Blu-ray / DVD Reviews

Billy, Don’t Be A Weirdo… BLACK CHRISTMAS Reviewed

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. 101 Films. 18.

God, Christmas arrives earlier every year, doesn’t it? Still, if you’re the kind of ghoul whose yuletide wish is to sit the family down in front of Bob Clark’s classic 1974 Canucksploiter (as, apparently, was standard procedure for the Presleys every December 25th at Graceland) then you’re gonna need five weeks or so to drop heavy hints to your nearest and dearest about slipping this one into your Xmas stocking. Maybe they won’t take your hints but never mind, worse things happen during the festive season…

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… for instance, to the occupants of the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house, allegedly somewhere in the USA (actually, Toronto). Initially assailed by obscene, ranting phone calls from some sex-case identifying himself as “Billy”, members of the feisty sisterhood (which includes Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin and Lynne Griffin among its number) are soon being killed and their bodies arranged in the attic, where young William seems to be putting together some kind of black Nativity scene. Clark and writer Roy Moore pull every trick in the book to divert your attention towards Hussey’s intense concert pianist, abortion-resenting boyfriend as prime suspect, which probably tells you all you need to know about whether it’s him or not. John Saxon’s Police Lt and his (somewhat clueless) underlings take an eternity to work out that those phone-calls are actually coming from within the sorority house (difficult to believe, actually, that the ungodly racket Billy makes during his calls wouldn’t have already pinpointed his whereabouts), setting up a rattling false ending and memorably ambiguous creepy  coda…

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Horror and thriller buffs of a certain vintage and of a certain theoretical persuasion have had a lot of fun (haven’t we?) trying to nail the influence of Italian gialli on the lucrative American stalk’n’slash cycle. Of course there were other antecedents (as, indeed the giallo had its own roots in e.g. Germany’s Edgar Wallace adaptations) and we’re looking at one of them right here. It has even been suggested (a suggestion which gets repeated in the bonus materials on this disc) that John Carpenter conceived (or “borrowed” the concept for) his massively-influential-in-its-own-right Halloween (1978) as a sequel to Black Christmas…

Clark (whose earlier genre credits included Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, 1972 and Dead Of Night, 1974) might or might not have been aware of Bava and Argento’s contemporary stylish efforts… there are shots in Black Christmas which strongly suggest that he was (I won’t insult the reader by spelling out precisely which ones I’m talking about… they’re clear enough) although it’s possible that he and Argento were just cribbing stuff from the same Fritz Lang movies. Whether as a result of studying Argento or not, Clark introduced… always a contentious claim… well, he certainly put considerable impetus behind the use of sinuous P.O.V. shots in subsequent North American slasher movies. To this end he and his camera crew improvised a primitive Steadicam before Steadicam was even invented. Cinematic influences are seldom a one way street and it’s difficult to watch the establishing glimpses of Lucio Fulci’s House By The Cemetery, wherein an external shot of a face at a window lap dissolves into a similar but not identical one, without concluding that Fulci has watched Black Christmas, or at least its closing moments.

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Clark incidentally inaugurated the trend (considerably less significant artistically than in marketing terms) here of tying these kill-by-numbers films into holiday set ups and special occasions (Halloween, Friday the 13th, St Valentine’s Day, et al… not to mention such inferior, albeit sometimes entertaining Xmas slay-rides as Carles E. Sellier Jr’s 1984 effort Silent Night, Deadly Night), also spawning a fertile filone of Sorority House Massacres while he was at it.

Horror and comedy (to invoke an adage so often restated that it’s become tantamount to cliché) are two sides of the same coin and it’s not hard to detect foreshadowings of Clark’s subsequent comic success with the likes of the Porky’s films in Black Christmas. Kidder’s drunken, potty-mouthed provocateur (who kids the dumbest cop in the picture that “fellatio” is a new telephone exchange) gives particularly good value for money but all of the major cast members (well, apart from the barely glimpsed Billy) contribute believable, believably imperfect and generally likeable characters. The female principals, in particular are strong-willed free spirits, polar opposites of their sketchy cinematic descendants in so many dreary “have sex and die” epics. The fact that you care for these people makes Black Christmas so much more than the bravura display of cinematic technique that it undoubtedly is. Clark is handsomely served throughout by his collaborators in front of and behind the camera, several of whom remember him with affection and admiration in the bonus materials assembled on this disc.

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Clark died with his son Ariel on 04/04/07, reportedly at the hands of an inebriated, uninsured driver, which just goes to prove the aforementioned Signor Fulci’s point that nothing a horror director can put on the screen is remotely as horrifying as the stuff that happens every day in real life.

101’s BD transfer of Clark’s finest hour is a bit grainy but that shouldn’t put you off this seminal and seriously chilling thriller. Like it says in the trailer: “If this movie doesn’t make your skin crawl… IT’S ON TOO TIGHT!”

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The Greatest Show On Earth, Part 1: Arma Virumque Cano… SANTA SANGRE on Severin Blu-ray, Reviewed

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BD. Regions A/B/C. Severin. Unrated.

I saw in the ’90s (which would prove to be an exceptionally eventful decade for me) with a New Year’s Day preview screening of four upcoming Horror biggies at The Scala (for which the decade would, regrettably, prove a decisive one). Through the fog of time and encroaching senility I recall that the bill included Argento’s Opera (which took a few years to get a proper release over here) and concluded with the latest entry in the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise (I guess it would have been Part 5: The Dream Child, though I think I skipped all or part of that screening to stand a chance of getting home at a reasonable hour)… the third film was Society (or was it Two Evil Eyes?)… but I remember quite clearly that the bill was completed by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre (1989).

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Most of the audience would, like myself, already have seen most of the films on this bill, if not on the big screen. There was a fair old buzz building up over Santa Sangre, though. Was the man who had electrified the counter-culture (amazing / confusing many of us in the process) with El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) a spent force? Since the latter title his projected film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Sci-Fi saga Dune had foundered on Hollywood incomprehension of his epic vision (and intolerance of the expense it would entail). His one completed feature Tusk (1980) was allegedly a big disappointment, though we had to take that on trust because it was about as easy to see as his reportedly lost feature debut, Fando And Lis (1968). Needless to say, I emerged from the gloom of The Scala into the brittle Winter brightness of King’s Cross and the new decade, raving about one of the most stunningly original films I had ever seen. Darrell Buxton subsequently pointed out that despite its on-the-nose allusions to James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933) and nods to Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920), the film that Jodorowsky had actually pinched rather a lot from here was Tod Browning’s The Unknown (1927)…

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… no matter, there are only so many stories (especially ones as twisted as this) in the world and everybody is, to a more or less conscious degree, influenced by what has gone before them. Santa Sangre still stands as potent cinematic assault on the senses and the very soul… or so I assumed. I’m not actually sure that I’ve watched it all the way through since that screening at the Scala almost three decades ago (despite owning several editions of it) so Severin’s characteristically lush Blu-ray release comes as a welcome opportunity to take another dip in The Holy Blood and re-acquaint myself with this particularly florid manifestation of Jodrophrenia…

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The first thing which struck me was that certain pieces of dialogue make much more sense on a subsequent viewing (for instance Blanca Guerra admonishing Axel J for the banality of his hallucinations, which initially seems like a throwaway moment of surreal whimsy is, with hindsight, obviously pointing towards the film’s denouement). Much of the dialogue is actually somewhat clunkier than I remembered, though that hardly matters for a film maker who cut his teeth in Marcel Marceau’s mime troupe and has always insisted that he makes films with his balls rather than his brains. Santa Sangre is hardly a kitchen sink drama, even if El Jodo packs just about everything bar the kitchen sink into this 123 minute three-ring circus. Who else but Jodorowsky could mount an epic allegory of self realisation and spiritual independence via the Mother Of All Primal Scenes and subsequent misadventures of a compulsive slayer of women (played by his son Axel), a story based on the director’s encounter with a fan who turned out to be the notorious / celebrated Mexican serial killer Goyo Cárdenas? I won’t bother trotting out too much of the plot, which might well look ridiculous on paper… on screen Santa Sangre remains a magnificent mind fuck of a movie, whatever its cinematic antecedents.

