Blu-ray / DVD Reviews

Tremble With Fear! In The Frightening Interrogation Room #1… Kinji Fukasaku’s COPS VS THUGS Reviewed

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

Cops Vs Thugs, huh? Wonder what this one’s about (it’s about 100 minutes, as it happens… boom boom!) The fish markets and hostess bars of down town Kurashima are a bit off our usual beat here at The House Of Freudstein but, as Oscar Wilde once remarked, you should try everything at least once (admittedly he made exceptions for incest and morris dancing.)

Director Kinji Fukasaku came to Western attention with the astonishing dystopian fable Battle Royale (2000), three years and two further features before his death, but Arrow have been keeping the Fukasaku flame alive with sterling releases of his movies in the Battles Without Honour And Humanity series and are now turning their attention to one of the similarly themed films he made in between those, 1975’s Kenkei Tai Soshiki Boryokuin (Cops Vs Thugs.) Like many of the “jitsuroko” pictures released by Toei Studio at this time, the film is loosely based on notorious real life criminal cases.

Set, for some reason, in 1963, it starts promisingly enough with tough, trench coated Detective Kuno (Bunta Sugawara, a kind of Japanese Henry Silva type) slapping around a bunch of Yakuza foot soldiers on their way to some felony or other. He tells them that they’re not worth the trouble of arresting, because they’re only going to get themselves shot soon, anyway… but he does insist that they pay their sushi bill. The fact that these guys don’t dare turn their guns on Kuno speaks volumes about Yakuza etiquette in those days or, at least, how it got depicted in the movies. Of course this cop has other reasons to feel secure throwing his weight around, notably the fact that he is well connected with the Ohara faction and its acting boss Kenji Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata), whom he helps in his struggle with a rival gang led by Katsui Kawade (Mikio Narita) over a crooked land deal being set up by a corrupt politician. Don’t worry if you can’t follow the unfolding details of that, it’s merely a MacGuffin to keep things chugging along as Fukasaku and his favoured screen writer Kazuo Kasahara concentrate on the moral complexities and compromises that keep the lid on the Kurashima pressure cooker.

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If Kuno is a bad apple (and indeed, he’s more Bad Lieutenant than Serpico), clearly he’s not the only one. The brown stuff really hits the fan when Lt Kaida (Tatsuo Umemiya), a by-the-book straight-edger (and judo ace to boot!) arrives and upsets the whole rotten apple cart, together with the network of shady alliances that has been keeping the peace… rival hoodlums are soon decapitating each other on the town’s subway steps.

These Yakuza films have exercised a clear influence over John Woo’s work, but while Woo’s gangsters are able to bond with the heroic cops because of some kind of nobility attaching to the code by which they live, here the cops are just as bad as the gangsters. Fukasaku is quite unapologetic about this situation, which he attributes to the post WWII social and economic chaos in Japan, when desperate people from very similar social backgrounds were choosing careers as either cops or gangsters in order to ensure that their families had enough to eat. It’s also suggested at various points that the establishment tolerates the Yakuza as a bulwark against communism. Fukasaku seems equally sanguine about the way all this male camaraderie is often sealed by the brutal sexual mistreatment of some unfortunate women or other. So, surprisingly does the BBFC. Toshiaki Tsushima’s two fisted score, heavy on blacksploitation-style wicky-wacky guitar music, compliments the frenetic action en route to a cynical Get Carteresque conclusion which proves conclusively that if you sit on the fence, one day you’ll get shot by both sides.

I’m not in a position to tell you anything about the reversible sleeve or illustrated collector’s booklet (first pressing only) featuring the thoughts of one Patrick Macias, but my preview disc contains a bonus trailer, one of those “visual essays” by Tom Mes and a featurette in which Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane talks engagingly about the director’s work. Did you know that the guy who plays Matsui in this film insisted that Bunta Sugawara beat the crap out of him for real? And still he doesn’t get name checked on IMDB. So much for Method Acting…Cops-vs-thugs.jpg

 

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What Goes Up Must Come Down… THE CLIMBER Reviewed

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. Arrow. 15.

Like our old pal Giulio Sacchi, as played by Tomas Milian in the recently reviewed Almost Human Aldo (Joe Dallesandro) is a small time crook with big dreams, given impetus by the contemptuous treatment dished out to him by his mob superiors. After cutting a few corners in the cigarette smuggling racket, he is beaten up by The Camorra and dumped outside the city limits. Making his way to Rome, in a stroke of luck that equals Giulio’s in hooking up with Anita Strindberg’s character, he’s taken in and supported by the lovely Luciana (Stefania Casini) while he begins taking similar liberties in the capital’s drug trade and gradually ascending the perilous underworld ladder. Confirmed in his cynical amorality, Aldo returns to Naples to dethrone Don Erico (Raymond Pellegrin), ably supported by a squadron of stunt bikers and the mandatory bad French criminal (“He doesn’t shoot people for the pay… he just hates everybody!”) who’s always in these things to make their bad boy Italian protagonists seem more sympathetic. What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? What, similarly, shall if profit Aldo if he’s shaking down every Neapolitan hot spot but has so alienated Luciana that she tops herself? The law of gravity, furthermore, dictates that his meteoric and violent rise will be followed by a comparably precipitous and bullet ridden descent…

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Naples native Pasquale Squitieri directed several crime slime efforts (e.g. Gang War In Naples, 1972… Corleone, 1978… and The Squealer, 1985) but remains significantly less well-known over here than his missus Claudia Cardinale (nice work if you can get it!) On the evidence of The Climber, he deserves at least as much attention as more celebrated auteurs in this genre such as Fernandi Di Leo. His off-kilter compositions, unexpected camera angles and deployment of such devices as slow-mo convey Aldo’s increasingly parlous state of mind without detracting one jot from the adrenalised action, sonically seasoned by a selection of hysterical plastic soul and a recurring freakbeat reboot of Hocus Pocus.

Hopefully Arrow will be unearthing further titles to bolster the rep of this, er, criminally underexposed director though there would be a certain bittersweet irony if this does prove to be the case, their impressive 4K restoration of The Climber coming three scant months after Squitieri’s death in Rome, aged 78.

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The career of Joe Dallesandro (above) has been subject to the same gravitational forces affecting the character he plays in Squitieri’s film. The “pretty face” of Warhol’s Factory, as it appears in Little Joe’s Adventures In Europe, now resembles that of Harvey Keitel’s Bad Lieutenant after a particularly heavy night on the tiles (there’s no way of gleaning from this bonus featurette if his crotch is as impressive as it appeared on the legendary cover of The Stones’ Sticky Fingers album), every line and wrinkle part payment for the Getting of Knowledge. It’s a long time since I watched Dallesandro in any of Warhol’s underground efforts (and I’m in no hurry to repeat the experience any time soon) so after his dubbed appearances in various European pictures, it comes as something of a jolt to hear him reminiscing in his Brooklyn accent about Squitieri (whom he remembers as a “strange”, gun-toting character), his real life relationship with Casini (“She left Bernardo Bertolucci to start dating me and I thought ‘Well, I must be somebody!’ “),  the reluctant-to-strip Sylvia Kristel (with whom he co-starred in Borowczyk’s The Streetwalker, 1976) and his (apparently successful) struggle with alcoholism. He reflects philosophically on the times (notably on Bitto Albertini’s Safari Rally, 1978) when he was stiffed. Contrary to the Lou Reed song that clinched his public image, Little Joe, it seems, often gave it away…

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Street copies of The Climber (in its first pressing, anyway) will apparently come with a booklet featuring new writing on the film by Roberto Curti, author of the Italian Crime Filmography, 1968-80 on which I’m currently not in a position to comment.

