheritance but makes the unfortunate decision to celebrate in what turns out to be a vampire restaurant… the penny drops when his waiter ask how he’d like his clots, Massey spits out his starter in disgust and curtains are hastily withdrawn from the mirrors to reveal that he’s the only one in the joint with a reflection. His sibling turns up to savour the irony while her vampire mates savour his blood (“Good vintage!”), freshly drawn from a tap inserted in his neck.

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In The Neat Job, the comic episode that has been mandatory in these things since Dead Of Night (1945), neat freak Terry-Thomas makes wife Glynis Johns’ life a misery with his fussy ways until she cracks and dismembers him, neatly bottling his various constituent organs on a shelf in the workroom to comply with his mantra “Everything in its place and a place for everything”. This is the one episode of VOH in which the punishment seems to be significantly disproportionate to the crime, although to axe it on such pernickety grounds and lose its leads’ comedy master class would have seriously hurt the picture.

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It’s a lot more entertaining than This Trick’ll Kill You, wherein Curt Jurgens and Dawn Addams casually do away with the daughter of an Indian street magician to learn the secret of his rope trick but end up discovering terror at the end of their tether. This one is rather flatly rendered and compromises its own moral message, in which imperialism is condemned alongside capitalism with a depiction of India and Indians, the laziness of which borders on mild racism. The penultimate tale, Bargain In Death, has its own comedic overtones. Edward Judd and failed writer Michael Craig (“There’s no money in horror!”… tell me about it, dude!) concoct an insurance scam that involve faking the latter’s death and temporarily burying him but matters are complicated by the participants’ mutual intention to double cross each other, not to mention the interference of penurious medical students Robin Nedwell and Geoffrey Davis. Cleverly and economically scripted by Milton Subotsky, this segment also benefits from some characteristically opportunistic Amicus casting. Although the company never went down the TV adaptation route so frequently exploited by rivals Hammer, here they drag in Nedwell and Davis from ITV’s then successful and long running small screen adaptations of Richard Gordon’s “Doctor” novels, with Arthur Mullard (remember him? Yuss, my dear…) as their brutish grave digging / grave robbing sidekick. Just in case you still haven’t twigged the humorous flavour of this episode, Baker even has Craig reading a novelisation of Tales From The Crypt while waiting for his death-mimicking medication to kick in.

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Drawn And Quartered is the closing, longest and arguably best vignette from The Vault. Echoing not one but two episodes from Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors (not to mention Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray), this one opens with painter Tom Baker, whose been enjoying the Gaugin life out in the West Indies, discovering that an unholy alliance of his agent, a prominent critic and an unscrupulous art dealer have been conspiring to rip him off. Enlisting the aid of a voodoo priest, he acquires the ability to paint portraits of his tormentors and add wounds that are promptly visited upon them in real life… thus the crooked critic is blinded when his wronged wife throws acid in his face, the dealer who mishandled his work loses his hands when clumsily operating an office guillotine and agent Denholm Elliott attempts to shoot the avenging artist, only to turn his gun on himself after a bullet wound has been added to his picture. So far, so good…  but hang on, how safely has Tom stashed his self-portrait?

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“That’s how it is…” Jurgens advises the viewer, in the absence of a Vault Keeper (they must have blown all the dough for that on Ralph Richardson in Tales From The Crypt): “Every night we must retell the evil things we did while were alive… night after night for eternity”, before the participants schlepp off to their respective graves. Must make those long winter evenings in Hell just fly by…

Baker, trouper that he was, does a predictably solid job taking over from Freddie Francis, if not evincing quite the same feel for his material. Although Final Cut’s previous Blu-ray release of Tales From The Crypt included a 36 minute documentary on Amicus, this one is a bare bones release, depriving me of the opportunity to bug Kevin Lyons for the return of my copy of Martin Barker’s book The Video Nasties… ooh hang on, I just did that! The good news is that, like its predecessor (which brought us the full predicament of Richard Greene… throbbing intestines, dismembered limbs, et al, for eternity) this one is fully uncut. Previous MPAA approved, TV broadcast friendly releases freeze-framed three scenes before their violent pay-offs, enhancing their comic book ambience at the expense of horror (Daniel Massey twitching away as he is converted into a human optic, that art dealer losing his hands) and humour (Terry-Thomas’s response to having his hair parted with a claw hammer…

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Great stuff. Dunno about you, but I feel another classy horror portmanteau movie is long overdue… Jeremy Kyle as the Horror Host… just saying.

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Kicking out time at last year’s House Of Freudstein office party…

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Amuck Time… ALLA RICERCA DEL PIACERE Reviewed.

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“There must be some pleasure around here somewhere…”

BD. Region B. 88 Films. 18.

If any disc in the House Of Freudstein’s extensive DVD library ever needed upgrading, it was the grey (at best) market Eurovista Digital Entertainment (who they?) edition of Silvio Amadio’s Amuck! (1972). 88 Films step admirably into the breach with this excellent Blu-ray release, whose superiority to its predecessor is evident from the opening frames, vibrantly presented in their original screen ratio and now including establishing shots of Venice that were excised from Eurovista’s print, presumably for fear of alienating grindhouse punters seeking an in-pocket orgasm rather than travelogue enlightenment. With this demographic in mind, the film was also released at various times in The States as Hot Bed Of Sex, Whips and Chains, Maniac Mansion and In Search Of Pleasure…

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Good question…

…the latter being a literal translation of Alla Ricerca Del Piacere, the original release title. Seemingly oblivious of the shake-up that Dario Argento had administered to the giallo genre with his international hit The Bird With The Crystal Plumage in 1970, Amadio mounts this one very much in the steamy, bonkbusting tradition of such Umberto Lenzi shagathons as Paranoia… indeed, to coin a phrase from that one’s ad campaign, secretary Sally Reece (Patrizia Viotti) is here “sucked into a whirlpool of erotic love” when she’s assigned by Richard Stuart (Farley Granger)’s publishers to transcribe the tapes of his latest novel while staying at his shabby-genteel villa in the Venetian boonies. Under the decadent influence of Stuart, his libertine wife Eleanora (Rosalba Neri) and their 24 hour party people friends, she ends up taking down more than his pulpy prose. Can she use his dictaphone? No, she has to use her finger like everybody else…

When Sally turns up disappeared, the publishers (seemingly setting a low priority on the Health & Safety of their employees) send out Greta Franklin (Barbara Bouchet) to continue her duties. Eleanora wastes no time slipping Greta a Mickey Finn and seducing her. In slow motion. Must have a word with my tailor… these trousers don’t seem to fit me anything like as comfortably they used to.

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“Sexually… sexually… sexually…”

Though seemingly going along with the in-house unseemly shenanigans, Greta has a secret agenda, one that is revealed much earlier in the proceedings than in e.g. James Kenelm Clarke’s comparably plotted Exposė (1976). She’s determined to discover the fate of her colleague, friend and yes, lesbian lover Sally (getting us up to speed, Amadio thoughtfully throws in a flashback to Bouchet and Viotti getting it on under a waterfall… hm, really must have that word with my tailor as soon as possible!)