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As if all that weren’t quite enough for you, those Severin gringos have loaded this disc with … great googly-moogly… more than five hours of exclusive extras! Dave Gregory’s feature-length appreciation, Forget Everything You Have Ever Seen, is exhaustive to the extent of featuring Santa Sangre’s oft-neglected co-writer Roberto Leoni, though elsewhere on this edition Jodorowsky insists that Signor L’s participation was minimal and talked up to satisfy Italian quota requirements. There are various interviews with the director in which he fully justifies his eccentric reputation. I’ll leave you to discover most of these treasures for your selves, suffice to say that at one point he retracts his comment about making films with his balls and announces that he’s now making them with his anus(?) Any other director making that claim would be laying themselves open to a pretty obvious put down, but coming from Jodorowsky it makes  you wonder if some of his more pedestrian contemporaries shouldn’t consider making their films with more, er, niche body parts…

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You also get a commentary track, on which Alan Jones struggles manfully against AJ’s imperfect English and mercurial mind to come up with something coherent (when your interviewee introduces himself with the words “I hope that I am here”, you know that you’re going to have to earn your money) and deleted scenes on which Jodorowsky also comments. Those with found memories of Jonathan Ross’s For One Week Only series on Channel 4 will be happy to find an amended version of the episode that marked Santa Sangre’s British release here, alongside the expected trailers and a short film by Adan, another of Jodorowsky’s sons, which confirms that the apple never falls far from the tree. There are a couple of Simon Boswell shorts in which Jodorowsky seems to be supporting the OST composer for this film in a fledgling film-making career of his own. Most chilling of all is Goyo Cárdenas – Spree Killer, a documentary on the film’s real life , rehabilitated inspiration.

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Among Jodorowsky’s many memorable pronouncements in the supplementary materials assembled here is the one in which he declares Santa Sangre “a gift to the people”. Unsettling as it is, this is one gift for which (besieged as we are, on all sides, by banal cultural popcorn) we should remain eternally grateful.

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Fade Away And Radiate… THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN Vs THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN

1) “I shrink therefore I am”: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

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BD. Region B. Arrow Academy. PG.

“I was still continuing to shrink… to become… what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the Man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close, the infinitesimal and the infinite… but suddenly I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept… the infinitely small and the infinitely vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up as if I would somehow grasp The Heavens. The Universe… worlds beyond number… God’s silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of Man’s limited dimension. I had presumed upon Nature… that its existence begins and ends is Man’s concept, not Nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away and in their place came acceptance… all this vast majesty of Creation. It had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes  smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God there is no Zero. I still exist!”

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This stirring soliloquy (pisses all over Rutger Hauer’s “tears in the rain”, don’t it?) closes the peak achievement in the C.V. of Jack Arnold, that peak achiever in the milieu of ’50s Cold War Sci-Fi cinema (hm, is it too late to consider slipping in a “spoiler alert” there?) By the time he commenced shooting The Incredible Shrinking Man, Arnold already had It Came From Outer Space (1953), The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954), Revenge Of The Creature (1955) – those first three shot in then-voguish 3-D – and Tarantula (also 1955) under his belt, as well as anonymously heading up the second unit that rendered the climactic destruction of the planet Metaluna in Joseph M. Newman’s This Island Earth (closing out a particularly busy 1955).

Arnold is primarily interesting as one of those directors who, within the confines of the studio system (alongside his SF credits he was also churning out westerns, thrillers, melodramas and even juvie delinquent epics to fulfil the terms of his Universal contract) brought enough of a personal stamp and smuggled in enough of his ongoing personal preoccupations to merit consideration as an auteur. It’s difficult to ignore the suggestion that Arnold’s own background as the scion of Russian immigrant stock predisposed him towards sympathy for the outsider (which translated readily enough, in his science fiction work, into sympathy for the alien) and his pre-Universal involvement in such union-boosting efforts as Our Union (1949) and With These Hands (1950) meant that he was never going to fall in line with the paranoid “Reds under every bed” McCarthyite hysteria that informed so much contemporary American screen Sci-fi.

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In a stroke of good fortune, Universal gifted him, as producer, Bill Alland, a protegé of Orson Welles who had participated in the notorious 1938 Mercury Theatre radio production of H G Wells’ War Of The Worlds, which convinced a significant chunk of the American public that they were actually being invaded by Martians. In another, Alland  enlisted Ray Bradbury, then emerging as a giant of SF literature and somebody else who could be relied upon to imagine alien visitations in a more optimistic light than such near contemporaries as  1951 efforts, Christian Nyby and Howard Hawkes’ The Thing From Another World and Robert Wise’s more sophisticated The Day The Earth Stood Still (in which authoritarian aliens offered the human race peace…. or else!) or William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders From Mars (also 1953). Together they initiated a tradition of sympathetic screen aliens that would reach its tragic apogee in Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), though they lost the battle with studio suits which resulted in the otherworldly visitors being portrayed as cyclopean jellies, rather than left to the viewer’s imagination. Another fantasy film great, Jacques Tourneur, lost similar battles several times but Arnold was in a strong enough position to resist studio demands to compromise his masterpiece, The Incredible Shrinking Man, with a “happy ending” just four years later.

By then Arnold had a new producer, Albert  Zugsmith, a figure often derided as devoid of taste (worth pointing out though, that he did produce Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil in 1958). What he did have was the rights to Richard Matheson’s novel The Shrinking Man, so once again Arnold was well served in the writing department… even more so, given that Matheson had contractual dibs on writing any film adaptation of his book. After the protagonist’s affair with a circus dwarf had duly been downgraded to a supportive friendship, Matheson’s story evolved, in the hands of Arnold, beyond its story of male status anxiety in a changing world (reflecting the insecurity of its writer’s own chosen profession… tell me about it!) into the defining screen myth of atom age existential angst. Just how do you live an authentic, meaningful life in the face of the daily threat of nuclear annihilation?

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Scott Carey (Grant Williams) is enjoying a boating holiday with his dutiful wife Louise (Randy Stuart) when she goes below deck to grab him a beer, just as the boat passes through a mysterious mist (of nuclear fall out, we are led to believe) that adheres to his skin. Later, as he tells his doctor (we have to take it on trust), he is accidentally sprayed with insecticide and the cumulative effect of these two unfortunate incidents is his ever accelerating decline in stature, beautifully paced and convincingly rendered via oversized sets and props plus inspired split-screen work and other in-camera effects. In a marvellously impactful scene, Louise reassures Scott that as long as he’s got a wedding on his finger, she’ll be there for him… only for said ring to slip off of his rapidly diminishing digit!

As his condition relentlessly progresses and rubber-necking neighbours and news crews assemble on his lawn, he rants: “So I became famous… I’m a big man!” at his long-suffering wife, who’s struggling to do her best for him under impossible conditions. When she accidentally lets the family cat in before a shopping expedition, Carey finds himself besieged by it in the doll’s house which he’s been reduced to occupying. Extricating himself from that particular peril, he falls into the cellar which is by now an intimidating alien (or possibly post-Apocalyptic) terrain where leaky boilers generate tsunamis and scraps of food must be contested with common house animals. After his climactic victory over a spider that’s now about three times as big as he is, our diminutive Everyman makes it through a grate into the jungle that was formerly his garden and as he fuses with the cosmos, delivers that marvellously moving valediction.

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To accompany this extraordinary cosmic collision of Sci-Fi schlock, philosophy and visual poetry, Arrow have assembled an impressive array of extras including the Arnold doc Auteur On The Campus, a Tim Lucas commentary track, and an interview with Richard Christian Matheson about his father’s creation, plus the Super 8 digest version of Arnold’s film, which is almost as drastically reduced as its hero. As well as the expected trailers and reversible sleeve, first pressings of this release will include a fully-illustrated collectors’ booklet featuring new writing on the film by Kim Newman, on which I’m currently not in a position to comment.

So that was how the sensitive way Hollywood dealt with radiation anxiety in 1957. Fast forward 20 years, and…

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1) “Don’t sit next to a garbage can!” The Incredible Melting Man (1977)

Blu-ray / DVD combi edition. Regions B / 2. Arrow. 18.

“Magnificent… you’ve never seen anything till you’ve seen the Sun through the Rings of Saturn!”