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No Orchids For Marilù… the Shameless Blu-Ray of Umberto Lenzi’s ALMOST HUMAN Reviewed

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BD. Region B. Shameless. 18.

As well as fascists, ultra-leftists, fascists posing as ultra-leftists and ultra-leftists posing as fascists, Italy’s “years of lead” (the violent ’70s, give-or-take) were stoked by disgruntled southern peasants who’s been drawn to the northern cities by the promise of the Italian “economic miracle”, only to turn to crime after finding the streets paved with shit rather than gold. In one of this disc’s bonus interviews, Milano Odia: La Polizia Non Puo’ Sparare (original Italian title) director Umberto Lenzi posits another explanation for this chaotic decade, namely that it was French criminals who brought kidnapping, drug dealing, bank robbing, et al, to Italy… an improbable claim but one that also surfaces in Enzo Castellari’s seminal Poliziotteschi effort High Crime aka The Marseilles Connection (1973) and Contraband, Luci Fulci’s late (1980) entry in the cycle, the latter of which panders to a romantic conception of the mafia’s origins as a patriotic opposition to the Napoleonic occupation of Italy. Almost Human (1974) is not a mafia movie (though Lenzi made plenty of those) and its protagonist is not mobbed up, nor is he any kind of a heroic patriot… Giulio Sacchi (Tomas Milian in top, scenery-chewing form) is part of the aforementioned economic flotsam and jetsam… he’s a snivelling psychopath with a chip on each soldier and a burning desire to strike back at everybody who’s responsible for his personal and social inadequacy, i.e. everybody but himself!

The action starts with Giulio fouling up a bank heist by shooting a cop who merely wanted to write him a parking ticket (his trigger-happiness will be a recurring motif throughout this film.) Beaten up and called “a shit head” by local Mister Big Ugo Majone (Luciano Catenacci) and his boys, Giulio resolves to prove them wrong and join the criminal super league. As explained to impressionable stooges Vittorio (Gino Santercole) and Carmine (a nicely nuanced Ray Lovelock), his master plan includes the kidnapping of Marilù (Laura Belli), the daughter of rich industrialist Porrini (Guido Alberti.) After they’ve pocketed the ransom they’ll kill her anyway to cover their tracks. “Listen, there’s only one thing that matters…”, Giulio insists: “… either you’ve got a load of money and you’re somebody cool, or you haven’t got a place to pee!”

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The kidnap is eventually effected with the connivance of Giulio’s long-suffering girlfriend Iona (Anita Strindberg)… boy is he punching above his weight here, but Iona’s hung up on this bit of rough and that’s all there is to it. After her boyfriend has been gunned down, Marilù tries to seek refuge in the home of a bourgeois family who are sexually assaulted, strung from the light fittings and machine-gunned for their trouble. Carmine, who had initially experienced cold feet, participates enthusiastically in all this carnage after Giulo has plied him with pills.

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Giulio ties up an irksome loose end by sending Iona’s car to the bottom of Lake Cuomo, with her in it. investigating this rum series of events, Commissario Walter Grandi (Henry Silva) notices that one guy keeps cropping up again and again and finally it clicks that Giulio was the guy taunting him at the scene of a cop stabbing. “I’m interested in this man..” he tells his superior, in a telling turn of phrase that suggests Grandi’s personal affinities with his quarry: “… he’s a psychopath!” Takes one to know one, I guess, but the law requires something more solid than the strong circumstantial case he is building. In the words of the title… “Milan Hates: The Police Aren’t Allowed To Shoot” But we are talking about Henry Silva here…

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Grandi is literally hobbled as the climax to the kidnapping drama plays out. Having shot the ill-fated Marilù and both of his accomplices, Giulio unloads a clip into the Commissario’s leg before disappearing with the ransom money. Later he’s sitting at a sidewalk café in his expensive new threads, sipping “French champagne” and trying to recruit a new crew of dead beats when Grandi, walking with the aid of a stick, turns up and shoots his way through the legalistic Gordian knot. “Call the chief and tell him that ex-detective Grandi just killed a murderer”, Dirty Henry tells a gob smacked copper. Giulio expires, appropriately enough, atop a pile of garbage.

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Producer Luciano Martino’s in-house writer Ernesto Gastaldi (better known as a giallo specialist) penned this hard-hearted effort in accordance with Lenzi’s obvious love for the likes of Mervyn Leroy’s Little Caesar, William Wellman’s Public Enemy (both 1931) and Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932.) Its story owes another obvious debt to No Orchids For Miss Blandish, the 1939 James Hadley Chase novel  filmed under that title by St. John L. Clowes in 1948 and as The Grissom Gang by Robert Aldrich, just three years before Lenzi lensed Milano Odia: La Polizia Non Puo’ Sparare… he lensed most of it, anyway. The edge-of-your-seat car chases sequence, orchestrated by the legendary Rémy Julienne, has been cut in by the cost conscious Martino from the previous year’s The Violent Proefessionals, directed by his kid brother Sergio. This would be the first of many times that Julienne’s footage got recycled in various crime slime epics… hope he was remunerated every time rather than accepting a flat payment (though I rather doubt it!) All of this kick-ass action is nicely complimented by a downbeat Morricone score with a memorably staccato main theme.

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Of the significant bonus material on this disc, the featurettes Like A Beast… Almost (interviews with Lenzi, Lovelock, Gastaldi and Santercole) and Milian Unleashed (an audience with the film’s charismatic star) will be familiar to anyone who invested in the No Shame DVD release back in the noughties and the latter has already appeared on Shameless’s own DVD release of Almost Human. Pride of place goes to a new Umberto Lenzi interview, in which the grumpy old man of Italian genre cinema is on vintage form. He talks animatedly about how that cinema drew its inspiration from successful American models and – while remaining infra dig with the intelligentsia –  effectively bank rolled the Arthouse efforts of Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci, et al. He moans about Kathryn Bigelow pinching his President-masked bank robbers and Sergio Martino stealing his favourite editor (Eugenio Alabiso.) Amusing (sort of) anecdotes include how film noir icon Richard Conte missed the first day of shooting because he died, obliging Lenzi to recruit Silva at short notice in what turned out (with apologies to Conte’s nearest and dearest) to be a masterpiece of serendipitous casting.

Lenzi ‘fesses up re his reputation of being a hard ass with actors but contends that if you don’t impose your will upon them, the shoot is going to hell in hand cart. His memories of working with Milian (on several pictures… he compares the relationship to that between Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski) are particularly compelling. Apparently the actor used to drive him mad by improvising while the camera was rolling, though Lenzi is big enough to admit that these unsolicited contributions were sometimes inspired. More alarmingly,  he reveals that Milian’s method acting approach prompted him to hit the pharmaceuticals pretty hard in his attempts to clinch the character of Giulio’s Little Casar. We at The House Of Freudstein are reminded of Laurence Olivier’s advice to Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man (1976)…

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presented in HD, Almost Human looks almost totally marvellous,  though pronounced grain in certain shots (a few obvious second unit cutaways) are the price we have to pay for such technical advances. It’s an imperfect world, made even more so by the recent passing of Tomas Milian. This Shameless release serves as a timely tribute to an enormous talent, showcased in a role that is, even by his less than sedate standards, truly demented.

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Stay tuned to this frequency for further bulletins from our roving Crime Slime reporter…

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Serving God With Biochemistry Since 1981… ABSURD Arrives On Blu-Ray

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BD. Region B. 88 Films. 18.

