Film Reviews

Toy Division… PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH Reviewed

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Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (USA / UK, 2018). Directed by Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund.

Nazi atrocities reinterpreted via the conventions of the stalk’n’slash genre… what offence could conceivably be taken? In cinemas, now.

Hey, ho, let’s go… I haven’t exactly been an avid follower of Charles Band’s Puppet Master franchise, despite the fact that this Blog’s fairy godmother Irene Miracle starred in David Schmoeller’s 1989 original. If you’re approaching the latest sequel / reboot in a similar state of woeful ignorance, you might well appreciate its pre-titles recap of “the Toulon massacre” that kicked off all this shit in the first place. Blink and you’ll miss HOF Hall-Of-Famer Udo Kier under heavy burns make up as evil puppeteer Andre Toulon.

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Cut to the present day, where recently divorced comic book writer Edgar Easton (Thomas Lennon) moves back in with Mom and Dad, in fact into the bedroom of his puppet-collecting brother, who died under mysterious circumstances. On a more positive note, he embarks on a heated affair with girl next door Ashley Summers (Jenny Pellicer) and together with his wise-cracking schlubb of a buddy / comic store co-worker Markowitz (Nelson Franklin) they take a road trip to a convention marking (well, celebrating, really) the 30 anniversary of that massacre, in the hope of auctioning off one of Ed’s dead brother’s Andre Toulon puppets. You might well be thinking at this point that they and the other attendees deserve all they get. Which turns out to be plenty…

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Having taken ten minutes or so to establish the protagonists’ characters and back stories, Laguna and Wicklund spend the rest of the picture trotting out a succession of eye-wateringly inventive splatter set pieces (appropriately enough in a film going out under the reactivated Fangoria banner… its co-directors both seem to have backgrounds in prosthetic effects and  look like they were probably weaned on that mag in its heyday) when the undead Toulon launches a telekinetic campaign from his crypt (as you do), mobilising his repulsive toys in a  blitzkrieg of butchery against the minority groups he so despises.

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Many of the victims are messily dispatched while having sex which is, in itself, one of the dodgier tropes of the stalk’n’slash cycle that Laguna and Wicklund are so gleefully invoking… but that’s the least of this film’s transgressions against political correctness. Most of the victims are also Jewish (including the couple who congratulate themselves on surviving The Holocaust, only to have their faces burned off by a flame thrower wielding killer puppet) but a lesbian is carved up in her bath and a gypsy ends up pissing on his own head, which has just been lopped off his shoulders by a puppet piloted drone. “These are hate crimes”, Ed tells dim investigating officer Brown (Michael Paré). No shit, Sherlock.

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My initial exposure to PM:TLR was at the 2018 Mayhem Festival,  and I do recall that it was received with a collective “What the actual fuck?!?” response reminiscent of the audience reaction to Springtime For Hitler in The Producers. Before we’d had a chance to debate its ethical niceties, though, we were watching Mandy, after which nobody could talk about anything but Panos Cosmatos’ tripped out revenge saga. Even so, it was difficult to dismiss the memory of the (jewish) Markowitz pushing a “junior fuhrer” puppet into an oven with the words: “See how you like it!” It was only on a second viewing that the penny dropped for me about the exact significance of the film’s crowning outrage, in which a puppet tunnels up a pregnant woman’s vagina and exits, dragging her unborn foetus and placenta behind it. The “Jew Suss” features of the embryo snatcher suggest only one possible interpretation of this scene, i.e. as a take on the old pogrom promoting myth about Jews using christian children in their passover meals… on a holiday that actually coincides with this release! Tasteless, much? I’m only surprised at the restraint by which this film wasn’t marketed as some kind of dark mirror image to Toy Story, utilising the line “To Buchenwald and Beyond!” The final twist suggesting that everything we’ve seen might be the contents of a comic book written by wordl-weary Ed comes as little mitigation for a film both violent and politically incorrect enough to make The Gestapo’s Last Orgy look like The Sound Of Music.

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Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich arrives in UK cinemas at an “interesting” moment in time, where it seems impossible to discuss Israel or The Holocaust or whatever without somebody branding you “an anti-Semite” before you’ve even got two syllables out. God knows what the PC brigade will make of this. The BBFC don’t seem to have found any fault with it but what will The Daily Mail say? (“Hurrah For The Blackshirts Puppets!”, perhaps?)