“Oh my God… it’s his ear!”

“Have we got crackers?”

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Steve West (Alex Rebar) is the only survivor of a NASA space probe that orbited Saturn. He found the view of Sun flares through its rings “Magnificent!” but it killed his colleagues and caused blood to gush from his nostrils onto his ’70s porn star moustache. Back on Earth, NASA installs him in a state of the art secure hospital that’s apparently been constructed in somebody’s garage, where he is guarded by a bored-looking doctor and a fat nurse (played by – I kid you not – Bonnie Inch). When he wakes up he’s not best pleased to find his hands and face resembling those of Michael Gambon in The Singing detective. The fat nurse takes this discovery even less philosophically and – apropos of nothing in particular – she runs down a corridor in slow motion then through a glass door, screaming all the way. Possibly miffed that they didn’t assign him somebody who looked more like Joanne Whalley, scabby Steve chases her down and rips half her face off.

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With me so far?

General Mike Perry (Myron Healey) details Steve’s friend Dr Ted Nelson (Burr DeBenning) to locate the rapidly suppurating Steve as a matter of priority before these top-secret developments come to the attention of the press. To this end he is issued with a Geiger counter, with which he wanders around the woods shouting: “Steve, it’s Ted… I want to help you.” You may scoff, but the discovery of Steve’s ear (resembling a bubbling pizza slice) on a bush shows that Ted is on the right track. Steve apparently needs human cells to stay alive and after he’s decapitated an angler played by a certain Sam Gelfman (one of this film’s producers… the other was Amicus legend Max J. Rosenberg) and we’ve suffered endless slow motion footage of the severed noggin bobbing around in a stream and going down a waterfall, the General arrives in town to bring a new level of urgency to the manhunt, i.e. they spend a lot of time planning dinner. Ted is forbidden to tell anyone about the unfolding crisis, but spins the beans to his wife after admonishing her for the absence of crackers from their kitchen cupboard. No doubt this would  have spoiled the evening for his in-laws but luckily they don’t arrive because they’ve been killed by Steve. Miscellaneous other victims include Jonathan Demme, who’s wandering around in the woods for some obscure reason… and TIMM also alarms Rainbeaux Smith during a totally gratuitous topless location shoot.

“The more he melts, the stronger he gets!” we are unreliably informed… and the more he kills, the more Ted and The General eat. There’s an interminable scene in which the latter fixes himself a cold turkey leg salad, only to have his face bitten off by Steve, who subsequently loses his own arm after attempting to attack a girl in her kitchen. Finally, in an epic foreshadowing of the climax to Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Ted and some cops track Steve down to a deserted industrial plant. He kills all of them then suffers his final meltdown. Discovered by a janitor, he is shovelled into a nearby bin as a radio report trailers the next space probe to Saturn…

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Is there any discernible moral that we can draw from The Incredible Melting Man? Most certainly… as stated by director Sachs in an accompanying 20 minute featurette: “The real moral would be… if you’re melting, don’t sit next to a garbage can!” Crackers indeed!

FX legend Rick Baker also appears in the featurette, reflecting on this early outlet for his prodigious talents and taking the piss out of Rebar’s thespian pretensions. He also reflects that with Rob Bottin, Craig Reardon and Greg Cannom on his crew “it’s funny that (TIMM ) wasn’t better than it was!”

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Cannom gets his own say in another featurette. Sachs contributes a very droll commentary track (“It’s a gloop movie, basically!”) in which he laments the attitude of the film’s producers, who didn’t “get” his ironic, kitschy, comic book vision (though Baker contends that this orientation was less a matter of irony and more about making a virtue of necessity).

As with it’s incredible shrinking antecedent, this release also includes the film’s Super 8 digest version and there’s a piece on the whole Super 8 digest phenom by Douglas Weir in the inlay booklet, alongside Mike White’s essay on TIMM. I did get that one and jolly good it is, too.

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An Ideal Place To Kill… OASIS OF FEAR Reviewed

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DVD. Region Free. Shameless. 18.

The sad news of Ray Lovelock’s death, following so fast on the passing of Umberto Lenzi, has prompted us to dust off the HOF archives and take a retrospective look at one of their collaborations, the 1971 giallo Un Posto Ideale Per Uccidere (“An Ideal Place To Kill”) aka Dirty Pictures… can’t help thinking that Shameless missed a trick there by releasing the “rebuild edition” under consideration here (which reinstates footage previously believed to be lost) under the title Oasis Of Fear.

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Umberto Lenzi… what can I say that you couldn’t possibly work out for yourself by reading the interview with him elsewhere on this Blog? Although several of my questions seemed to irritate him to distraction (which was far from my intention), he did seem genuinely pleased at my suggestion that his early gialli with Carroll Baker had exerted an influence over such subsequent Hollywood bonkbusters as Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct.

Lenzi wanted Baker to star in Un Posto Ideale Per Uccidere too, but other commitments obliged him to substitute Irene Papas for her in the role of patrician swinger Barbara Slater. Personally, I find Papas better suited than Baker to this kind of film (delivering a performance here that is studded with subtleties) and Lucio Fulci, for one, seems to have agreed with me, casting her as the priest’s mother who nurses a deadly secret in the following year’s miraculous Don’t Torture A Duckling (and yes, we’ll finally get round to reviewing the Arrow Blu-ray of that when we get a breather from all the other stuff that’s currently clogging up our in-tray).

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Another, er, somewhat less obvious bit of casting in Un Posto Ideale Per Uccidere has Latin lovely Ornella Muti playing the decadent Dane Ingrid Sjoman. She and her ostentatiously British (check out that Union Jack-et!) hippy boyfriend Dick Butler (Lovelock, who was indeed half-English) have been financing a heady slice of la dolce vita for themselves by flogging those “dirty pictures” to sex-starved, red-blooded Italian dudes. These loose-livin’ free-loveniks are understandably dismayed to find their smut supply running out, jeopardising their selfless mission to “spread the gospel of sexual freedom to darkest Italy”. Ingrid’s a game girl though, and more than happy to pose for some home-made porn. Not long after they hit on this expedient, however, our anti-heroes are busted by kill-joy cops and ordered to leave the country.

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While they’re attempting to do so they run out of gas and try to siphon some off in a plush villa on the edge of town. Attractive but older and uptight owner Barbara is naturally pissed off on discovering these uninvited guests in her garage but something about the free-wheeling kids seems to pique her interest and she unexpectedly invites them to stay the night. This being the swinging ’70s, after all concerned have necked enough booze and gotten to know each other, various sexual permutations play out (Muti, in only her second or possibly third screen credit, delegated her nude scenes to a suitably sumptuous body double). Dirty Dick is suitably tickled by this outcome and teases Barbara that she’s risking some kind of Manson massacre by inviting footloose hippies into her home and bed. As it happens, somebody is getting into deep shit but things are not entirely what they seem and the pay off will play out with predictable giallo unpredictability (well, the resolution might have surprised contemporary viewers, though seasoned pasta paura fanciers probably won’t have too much trouble, at this remove, working out what’s going on).

The commercial imperative to try to cop a bit of the Easy Rider action dictates a conclusion which doesn’t amount to very much but there is plenty of period kitsch to cherish and Lenzi effectively embroiders that staple theme of Italian exploitation cinema which indicts the respectable bourgeoisie as more morally reprehensible than the social dregs whom they despise and exploit.