What can I possibly tell you about “Peter Newton” / Joe D’Amato’s Absurd that you don’t already know or can’t easily glean from Seduction Of The Gullible: The Curious History Of The UK’s “Video Nasty” Panic? OK, if you haven’t got a copy of that to hand (and if not, why not?!?) I’ll try to get you up to speed. On account of its Medusa VHS release, Absurd became alphabetically the first of the “nasties” and was also one of the last, in the sense that along with 38 other titles, it stayed on the DPP’s proscribed list until that throwback to The Spanish Inquisition was discontinued. Plotwise, it unfolds as equal parts Halloween remake and half-assed sort of sequel / sort of not, to D’Amato’s other “nasty” Anthropophagous Beast (1980), though it manages the improbable feat of being an even worse film than that. Luigi Montefiori’s monstrous dude boasts a much better complexion here than in Anthropophagous and doesn’t actually eat anybody (he even resists the urge to consume his own intestines when they spill out, yet again, at the start of this one) though he does hang Michele Soavi’s juvenile delinquent upside down from a tree, bake Annie Bell’s bonce in an oven and penetrate the heads of various other dudes with axes, black’n’deckers and bandsaws. All of this is on account of a genetic mutation (a scientifically induced one, it is darkly hinted) that has also, as (bad) luck would have it, rendered him virtually indestructible, as Father Edmund Purdom explains to the sceptical cops, their scepticism scarcely mitigated by the priest’s announcement that he serves God “with biochemistry rather than ritual.” Katya Berger, who spends most of the film screwed to some fiendish orthopedic device, ultimately rises from it (begging certain obvious questions that D’Amato clearly can’t be arsed answering) to prove that when it comes to challenging the alleged indestructibility of hulking home invaders, eye pokings and decapitation trump biochemistry every time!

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88’s Absurd Blu-ray represents the first legitimate UK release of this title – and its first appearance on disc in this country – since the “nasties” witch hunt receded. It’s uncut and looks better than it probably deserves, the graininess that plagues many such 2K upgrades of films from its era contained within acceptable parameters. You get a commentary track from The Hysteria Continues (Teenage Wasteland author and Richard Osman soundalike Justin Kerswell with his pals) which makes for reasonably diverting stuff, if not quite as amusing as their Pieces commentary (these guys are fast becoming the “go to” crew for Edmund Purdom movies!) Their audio track is slightly out of synch with the visuals, too, which gets a bit jarring when they’re talking about specific shots.

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In addition, you get the expected reversible sleeve options and a nifty little insert which contains amusing capsule reviews of the DPP’s least favourite 39 titles by Calum Waddell. Best of all are two interview feauturettes, each about a quarter of an hour long, with Montefiori (aka George Eastman) and Soavi, both looking significantly greyer than you probably remember them. Montefiori, who still presents an imposing physical presence, generates plenty of tantalising trivia for pasta paura buffs, including how he took on the Anthropophagous role because he was keen to visit Greece… only for all of his scenes to be shot in Rome… and how he was originally slated to direct Stagefright (1987) until he was distracted by problems with a restaurant he had just opened (!) and the project devolved to Soavi. Big George, who is endearingly modest and self-deprecating throughout, concedes that Soavi did a much better job than he could have hoped to. He also makes some fascinating and frank observations on the character and career (“He preferred staying in the lower league where he could have more control over everything”) of Joe D’Amato, whom he clearly loved dearly. He reiterates the story that D’Amato’s fatal heart attack was brought on by the disappearance of several cans of footage, a sad but also apposite ending to a life consumed by film. Soavi obviously worships the memory of D’Amato too, recalling his first impression of him as “a little man with a smirk and a cigarette… it was love at first sight!” Elsewhere in the interview, he celebrates D’Amato’s role as an incubator of young talent such as his and contends that “everything said about him is probably all true and all false… a very complex and incomprehensible person… for me, a genius… one of the greatest cinema masters of all time!” Perversely enough, after enduring another screening of Absurd, I’m inclined to agree!

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Liberté, Équalité, Fraternité Über Alles… FRONTIERS Reviewed

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Die screaming, Marianne…

DVD. Region 2. Optimum Home Entertainment. 18.

Since the days of Méliès, France has made a considerable contribution to genre cinema,  albeit one that is often glossed over in the standard Anglo-Saxon accounts. In terms of horror and suspense,  Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955) exerted a massive influence over what are probably Hitchcock’s two greatest films, Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), while Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face (1960) spawned countless good, bad and Jesus Franco excursions into surgical horror. Only last year, Julia Ducournau’s Raw (reviewed in my Mayhem 2016 Festival report) allegedly had punters fainting in the aisles with its upfront depictions of cannibalism. The high watermark of confrontational French horror, though, was undoubtedly the noughties, a decade that kicked off with Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s ugly paean to the joys of indiscriminate fucking and killing, Baise Moi (unaccountably misperceived as some kind of noble feminist call-to-arms over here.) Whatever happened to them? Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002) remains one of the most mortifying cinematic experiences that many of us will ever endure. Now he’s just embarrassing. Alexandra Aja impressed with High Tension aka Switchbade Romance (2003) before being sucked into formulaic Hollywood shit. Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury finally found Beatrice Dalle a post Betty Blue role that was worthy of her in their chilling Inside (2007.) Subsequently authoring the disorienting but rather misfiring Livid (2011), they’re now involved in yet another desecration of the corpse of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Pascal Laugier (whose 2004 effort House Of Voices was, amongst other things, a public love letter to Lucio Fulci) made the fierce Martyrs in 2008, a film not to be confused with its limp 2015 Hollywood remake. Have I left anyone off? Pardonnez moi…

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Xavier Gens’ Frontiers (2007) isn’t the pre-eminent flowering among this decade’s garden of gallic gore (though it’s pretty damn good)… in terms of political prescience, though, it remains nonpareil. The day after I’m posting this review, the French turn out to vote in a presidential election which, it is widely believed, will result in a Far Right candidate making it to the final run off. Gens saw it coming ten years ago…

Riven by social, ethnic and religious tensions, the banlieues are ablaze after the first round of a French presidential election has resulted in a run off between the right and far right candidates. A bunch of muslim youths, secularised but terminally disaffected,  manage to get out town with some money they’ve ripped off and drive towards the Dutch border, only to take a rest stop at a farmhouse in the armpit of nowhere. As luck would have it, this is where decrepit, hold out Nazi officer Von Geisler (Jean-Pierre Jorris, who just happens to be a dead ringer for Jean Marie Le Pen) presides over a creepy family he’s variously fathered on a now demented local biddy or kidnapped as children. The two likeliest lads among our protagonists think they’ve landed on their feet when they bed the two sluttiest sisters but the latter have an ulterior motive for checking out their virility… the boys should have been alerted to the fact that something is seriously up by the presence of a fat sweaty dude, with too much body hair, wearing a butcher’s apron… those guys are always bad news!

Sure enough, the carnal hors d’oeuvres concluded, it’s time for the cannibal main course, the balance of the picture playing out as a mutant marriage of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Sorrow And The Pity. The guys are variously chained up with the pigs, beaten, hamstrung, mutilated, shot, boiled, hung up on meat hooks, skinned and salted for later consumption.

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Yasmine (Karina Testa) gets off more lightly than her male associates (give or take a few submersions in slurry) as Von Geisler, having decided that she’s just about white enough, is preparing her for the role of brood mare to propagate his decrepit dynasty (a sly comment on the FN’s current drive to convince people that it’s not as racist as it used to be.) Yasmine’s refusal of his generous offer is stated with a purloined shotgun. Who will survive? What will be left of them? And what awaits them in the wider world they will emerge into? Keep telling yourself it’s only a movie… even though it isn’t!