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During her day job, Greta is teased by Richard’s taped accounts of the murder and disposal of a young girl… but this is strictly fiction, right?

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After further perils including a dodgy séance and a duck hunt in which Greta is nearly blown away by the trigger happy Eleanora (could have been worse… at least she didn’t run into Lucio Fulci in his Elmer Fudd outfit), the besotted author finally confesses to Greta that her predecessor died at the hands of hulking handyman Rocco (Petar Martinovitch) during a sex party that got out of hand. He’s been covering this up to protect his reputation. Incredibly, Greta seems to consider the small matter of the sex killing of her pal now amicably resolved and begins to reciprocate Richard’s interest in her… but is there another kinky twist or two left in this tawdry tale? What do you fucking think?

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Despite Richard’s florid self description as “decadent, completely lost in the myriad facades of a doomed city”, Amadio’s vision of ultimate sexual depravity in the villa has a distinctly vanilla flavour to it… lots of lounging around in dressing gown and cravats for Richard, while all around him his acolytes snog on sofas and wear glazed expressions while puffing on suspicious looking ciggies and watching home-made porno films, one a Benny Hill-like adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood, another starring the missing Sally. If you’ve got a superior mind, the Stuarts agree, then the perfect murder is possible, a nudge-nudge reference to Granger’s finest hour-and-a-half in Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train (1951).

Apparently Edwige Fenech was originally cast as Eleanora but bowed out on discovering that she was pregnant. My default position is the more Fenech, the better but despite the missed opportunity to pit giallo’s pre-eminent female performers against each other in substantial roles, it has to be said that Neri (who also starred in genre-jumping Amadio’s other 1972 giallo, Smile Before Death) is a better fit for the role.

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Granger’s Hitchcock connection won him various giallo / noiresque roles in Italy, including appearances in Mario Colucci’s Something Creeping In The Dark (1971), Franco Prosperi’s Kill Me, My Love! (1973), Giovanni d’Eramo’s Death Will Have Your Eyes and Massimo Dallamano’s What Have They Done To Your Daughters (both 1974). Roberto Bianchi Montero’s 1972 effort So Sweet, So Dead (memorable retitlings of which include Revelations Of A Sex Maniac To The Head Of The Criminal Investigation Division and The Slasher… Is The Sex Maniac!) was recut with hard core footage featuring Harry Reems and Tina Russell to be released on the US grindhouse circuit as Penetration, a release which Granger took prompt legal steps to suppress.

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Neither as gripping as Maurizio Lucidi’s The Designated Victim (1971), as moving as Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die? (1972) nor as sleazily gonzo as Mario Landi’s generically titled egg sucking outrage Giallo In Venice (1979), Amuck! still secures a place on the honour roll of Venetian violence videos via its starry cast and the efficiency with which Amadio puts them through their lurid paces.

Extras include interviews with Neri and Bouchet, both significantly more substantial than the “blink and you’ll miss ’em” jobs on the Eurovista edition. Calum Waddell conducts the one with BB, moderates the Q&A session with her from 2013’s Festival Of Fantastic Films and supplies liner notes relating Barbara’s progress through gialli, sexy-comedies and the chip shops of Greater Manchester. It was at the aforementioned Festival that I met and interviewed Bouchet and found myself (a rarity, this, during my decades of interviewing film folk) totally star struck in her presence.

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If you want to enliven your next sex party with Teo Usuelli’s hysterical orgy theme (“Sexually… sexually… sexually”)… and really, why wouldn’t you… it’s available on one of the Beat At Cinecittá collections from the mighty Crippled Dick Hot Wax! label. I’m not going to specify which one because a) I can’t be arsed to get up, walk to the other side of the room and get it off the shelf and b) you really owe it to yourself to buy all three volumes in that excellent series.

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Right, I’m off to don my dressing gown and cravat in anticipation of tonight’s revels at The House Of Freudstein…

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40,000 Flies On 4K… Arrow’s PHENOMENA Upgrade Reviewed

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BD/CD Combi. Region B. Arrow. 18.

I’ve always loved Dario Argento’s Phenomena (1985), ever since I first saw it (cut down to “Creepers”) at the long-defunct 123 Cinema (*) in Liverpool (above… now and then-ish), supported by The Evil Dead in its theatrical follow-up run. Support film? Ask your granddad. But wait, I hear you say… if you like Phenomena so much, Herr Freudstein, how come it’s taken you so long to review Arrow’s 4K restoration of it on this blog? Well, here’s the thing… significant chunks of my time are taken up, regrettably, with matters completely unconnected to watching and writing about films. When I am writing about films, I’m obliged (not least by Frau Freudstein) to prioritise assignments that are going to bring in some money (i.e. not this blog) and when that’s been taken care of, I feel duty bound to concentrate on releases for which somebody has bothered to furnish me with review copies. Stuff I’ve had to shell out for myself goes straight to the back of the queue, whatever its manifest, manifold merits. As with Arrow’s Phenomena, so it goes for their recent(ish) Bird With The Crystal Plumage set, which I might or might not get round to reviewing in the coming weeks and months.

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Anyway, Phenomena… I’ve always loved it and indeed, what’s not to love? A sleep walking schizophrenic schoolgirl uses her telepathic understanding with insects and friendship with a razor wielding chimpanzee to hunt down the butt-ugly deformed, demented dwarf who has been, with the connivance of his psychotic mother, dismembering and collecting the body parts of her classmates. If that synopsis doesn’t appeal to you, you’re probably reading the wrong blog… and you’re definitely following the wrong director. Yet there are those, even among the more Argento inclined demographic (who presumably accepted Four Flies On Grey Velvet, Deep Red and even Inferno as models of kitchen sink linear narrative) who’ve dismissed Argento’s ninth feature on account of its “bizarre plotting”. Such criticisms reappear regularly among the bonus materials  in this Arrow box set,  which makes you wonder why they’ve expended so much effort over it…

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… to impressive effect, it has to be said. What we have here are four discs (three BD and one compact) containing three variant versions of the film plus its original soundtrack. “The Italian / Integral Version” (i.e. Argento’s original directorial vision) runs at 116 minutes. Six minutes of trims to scenes yielded “The International Version” which, it was felt, might slip by a little more comfortably for international viewers. More drastic excisions (and the “Creepers” rebranding) were felt necessary for English language territories, where cinema goers had to be content with a mere 83 minutes of maggots-versus-mutant mayhem. Of course in mid-80s Britain, the BBFC insisted on further butchery for the film’s video release by Palace, though there’s no room for that particular cut (and good riddance to it) on this set. Every incarnation of the film included here looks as marvellous as you’d expect and Arrow have worked particular wonders compiling audio crap-free sound tracks for each from the available elements. The English soundtrack for the 110 minute version comes in lossless stereo and the necessarily hybrid soundtrack to the integral version also offers you the option of glorious 5.1 surround sound.