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The late, great Ray Lovelock built a screen career on ambiguity… he’s sexually ambiguous as Evan in his screen debut, Giulio Questi’s startling Django Kill! (Se Sei Vivo, Spara, 1967)… in Jorge Grau’s legendary zombie-stomper Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue (1974) he’s a cynical hustler turned archetypal English hero (right down to being named “George”)…  he’s a lily-livered kidnapper with qualms, who just might save the ransomed girl in Lenzi’s Almost Human (1974, a busy year for our Ray)… he’s not quite the man we thought he was in the following year’s Autopsy, that most macabre of gialli from Armando Crispino… there’s more sexual ambiguity from him as the only heterosexual man on the planet who couldn’t manage an erection for Edwige Fenech in Marino Girolami‘s The Virgin Wife (“La Moglie Vergine”, 1975)… in Ruggero Deodato’s Live Like A Cop, Die Like A Man (“Uomini Si Nasce Poliziotti Si Muore”,  1976) he and Marc Porel play cops whose disregard for the rule-book makes them virtually indistinguishable from the criminals against whom they’re supposed to be protecting society… in Franco Prosperi’s Meet This Man And Die from the same year, Ray’s a cop going deep, deep undercover.. and in Prosperi’s 1978 effort La Settima Donna (“The Seventh Woman”) aka Terror and Last House On The Beach (no question for guessing which Wes Craven film supplies the “inspiration” for that one) he poses as “the voice of reason” in a gang of bank-robbers brutalising the young women among whom they’re hiding out, although he’s obviously orchestrating and relishing the various outrages. The mystery in Fulci’s Murder Rock (1984) turns on Lovelock’s character, who he is and what he might or might not have done…

This ambiguous, chameleon-like aspect made Lovelock an ideal actor for giallo and it’s regrettable that he only essayed a handful of roles in that genre. Still, the C.V. he left behind (and he was working in features and TV as late as last year) is impressive enough as it stands.

Rest in peace, Ray. Adios, Umberto…

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Bad Day At Red Stone… THE DEVIL’S RAIN Reviewed

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BD. Regions A/B/C. Severin. Unrated.

Publicity for the US release of Dario Argento’s super-stylish Suspiria (1977) made prominent use of the line: “The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 80”, from which prospective viewers could only have drawn the perverse and erroneous conclusion that Argento’s Horror tour-de-force ended on a note of anti-climax. The publicity campaign for the seventh feature outing by another noted stylist, Robert Fuest’s The Devil’s Rain (1975), made no such error, insisting that it packed “absolutely the most incredible ending of any motion picture ever!” For their characteristically lush BD revisit, Severin take a scarcely less rabid tack, promising “the most eye-popping, flesh-melting finale in grindhouse history”. So, does the ending of The Devil’s Rain live up to those billings? Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves… Fuest things first…

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After a Bosch backed title sequence, TDT throws us abruptly, in the best Shakespearian tradition, into the thick of its action and leaves us struggling to work out what the Hell is going on. In a remote desert dwelling, Mrs Preston (legendary film noir actress / director Ida Lupino) and her son Mark (William Shatner, filling in time before the Star Trek revival and putting in his customary… broad… performance) open their door to find an agitated daddy Preston insisting that somebody named Corbis wants his book back, before rapidly disintegrating into a rancid pool of goo on the porch.

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At this point I was expecting a quick cut to Diana Rigg receiving a message that reads: “Mrs Peel, we’re needed”… too clever dick by half on my part, as although Bob Fuest production designed very early (pre-Honor Blackman) episodes of The Avengers and directed several in the final series, when Linda Thorson had replaced Diana Rigg, he never worked on any in the Emma Peel era… more’s the pity.

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Anyway, back in the desert Shatner hot foots it over to Red Stone for a confrontation with Corbis, in the Saturnine form of a brilliantly cast Ernest Borgnine (it couldn’t have taken too many hours of make-up to turn him into a randy old goat). Under a glowering sky they enact Fuest’s little tribute to John Sturges’ Bad Day At Black Rock (1955) before repairing inside a clapped out, boarded up wooden church whose interior reveals a groovy stained glass window, various Satanic paraphernalia and pew-loads of hooded, chanting acolytes with empty black eye sockets. Borgnine swaps his cowboy threads for a crimson robe and their battle of faiths begins in earnest. Truth be told, it’s a bit of a one-sided battle and Mark is soon himself reduced to the status of empty eyed Satan fodder.

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It’s Captain Kirk… but not as we know him.

Meanwhile his brother-in-law Tom (Tom Skerritt) is attending a scientific demonstration of his wife Julie (Joan Prather’s) psychic powers, presided over by Dr Sam Richards (Eddie Albert). In the course of this she experiences visions of what’s going on at Red Stone so everybody heads over there in an attempt to save Mark and Mrs Preston, setting up the climactic battle between Good and Evil and the Burman’s much touted goo spouting, Play-Do vomiting finale…

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Fuest felt himself to be on a mission to “smuggle Art into Product” and although The Devil’s Rain affords him nothing like as many opportunities to do this as his Phibes brace or  The Final Programme (1973) there are some startling moments herein, e.g. when Julie stares into the empty sockets of a devil worshipping drone and finds herself in the midst of a sepia-tinted flashback to Puritan times which explains (or purports to explain) what’s going on with that book of bloody signatures, the cauldron of souls and all manner of other bewildering stuff. In retrospect, it occurs to me that this sequence exerted a big influence over the opening one to Lucio Fulci’s gothic gore mini-masterpiece The Beyond (1981).

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That the above-mentioned devil worshipping drone is played by unrecognisable movie debutant John Travolta (whose then room-mate Prather got him this role and also converted him to the cause of Scientology) is just one of the esoteric footnotes to The Devil’s Rain, the authenticity of whose Satanic ceremonies was ensured by the participation, in a consultancy role, of Anton LaVey, founder and high priest of The Church Of Satan. You also see him, golden-masked, at Borgnine’s elbow during significant ritual moments.

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Much is made of LaVey’s participation in this disc’s extensive bonus materials (apparently “approved by Lucifer himself!”), including interviews with his biographer Blanche Barton, also Peter H. Gilmore and Peggy Nadramia, the Church’s current high priest / priestess. The consensus which emerges is that LaVey had a ball making The Devil’s Rain and got on famously with everybody while doing so, but wasn’t crazy about the finished film and would probably have been prouder of appearing in one of Lupino’s noir efforts. Further interviews follow with Skerritt, FX technician Tom Burman, pundit Daniel Roebuck and a short, contemporary one with Shatner. As well as her reminiscences, we get to see the on set Polaroids taken by script supervisor Ana Maria Quintana and of course the expected trailers, TV and radio spots are present and correct.b3-24-78.jpgThere’s also an invaluable 2005 audio commentary with Fuest (who passed away in 2012), mediated by Marcus Hearn. The director is every bit as distractedly eccentric as I remember from my own brief meeting with him. He frequently seems to tune out of the conversation, only to admit to Hearn that he’s getting wrapped up in watching his film. They still manage to cover his career in reasonable depth and it’s interesting to learn that after doing the Phibes movies, he turned down the chance to direct Vincent Price again in the thematically similar Theater Of Blood, though he makes a point of praising the job Douglas Hickox did on that in 1973. He declares his philosophy of production design to be “anything to disturb the eye” and refutes, in passing, the claim (originating in Cinefantastique magazine) that he suffered a nervous breakdown while making the picture under consideration here. Fuest reveals that much of the “most incredible ending of any motion picture ever” was shot by a second unit and that he finds it “like some sort of wake… it goes on and on… you could take about 20 minutes of that stuff out!” His keenness to make what is already a pretty pacey movie into something even pacier (perhaps it was Fuest’s extensive TV experience that influenced his apparent desire to constrain things within something like an hour’s running time) is evident when he attributes TDR’s “unrelenting” momentum to an apprehension that “if you stop to think about it too much, you get into trouble”.

 

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Fuest’s Faustian folly is indeed a gloriously senseless, massively entertaining mess of a movie. What a cast! What a visionary director! What a fantastic release by Messrs Daft &  Gregory, doing what they do best… rescuing cinematic oddities that have fallen into disregard or indifference from late night screenings on obscure standard definition channels and affording them definitive HD restorations, with a crop of boss extras to boot. Hail Severin!

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When Bobs collide… Freudstein & Fuest at Manchester’s third annual Festival Of Fantastic Films in October 1992.

 

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Songs In The Key Of G-Spot… Lucio Fulci’s THE DEVIL’S HONEY Reviewed

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BD. Regions A/B/C. Severin. Unrated.