Made two years after Hostel but a decade before the political situation we currently find ourselves in, Frontiers is a timely… timeless… reminder about how people who’ve become overly concerned with national frontiers can quite easily overstep the boundaries of human decency. A salutary lesson, and my dear old Dad (the former desert rat) must be spinning in his grave over the prospect of us needing learn it all over again.

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Nice Places To Visit But You Wouldn’t Want To Live There… HIGH RISE and KONG: SKULL ISLAND Reviewed

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From the days before The Guardian embraced Neoliberalism, Austerity… and all that cal.

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Hairy palms… the first sign of insanity… or was it wanking?

The House Of Freudstein is a wonderful but sometimes strange and frightening place. There is no rule book. There was one, but it’s currently being used to prop up the short leg on The Doc’s operating table, so you’ll have to have it out with him if you want to read it. In the absence of the rule book, the standard operating procedure that’s evolved around here is to write about low-budget horror, schlock and sleaze. Yet here I find myself, on Good Friday 2017, about to pen reviews of two Tom Hiddleston films… strange and frightening indeed.

1 ) Get Off Of My Cloud… HIGH RISE Reviewed

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DVD. Region 2. STUDIOCANAL. 15

It’s become a cliché of lazy film critique (one on which I’ve frequently fallen back myself) to describe the works of Poe and Lovecraft as “unfilmable.” Plenty of film makers have had a go and some have done rather well, invariably by injecting new plot elements into the tenebrous sketches of EAP and HPL. The ’60s / ’70s countercultural holy trinity of Ballard, Burroughs and Dick have fared demonstrably worse at the hands of screen adaptors… well, PKD’s done OK, with major plot additions making not one but two lucrative Total Recalls (Kate Beckinsale’s in one of them… more on this attractive guitar-sucking actress later) out of We Can Remember It For You Wholesale and a cocktail of additions and surgical extractions transforming Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep into the all-conquering (apart from at the box office) Blade Runner. As for Ballard and Burroughs, two words are sufficient to convey what fucked-up film fodder their fiction can become… and those words are “Cronenberg” and “David”, though not necessarily in that order.

There are friends and peers who roll their eyes and wiggle their fingers around their temples whenever I have the temerity to question anything Cronenbergian, but guys… when DC’s Naked Lunch was released, in 1991, I had already spent the best part of two decades enthralled and repelled by the Burroughs novel and its immediate “sequels.” With their deployment of “cut up” and “fold in” techniques, these incendiary works were designed to advance the novel’s narrative techniques to the level of cinema so arguably the very act of adapting them to the screen was a salutary lesson in defeating the object of the exercise… but if there was any way to translate work of such challenging complexity to the visual medium, the spectacle of Roy Scheider ripping a Mission Impossible mask off to reveal that he is (da da!) Doctor Benway sure wasn’t it.  As for “Sexual ambivalence? I thought you said sexual ambulance”?… give me a fucking break! I concede that Cronenberg had the humility to dub this mess “Naked Lunch” rather than The Naked Lunch but then again, this is a film that has rather a lot to be humble about. Nor was I significantly more impressed by Cronenberg’s adaptation of Crash (1966), despite my innate predisposition to favour anything so despised by the Dailys Mail and Express. Once could even argue that Cronenberg’s feature debut Shivers (1975) was the closest he (or anyone) ever came to the literary spirit of Ballard and, by dint weird of weird synchronicity, High Rise was originally published in the same year. Must have been something in the air, or possibly the air conditioning… whatever, each provided a prescient taste of unpleasant things to come. The very next year Harold Wilson resigned under never-quite-explained circumstances and Callaghan and Healey (not, as is commonly misremembered, Thatcher) signed the UK up to the great neo-liberal experiment that is still sucking most of us dry today.

Fortunately there’s no longer any need to make that argument (the one I mentioned towards the end of the previous paragraph, bozo! Pay fucking attention, alright?) as Ben Wheately (A Field In England, Sightseers, Free Fire, et al) has directed High Rise (2015.) If Danny Boyle was the ideal man to stage the London Olympics’ opening ceremony (or was it the closing ceremony? Couldn’t bring myself to watch any of that stuff) then Wheatley’s the guy to orchestrate TV coverage of The Apocalypse. And while we’re all waiting for that…

Tom Hiddleston, who looks a bit like that kid out of Home Alone on steroids, plays Robert Laing (I was waiting in vain for characters named Janov and Szasz.) By day he teaches physiology in a hospital. Slicing into the scalp of some dead dude to peel his face off and reveal the skull beneath is as good as any a precis of the dionysian / dystopian dehumanisation that is to follow… more importantly, the fact that it causes one of Laing’s wise cracking students to faint is a gratifying (as far as I’m concerned, anyway) nod to the greatest TV program of all time…

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… Quincy M.E.

When he gets back to his swishy apartment in the eponymous High Rise, Laing’s just looking to be alone, but gets inexorably drawn into the complexly nuanced social nexus of his ultra-class conscious co-High Rise dwellers. Shit like this happens. I know, I’ve experienced it during the regrettable periods when I’ve been obliged to take day jobs. Thankfully, none of those degenerated into the “eating dogs and throwing people off roofs” scenario depicted here. Nor, rather regrettably, did they evolve into the kind of sordid sex orgies that seem to break out in High Rise at the first suggestion that the lifts aren’t working properly or the supermarket is out of sugar puffs.

As the High Rise goes to hell in a hand cart beneath him, its designer Anthony Lord (Jeremy Irons) squats atop it in the swishest apartment of them all (complete with rooftop recreation of an ancien regime garden), rather like Dr Eldon Tyrell in the Tyrell Corporation pyramid in Blade Runner. Rather like Roy Batty in Blade Runner, Wilder (Luke Evans) wants some face-to-face time with the man at the top… he wants more swimming pool privileges for his kids, fucker! James Purefoy (as Pangbourne) portrays the kind of psychotic smoothie he’s been specialising in since his Mark Anthony in that splattery mini-series Rome… he’s getting very good at it, too. If they ever decide to remake The Professionals, I’m hoping he gets the call for Bodie. I’ve always had problems telling the Siennas Miller and Guillory apart. Wheatley casts both of them here (I think they’re having a lesbian affair or something) to clear up… or possibly intensify any such confusion.

So often in the past I’ve expressed myself bewildered, exasperated and / or infuriated by the decisions of the BBFC but on this occasion I’m coming at it from an unaccustomed angle. I’m genuinely surprised that our pals at Soho Square deem the litany of atrocities trotted out in High Rise worthy of a ’15’ certificate. I remember an earnest young man who wrote a book in which he railed against the hypocrisy of the “video nasties” witch hunt, who would no doubt roll his eyes and wiggle his finger around his temple at my concern over the prospect of my daughter being exposed to Wheatley’s film. It’s a moot point anyway, as High Rise ticks precisely none of the boxes that might have tempted her to watch it… it’s not Japanese, it’s not animated and there are precisely no sensitive gay characters discussing their emotional problems in it.

Cast interviews in the bonus material give you the chance to decide which of the participants are playing ninnies and which of them are actually just ninnies. Hiddlestone sounds quite intelligent and thoughtful until asked what his dream, Anthony Lord designed apartment would look like and specifies that there would have to be a gym in it… bloody ninny! Sienna Miller, who seems to have made a career (at least if the things I’ve seen her in are anything to go by) playing underfed crumpet has never actually appealed to me but in these interviews she not only sounds a lot more intelligent than you’d give her credit for, but also looks absolutely incandescent… better than she does in the actual feature. It’s as though she’s taken the high rise elevator out of pleasant-looking Elizabeth Hurley mid-table mediocrity into the upper echelons where the grateful carpets are trod by the Kate Beckinsales of this world.

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Kate Beckinsale. Treading on a capet. Yesterday.