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As for extras, The Three Sarcophagi, another of those “visual essays” by Michael Mackenzie, compares the three versions and examines the painstaking process of rendering each in the spankiest shape it has ever been seen in for this release. There’s more information about that in the accompanying 60 page limited booklet, which also includes three essays – “The Poetry Of The Gross-Out” by the always interesting Mikel J. Koven, “Argento, Armani And The Fashions Of Phenomena” from my antisocial media pal Rachael Nisbet (the fashion clock stopped somewhere in the mid ’70s… 1870s… here at the House Of Freudstein, but Rachael’s stuff is invariably a pleasure to read) and Leonard Jacobs’ Phenomena As A Key To Unlocking Opera, which takes several pages to arrive at the conclusion which is expressed far more succinctly by the director himself in an Argento interview elsewhere on this site,  i.e. “Opera ends where Phenomena begins, even if I made Phenomena first…. it doesn’t really matter which order you watch the videos in, does it?”

Troy Howarth contributes a characteristically sure-footed commentary track and maintains an admirable balance between saluting the genius of early Argento and deploring how he subsequently sank into sterile self-celebration. Similarly, he’s critical of  Daria Nicolodi’s performance in Phenomena but reminds us how well she performed in plenty of previous pictures (for Argento and plenty of others) and acknowledges how her director (and disgruntled ex lover) hung her out to dry in this one.

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Nicolodi gets to have her own say in the feature-length documentary Of Flies and Maggots, as do plenty of others, including Argento, his daughter Fiore (whose severed head is thrown out of a window during the film’s memorable opening sequence), Davide Marotta (the defenestrating dwarf himself), co-writer Franco Ferrini, cinematographer Romano Albani, production manager Angelo Jacono, assistant director Michele Soavi, special optical effects artist Luigi Cozzi, makeup FX ace Sergio Stivaletti, underwater photographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia, musicians Claudio Simonetti and Simon Boswell and just about everybody else you’d expect to hear from plus some you possibly wouldn’t, e.g. actress Fiorenza Tessari (daughter of Duccio).

No Donald Pleasence of course, but it’s a pity that Connelly (who had the presence of mind to star for two of my favourite directors in her first two feature outings) declined to take part in this doc. Possibly aware of the words of one contemporary critic who opined that she had ruined Phenomena and should stick to modelling

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“Cheeky bastard said WHAT?!?”

(I imagine that she recalls these wise words every time she polishes her Oscar) she will be further discomforted to hear Battaglia’s catty comments about the size of her feet (considering how many crazy elements Argento manages to pack into Phenomena, I guess there’s room for a Sasquatch subplot). Cozzi talks about the strained relationship between Connelly’s protective Dad and the production, Jacono refers to his agonising attempts to reconcile Dario with everyone from whom he’d become estranged – his father Salvatore, brother Claudio and Nicolodi. We also learn that Jack Sholder (Alone In The Dark, Nightmare On Elm Street 2, The Hidden) was responsible for the Creepers cut. Perhaps he could usefully have been assigned to Of Flies And Maggots, which at over two hours will probably prove a bit much for general viewers. The again, it’s unlikely that they would buy such a lavish celebration of one film and the doc is a real treasure trove for those who love Phenomena…

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… did I already mention that I love Phenomena? We are constantly told (on this set and in general film discourse) that no critics have got any time for the film, from which I and others who do can only infer the sub-text “no critics worth a light” have got any time for it. Well, it’s good to learn your place in the scheme of things but one can’t help but be tickled at the spectacle of Argentophiles who turn their noses up at Phenomena, only to devote hundreds of breathless column inches to the worthless likes of Phantom Of The Opera, Giallo and Dracula 3-D. Does anybody imagine that any of those will be appearing as multi-disc collectors’ box sets in years to come? Nah…

Supplementary materials are rounded out by the expected trailers, a cheesy promotional clip for Simonetti’s exhilarating “Jennifer” theme that Argento threw together with the composer, Connelly and a demented looking bint named Elena Pompei (who also appeared in Deodato’s Body Count, Cozzi’s Paganini Horror and DA’s lame ’80s TV series Night Shift), and pages from the characteristically lush Japanese pressbook. Candice Tripp is responsible for the box’s artwork, about which I’m still making up my mind.

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Nice to know after viewing the doc that excrement was used to wrangle the flies… this is one set that must have smelled just delightful! One recalls that honey was used to make them behave on Once Upon A Time In The West, the Sergio Leone epic on which Argento got his writing break… reminds me of Sheldon’s best line in The Big Bang Theory and also seems emblematic of the shift from a Golden Age of Italian popular cinema to one of Silver (= “Argento”) en route to the distinctly Brown patch of the late ’80’s – early ’90s with which the cycle wound down.

More extreme means were used to control other animal actors. Albani seems to find it a hoot that the chimp was beaten to make it co-operate. I don’t and nor, hopefully, do you.

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Try that one more time, pal…

It’s not only WRONG but totally out of whack with the MDMA-style “getting down with nature” blabberings that litter Phenomena and are developed to dismaying effect in Opera.

Nevertheless, I’ll continue to champion Argento’s grand guignol paean to Gaia. I’ve always fought its corner, whenever nay sayers have… er, said nay about it. In fact (boring historical sidebar alert!) when Alan Jones rubbished Phenomena in Starburst I sent a dissenting response to him and Shock X-Press, the editor of which declined to run it but hooked me up “with a guy who’s trying to start a fanzine”. The guy was John Gullidge, the fanzine became Samhain and how you feel about that publication and the whole UK fanzine renaissance it kicked off might confirm you in whatever positive or negative feelings you have ever entertained towards Phenomena. Me, I’ve always loved it. I think this is where you came in…

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(*) I also caught Re-animator, Demons 2 and a shitload of Russ Meyer films (among many others) there… The 123 was ground zero for Liverpool’s shabby raincoat brigade. In fact I’ll never shake the memory of seeing somebody jack off to the “severed head menaces Barbara Crampton” scene in Re-animator, no matter how hard I try.

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50 Shades Of Blu… THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS WARDH on Shameless BD

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BD. Region B. Shameless. 18.

Much  has been made of the “sex killer” angle in gialli… possibly too much. The culprit in what we might as well, for the sake of argument, concede to be the first giallo proper (Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much, 1963), though more than a little unhinged, turns out to be murdering on account of very cool calculations about an inheritance. Similar considerations motivate the assassin(s) in Bava’s Blood And Black Lace (1964), no matter how “sexily” its several slayings are rendered for our delectation… indeed, it frequently seems in that film as though Bava is inviting the audience to get off on the couture slaughter more than the film’s hard-nosed killer(s) is / are actually doing.