I remember reading a great review of this film in an obscure Dutch fanzine. I was hooked as soon as I read the opening lines: “Dr Wendell Simpson (Brett Halsey) has a bad marriage. He goes often to the whores”. Indeed he often does and when he gets there, it’s in search of very niche erotic gratification, i.e. watching the working girls paint the crotch of their pantyhose with nail varnish. You might have thought they’d regard this as easy money but one complains that: “It’s worse than fucking a monster… you’re a freak!” Back home, Wendell’s wife (the luscious Corinne Clery) is writhing around in heat, seeking a good seeing-to but he can’t seem to raise any interest, or indeed anything else, in response to this spectacle. Fucking weirdo…

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The sexual arrangement between Johnny (Stefano Madia) and Jessica (Blanca Marsillach) seems scarcely more conventional. He’s a saxophone playing rock superstar (first time for everything, I guess) who only seems capable of playing one phrase (which is distinctly reminiscent of the Phil Lynott / Gary Moore chewn Parisienne Walkways) and when he can’t even get that right, takes time out from an unproductive recording session to blow his horn up Jessica’s tuppence (such a crowd pleasing moment that the original U.S. video release, as Dangerous Obsession, bumped it forward to the film’s opening minutes, as demonstrated on one of the many bonus materials here). “Don’t you ever think of anything else?” she chides him. “Is there anything else?” he responds. Later Johnny persuades Jessica to give him a hand-job while she rides pillion on his speeding motor-bike…. cor baby, that’s really free!

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It’s a pity The Jeremy Kyle show wasn’t airing in 1986… Graham The Genius would have had his work cut out with these guys! In the absence of that, what does bring all the sex cases together is the arrival of Johnny on Wendell’s operating table, in critical condition after a motorbike crash. Christ only knows what he’d been up to on that speeding bike this time… felching a chicken while inserting crack rocks up his own arse? Probably best not to think about it…

Anyway, Dr Simpson is so stressed out, flashing back to his wife’s demand for a divorce, that he totally screws up the operation and Johnny shuffles off his mortal coil… no more  speed limit-defying wanks for you, mate! Jessica, devastated, sits around at home cuddling Johnny’s pullover and watching videos of herself being shagged by him. Then she resolves to act. She harasses Dr. Simpson with phone calls, then kidnaps him at gunpoint and chains him up in her and Johnny’s beach-house.

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Now, call me old-fashioned, but I’d be rather more inclined to attribute the demise of  this clown to his own tiresome antics than to the surgeon who attempted to save him. Nevertheless, Jessica spends the next couple of days beating, kicking, nearly drowning and feeding dog food to the doc, not to mention spattering him with hot candle wax. My name is Jessica…”  she tells him: ” … but you can call me fear!” “You’re an amazing girl!” he gasps.

When not abusing poor old Wendell (who, one strongly suspects, is having the time of his life), Jessica flashes back to her affair with Johnny, including a memorable scene in which he sodomises her on a staircase. Just in case anyone in the audience isn’t sure what’s going on, Fulci intercuts the action with shots of Jessica’s dog (whom I’d love to believe is some kind of relative of Dicky from The Beyond) jumping against a back door… subtle symbolism or what? Gradually her flashbacks reveal that life with Johnny wasn’t so great after all – he smashed her favourite doll, he liked her vagina to double as a holster for his pistol, and – best of all – at one point we see Jessica necking with him in a cinema, only to recoil in horror as she realizes that bitchy sound engineer Nick (Bernard Seray) is simultaneously playing some hot licks on Johnny’s horn, mugging furiously while doing so.

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When Wendell repairs her doll, Jessica unties him and they consummate the mutual passion that has been building up between them. Incredibly, as a post-script to their love-making, the doc declaims the following lines…

“When you’ve spent your life like a fortune you believed would never end / a second chance will come to you, like a long-lost friend / A great joy will fill you and flush you hot / no more will you ever be cool / for she is the Devil’s honey-pot / and you will drown in her… you fool!”

If only room could have been found, among all the other mildly kinky goings-on here, for Halsey to undergo a golden shower… anyone who can deliver poetry like that with a straight face really deserves to have it pissed on!

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Fulci, visibly ravaged by his recent run in with hepatitis, makes his customary cameo as a street-trader who sells Jessica and Johnny two “mystical bracelets”, which will allegedly guarantee them happiness until discarded. Would you buy a charm bracelet from the man above… or a reheated, overheated script? The Devil’s Honey bears an uncanny resemblance to Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s The Trap, directed the previous year from a Fulci screenplay and starring (alongside Tony Musante and Laura Antonelli) Blanca Marsillach and her kid sister Cristina (shortly to star in Argento’s Opera).

Blanca seems to have wound up just about everybody on the set of The Devil’s Honey, as is amply testified to in the generous supplementary materials on this handsome Severin BD presentation. “I don’t want to talk badly about a fellow performer…” offers the admirable Halsey: “… my problem was that she had no discipline and no talent”. He loved being directed by Fulci, though (“If you dig him up, I’d work for him again!”) and also directing him, as he claims to have done during Fulci’s protracted cameo role in 1990’s Demonia, a film about which Halsey has some hair-raising anecdotes. He also regrets the misunderstanding about the same year’s Nightmare Concert / A Cat In The Brain which curtailed their professional and personal relationship.

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Corinne Clery remembers Fulci as “kind”, then again by her account she’s always prided herself on not being “a prima donna”… it was to exactly that kind of actress that Fulci famously gave shortest shrift. Producer Vincenzo Salviani poo-poos any suggestion that Fulci was “difficult” to work with but admits: “He wasn’t the lion he once was”. In an audio essay Troy Howarth talks up Fulci’s “knack” for the erotic and Stephen Thrower, who’s always got something interesting to say about this director, speculates that Fulci’s career could have been salvaged at this point by jumping the glossy soft core bandwagon that was currently gaining momentum. Instead, he remained pigeon holed in an increasingly ghetto-ised Horror milieu, with geometrically diminishing returns. No more would he ever be cool…

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Diamonds Are Forever… The Timely Return Of Steve De Jarnatt’s MIRACLE MILE

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“Have a nice day!”

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

“Forthwith Rumour runs through Libya’s great cities / Rumour, of all Evils the most swift / Speed lends her strength and she wins vigour as she goes / small at first through fear, soon she mounts up to Heaven / and walks the ground with head hidden in the clouds”

… Virgil: The Aeneid, Book IV.

***** Spoiler Alert *****

We normally take a pretty lax attitude around here towards spoilers. There’s a warning in our Mission Statement about proceeding with caution at all times when you visit The House Of Freudstein. Beyond that… read ’em and weep!

Steve De Jarnatt’s Miracle Mile really is a special case, though. If you go into this one with absolutely no idea of what’s going to happen, it might just rock your world… but there’s no real way of explaining why that might be without giving the game away. Mrs F and I were fortunate enough to catch the film, totally ignorant of its contents, at one of Dave Bryan and Malcolm Daglish’s fondly remembered Black Sunday film festivals in Manchester during the early ’90s and that was really the perfect way to experience it.

Suffice to say that if you’re not aware of this film’s chilling premise and are planning to see it – which I would urge you to do – please don’t read the following until you’ve done so. Then tell me why I’m talking shit…

*****  Spoiler Alert Ends *****

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Timing is everything. Especially when you’re invoking End Times. Miracle Mile, written by the genial Steve De Jarnatt (above) kicked around Hollywood for several years, garnering a reputation as the successor to Bruce Joel Rubin’s Jacob’s Ladder as “the best unfilmed script” in La La Land. The reason nobody would film it was that De Jarnatt steadfastly refused to compromise by succumbing to studio demands that a happy ending be tacked onto it. Tired of banging his head against a brick wall, he ultimately put together the deal that allowed him to direct the film himself, according to his own vision. Unfortunately, by the time Miracle Mile (officially released in 1988) had received any substantial distribution, the Berlin Wall had come down and the world began to kid itself that the threat of nuclear annihilation was no longer something to worry about …

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The film kicks off engagingly enough, with unfulfilled doofus Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards) and misift Julie Peters (Mare Winningham) discovering each other and – at long last – true love in LA. Circumstances conspire to make Harry significantly late for their make-or-break date on Wilshire Blvd (the Miracle Mile of the title). So far, so screwball comedy. After he’s tried to phone Julie with his apologies, though, Harry picks up a misdirected phone call from a soldier trying to warn his father that World War III has broken out and the Continental USA is going to be nuked within 75 minutes. The grunts babbling’s are interrupted by a gunshot and an authoritarian voice advises Harry to forget everything he has just heard and “go back to sleep…”

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Is this an elaborate prank or good grounds to get the hell out of LA, ASAP? Harry struggles to convince himself and the late night occupants of Johnie’s Diner but ultimately resolves to find Julie and get her out, just to be on the safe side, while all around him civilised society rapidly breaks down in the wake of his careless whisper…

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Even after the “apocalypse now… or maybe not” issue has been resolved, what shines through on subsequent viewings is De Jarnatt’s assured direction and convincing rendition of Armageddon-on-a-budget (God knows what it took to have Wilshire Boulevard blocked off for a day’s shooting), the impressive ensemble playing of his cast and in particular the touching performances of his leads.