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Kate Beckinsale. Treading on a carpet. Sucking on a guitar. The day before yesterday.

 

Who shot these bonus interviews? Maybe Miller should put him / her on a permanent retainer. I’d definitely do so, were I not a penniless blogger.

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Just about the only mishap that doesn’t befall the residents of The High Rise (or at least, the only one it would be tasteful to make wise cracks about) is to encounter a giant gorilla climbing to the top of it. Hiddleston dons a vest and cargo pants to cross off this particular entry on his bucket list in…

2) Too Much Monkey Business… KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017) Reviewed

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Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.
Produced by Alex Garcia, John Jashni, Mary Parent, Thomas Tull, et al.
Written by John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connelly

Edited by Richard Parent.

Cinematography by Larry Fong.
Music by Henry Jackman.
Special FX by Chris Brenczewski and shedloads of others…

Starring: Tom Hiddlestone, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C, Reilly, John Goodman, Houston Brooks.

You wouldn’t want to live in Mansfield and it’s not even a particularly nice place to visit, nevertheless that’s where our Meerkat Movie vouchers have brought the Freudstein family on an expedition to check out Kong: Skull Island. The Odeon has dispensed with its ticket office since we were last here, you’ve got to print out your tickets on some infernal self-service device. Presumably this was intended to cut down the staff wage bill but there still seem to be countless callow youths standing around awkwardly in their cute uniforms, resolutely refusing eye contact in case – heaven forefend – they might be called upon to help you with something.

During the endless trailer reel we suffer Jason Statham running the gamut of emotion from A to B in a trailer for The Fast And The Fatuous Part 38 or whatever it is. “That looks shit!”, opines Freudette to her Mum… Christ on a fucking bike, wherever does she pick up language like that?

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Rather like our previous foray into mainstream cinema, Doctor Strange, which I reviewed elsewhere on this site (not that any of you fuckers bothered to read it!), Kong: Skull Island has had so much money chucked at it, there’s no way it wasn’t going to be entertaining, albeit in a stupid ass, knuckle-headed kind of way. There’s a prologue, during which we witness a Japanese and an American airman, who’ve just shot each other out of the sky in a WWII dogfight, about to conclude their death match when they’re interrupted by you-know-who raising his ugly, hairy head. Cut to the early 70s, where Tricky Dicky has just announced “peace with honour” in Vietnam and Lieutenant Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) feels that he and his grunts have been sold out. They don’t need much convincing to sign up to a geological study on Skull Island, under the direction of Professor Bill Randa (John Goodman), whose motivations aren’t exactly as stated. Nobody seems suspicious about a geological survey on a permanently storm surrounded rock (glorifying in the name of Skull Island) that requires a heavy-duty military attachment… not hunky James Conrad (Hiddleston, who would have done better to stay in the chic opium den where they found him), nor busty war reporter Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), whose along for the ride as Kong candy because Fay Wray is no longer available. Joseph Conrad is no longer available either, but because he penned Heart Of Darkness, from which this film, Apocalypse Now and many others have pinched so much, they thought they’d name a character after him. Kind of. Alongside the uncredited input of original Kong writers Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper, you’ll easily spot elements of Moby Dick, Lord Of The Flies and Treasure Island just for starters. I did and I wasn’t really paying attention.

Anyway, Packard’s chopper squad fearlessly navigate their way through those perpetual storms but before you can whistle Ride Of The Valkyrie, the hundred foot ape turns up and starts swatting them out of the sky like Dinky toys. Conrad, who’s a pretty touchy-feely guy for the kind of black ops specialist he’s vaguely suggested to be, argues that KK was only defending his territory but Packard has conceived a mortal grudge against that monkey, unconvinced by the argument that his removal will lead to the island being overrun by H.R. Giger rejects from the centre of the Earth. In other words, Kong’s a big ugly monster bastard but he’s our big ugly monster bastard. The allegory of recent US foreign policy isn’t too difficult to discern and there are a few throwaway gags at Trump’s expense, but we’re mostly here to gawp at big beasties fighting each other rather than critique current geopolitical trends and it has to be said that the CGI creations are impressive, if lacking the charm of Harryhausen and O’Brien’s stop motion masterworks. I would have preferred to see KK slugging it out with some authentic looking dinosaurs than those Gigeresque jobbies, but what do I know?

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The soundtrack is nicely peppered with 70s rock classics and the Ben Gunn character gets to go home and enjoy the ballgame with a beer and a hotdog, not to mention his miraculously well-preserved wife. Conrad’s viewpoint vindicated, Kong is left lording it over Skull Island and multiple sequels are already in the works.

Sorry to get all prissy about ratings again, but Mrs F felt rather forcefully (and I’m inclined to agree with her) that this was pretty violent stuff for “12A.” Thankfully, Freudette doesn’t seem to have incurred any significant mental scars on account of it. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of my Mum taking me to see One Million Years B.C. when it came out in 1966 and now I’ve taken our kid to see a monster movie, it feels like the circle of life is being completed. Or something. At the time I was more enthused by the dinosaurs than the spectacle of  Raquel Welch in her fur bikini…

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… I dig the dinosaurs in that movie to this day, though my priorities did shift somewhat with the onset of puberty. What about Freudette… did she find the Hiddleston hot? (Dunno if I’ve mentioned this already, but I find him a bit of a ninny) Only, she tells me, in so far as she could imagine him in a passionate clinch with Benedict Cumberbatch. Apparently there’s a whole wing of the internet that’s obsessed with the possibility of such a romantic coupling. Perhaps that makes more sense to you than it does to me. Parenthood, like life at The House Of Freudstein, is a wonderful, sometimes strange and frightening thing.

The main feeling I was left with after consuming Kong: Skull Island was a desire to root out some of those batshit crazy Japanese Kong movies and review them on this site. So I’ll be doing precisely that, shortly.

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People Get Ready… TRAIN TO BUSAN Reviewed

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DVD. R2. StudioCanal. 15.

Just had your top ten favourite zombie movies engraved in stone? Better get your chisel out! Just had ’em tattooed on your back? It’s back to the clinic and a spot of laser treatment for you, then…

During the noughties, when I was writing a regular DVD review column for Dark Side magazine, I was required to spend a lot of time watching J-Horror… K-Horror… all things contemporary Far Eastern had become very popular. Not with me, I have to say. It’s not that these films are badly made or anything (Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “much anticipated” Creepy struck me as a very slick piece of work when I caught it at last year’s Mayhem Festival in Nottingham, even as it was lulling me off to sleep)… and invariably they piss all over their inevitable, blanded-out Hollywood remakes… it’s just that doomed alt.schoolgirls with sinister stuff coming out of their TV sets don’t particularly do anything for me. Something, though, must have seeped out of my own TV and infiltrated my seminal vesicles at a crucial moment, as young Freudette is just bonkers about this stuff.

Writer / director Sang-ho Yeon’s achievement is to expand K-Horror beyond its accustomed claustrophobic chamber horror confines and into the best episode of the Demons franchise that Dario Argento never produced, in which – after a toxic spill from a biotech installation has reduced much of South Korea’s population to hyperactive flesh-eating ghouls – a trainload of Seoul commuters attempt to make it to the government hold out at Busan.

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No, Mr Yeon (or mister Sang-ho, depending on which Koreanologist you consult) didn’t exactly  burn the midnight oil coming up with an original scenario but it’s the furious inventiveness with which he concocts new scrapes for his characters to overcome that will keep you riveted for the duration of the ride… that, plus the fact that these characters are so well written and performed, you actually care about what’s going to happen to them. Asian film makers are particularly good at this, of course… I still curse Takashi Miike for establishing Ryo Ishibashi’s character as such a likeable guy in Audition (1999) before unleashing that disturbed girl on him.

Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) is the hard-working salary man who’s been neglecting his cute daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim) and is trying to make amends by taking her to see her mother (who he’s in the process of divorcing) in Busan. When the biotoxic shit hits the fan he forms an unlikely dynamic duo with taciturn, salt-of-the-Earth tough guy Song-hwa (Dong-seok Ma), who has pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Yu-mi Jung) in tow.

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In between fighting off zombies they get in a lot of  angsting over the right things to do in terms of family and your fellow man, in stark contrast to both the feral legion of deadites and Yon-suk  (Eui-sung Kim), the selfish corporate big wig who’s not above using innocent dupes to decoy his attempted escape (if you remember Fernando Sancho’s corrupt mayor in Amando De Ossorio’s Return Of The Evil Dead, 1973, you’ll know what kind of a sleazebag we’re talking about here.)

Train To Busan is that rarest of things, a high-octane, suspenseful action movie with a sense of proportion. It’s a violent zombie film that isn’t particularly gory (the spastic zombies are plenty scary looking and blood flows freely as they get stuck into their prey but there’s none of the expected unfurling intestines) and uses its CGI sparingly, to great effect.

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That a zombie movie could be simultaneously so hard-hitting and so subtle is a revelation… I loved the fact. for instance that the transformation of the protagonist’s mother into a zombie is rendered not by visual pyrotechnics but the coarsening of her conversation during a phone call. As for Seok-woo’s climactic scene of redemption… yes, I wept ( I am, after all, “the biggest fucking cry-baby in fandom”!)

Bonus materials comprise a 15 minute “making of” featurette from which one gleans how  harmonious and hard-working the shoot was (“discipline is a vehicle for joy” in the sagacious words of Robert Fripp) and two tasters (trailer and brief excerpt) from Yeon’s prize-winning animated prequel, Seoul Station.

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Undoubtedly Train To Busan will piss all over the inevitable, blanded-out Hollywood remake that’s allegedly (and sadly) in the works.

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With Apologies To Proudhon… Daria Nicolodi in Elio Petri’s PROPERTY IS NO LONGER A THEFT

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. Arrow Academy. 15.

“What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?” – Bertolt Brecht.

“Money doesn’t smell!” – the emperor Vespasian, dismissing his son Titus’ qualms about a tax on piss collected from public urinals.

Some directors (as we shall shortly see) reacted to Italy’s “years of lead” (the pandemic criminal and political violence of the late ’60s and ’70s) by packing heavily moustached detectives and all manner of ballistic hardware into trench coats and unleashing them on the bad guys, whoever they were perceived to be that week. Elio Petri responded with darkly comic satires of the official corruption that had accompanied Italy’s “economic miracle” and was implicated, in ways not yet fully explained, with the turmoil that followed it. His films from this period (as suggested in the title of the 1973 offering under consideration here) also constitute an arch critique of the contemporary state of class consciousness and the Left’s fitness for purpose. Petri’s cinematic approach to these questions had less to do with the balletic bullet fests of Enzo Castellari than with such theatrical antecedents as Dario Fo’s celebrated Accidental Death Of An Anarchist and – as here – tends to be theatrically lit by Luigi Kuveiler. In Property Is No Longer A Theft he grants Shakespearian soliloquies to his principle cast members…

… and what a cast it is.Flavio Bucci (who made his screen debut in Petri’s 1971 effort The Working Class Goes To Heaven but will probably be more familiar as the blind pianist in Suspiria and one of the two murderous rapists on board Aldo Lado’s Late Night Trains) gives a superbly twitchy performance here as Total, a downtrodden bank teller who quits his job after developing a fixation on one of the bank’s clients, an affluent butcher identified simply as “The Butcher” (Italian comedy legend Ugo Tognazzi), whose wealth Total reckons (with some justification) to have been amassed via criminal means.

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Total resolves to steal The Butcher’s property, his reputation and his mistress Anita. The latter is played by another HOF Hall-of-Famer,  Daria Nicolodi, who emerges as a revelation when armed with a proper script and strong characterisation to sink her teeth into (and without the cruddy dubbing that have so often disfigured her screen performances.) There’s a gialloesque murder in a lift and a Diabolik gag or two thrown in for good measure as the blackly comic complications multiply, nicely complimented by one of Ennio Morricone’s quirkiest scores (though it’s not as flat-out bonkers as the one he contributed to Petri’s Investigation Of A Citizen Under Suspicion, 1970.)

Limited to the first pressing of this release, you also get an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Camilla Zamboni (upon which I can’t comment because I haven’t seen it.) The other bonus materials comprise interviews with make-up artist Pierantonio Mecacci, a knackered looking Flavio Bucci… who gets quite emotional talking about producer Claudio Mancini…

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… and Mancini himself, who restores the balance with some light-hearted, gossipy reminiscences. He pokes gentle fun at Petri (above) for being what British right-wing rags now call a “champagne socialist” (a charge they routinely level at any Lefty who doesn’t live in a mud hut) and recalls the perils of dealing with Maoist trades unions on location. Intriguingly, for such a cerebral effort, he attributes the box office success of PINLAT to the amount of prurient punters who wanted to see the sex scene in which Nicolodi takes the upper berth, a scene on account of which this film was originally banned (a decision promptly rescinded) by Italian censors. You might well want to check it out, too.

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Immoral Men… Walerian Borowczyk’s THE STORY OF SIN Reviewed

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

I’ve been pondering the possibility of a Walerian Borowczyk Weekender for a while now but Arrow, still mopping up the treasures that didn’t make it onto their epic Camera Obscura box set, have forced my hand with this handsome release of the last feature he completed in Poland, a 1975 adaptation of Stefan Zeromski’s bodice-ripping literary classic, a kind of Slavic answer to Madame Bovary.
The film opens with pious but ironically named small town girl Ewa Probatynska (Grazyna Dlugolecka) being warned in the confessional that sin begins with the imagination and admonished not to look at erotic books or art… nor should she respond to the lustful looks that men might give her in the street. Of course the priest can’t resist checking her out as she leaves, setting the scene for a cautionary tale of one woman’s decline and fall at the hands of a series of variously vain, hypocritical, weak and unreliable, opportunistic and murderous men.

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First she falls, head over heels, for Lukasz Niepolomski (Jerzy Selnik), one of the lodgers that her respectable parents are obliged to take in to keep solvent. In a masterly touch, Borowczyk intercuts their initial flirtation in a park with shots of a little girl getting lost in the undergrowth. Lukasz tries to put Ewa off by telling her that he’s married and having difficulty in obtaining a divorce… but he’s not exactly fighting her off with a pointed stick. When her pulls the first of his signature disappearances she is devastated but word later reaches her that her beau has been wounded in a duel and she unquestioningly heads for the village where he’s recuperating to take a menial job as a seamstress and nurse him back to health. After recovering enough to impregnate her, Lukacs disappears to Rome in pursuit of that divorce. Alone, Ewa undergoes a traumatic delivery and immediately does away with her baby. Count Zygmunt Szczerbic (Olgierd Lukaszewicz), an associate of Lukacz (in fact, the guy who wounded him in that duel) informs Ewa that her lover has been incarcerated in Rome but when they get there he has already been released and disappeared again without notice. The Count (who clearly worships Ewa, though she only has eyes for Lukasz) shepherds her around Europe in a vain search until she learns by chance that Lukasz got his divorce and promptly married a rich woman with whom he has returned to Poland. Hitting rock bottom, Ewa falls in with a bunch of con men and cut throats who string her along with promises that they can reunite her with Lukacz. At their behest she takes the devoted Count to bed and is tricked into killing him so that they can make off with his worldly goods.