It would be perverse to argue that eroticism plays no part in these films and their popular appeal. Certainly during those bonkbusting Carroll Baker vehicles churned out in Bava’s wake by producer Luciano Martino, e.g. Romolo Guerrieri’s The Sweet Body Of Deborah (1968) and Umberto Lenzi’s So Sweet… So Perverse from the following year, the jaded jet-setting characters, when they aren’t swindling each other out of large sums of money, are clearly having more and better sex than you ever have… probably took some time out to embezzle money from your company’s pension fund too, the bastards!

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Dario Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, which changed the whole giallo ball-game when it crossed over from domestic to international success in 1970, was the first Italian thriller to prioritise (if not the first to feature) the exploits of a sexually sadistic killer. Even then, Argento’s focussed as much (if not more) on the trauma that had warped this character’s psyche out of shape rather than the lip-smacking relish with which they went about their stabby antics. Consider, furthermore, the motivations of the murderers in Argento’s subsequent films. You might well be surprised at how very few of them are actually out-and-out “sex killers”. But I’m getting ahead of myself… this argument will be developed in a future posting about The Stendhal Syndrome (if I ever get round to writing it!)

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Where were we? Ah yes… early 1970 saw Luciano Martino planning The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh as another steamy chamber giallo vehicle for Carroll Baker, but entertaining doubts about the cost of rehiring the star and another director. He didn’t have to look far for a solution… kid brother Sergio was chomping at the bit to direct his sophomore feature and had established his qualifications with the likes of spagwest Arizona Colt Returns (1970), various mondo documentaries and by shooting additional material to bump up the running time on such films as Hans Schott-Schöbinger’s 1969 adaptation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

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It was on the latter that Sergio discovered a breath-taking young starlet named Edwige Fenech, who promptly became a fixture in Luciano’s pictures, not to mention (jammy sod!) his bed. Add indefatigable screen writer Ernesto Gastaldi and all the ingredients (give or take some hunky love interest / potential killer for Edwige) were in place for a run of classic gialli, kicking off with the revamped, sexed-up Strange Vice, on which Sergio proved beyond dispute that he’d been paying attention during his stint as second unit director on Bava’s 1963 epic of sadomasochism beyond the grave, The Whip and the Body (1963).

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Meanwhile Gastaldi pounced enthusiastically on psychosexual hints made in Argento’s smash but borrowed its fetishistically clad fruit-cake only for that character (newbies beware, things could be about to get a bit spoilerish) to end up playing second banana to an insurance fraud conspiracy (“I told you, the best time to kill anyone is when a homicidal maniac is on the loose!” one conspirator tells another). Audacious stuff…. I mean, is there any cinematic precedent for a serial killer who is simultaneously the film’s principal red herring?

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TSVOMW’s opening intercuts a fatal razor attack on a prostitute with the arrival of the plane that is bringing the Wardhs to Vienna, greeted by a quotation from one of that city’s most famous sons, Sigmund Freud, concerning the potential killer inside all of us. Fenech plays the eponymous Julie Wardh (the “h” at end of her surname allegedly intended to forestall any libel proceedings from aggrieved real life Mrs Wards!), the neglected, bored wife of a workaholic diplomat (Alberto De Mendoza). She is simultaneously stimulated and troubled by salacious memories of her full-on sado-masochistic entanglement with brooding Jean (old Tartar cheek-bones himself, Ivan Rassimov). Their idea of fun, as revealed in sensuous slow motion flashbacks to the accompaniment of a Nora Orlandi theme that can only be described as sacramental, included him beating her in a muddy field (shades of Bunuel’s Belle De Jour, 1967) and – don’t try this at home, kiddies! – bonking her on a bed of broken glass. No wonder Julie is troubled by her cab driver’s stated desire for “perverts” to “get what they deserve”.

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Nor does the life of a neglected ambassador’s wife seem anything like as dull as we are expected to believe, including as it does wild embassy parties where drunken floozies rip each other’s dresses off, prior to one of them being bloodily dispatched in a Hitchcockian shower sequence (“Another girl slashed to death?” remarks Julie’s cynical friend Carol: “We should be grateful that he’s eliminating all the competition!”) Julie is horrified to discover Jean popping up among the ferrero rocher at one such bash but not sufficiently horrified to resist a) succumbing to his erotic menace and b) striking up yet another affair, with smoothie antipodean inheritance chaser George (George Hilton). When somebody starts blackmailing Mrs W about her various extra-marital liaisons, the worldly Carol (Cristina Airoldi) becomes convinced that Jean is playing his old head games with her, and agrees to meet him in a park on Fenech’s behalf… only to get sliced up a treat (I wonder how grateful she was for that!) La Dolce Vita has definitely soured and in mortal fear that Jean has lost it completely, Julie abandons her hubby and absconds to Spain with George. No prizes for guessing that there are several more twists to come…

Aside from her obvious facility for nude scenes (no shit, Sherlock!), Fenech deserves credit for a performance that gets us on the side of a protagonist who is, when you get right down to it, pretty selfish, shallow and unlikable… in many ways a 20th Century rendering of the Balzac character she played for Schott-Schöbinger.

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Martino confesses readily to the influence that Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955, above) exerted over TSVOMW (and what about Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train, 1951?) but has waxed ambivalent about The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, to the extent of half-heartedly claiming, when he and fellow ‘B’ movie directors were being feted (at the behest of Quentin Tarantino) during the Venice Film Festival ten years ago, that his picture actually preceded the Argento biggie. In sharp contrast to Argento’s signature use of steadicam, his characteristic deployment of hand-held camera does convey a sense of urgency, plunging the viewer into the thick of the carnage and his restrained use of zoom underscores dramatic moments without descending into Franco-esque overuse. But there’s no doubt where those “through the keyhole” POV shots, which Martino would repeat through just about all of his subsequent gialli, came from. To be fair, Argento himself seems to have been influenced by the scene of Airoldi’s death in the park, restaging it pretty faithfully for Four Flies On Grey Velvet (1971.) Martino’s diplomatic comment on this is that both scenes owe a lot to Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966.)

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Argento inarguably pinched one of TSVOMW’s central plot devices, by which calculating, opportunistic killers take advantage of a genuinely deranged individual’s murder rampage to deflect suspicion from themselves for Tenebrae (1982) though if anything, Argento tones it down because at any one time in Martino’s flick, there are no less than four killers operating with dovetailing motivations, no less than three of whom are out to get Fenech! Looks like Freud wasn’t just blowing cigar smoke up our asses with that opening quote…

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Shameless continue their drive to upgrade notable titles on their slate to Blu-ray. Having started a bit late in the game, they’ve avoided some of the pitfalls that bedevilled various early-adopting competitors, some of whose remasterings were looking distinctly variable in quality for a while there. It could be argued that Shameless have had less opportunity to cock one of these up because they’ve so far only done so few, but now that this aspect of their operation is picking up it looks like they’ve learned well from the mis-steps of others. Those having been made, DNR is currently considered less desirable than an “authentic” level of upfront graininess and if you can live with that, opportunities are now opening up to grasp hitherto unguessed-at cinematographic subtleties in some of your favourite films. Arrow’s recent(ish) Deep Red was a particular delight in this regard and the efforts of Emilio Foriscot and Florian Trenker are done similar justice here. No sound problems for audiophiles to have hissy fits over, either.