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The film boasts a better cast than it probably deserves. The principals are likeable (which doesn’t prevent just about all of them being graphically bumped off), Lennon playing it admirably straight-faced throughout. It’s always good to see Barbara Crampton, here as a tart-tongued tour guide / former cop. Must have seemed like old times for the film’s soundtrack composer, Fabio Frizzi, who was Lucio Fulci’s go-to OST guy (come to think of it, the character who gets the back of her head pulled off in a car must have given Frizzi a proper case of the Dunwich deja vu!)

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Now I hear that bloody Chucky’s getting a reboot. If that one does OK, how long will it be before producer Band goes for a Dolls reboot? Check your Christmas stocking very carefully, this year…

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Sette Studentesse Per L’Assassino… THE MINISKIRT MURDERS Reviewed.

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Directed by “Anthony Dawson” (Antonio Margheriti) in 1968. Produced by Lawrence Woolner, Virgilio and Giuseppe De Blasio. Written by Antonio Margheriti, Giovanni Simonelli, Franco Bottari and (all uncredited) Mario Bava, Tudor Gates, Brian Degas. Cinematography by Fausto Zuccoli. Edited by Otello Colangeli. Production design by Antonio Visone. Music by Carlo Savina. Starring: Michael Rennie, Mark Damon, Eleonora Brown, Sally Smith, Patrizia Valturri, Ludmilla Lvova, Malisa Longo, Silvia Dionisio, “Alan Collins”, (Luciano Pigozzi).

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Antonio Margheriti was, by the general consent of anyone who ever met him (among whose number I’m fortunate to count myself), a total sweetheart. Much the same is said,  by those who encountered him, of Mario Bava. Between these two great Italian genre directors, though, little love seems to have been lost. One possible contributory factor to this alleged frostiness might have been Margheriti’s string of Gothic horror efforts which, while constituting a respectable body of chillers in their own right (The Virgin Of Nuremberg, 1963, Danse Macabre and The Long Hair Of Death, 1964) unquestionably shadowed such Bava classics as Black Sunday (1960), Black Sabbath and The Whip And The Body (both 1963). Perhaps such copy-catting was considered par-for-the-course in the Italian B-movie tradition… but maybe not by everybody.

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Whatever, it is suggested (notably by Tim Lucas in his epochal Bava tome All The Colors Of The Dark) that Bava quit as director of the picture under consideration here (at that point known as Cry Nightmare) when he learned that the producer he’d be answerable to was none other than Antonio Margheriti. Inheriting the direction of the project, Margheriti definitively established that he was nowhere near as good a copyist of Giallo Bava as he was of Bava in Gothic mode. Margheriti’s 1973 spaghetti slasher Seven Dead In The Cat’s Eye is pretty watchable stuff, precisely because of the way it allows him to indulge his gothic inclinations… whereas this effort more closely resembles one of the more schoolbound krimi (those West German Edgar Wallace adaptations which are shading off into gialli proper round about this time) than the great giallo leaps forward that Bava seemed to manage every time he worked in the genre.

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For such a pedestrian effort, Marghereti’s film boasts a plethora of lurid titles aside from its original designation, Cry Nightmare. There’s Nude… Si Muore (“Naked You Die”), Sieben Jungfrauen Fur Den Teufel (“Seven Young Girls For The Devil”), The Young, The Evil And The Savage, Schoolgirl Killer and – my favourite – The Miniskirt Murders. Under whatever name, its alleged “action” unfolds, at a very sedate clip indeed, within the walls of St Hilda’s College, a boarding school for the daughters of the well off, whose dormitories are populated by some of the oldest looking “schoolgirls” since Stockard Canning slipped on her Pink Ladies outfit… Sally Smith was thirty when she appeared in this picture, for Chrissakes! Most irritating by far, though, is Lorenza Guerrieri as “Jill”, exactly the kind of mandatory, misfiring “comic relief” that is again strongly reminiscent of the krimis. All of these superannuated students are busily lusting after supposedly hunky teacher Mark Damon, whose penchant for jail bait immediately marks him out as the chief suspect when various girls and faculty members start getting bumped off (in disappointingly perfunctory style). The fact that he likes to hang around the college’s lime pit (yes, St Hilda’s has a lime pit… I imagine that it features prominently in the school prospectus) looking menacing does nothing to ease our suspicions. Another possible culprit is Margheriti and Bava’s ubiquitous character player “Alan Collins” alias Luciano Pigozzi (“the Italian Peter Lorre”), the school handyman who spends his time lovingly polishing his scythe (Freudian, much?) while relentlessly ogling schoolgirls from the bushes.