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Thereafter they pimp her out to all comers until a social reformer with a kinky interest in criminal women enrolls her in his utopian agricultural community. Her former cohorts lure her away from there with yet another promise that they’ll hook her up with Lukasz. Realising that they plan to rob and kill him too, she sacrifices her life to warn him. At the very moment of death, she finally receives some tenderness, some acknowledgement from the love of her life.

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Often misguidedly dismissed as some kind of sexist monster or “mere” pornographer, Borowczyk does a remarkable job here, telling his story from the point of view of a strong (albeit doomed) female character with whom he clearly identifies… and well he might. The opening clerical admonition about imagination and eroticism having no place in Polish society might well have been aimed at the director himself, who was about to leave his homeland to follow more faithfully the muse that he had begun to indulge in such French productions as Immoral Tales (1973) and its notorious off-shoot, The Beast (1975.) Had he been granted the gift of foresight, Borowczyk might conceivably have enjoyed a wry chuckle at the way his subsequent career curve was perceived to parallel that of Ewa, with the accusation that he was somehow “prostituting” his formidable talent… it didn’t exactly help, admittedly, that he ended up directing the likes of Emmanuelle 5 (1987.)
As a valediction to interdiction, Story Of Sin is an exceptionally strong sign off, built around a powerhouse central performance from Dlugolecka (a very feisty woman indeed, as her bonus interview here attests.) With it, Borowczyk waved goodbye to his reputation as a “serious” film maker but, more importantly for his creative integrity, to not one but two tyrannies. After 1975 he was no longer subject to the strictures of Soviet ideology, although of course the insidious shadow of the Vatican proved harder to shake off.

Is Ewa, in her rejection of society’s mores, experiencing “freedom” when she follows her obsession through degradation into annihilation… or is she just the slave of her ovaries? By the same token, did Borowczyk, in the ongoing pursuit of his erotomania, merely replace the tyranny of The New Testament with that of his own testosterone? Is l’amour fou literally “the drug” (manifested as “solicor” in WB’s Dr Jekyll Et Les Femmes, 1981)? Is this why Borowczyk routinely depicts inanimate objects as having more character than the people who move among them? Frankly, I don’t know but I’m going to have a long, hard think about it…

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Those familiar with Arrow’s previous Borowczyk releases won’t be surprised to learn that this 2K restoration from the original negative looks great (I’ve only seen the DVD but it’s reasonable to suppose that the Blu-ray looks even better) and is jam-packed with edifying bonus materials, over and above the aforementioned, riveting Dlugolecka interview. You also get an introduction to the film by poster designer Andrzej Klimowski plus new restorations of the WB shorts Once Upon a Time, Dom (both of those co-directed with Jan Lenica) and The School, with optional audio commentaries by the ubiquitous Daniel Bird and co. Bird also contributes a witty video essay, a sort of “how to do Borowczyk” guide. Various WB associates and intimates are interviewed and we are further treated to a documentary on Borowczyk documentaries and a very early one that he co-wrote on poster art, which contains the manifesto line: “In our times, objects take centre stage…”

… of course you get a trailer… and reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Klimowski…
… but by far the jewel in this disc’s bonus crown is the audio commentary by Diabolique magazine’s Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger. Since my prehistoric first scribblings in the pages of Samhain, I’ve agitated for (and would like to think I’ve contributed towards) a criticism that is every bit as informed as it is passionate, enthusiastic and erudite in equal measure. That’s exactly what you get here. When Ellinger and Deighan aren’t rhapsodising about French saints masturbating with cucumbers they’re invoking Flaubert, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Hardy and Dostoevsky or reading passages from Baudelaire… marvellous stuff and quite possibly the best, most thought-provoking audio commentary I’ve yet encountered. Let’s hear it for the girls!

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– KONIEC –

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The 104 Minute Technicolor Nightmare… LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN on Blu-Ray

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Blu-ray. Region Free. Mondo Macabro. Unrated.

I’ve already commented elsewhere on this blog about how the reputation of various Lucio Fulci pictures have been salvaged by successively better proportioned and more complete releases in increasingly high definition. Take his 1971 giallo Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (1971)… for a long time all we had to go on was VIP’s pre-cert VHS release, a washed out, panned-and scanned transfer of a print that had been significantly cut. Compared to the full throttle zombie stompers that were exercising the attention of the DPP at this time, it was easy to dismiss the film as of only marginal interest to the rapidly growing legion of Fulci devotes. Shriek Show began the film’s rehabilitation in the mid noughties with their much-anticipated, much delayed Region 1 double discer, which came with a useful selection of bonus interviews and a nifty repro of the U.S “Schizo” press book. Concern was expressed though that with its dual presentation of widescreen / cut and full screen / (allegedly) uncut versions, this edition rather fell between two stools. The label responded shortly afterwards with an “uncut” anamorphic 1.85:1 jobby (with 5.1 soundtrack option to boot) that contained inserts of varying picture quality (inevitably, in view of the tangled censorship history outlined in one of its bonus features) and was still, according to avid internet posters, missing a few minor bits of business here and there. The UK edition released by  Optimum Home Entertainment (Studiocanal) in 2010, looked and sounded rather lovely, was billed as “the longest version ever available” though (according to the internet diehards) it came in shorter still. Finally (well, about a year ago but – as previously mentioned – the wheels grind slowly here at The House Of Freudstein), LIAWS has made it, courtesy of Mondo Macabro, to region free Blu-ray where it looks absolutely stunning but (stop me if you’ve heard this before…)

It won’t have escaped your attention, you perceptive buggers, that much of what I’ve written so far has been heavily hedged around with qualifications… “alleged”, “people claim” and such weasel worded shit… truth is, I have neither the time, the attention span nor the sheer gluteal fortitude to sit, stopwatch in hand, glued to a succession of versions of the same film. There are plenty of people who pack all of those qualities in abundance and  as I say, their findings are on the internet, where you shouldn’t have too much trouble locating them. If you are the kind of consumer who wakes up in a cold sweat, suspecting that you might have missed a few frames of a minor character walking across a room, then you’ll find much there to divert you. Otherwise, the Mondo Macabro BD is LIAWS in excelcis… let’s wallow in it, people!

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Florinda Bolkan stars as Carole Hammond, pampered daughter of a high-flying barrister (Leo Genn). Her marriage to rising legal eagle Frank (Jean Sorel) isn’t in particularly good shape though, and the dullness of her family’s bourgeois existence is thrown into sharp relief by the loud, drug-crazed sex parties regularly thrown by their next door neighbour Julia Durer (silicon-stuffed Swedish giallo stalwart Anita Strindberg). Fulci makes great use of split screen to emphasise the gulf between the dreary life Carole leads and the edgy alternative that seems to repel and fascinate her in equal measures. She confides in her psychoanalyst that she is having erotic dreams about Durer which end in her stabbing the swinger to death (all rendered in gratifyingly sexy and psychedelic style by Fulci.) The doc interprets these apparent flights of fantasy in comfortingly cod Freudian terms but when Durer’s corpse is actually discovered in her flat, along with a shedload of clues that point to Carole as the perpetrator (including her own paper knife), things start getting really interesting… has Carole gone nuts? Did she really do it… or is she being set up?