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Bonus materials comprise the Martino interview and Fenech profile from the previous Shameless release, plus a mini-doc in which most of the significant participants in TSVOMW have their say, the latter lifted from Italian label No Shame’s early DVD edition. Justin Harries’ “fact track” also reappears from that original Shameless release and alternates entry-level giallo observations with some interesting speculation about how the various men in Mrs Wardh’s tangled love life correspond to Freud’s tripartite model of the human mind. I used to get a lot of flack for bringing this kind of thing into the discussion of exploitation movies but in case that’s too high-brow for you, Harries also describes Martino’s film as Sex In The City with added murder.

Another home run from Shameless!

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“Ooh, Betti!” EUROCRIME! THE ITALIAN COP AND GANGSTER FILMS THAT RULED THE ’70s Reviewed

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DVD. Region 2. Nucleus Films. 18. 

Kudos to Nucleus for finally affording a proper UK release to Mike Malloy’s documentary, which has  been knocking around for about five years now. It gets underway with an amusing sequence in which salient scenes from iconic American cop films are intercut with corresponding ones from their Italian imitators. Fair enough, it’s unlikely that anybody reading this blog will need the filone system of Italian film making explaining to them. Malloy also acknowledges that the influence has been anything but one way and allows Enzo Castellari (pictured above) to complain that Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974) pinches from his Street Law, released in the same year. Well, the Brain Garfield novel which Winner based his film on was published in 1972… whatever, the influence that Castellari has exerted over the likes of Quentin Tarantino cannot be disputed and never has been by Tarantino himself.

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One keeps expecting to see QT pop up at some point in Eurocrime! but no, Malloy sticks to the primary sources and his doc is all the better for it. Apart from Castellari, we get to hear from Mario Caiano, Franco Nero, John Saxon, Antonio Sabato, Luc Merenda, Fred Williamson, Richard Harrison, John Steiner, Christopher Mitchum, Leonard Mann, Joe Dallesandro, Ottaviano Dell’Acqua, Michael Forest and Claudio Fragasso, among many others. It’s particularly great to see Henry Silva, the baddest ass in cinema bad ass history, still going strong. “Does Henry still look good?” Antonio Sabato asks his interviewer at one point and the answer is a resounding “Yes!”, in fact here HK’s looking spookily like you imagine Darrell Buxton might well look in his ’70s (if Darrell was a psychopathic stone killer rather than the charming chap he actually is). For a while there I’d managed to convince myself that Silva had joined the Grim Reaper’s 2017 cull of so many of our favourite personalities but here he is… live, kicking, relating humorous anecdotes (e.g. a run-in with Sabato when the latter hadn’t bothered to learn his lines) and no doubt pondering popping a cap in my presumptuous ass.

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An impressive roll call of witnesses to the Crime slime phenomenon then, though no doubt you could niggle (and some have) about who’s here and who’s been left (or opted) out…No Sergio Martino? And why isn’t Umberto Lenzi called upon to answer his many detractors? But really, what’s the point? Malloy had to work with what (and whom) he had to work with and those who did sign up aren’t exactly short on interesting and entertaining things to say about their participation in the genre. There’s a significant section on Barbara Bouchet which seems to be leading up to an appearance by BB herself, though sadly she fails to materialise. Although he died in 1989, a meditation on Maurizio Merli’s career tangent (from “guy who was lucky enough to look like Franco Nero when Nero lost interest in the genre” to “difficult” star) makes for an interesting sidebar,  emblematic as it is of Crime Slime celebrity.

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Thanks to @cosiperversa for unearthing this one. More tea, vicar?

Aside from the aforementioned Hollywood influences, Malloy addresses the domestic factors that had these films “ruling the ’70s”, at least in Italy… discontent with the explosion in crime that was the underside of “the Italian economic miracle” and fear of the regular outrages attributed to the extreme Right and Left during “the Years of Lead”. We also hear about how minor hustling criminals “facilitated” street shoots and rumours of actual mafia involvement. Actors who were called upon to do their own stunts amid live ammo relate the perils they faced during guerilla shoots where directors’ spontaneity was matched only by their lack of interest in Health and Safety (“I think I peed my pants!” confesses Silva about one such set-up). Castellari talks about the celebrated scene in The Big Racket (1976) where Fabio Testi gets rolled down a hill in his car. Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and others discuss the less hazardous but extremely discomforting business of shooting without direct sound and some of the veteran dubbing artists of the Italian movie scene finally get to show their faces while having their say. It would have been nice, though, to hear more about some of the amazing composers whose OSTs have graced this genre, the likes of Morricone, Micalizzi, Cipriani, Trovajoli, de Masi, and so on. I’ll give credit here for the bitchin’, authentic sounding OST score that Malloy has pulled together, from various contributors, for this documentary.

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… are you sure you won’t have another cup of tea, vicar?

Such recurring themes as unconscionable violence, misogyny and car chases are given due consideration and we are treated to a digression into the little studied wilderness (and sheer wildness) of Italo-Turkish co-productions. Needless to say, the all-important subject of J&B product placement rears its malty little head.

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Minor quibbles: Although the narrative does occasionally venture outside of Italy, a more Italian focussed title would have more accurately reflected its contents. Malloy does labour certain points and his much discussed flashy editing style, initially impressive, does wear out its welcome well before the end of Eurocrime!’s 127 minute running time. In pursuit of flashy cutting and graphics, Malloy does seem to have lost sight of the primary purposes of editing, e.g. tidiness and concision. Personally, I could have done without some of the animated sequences and as it stands, Eurocrime is too long and baggy to be the primer that will turn the general picture-watching public on to the poliziotteschi phenomenon. It might well recruit new converts from those already kindly disposed to such genres as giallo or spaghetti westerns. For established Crime Slime devotees, Malloy’s epic labour of love will come as joyous, indispensable stuff.

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The main feature would have been even longer if not for the fact that generous interview out takes have been bumped into the bonuses section. You also get Eric Zaldivar’s 2012 interview with Tomas Milian (an anarchic free spirit to the end) and -alongside a nifty trailer for Eurocrime! itself – 31 (count ’em!) ass-kicking coming attractions for some of the genre’s most celebrated efforts.

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Well worth your time and money, especially as Nucleus, true to form, aren’t taking the piss with their price point. Nothing, er, extortionate!

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Heads They Win, Tails We Lose… THE BIG RACKET Reviewed.

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DVD. Region Free. Blue Underground. Unrated.