Arrow’s Blu-ray presentation looks and sounds every bit as good as you’d expect and is bedecked with a host of supplementary goodies. De Jarnatt is interviewed (great to hear about and see Joe Turkel’s Dantesque improvisation, which the director reluctantly cut), and supplies two commentary tracks, one of them in conjunction with cinematographer Theo van de Sande and production designer Chris Horner. An emotional reunion at Johnie’s Diner features most of the cast though Edwards and Winningham couldn’t attend. They get their own interview spot and it’s nice to learn that some years after co-starring in Miracle Mile, they became a real life item.

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Tangerine Dream fans (among whom I number myself) will enjoy the extra in which that band’s Paul Haslinger talks about scoring this film and others. You get deleted scenes and outtakes but I can’t comment on the booklet essay by Tim Lucas, which I haven’t seen (nor will you if you fail to pick up the first pressing of this release).

Powerful stuff…. so why was De Jarnatt confined to TV directing and writing short stories (one of which he reads  in another bonus feature) after Miracle Mile? It seems like a lot of people would rather just go back to sleep.

To paraphrase (though this is disputed) Victor Hugo… “Nothing is as powerful as a film whose time has come”. Let’s hope and pray that this is not it…

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Tracey Beaker Meets The Exorcist: SUFFER LITTLE CHILDREN Reviewed

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DVD. Region Free. Intervision (Severin). 18.

“This picture is a reconstruction of events which took place at 45 Kingston Road, New Malden in August 1984…” we are informed by the portentous introductory voice over to Alan Briggs’ notorious meisterwerk Suffer Little Children: “These events were never reported in the press. The house is now derelict and scheduled for demolition.” The events in question, as shakily reconstructed on state-of-the-art (in 1983 terms, anyway) VHS camcorder, are initiated by the arrival of a young mute girl named Elizabeth (Nicola Diana), at the Sullivan Children’s Home. No sooner has she arrived than various nasty accidents start befalling the other residents. “First things first… Basil’s in intensive care!” emotes their custodian Jenny (Ginny Rose)… poor Basil, he fell down the stairs. Another child has a door telekinetically slammed in her face. To the further consternation of Jenny and her sidekick Maurice (Colin Chamberlain), household objects begin levitating unconvincingly and there’s soon more wobbly furniture in motion than at an MFI clearance sale. Nobody seems to notice that these events coincide with Elizabeth getting pissed off with people.

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Matters escalate further when former resident, now pop star Mick Philips (Jon Holland) visits and starts romancing Jenny (by taking her to Cloudbursts, an appalling night club packed with plastic punks and nerdy New Romantics). Lovelorn Maurice takes this very badly but not nearly as badly as Elizabeth, who seems to have conceived some kind of Satanic schoolgirl crush on the guy (improbably so, Mick resembling nothing more than a refugee from a bad Kajagoogoo tribute band.) By arranging for some poorly made-up living deadsters to erupt from an allotment (on account of which scene I suffered a particularly unpleasant flashback to Zombies Lake… or was it Oasis Of The Zombies?), Elizabeth manages to recruit two female lieutenants to her burgeoning cult.

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The situation at Sullivan’s continues to degenerate. A jolly party descends into an unseemly punch-up, then 12 of the home’s kids nearly drown simultaneously during a visit to their local swimming baths (we have to take this on trust as SLC’s budget didn’t stretch to an actual depiction of this traumatic moment.) Elizabeth and her minions throw some kind of candle lit ritual in the cellar, chanting “Come Devil Come!” and Elizabeth orders them (in her best Mercedes McCambridge tones) to take out “the Christ worshippers!” Several enthusiastic but unconvincing stabbings ensue. This outbreak of Grand Guignol (accompanied by inept heavy metal music and sufficient strobing to induce an epileptic episode in an elephant) is only nipped in the bud when Christ himself, in full crown of thorns (I’m not making this up, honest) intercedes personally to zap Elizabeth with disappointingly under-rendered  bolts of righteous Godly fury. Jenny gets a final screaming freeze frame, reminiscent of  Hilary Dwyer’s in Witchfinder General and Daria Nicolodi’s in Tenebrae.

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Speaking of  Argento, SLC’s mix of paranormal schoolgirl shenanigans and inappropriate heavy metal accompaniment could conceivably be cited as a precursor to his Phenomena (though a lot of people probably wouldn’t thank it for that, either.) “Suffer you bastards, suffer!” we are advised during the interminable racket of (whatever happened to?) Jlaada’s playout music  before puzzling random shot repeats bring the shambolic proceedings to a welcome close.

The house where this sub-Italia Conti take on “Tracey Beaker meets The Exorcist” was filmed did indeed get demolished (by a fire, apparently, though I’ve been unable to establish whether this was on account of an angry god fearing mob… or even an angry God himself) and allegedly a car park now stands in the place it once occupied. As for “Never reported in the press”, though… they wish! Nothing in this am-dram Horror epic could have prepared its creators for the sham dram that unfolded in the nation’s tabloids, once they had picked up the first sniff of a scandal from that redoubtable local organ, The Surrey Comet.  “This movie was made by the students of Meg Shanks Drama School” one of its poorly generated credits tells us: “They had no experience and no money, just determination and guts”… and boy, the intestinal fortitude of all concerned would be sorely tested over the coming months!

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Said kerfuffle is masterfully related by a strikingly handsome, witty and charismatic “video nasty”  historian in the bonus featurette Seducing The Gullible. This boy should go far. In his interview, director Alan Briggs reveals his past as a rock music promoter / huckster, which must have stood him in good stead for a stab at the success de scandale that Suffer Little Children unfortunately never quite attained. In contradiction to wild claims (typifying the atmosphere of moral panic back in the early ’80s) that he had somehow “corrupted” his juvenile cast, Briggs insists that he gave free rein to their enthusiastic creativity and that’s what you see on the screen. He talks less about SLC’s censorship tribulations than the difficulties of small film production (he’d clearly relish the opportunity to make another one with today’s technology) and distribution (in particular the difficulties of dealing with Films Galore’s rather “colourful” sounding George Goodey) back in 1983.

More than three decades after this harrowing sequence of events unfolded, the mighty men of Severin (via their “shot on video” Intervision imprint) afford us an opportunity to relive a particularly troubling bit of recent social history and see what, if anything, all the fuss was about with an uncut and now BBFC sanctioned release of Suffer Little Children. Perhaps House Of Freudstein  visitors represent precisely that special sort of cineaste who can look beyond this film’s technical and artistic shortcomings to engage with the philosophical, ethical, semiological and indeed eschatological issues it embodies. Perhaps not. In which case… “Suffer, you bastards, suffer!”

 

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How To Carve A Turkey… Herschell Gordon Lewis’s BLOOD FEAST / SCUM OF THE EARTH Reviewed

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That’s it, we read about her

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

About a year ago, Arrow’s monumental, long-gestated “Feast” box set was released in the immediate aftermath of the death of the cinema maverick whose work it celebrated so lavishly – Herschell Gordon Lewis. Earlier this year, the announcement of an Arrow collection of George Romero’s non-zombie films coincided with that iconic director’s demise. John Carpenter could be forgiven for anticipating the label’s upcoming Blu-ray release of The Thing with a certain amount of trepidation and David Cronenberg might well be anxiously checking their re-release plans for a whole raft of his titles…

Now that Arrow have started dismembering that Feast box for discrete releases of selected HGL epics that will better suit the pockets of more penurious punters, where better to start than with Blood Feast (1963), the oldest film to make it onto the dreaded “video nasties” listings and widely acclaimed as “the first splatter movie”? Widely, but not universally acknowledged… other contenders have been put forward for this laurel, notably Mario Bava’s Black Sunday but while Bava’s film has plenty of other things going for it (cinematography, atmosphere, Barbara Steele, for example) Blood Feast remains an unrepentently one trick, plasma-drenched pony… it’s all about the Gore.