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Inspector Durand, the cop called in to investigate St Hilda’s alarming mortality rate, is played by a fast-fading Michael (The Day The Earth Stood Still) Rennie… fading so very fast that he was rather, er, tentative in his role, as Margheriti delighted in telling me when I interviewed him in 1995: “Rennie had suffered a heart attack about a year before we shot that picture. Every time we had to shoot a scene with some action, he would come to me and say: ‘Tony, what do you think? Maybe we could have Franco come in with all the policemen running and I arrive later and have a look…’ What he meant was: ‘Don’t make me run, I don’t want to die!’ Ha ha… a terrible story. He would open the door and step out before you could tell him to jump out, because he was really sick, you know? Ha ha ha!” Yeah, that’s very sensitive of you, Antonio…

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The biggest clue to the killer’s true identity lies with a corpse in a crate that we see being deposited in the school’s cellar towards the beginning of the film, and the ultimate revelation comes in a silly cross-dressing twist that really isn’t too hard to spot coming. Margheriti told me that he regarded The Miniskirt Murders as “a Dario Argento picture, ten years before Argento started to make movies!” Apart from the hazy grasp of chronology implied by this statement, it flagrantly disregards how much more Argento managed to achieve with the school setting in Phenomena (never mind Suspiria!) Nowhere in Schoolgirl Killer do we find the delirious levels of sheer stylised cruelty that Italian directors such as Argento, Bava, Fulci and Martino – even Carnimeo and Bianchi – brought to the genre. Even Sidney Hayers’ British girls school giallo wannabe Assault shows The Minskirt Murders the door. Margheriti clearly regarded this one as a job of work, taken on at short notice, rather than any kind of labour of love. He was an admirable jack of all cinematic trades but clearly no master of the giallo. He has left us with many enjoyable pictures but Naked You Die is not one of them.

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It must have been even more underwhelming when cut by 20 mins in States to fit on AIP double bills with “The Conqueror Worm” (that’s Witchfinder General to you, me and the late Michael Reeves). Gialli completists who feel compelled to catch it should be seeking out something close to the original Italian release’s 98 minute running time.

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Why Didn’t They Ask Evelyn? THE WEEKEND MURDERS Reviewed.

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The Weekend Murders aka Concerto For A Solo Pistol (1970). Directed by Michele Lupo. Produced by Antonio Mazza. Written by Sergio Donati, Massimo Felisatti and Fabio Pittorru. Cinematography by Guglielmo Mancori. Edited by Vincenzo Tomassi. Art direction by Ugo Sterpini. Music by Francesco De Masi. Starring: Anna Moffo, “Evelyn Stewart” (Ida Galli), Gastone Moschin, Peter Baldwin, Lance Percival, Giacomo Rossi Stuart, Chris Cjhittell, Marisa Fabbri, Quinto Parmeggiani, Beryl Cunningham, Orchidea de Santis, Claudio Undari, Franco Borelli,  Ballard Berkeley, Richard Caldicot, Harry Hutchinson

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Whenever the origins of the giallo are discussed, various tributaries that fed into that particular filone will inevitably be invoked… Hitchcock, film noir, such German components as Expressionism and the subsequent cycle of Edgar Wallace adaptations, American pulp fiction… but critics, fans and indeed the film makers who plied their trade in this murderous milieu seldom mention the influence of Golden Age (circa the interwar years) British detective fiction. Among the major exponents of the genre, Mario Bava, perhaps, came closest in Five Dolls For An August Moon (1970), a thinly disguised adaptation of the 1939 Agatha Christie novel whose name we dare not, these days, speak.