Pretty much squeezed out of the giallo thrillers that proliferated in the ’70s, Italian cops decamped into a cinematic genre of their own. Reflecting contemporary public angst over pandemic political and criminal violence in the 1970s (“the Years of Lead”), this particularly torrid cinematic stream can be sourced to La Polizia Ringrazia (aka Execution Squad / The Enforcers), a 1971 film by erstwhile comedy specialist Stefano Vanzina (aka Steno) that starred Enrico Maria Salerno in the authoritarian cop role and owed a fairly obvious debt to Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry, released earlier in the same year. It took Enzo Castellari’s La Polizia Incrimina, La Legge Assolve (aka High Crime, 1973) however, to really ignite the box offices. Castellari, already a veteran director of action packed, acrobatic spag-wests and war films, here hooked up for the first of many times with Franco Nero, playing Vice-Commissioner Belli, a maverick cop who’s out to close down the supply of heroin from France into Italy. If all of this sounds vaguely reminiscent of “a certain William Friedkin picture” (indeed, this picture has also been released under the alias “The Marseilles Connection”), Castellari goes so far as to as to bring back Fernando Rey as Belli’s adversary and stages a mighty familiar looking car chase, while upping the ante in terms of sheer sadism (the drug gang think nothing of cutting the nads off of those that cross them!) Later in 1973, Sergio Martino knocked out another saga of rulebook trashing cops The Violent Professionals (Milano Trema – La Polizia Vuole Giustizia) and followed it in 1974 with the similarly themed Silent Action (La Polizia Accusa: Il Servizio Segreto Uccide). The same year, Castellari and Franco Nero were back with Il Cittadina Si Ribella (“The Citizen Rebels”) aka Street Law, in which Nero’s revolting citizen strikes back against a system so tardy about protecting the citizenry that it’s virtually complicit in criminality. In The Big Racket (1976) Castellari develops his argument a step further by effectively identifying The State itself as a criminal conspiracy.

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Enzo’s mad as hell and he’s not gonna take anymore…

While some of its genre predecessors strive for gritty social relevance with plot points that paradoxically leave credibility teetering on the edge of a precipice, The Big Racket gleefully dons hobnail boots to kick the fucker right over the brink. Its in-your-face opening depicts a business premises being trashed by a rent-a-goon gang of OTT ne’er do wells. Their colourful apparel and larger than life anti-social antics clearly foreshadow the cartoon characterisations of Castellari’s apocalyptic trilogy Bronx Warriors (1982), Bronx Warriors 2 and The New Barbarians (both 1983) and The Big Racket depicts civil society as one step removed from that kind of total breakdown, with wrecking gangs roaming the city despoiling honest citizens at will. On this kind of form, Castellari makes Michael Winner look like a tree hugging Lefty!

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It’s big…

The aforementioned goons are enforcing a protection racket run by foppish Englishman (?!?) Rudy (John Loffredo). God help anyone who refuses to cough up. When one of their marks, restaurateur Luigi Gestore (Renzo Palmer) does stand up to them, they abduct and rape his schoolgirl daughter (Castellari’s own daughter, Stefania Girolami, later an assistant director on such Hollywood productions as Super Mario Bros, Dawson’s Creek, American Gothic and Empire Records, now back working for her dad). She subsequently kills herself out of shame.

Needless to say there’s a hard-assed cop keen on closing down the operation. In the absence of Franco Nero we get equally hunky Fabio Testi as Inspector Nico Palmieri. When he is rumbled investigating the racket, its perpetrators have no qualms at all about rolling a police car and its occupant into a quarry, a quite amazing sequence whose realisation Castellari discusses on this disc’s audio commentary track.

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When Palmieri gets out of hospital, you can bet your ass he’s even keener than before to kick some racketeering ass. It doesn’t hurt that his partner Sal (Salvatore Calimero) is a kung fu whirlwind who can beat up several assailants simultaneously and thinks nothing of kicking a lady racketeer in her private parts to convey the message that crime doesn’t pay!

What does cramp their investigative style is the oily civil rights lawyer Giovanni Giuni (Antonio Marsina) who continually gets the protectioneering hoodlums out of jail and protests that they are being overly harshly treated for their high spirits and roguish shenanigans: “These kids are just blowing off some steam” (?!?) is his weasel-worded rationalisation of their crimes. When Palmieri’s attempts to cut through all this bullshit get him taken off the case, he figures that he might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. Hiring the services of gentlemanly con man Pepe (a great comic relief turn from Death Wish alumnus Vincent Gardenia) he sets out to infiltrate The Big Racket. Two major set pieces ensue. The first is an astonishingly choreographed and sharply edited shoot out at a railway station, a vintage Castellari action sequence featuring all his familiar trademarks of slow-mo, multiple angles and madly gurning, machine-gun totin’ extras somersaulting through the air.

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It is here that by-standing skeet shooter Giovanni (Orso Maria Guerrini) conveniently throws in his lot with the cops as an act of civic duty… not so convenient for his family though, as the mob respond by urinating on and raping his wife, before setting fire to her (pity that wasn’t the other way around!)

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Palmieri recruits him, Pepe, Gestore and Doringo (Romano Puppo), a lifer seeking to cut a deal and get himself  out of jail, for the climactic confrontation with the gang at their annual general meeting, held in another of Castellari’s beloved disused factories. During the ensuing mayhem the supreme boss of the ever-expanding protection racket is revealed… a real non-surprise this one, it’s that smoothy civil rights lawyer Giuni. Castellari really couldn’t spell it out any clearer than this – liberals aren’t just well-intentioned but misguided wimps, they’re keen and active participants in the destruction of Society!

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Marsina, overacting frantically, spells out the Big Racket’s ambitious corporate plan in alarming terms: “Factories, restaurants, shops, hotels… if they want to stay open, they’ll pay us. In fact eventually every living individual will have to pay us. If they refuse, their gas main might blow up and take half the house with it. People will soon learn that they have no defence against the terror that we will create. Just one phone call, one threat will make them pay. Do you have kids? You don’t want to lose them? Then pay! You don’t have the money? You have a house so sell it and pay. No house? Then half your salary each month. If you want your kids to live then pay, pay! Naturally some will hesitate… so we kill a couple of children… a few examples and people will pay without question. But we’ll need to cover ourselves… we can buy anybody, politicians, policemen, magistrates… anybody at all!”

This chilling vision of the future is cut short by a hail of bullets from Palmieri and co. From their vantage points they mow down most of the mobsters, though inevitably they are themselves cut down in their turn. Palmieri confronts Mr Big Smoothy Lawyer in a toilet, appropriately enough, and answers his ironic, impassioned demands for legal protection with a skinful of lead.

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Outside the factory, Rudy and a handful of surviving racketeers attempt to drive away but Palmieri’s bullets have for some reason acquired the ability to make anything they hit go up in a mini mushroom cloud… possibly a symbolic representation of the welled up power of his righteous wrath, more probably a realisation by Castellari that he had 90 minutes worth in the can and needed to wind things up, smartish.

Testi is a considerable actor but can’t do much here with a character who is little more than a cypher. We don’t learn anything much about Palmieri, other than the fact that criminals drive him into a murderous rage. He certainly does nothing effective to protect any of the people whom he eggs on to defy the baddies, all of them coming to a sticky end. Perhaps this is why Castellari’s freeze frame final shot depicts Palmieri howling in anguish, smashing his rifle to bits.