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Enter Stanley Baker as Inspector Corvin, an irascible cop with barely suppressed fascistic tendencies (“Scour the city, Brandon… find anyone who has red hair and put the screws to him”) and an irritating habit of whistling Ennio Morricone’s (rather wonderful) theme music out of tune while pondering various suspects, their motives and opportunities. Fulci keeps us guessing through the convolutions of a plot which is considerably tighter than, e.g. that of its predecessor, 1969’s One On Top Of Another / Perversion Story, but not to the detriment of the director’s increasingly flamboyant visual style and way with a suspenseful sequence, as various family members are messily dispatched and Carole herself comes under threat from the more sinister elements among Julia Durer’s boho circle. There are tremendous cat and mouse scenes, amid the shabby gentility of the Alexandra Palace (which sequence features a bat attack that is much more convincing than the one in Fulci’s later The House By The Cemetery and, as Howard Berger has pointed out, seems to have exerted an influence over a very similar one in Argento’s Suspiria) and in the grounds of a sanatorium, where Carole’s attempts to escape the murderous attentions of improbably named killer hippy Hubert aka “Red” (Mike Kennedy, best known as the singer in “Black Is Black” combo Los Bravos) lead her to the notorious lab of vivisected dogs, a much cut scene which nearly landed Fulci in jail before Oscar-winning FX ace Carlo Rambaldi proved to the satisfaction of a judge that the unfortunate canines were actually animatronic constructions devised by himself (it has even been claimed that they were knocked up under the uncredited supervision of Mario Bava).

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Fulci has a ball packing the film with visual quotations from the likes of Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Francis Bacon’s screaming Popes, and although he always waxed cynical about the value of psychoanalysis (“Freud was a fraud who stole psychoanalysis from the Catholic confessional to finance his cocaine habit!” the director once told me) LIAWS employs fur coats, geese, and plenty of other symbolically charged objects in a style that Freud would have recognised only too well.

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When Hubert and his studio tanned girlfriend Jenny (Penny Brown) testify to the shocking truth (or at least, every cliché ever dreamed up in a tabloid) about LSD use, supplying this film with its enigmatic title in the process, it becomes apparent that the real culprit for Julia Durer’s murder has given themself away in an attempt to refute evidence that would never have stood up in court anyway. D’oh…

During my interview with Fulci, he rejected a comment I made along the lines of Lizard In A Woman Skin’s being “in the post-Blow Up tradition of swinging London gialli” (or some such flip formulation.) He didn’t perceive any such influence and, while acknowledging Antonioni’s stature, described Blow Up as “nothing special.” Well, I beg to differ on both counts. If Blow Up pokes beneath the surface and finds swinging London dead on arrival (which is precisely why its Metropolitan hipster detractors have always hated it so much), LIAWS returns to that scene a few years later to see what acid had added to (or subtracted from) what was already a cultural and spiritual void.

It has been suggested (notably and repeatedly in Phil Hardy’s Aurum Horror Film Encyclopedia) that Fulci was a reactionary stuffed shirt who bridled at any hint of social liberalism / permissiveness and punished it relentlessly in his films… and of course this is a narrative that ties in conveniently with the whole tired “misogyny” chestnut. But it’s clear in LIAWS that Carole Hammond’s simultaneous repulsion towards / fascination with the groovy goings on next door are actually projections of Fulci’s own mixed feelings towards such shenanigans. Nor does he present a particularly sympathetic portrait of the straight life, to the extent of depicting those involved in it as rotting corpses!

Some commentators have had a chuckle at the expense of Barbara Bouchet’s “marijuana dependent” character in Fulci’s Don’t Torture A Duckling…

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… and indeed, how we used to laugh at The Man’s attempts to harsh our mellow with dire warnings about addiction and reefer madness. Decades later, some of us look at the state of some of our mates and wonder if maybe The Man had a point. As for the advent of skunk… have you caught an episode of The Jeremy Kyle Show recently? Suffice to say, Fulci was no babe in the wood on this score… indeed, it’s an open secret that he proved adept (albeit reluctantly so) at scoring for doomed junkie jazz trumpeter Chet Baker when nothing else would get his poorly chosen celebrity guest star back on the set of 1960’s Howlers In The Dock. There’s more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in your philosophy, Aurum Horror Film Encyclopedia…

Stephen Thrower traces Fulci’s indulgence (which was not entirely unmotivated, of course, by commercial considerations) at least as far back as his second directorial outing, Juke Box Boys (1959) and expands engagingly on the establishment’s ambivalent attitude towards the encroachment of an energetic ’60s counter culture in the appropriately named featurette When Worlds Collide… pop festivals at Woburn Abbey, beatnik poetry at the Royal Albert Hall (he might also have mentioned Keith Emerson burning The Stars And Stripes there) and The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream at that bastion of establishment broadcasting, The Alexandra Palace…

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The Pink Floyd on stage at Ally Pally, 29.04.67

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Florinda Bolkan on the roof of Ally Pally, three years later.

In an interesting sidebar on the film’s title, Mr T mentions that for much of the project’s production schedule LIAWS was a mere subtitle, which supplanted original choice “The Cage” late in the day and, pointedly, in the wake of Dario Argento’s game changing giallo hit The Bird With The Crystal Plumage. Apparently Argento was a bit peeved by the perceived opportunism of this retitling but it has to be said that, while The Cage is a perfectly fitting title for a tale of the torrid passions seething behind the facade of bourgeoise respectability (how apt that the film’s cast includes Anita Strindberg), Lizard In A Woman’s Skin is an even more appropriate handle on the notion of an eminently civilised character who’s ultimately undone by the eruption of basal, basilisk passions from their reptilian back brain… from this perspective, the title by which Fulci’s second giallo has become known couldn’t be further removed from such throwaway titlings as Riccardo Freda’s Iguana with a Tongue Of Fire, Umberto Lenzi’s Red Cats In A Glass Labyrinth or, dare I say it, Argento’s The Cat O’Nine Tails…

Thrower, who’s update of his already herculean Beyond Terror tome is almost upon us courtesy of FAB Press, also offers some interesting observations on why it has proved so difficult to assemble a “definitive” cut of LIAWS or even to decide on what such a thing might possibly look like.

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The audio commentary, by the redoubtable Pete Tombs and Kris Gavin, is well worth a listen… Gavin does go on rather a lot about his friendship with Florinda Bolkan and co but it would be rash of me to start slinging bricks around in this connection, the House Of Freudstein being so palpably constructed on foundations of glass. He and Tombs offer plenty of interesting insights into dialogue differences between the Italian and English soundtracks  and the attendant nuances of meaning. They also point out the few lines of a minor character that were dubbed by giallo icon Suzy Kendall and helpfully identify Fulci’s second wife amid the minor players.

“Shedding the Skin” is a documentary pinched from the first Shriek Show release, hosted by Penny Brown (who looks just great) and including additional interviews with Bolkan, “Mike Kennedy” (the stereotypical Irishman turns out to be a German), Carlo Rambaldi and the (also rather well-preserved) Jean Sorel. Curiously, you get the option to watch this while listening to more of Gavin’s reminiscences.

There’s also an interview with Tony Adams… yes, Crossroads fans, it’s “Adam Chance”… here playing a rookie cop whose rough treatment at the hands of Baker’s character is apparently pretty faithful to their actual on set relationship.

You get the expected original trailers and radio spots but the real jewel in the crown, bonus wise, is Dr Lucio Fulci’s Day For Night, an interview by Antonietta De Lillo in which the director, no doubt with an eye to posterity, offers the closest glimpse we’ll probably ever get of that elusive essence, “the real Lucio Fulci” (I was aware, when interviewing him, that I was barely scratching the surface.) This is an extra that really warrants a review of its own and I intend to post one on this blog at some point in the near future (but please bear in mind that constant caveat about wheels grinding slowly here at THOF.)

A sublime release… now, when are we going to see Don’t Torture A Duckling on Blu-ray? At an affordable price? The bank manager refused my application for a second mortgage so that German mediabook is out of the question…

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“Hey, how d’you like our new dado rail?”

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