It’s certainly not about the plot…

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The film opens (to the accompaniment of “tragic kettle drums”!) with a blonde lady (Sandra Sinclair) being attacked in her bath tub by crazed Egyptian exotic caterer Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold)… don’t you just hate it when that happens? The Daily Chronicle’s infamous headline acknowledges one small step for Fuad in his quest to invoke the Goddess Ishtar but a giant leap for screen gore (not to mention a faltering hop for Ms Sinclair). Striking again while the iron is hot, Ramses goes beach-combing and beats out the brains of some cutie out spooning under the stars with her boyfriend. When questioned by the police, this guy really starts chewing the scenery, pulling faces and wailing “She wanted to go home! She wanted to go home!” over and over again as he meditates on the wages of sin.

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Ramses’ third victim has her tongue (actually that of a sheep) pulled right out of her head. Lewis says of Playmate Astrid Olsen: “She was quite adequate for the role – her mouth was big enough to hold this sheep’s tongue and several others!” Connie Mason (another ex-Playmate, who was cast because of producer Friedman’s infatuation with her toothy smile) is a member of the same book-club as the amputee in the bath and also attends lectures on Ancient Egyptian cults. “You know I’ve always been interested in Egyptology”, this obviously empty-headed girl tells her boyfriend Pete Thornton (Bill Kerwin), who just happens to be a detective, in fact one of the extremely slow-witted cops on the case of the demolished girls.

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Another (un)fortuitous “plot”-twist has Connie’s status-seeking mother (Lyn Bolton) hire Fuad Ramses to provide something really exotic for Connie’s birthday party. Little does she know that this is to be the “Blood Feast’ of the title. With a tongue, a brain and a leg, Fuad obviously has the makings of a serviceable Goddess already, though precisely which bits of Connie’s anatomy he plans to filch are left to our imagination. Although an ace Egyptology student, Connie just doesn’t realise what peril she’s in as the machete-wielding exotic caterer persuades her to lie on the kitchen table with her eyes closed. Just as he is about to deliver the coup-de-grace, the cops, for whom the penny has finally dropped, burst in and save Connie. Ramses is pursued across the city dump and expires in a garbage crusher. “He died a fitting death for the garbage he was” intones Detective Thornton, neglecting to add that his fate also provides a perfectly appropriate ending to cinematic garbage such as this.

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Lewis himself always conceded that Blood Feast wasn’t very good. “We don’t want it good, we want it Thursday” was the philosophy of producer Dave Friedman (above), but HGL did insist on its historical importance as the first of its kind… like Walt Whitman’s poetry, argued the former English lecturer at the University of Mississippi. Although this claim to primacy is, as we have seen, debatable, Blood Feast’s massive influence over subsequent graphic horror product (just think of how many films have reprised the tongue-yanking gag) and indeed the monied cinematic mainstream is undeniable.

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In the supplementary featurette Blood Perspectives, filmmakers Nicholas McCarthy and Rodney Ascher argue that with Blood Feast, Lewis and Friedman broke down the walls between mainstream cinema and exploitation (“Off the byways and onto the highways of America”, as Friedman has it) and (rather convincingly) for its status as a bona fide slice of crypto social history. HGL himself is brusquely dismissive of any such auteurist theorising in a couple of other featurettes herein, insisting that the aim all along was purely to entertain, gob-smack and sell tickets. Friedman backs him up on this in an archival interview from 1987 and on the main feature’s commentary track.

The gruesome twosome reiterate the oft-aired account of how they embarked on the splatter trail in an attempt to fashion a new USP and keep themselves ahead of the pack after competitors felt emboldened to emulate their exploits in the “nudie-cutie” field. 1963 turned out to be the annus mirabilis in this regard, the year in which Lewis shot Bell, Bare And Beautiful virtually simultaneously with Blood Feast, also finding time to contribute Goldilocks And The Three Bares and Boin-n-g. “I felt the nudie cycle was going in the wrong direction…” he recalled: “There are only a certain number of ways you can show girls playing basketball!” (indeed, Boin-n-g probably remains the definitive statement on this aspect of the human condition). In the very same hyperactive year, Lewis and Friedman inaugurated the “roughie” with Scum Of The Earth, which is (you lucky people!) crammed onto this disc as yet another extra.

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Lewis’s final monochrome film (with the exception of one hand painted frame at its suicidal climax), Scum Of The Earth tells the tawdry tale of innocent young ladies being drawn into a world of pornography and blackmail by the lure of easy money. Sinister porno king-pin Lang (Lawrence Wood), sadistic Ajax (Craig Maudslay, the guy who trash compacted Fuad Ramses) and sleazy snapper Larry (played by Mal Arnold, though described as “a minor”… in what possible parallel universe?) are out-and-out misogynistic bastards, whereas photographer Harmon (Bill Kerwin) and model / procuress Sandy (Sandra Sinclair, whose bath time routine was so rudely interrupted in Blood Feast) wring their hands about the racket they’re in but carry on regardless, getting – much like the viewer – to have their cheesecake and eat it. After the correct moralistic ending to this perversely enjoyable melodrama, a stern voiceover warns us that: “For every girl who escapes the trap, another falls into it. Only an alert society can save us from those who prey on human weakness… the scum of the Earth!” What kind of low-life, indeed, could draw a sweet lil’ thing like Allison Louise Downe into a net of fleshy depravity? Ask her then husband… Herschell Gordon Lewis (he describes her on the Blood Feast commentary track as “a crew member” so draw your own conclusions as to how the marriage worked out).

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Bill Kerwin lures the lovely Allison Louise Downe into a life of vice…

Additional extras include outtakes, trailers (also for Lucky Pierre, Goldilocks & The Three Bares and Bell, Bare And Beautiful) plus a hysterically sincere theatre announcement / warning to the faint hearted. Bill Kerwin fans are also treated to the promotional short Carving Magic (1959), in which Martha Logan (the Nigella Lawson of her day) coaches Kerwin in how to tackle the Sunday joint. You might learn something about meat carving here but don’t expect too many laughs from this allegedly humorous effort…. Sgt Bilko it ain’t!

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Bill Kerwin (left) demonstrates a bit of Carving Magic to Harvey Korman.

I’ve often babbled on in these and other pages about the swings-and-roundabouts aspect of Blu-ray upgrades. If you’re the kind that habitually regards his or her tumbler of J&B half full, you’ll appreciate the hitherto unguessed at cinematographic subtleties that are revealed to you thereby. If you’re of the “half empty” persuasion, then you’re gonna rue the consequent increase in grain. It hardly matters, anyway… if you keep on drinking J&B, at some point you’re going to be stabbed to death by a loony in a leather trench coat, right? So what’s the diff? As it happens – and against all my expectations – Blood Feast, for all its 54 years, looks just fab on Blu-ray, a medium that could have been conceived specifically to showcase its lurid comic strip aesthetic. If you still harbour memories of discovering Lewis’s magnum opus on some nth generation video dub, you’ll certainly appreciate the job Arrow have done here. Splendid stuff.

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It’s TORSO… Only More So! Sergio Martino’s Seminal Giallo / Slasher Crossover Epic On Shameless Blu-Ray

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BD. Region B. Shameless. 18.