It’s no small undertaking to tackle The Big Racket!

Extras wise, as well as the inevitable trailer you get a lively, informative commentary courtesy of Poppa Castellari and his son Andrea Girolami. Nice.

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Running On Empty… BLAZING MAGNUM Reviewed

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“Ooh, I could crush a grape!”

DVD. Region 1. Scorpion Releasing / Kino Lorber. Unrated (as “Shadows In An Empty Room”).

Alberto Martino (aka “Martin Herbert”, 1929-2015) has a decent claim on being the most underrated of all those journeyman Italian directors who jobbed their way promiscuously through every conceivable genre during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Serving his apprenticeship as writer and AD on romantic dramas, adventure yarns and peplums during the 50’s, he clocked up his own initial directorial efforts in the latter genre and spaghetti westerns during the early ’60s. His epic of international espionage, Operation Kid Brother (aka OK Connery, 1967) attained lasting notoriety due to the casting of a certain Scottish milkman as its protagonist, whose sole qualification for the role was being the current James Bond’s younger brother. “Neil Connery is too much!” claimed the posters, but the general consensus was that, in thespian terms, he wasn’t quite enough and wee Neil soon went back to totin’ crates of gold tops. Thereafter Martino authored solid entries in the giallo (The Man With Icy Eyes, 1971 and The Killer Is On The Phone, 1972) and poliziotteschi (Crime Boss, 1972 and Counsellor At Crime, 1973) fields. There are plenty of films in which those two genres shade off into each other and that is indeed the case for the one under scrutiny here, but Blazing Magnum (aka Shadows In An Empty Room, Strange Shadows In An Empty Room and A Special Magnum For Tony Saitta, 1976) is particularly notable for the way that it lifts both of these filoni out of their accustomed urban Italian environment and lands them slap-bang in the middle of downtown Montreal, scoring in the process a kick-ass action triumph that graced Granada TV’s late night programming on multiple occasions during the ’80s and whose reappearance on DVD certainly hasn’t disappointed me.

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The film opens with sexy student Louise Saitta (Carole Laure) having an on-campus tiff with her professor / lover Dr George Tracer (recently deceased Hall of Famer, Martin Landau). Spurned and upset, she calls her big brother, cop captain Tony (Stuart Whitman) in Ottawa. Yep, Tony Saitta’s an Ottowan and at this point I’m going to challenge you to read the rest of  this review without “D.I.S.C.O.” playing in your head. Anyway, Louise intends to blow the whistle on her illicit relationship with the Prof but Tony’s otherwise engaged, breaking up a bank heist… Harry Callahan style, with the aid of his fetishised magnum. By the time he’s killed everyone, wrapped up the paperwork and tried to call her back, Louise is dead. Having  embarrassed Tracer with an elaborate practical joke during a swish faculty party, she downed a drink that turned out to laced with poison.

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Tony flies in with a heart full of guilt, a relentless determination to smoke out (with the assistance of cop-on-the-spot John Saxon) the lowlife who snuffed his innocent little sister… and that magnum, with which to dispense a little rough’n’ready justice. Our latter day John Wayne is predictably disgusted by the louche sexual mores of Montreal’s academic set, not only lecherous prof Tracer but Margie Cohen (Gayle Hunnicutt… strong cast, ain’t it?) and her creepy brother who eventually turns up (in full drag) dismembered in a piece of industrial machinery. How was the blue necklace he wore connected to the recent murder of an apparently respectable woman in Toronto?

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It’s while following up this latter angle that Saitta’s complacent self-image as a morally upright macho man sustains its first serious damage. Visiting a gay clubhouse on the top floor of a skyscraper, confident in his ability to shake some clues out of what he believes will be a bunch of fairies, he promptly gets the shit kicked out of him by a posse of transvestite kung fu furies… yay, even unto being put through a plate-glass window in slow motion from several different angles. While his scars heal and he reassesses his stereotypes, Margie chides Saitta for his blinkered, clichéd view of the word and indeed, the further he delves into the case, the more it becomes apparent (via a series of Sergio Leonesque unfolding flashbacks) that his kid sister wasn’t quite the little innocent abroad that he had always imagined her to be… 

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For all it moral subtleties, BM will be best remembered among Crime Slime fanatics for that LGBT kung fu show down and even more so for the truly gob-slapping car chase that takes up eight ecstatic minutes of its running time. Master stunt co-ordinator Rémy Julienne subsequently plied his trade in Bond films but this is his masterpiece, right here… topped off with a nice little gag, at that: when Saitta pulls his quarry from the wreckage of his car and demands some information, the latter coughs it up without any fuss, making one question the whole point of the delirious vehicular vandalism we’ve just witnessed, over and above keeping the enthralled viewer on the edge of his / her seat… “Pure Cinema”, anyone?

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Meanwhile giallo fans will be enjoying the whole whodunnit format (the Mannino / Clerici writing team also scripted Fulci’s New York Ripper and Murder-Rock, among others) and such suspenseful scenes as the one in which Louise’s blind friend Julie (Tisa Farrow from Zombie Flesh Eaters, Anthropophagous, et al) is set up for a fall out of a high window. Great stuff all round. Speaking of Anthropophagous, Blazing Magnum’s one-shot DP “Anthony Ford” turns out to be yet another AKA for jolly “Joe D’Amato” / Aristide Massaccesi.

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Released (uncharacteristically late) in a flood of Dirty Harry / French Connection cash-ins, Blazing Magnum is more than just some macho exercise in vigilante bullshit… Whitman’s character goes on a real learning curve, at the end of which he emerges as a more self-aware, tolerant, all-round caring and sharing kind of dude… who’s still able to bring down a helicopter over a densely populated urban area by plugging away at it with his turbo magnum! A win-win result, in anybody’s book…

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Although not that brilliantly remastered (despite claims to this effect on the packaging), Blazing Magnum looks significantly better here than in its former incarnation as a Medusa VHS release and unlike that, it isn’t going to look any worse with subsequent rewatchings… of which it’s going to get plenty here at The House Of Freudstein.

Jeez, I can’t believe that when I first posted this review I neglected to big up Armando Trovajoli’s pulse-pounding OST… mi scusi, maestro, mea culpa!

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All That Zarjaz… FUTURE SHOCK! THE STORY OF 2000 AD Reviewed

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… wielding their gleaming tweezers, no doubt.

BD. Region Free. Severin. Unrated or BD. Region B/2. Arrow. 15.

The IPC comic Action (created by Pat Mills and published 14/02/76-11/11/77) specialised in, er, “adapting” the storylines of violent contemporary movies (Jaws, Rollerball, any amount of vigilante cop sagas) for a readership who were avidly discussing them in the playground but too young to sneak into cinemas and actually see the bloody things. In the process it garnered much hostile tabloid comment, anguished TV debate and the undying enmity of Mary Whitehouse’s National Viewers And Listeners’ Association. WHS and Menzies started getting cold feet and so did IPC, pulping the print run of issue 37 (an ultra-rare copy of which recently went for two-and-a-half grand on eBay!) and the comic lingered on for another year or so of declining sales in woefully bowdlerised shape. As a precursor to the “video nasties” witch hunt of five years later and indeed, as a social panic in its own right, the Action story deserves documentary treatment…

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In the absence of that, here’s Paul Goodwin’s 2014 documentary on Action’s spiritual successor, the rather more successful (forty years as “the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic” and still counting) 2000 AD. Mills’ new creation was seen as some kind of retreat on its inception. “Because it’s a Sci-fi comic, people thought that it would be nice and middle class…” he remembers: “Boy, were they in for a shock!” They sure were, with a continuing stress on “action” (which in Mills’ formula always equalled “violence”) and a new pantheon of iconic, anti-heroic characters such as Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, Halo Jones, The ABC Warriors and Nemesis The Warlock (2000 AD even revamped The Eagle’s venerable Dan Dare for a spell) running amok in hard-hitting strips that were Dystopianly satirical, sardonic and Sadean.

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Goodwin’s very welcome doc, adeptly handled for the most part, unfortunately kicks off with a couple of my least favourite lazy pop social history clichés, concerning the cultural climate from which 2000 AD emerged. The late ’70s was, by this account, a period of “social conflict” in the UK and the evidence wheeled out to support this trusty old chestnut is familiar stock footage of Arthur Scargill, aggro on the picket lines and bin bags piling up in the streets. OK, so working people at this time were achieving a measure of success in the struggle to advance their economic conditions by flexing their industrial muscle (nobody was going to hand them anything on a plate, where they?) and that apparently amounts to “social conflict.” By implication the current situation, in which the boot is very much on the other foot and being enthusiastically ground into the faces of the working poor, the disabled, the demented, immigrants and benefit claimants (when it isn’t pressing down on the accelerator of wealth transference to the 1% from the rest of us) must be seen as a period of relative “social harmony”. Tell it to the nurses queueing at food banks and the tenants of high-rise tinder boxes! So much for pop social history…

My other least favourite lazy cliché follows hot on the heels of the first and has it, in this instance, that 2000 AD drew its “grit”, “authenticity”, “street credibility” and any amount of other bullshit from the punk “movement” and the antidote it allegedly provided for the drippy hippy legacy of the ’60s. Well, the idea of punk as a street level / grass-roots tendency has always been laughable, considering that it was cooked up between a record industry hell-bent on cutting production costs and an elite circle of entrepreneurs who had been to Art School and thought (correctly) that they could use a dodgy strain of French academic theory (Situationism) to flog a bunch of stupid clothes to “the kids”. In point of fact, 2000 AD’s initial impact and impetus came from its adherence to the dark, taboo busting ethos of “drippy hippy” Felix Dennis’ Cozmic Comix, from which milieu the new title recruited such luminaries as Bryan Talbot, Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons.

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The pre-titles sequence’s clumsiest moment, though, comes when the voice over is referencing a “clash of cultures” and we simultaneously cut to The Clash on stage, performing some cod “political” diatribe in their customary hysterical manner. Speaking of Da Clash, during (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, Joe Strummer (aka diplomat’s son John Graham Mellor) warned us: “They got Burton suits, haha, they think it’s funny, turning rebellion into money”. The main thrust of Goodwin’s doc (which, it’s fair to say, improves dramatically after its glib introduction) is how the founders of 2000 AD overthrew the complacent likes of Eagle (which, if we are to pursue the putative punk parallels, might be cast in the infra-dig Emerson, Lake and Palmer role) and such anachronistic oddities as Whizzer And Chips, only to fall into old fartitude themselves as successive waves of young Turks arrived at King’s Reach Tower to redefine the cutting edge of comic cool, before giving way in their turn to further turks / future farts… while in the background the guys in suits continued to turn all of their respective rebellions into money.

Distinguished alumni interviewed here include Kevin O’Neill, Dave Gibbons, John Wagner, Alan Grant, Brian Bolland, Bryan Talbot, Carlos Ezquerra, Grant Morrison and David Bishop, plus the “comic activist” (whatever that is) and historian Paul Gravett, Alex Garland (who wrote the second, superior Dredd movie) and Karl Urban (who played the title  character in that) and fan boys including Scott Ian (the guy out of Anthrax with the silly beard) and some bloke from Portishead.

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Throughout this feature the rival factions diss each other (the only subject on which there seems to be unanimity is on how much everybody despises the character of Tharg, the comic’s notional alien editor) and big up their own credentials as true custodians of the soul and spirit of 2000 AD, with frequent interjections from founder and on / off contributor Mills, the Gordon Ramsey of the comic world… this is a man whose default emotional state appears to be “seething”. Of course he has a lot to feel angry about and one of Future Shock’s ongoing refrains is how disgracefully the creative talents have been treated by IPC and subsequent publishers. Shocking enough that writers and artists were expected to surrender all copyright in their work in perpetuity for a measly flat fee (as the late artist formally known as Prince once observed: “If you don’t own your masters, your masters own you”) but when Kevin O’Neill discovered that a) his story Shok! had been plagiarised for the Richard Stanley film Hardware and b) that he was being threatened with legal action by the film company’s layers unless he disowned any rights to the story… well!!!

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Neil Gaiman admits to shedding tears over the fact that Alan Moore (the most notable absentee from the interviewees here) abandoned The Ballad Of Halo Jones because of the shabby way he was being treated. When Brian Bolland defected to DC (specifically to its Vertigo imprint) he turned out to be the first of many. The second half of this doc details the subsequent decline in 2000 AD’s mojo and flirtations with closure. After the nadir represented by its ill-advised ’90s dalliance with the “lads’ mags” demographic, the only way was up and Future Shock! closes with the comic thriving under the safe custodianship of Rebellion Developments, still sending thrill-meters into meltdown across our and other galaxies. Meanwhile popular culture (have you checked out one of those Marvel movies recently?) and the world we inhabit have finally caught up with 2000 AD … kudos to Mills and co but perhaps, on reflection, this is not something we should be celebrating!

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Goodwin deploys flashy editing, groovy graphics and metal music in a style that suits his subject perfectly. It’s a subject he loves and the reverence he clearly feels for its protagonists means that interviews are occasionally allowed to go on a bit too long. At 110 minutes, Future Shock! would benefit from a bit of a trim, with more material allowed to spill into the off-cuts which form much of the generous bonus materials. Another nice featurette has Pat Mills revisiting King’s Reach Tower – well, standing outside it – and reminiscing in its shadow.

In terms of these supplementaries and their presentation of the main feature, there’s really very little to distinguish between the similarly impressive Arrow and Severin editions that recently arrived at the House Of Freudstein. You spends your Earth money and you takes your choice…

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Borag Thungg, Earthlets!

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