Sweeping the table of eyeless doll heads, you sit down and loosen your black-on-red (or is it red-on-black?) ‘kerchief. Ignoring the banging on the door of the room in which you’ve incarcerated the sexy art student, you peel the polythene wrapper from your copy of Shameless’s new Torso Blu-ray, take out the sleeve and reverse it because the alternative design is going to look so much better on your shelf, extract the disc, feed it into your BD player and settle back in anticipation…

19399797_561431237579683_1018641091339927587_n.jpgFaced with the problem of replacing talismanic female lead Edwige Fenech (who was probably knocking out a sexy comedy or two at the time) for 1973’s I Corpi Presentano Tracce Di Violenza Carnale (“The Corpses Bear Traces Of Carnal Violence”), Sergio Martino made a virtue of necessity by casting Derbyshire dolly bird Suzy Kendall, who had become something of a giallo icon herself since starring in Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970). Here Martino and stalwart scripter Ernesto Gastaldi cut back on the frenetic over-plotting and globe-trotting of their previous collaborations to render their most Argentoesque effort yet… stylishly shot yet boiled down to its brutal, basic ingredients, this is something like the quintessential giallo. Distributed, retitled (as “Torso”)  and marginally recut by Joseph Brenner for the American grindhouse circuit, the film’s pared down focus on psychosexual violence twitched the death nerves of American film goers who were about to embrace Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

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Much has been made of the connection between gialli and the subsequent American slasher cycle… by reducing things to a simple-minded body count mechanism and concentrating on predominantly attractive, sexually active female victims, Torso probably deserves as much credit (if that’s the appropriate word) for this cultural exchange as Bava’s Bay Of Blood (1971), whose plot is more easily recognisable in the first couple of Friday The 13th movies.

After a kinky photo shoot involving doll mutilation (?!?) has played out under the titles, we are introduced to Kendall’s character Jane. She’s studying Renaissance Art at Perugia University, whose student body for the Academic Year 1973-4 seems to consist exclusively of refugees from America’s Next Top Model. Before they’ve learned to distinguish their Perugino from their pudende, however, the girls start getting strangled and carved up by a balaclava clad assassin. Cristina / Conchita Airoldi (as Carol) is offed in even more memorable style than she was in Martino’s The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh (1971).

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After a pot-fuelled heavy petting session with two hippies turns sour (as is so often the case), she wanders off into the foggy woods (like you invariably do on such occasions) and ends up strangled, stabbed and drowned in a muddy swamp. Sex and drugs, then killed in a forest? You couldn’t imagine a clearer template for the stalk’n’slash cycles “have sex and die!” rule, could you? Brenner astutely recognised the significance of this death scene, bumping it up in the running order so it played under the film’s titles, to the accompaniment of a howling fuzz guitar riff (imported from Bruno Nicolai’s score for the contemporary Leon Klimovsky flick, Night Of The Walking Dead.)

The only lead the police have is the killer’s preference for red and black scarves as strangulation aids. Martino manages a little in-joke by casting Ernesto Colli (one of the several assassins in Mrs Wardh) as the campus scarf vendor who attempts to blackmail the killer, only to be squashed under the latter’s car (after all, “death is the best keeper of secrets…”) Meanwhile sweet Danni (Tina Aumont), in best Bird With The Crystal Plumage style, is struggling to recall the half-glimpsed clue that’s tormenting her… did she see her obsessive wannabe boyfriend wearing a black-on-red patterned scarf or a red-on-black patterned scarf at the time of the first killing? Her uncle Nino is quite sure of one thing… that Danni and her sexy pals should try to take their minds off things by spending a weekend at his remote, cliff-side manner in the country. Uh-oh…

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The lecherous villagers are suitably impressed when all this tantalising totty rolls up. Sample comment: ” “Cor… look at all those knockers!” (Yeah Einstein, two per girl… though admittedly that might change when – to paraphrase the marketing for Shameless’s original DVD release – “the whores meet the saws!”) Katia (Angela Corvello) and Ursula (Carla Brait from Giulio Carnimeo’s Why These Strange Drops Of Blood On The Body Of Jennifer?, 1972) are having a hot and heavy lesbian fling so it’s no surprise when they go the way of all sinful flesh, where they’re sadly soon joined by the lovely Danni.

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Because Jane arrived separately and retired to bed early with a sprained ankle, the maniac is initially oblivious to her as she eaves-drops, horrified, on the sawing up of her pals into handily disposable portions of sexy student. The killer boasts an impressive array of cutting tools, but it’s not clear whether his armoury includes a strange vice (yuk, yuk!) Our anguished heroine impotently watches the townspeople below and tries to alert them to her predicament by reflecting the sun off a mirror, but no dice. All she manages to do is reveal her presence to the killer, after which she spends about half an hour playing hide and seek around the house’s ornate fittings and among the butchered remnants of her pals… a fetishistic expansion of one brief, tense scene in Bird With The Crystal Plumage where the killer lays siege to Kendall’s apartment… yep, she’s in a locked room and only a psychotic maniac has the key! All the windows are (in)conveniently barred against burglars… cue the “through the keyhole” shots that Martino so obviously loved in BWTCP and with which he litters all of his gialli.

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But who is the killer? No giallo epic would be complete without the expected massed ranks of suspects. Doctor Roberto (crime-slime mainstay Luc Meranda) spends a lot of time loitering menacingly for no apparent reason… art lecturer Professor Franz (John Richardson, who’s been gracing spaghetti exploitation flicks since Bava’s Black Sunday in 1960) seems unnecessarily obsessed with the correct way to depict the gory martyrdom of Saint Sebastian… brooding student Stefano (Roberto Bisacco) has been stalking Daniela and attempts to throttle a prostitute who laughs when he fails to rise to the occasion…

… even kindly Uncle Nino (Carlo Alighiero) is an incestuously inclined voyeur… and maybe we should be worrying about the peeping tom milkman (“Ernie”, by any chance?) who seems to have emigrated from the set of one of Martino’s “sexy comedies”. Just about all of these guys seem to sport one of those racy little red / black neckerchiefs, too. All is finally resolved with the mandatory ludicrous psychosexual revelation…

 – SPOILER ALERT! –

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 “… just stupid dolls of flesh and blood!’ howls the culprit (calm down, calm down!), flashing back to the unfortunate (and hilariously rendered) childhood incident in which his kid brother went arse over tit off a cliff after a game of doctor’s and nurses went horribly wrong.

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Incidentally, the final confrontation between the characters who turn out to be killer and hero respectively is a full-on punch-up that wouldn’t be out of place at kicking-out time in a Glasgow hostelry and very much suggests the influence of the contemporary kung fu craze. When I interviewed Martino he declared his “absolute favourite moment” from all his films to be “the sequence at the end of Torso, in which Suzy Kendall is locked in the room, being stalked by the killer. I think that I was very successful in generating a lot of suspense there” Not half, matey! Edwige Fenech… who needs her?

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So what have we learned from Sergio Martino’s Torso? That some crazy-as-batshit dude carved up a bunch of art students because he thought that women were dolls… but why did he think that the appropriate response to dolls was to carve them up in the first place? Hm… Sergio, is it too late for a Torso 2? I, for one, would certainly buy a ticket to see that.

Picture wise, it’s the old Blu-ray trade-off between enhancing the subtlety of (Giancarlo Ferrando’s) cinematography while exacerbating the grain in a film that’s almost 45 years old. I’m more inclined to believe that my tumbler of J&B is half full rather than half empty on this occasion, especially as a lot of effort has clearly been put into rectifying the print damage that has marred previous releases. This Shameless BD continues the incremental improvements to Torso that seem to have marked every successive edition… notes that the characters write to each (on paper and on one occasion across a mucky windshield) are now in English and the two surviving characters now exchange philosophical observations (in Italian, with English subtitles) as they walk off into the sunrise, as opposed to the Third Man style dumbshow of the Shameless DVD release.

Extra-wise you get “Dismembering Torso”, a new 23 minute interview with director Sergio Martino. He tells how his usual producer, big brother Luciano, rejected his idea for the film (which was based on a notorious real life case), ultimately produced by Carlo Ponti. We also learn that Sergio originally wanted to call it Red For Love, Black For Death (the scarves thing, right?) but the title became The Corpses Don’t Bear Traces Of Carnal Violence… until distributors insisted that they must bear precisely such traces, obliging Martino to go back and redub the police inspector’s briefing on this subject. He recalls that Torso was doing OK at box offices until Last Tango In Paris came out and slaughtered all the competition (pity they couldn’t call Bertolucci’s film “The Bumholes Bear Traces Of Butter”). Self-critical as ever, Martino observes that “some of the actors were a little wooden”. Well, there’s a good reason for that, Sergio…

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Above: another cracking couple of reinterpretations from beyondhorrordesign.blogpsot.com

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Categories: Blu-ray / DVD Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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