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In the same year (1970, that is) Michele Lupo was far more explicit in acknowledging this debt with The Weekend Murders, a comic country house murder mystery actually filmed in and around an English country house (Somerleyton Hall in Suffolk) and so broadly played that I kept expecting Miss Marple to pop up from behind a privet hedge or Lord Peter Wimsey to pull up in his Roller. After a flash forward to the discovery of a body in a bunker during a sedate round of golf, the action kicks off with the mustering of the ill-assorted Carter clan for the reading of the eccentric family patriarch’s will. Everything worth having goes to Barbara (Anna Moffo) and the grumbling has hardly subsided before an attempt is made on her life and a series of characters who would become beneficiaries in the event of her demise are bumped off. Co-writers Sergio Donati, Massimo Felisatti and Fabio Pittorru have the wit to do away with the butler (Ballard Berkeley) first… and yes, Berkeley would become more famous several years later as The Major in Fawlty Towers.

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There’s no shortage of remaining suspects (several of whom, naturally, find themselves on the growing pile of victims…) Ted (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) is a charming cad with his eyes on the prize… his wife Pauline (Beryl Cunningham), whom he seems to have married mainly to upset his racist family, is similarly on the make… Isabelle (Ida Galli) is involved in a tortured love triangle with two of the Carter men and Aunt Gladys (Marisa Fabbri) is a sinister battle-axe with terminally maladjusted son Georgie (future Tomorrow Person Chris Chittell) in tow… the latter’s penchant for morbid practical jokes complicate the police investigation at several junctures and his Oedipal hang ups (clearly inherited from those of Hywel Bennett’s identically named alter ego in Roy Boulting’s Twisted Nerve, 1968) are horribly exposed in a really cringe-inducing sexual encounter with nymphomaniac maid Evelyn (Orchidea de Santis).

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A great cast is topped off with Lance Percival (who, as previously noted in these pages, holds an inexplicable grip on Mrs F’s erotic imaginings) and Gastone Moschin (unrecognisable from his hard man roles in such poliziotteschi as Fernando Di Leo’s Milan Calibre 9, 1971) playing, respectively, the snotty Supt. Grey of Scotland yard and bucktoothed, bumbling bobby Sgt. Aloisius Thorpe. Although Grey regards Thorpe (and openly addresses him) as a “hobnailed country yokel bumpkin”, the local beat cop is more on the ball throughout and it’s he who ultimately identifies the culprit, their elaborate MO and motivation in a game-changing twisteroo that could have been dreamed up by Agatha Christie herself (and possibly was… I can’t claim to have worked my way through her complete bibliography). The knockabout relationship between these recalls the set up in many of those German krimi efforts which were, at this point, interchangeable with Italy’s gialli. Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, of course, was about to change all that…

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Francesco De Masi’s score, which riffs on Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (served up straight in Duccio Tessari’s The Bloodstained Butterfly, the following year) is more suggestive of the Spaghetti Western in the way it incorporates gun shots to punctuate the percussive cutting of (Fulci’s go-to editor) Vincenzo Tomasso, hence the original Italian title Concerto Per Pistola Solista. Throughout, the director’s visual flair, a witty script and very watchable cast elevate The Weekend Murders above the mundane run of drawing-room detection duds… in fact, Lupo’s solitary shot in the Italian slasher stakes makes for one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable gialli you’ll ever see. Should be required “after Sunday dinner viewing” and indeed, here at The House of Freudstein, it now is.

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At Least It’s Not Those PPI Bastards! THE KILLER… IS ON THE PHONE Reviewed

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L’assassino… É Al Telefono aka Scenes From A Murder. Directed by Alberto De Martino. Produced by Aldo Scavarda, Guy Luongo and Valerio De Paolis. Written by Alberto De Martino, Adriano Bolzoni, Renato Izzo, Lorenzo Manning and Vincenzo Mannino. Cinematography by Aristide Massaccesi (“Joe D’Amato”). Edited by Otello Colangeli. Production Design by Antonio Visone. Music by Stelvio Cipriani. Starring: Telly Savalas, Anne Heywood, Osvaldo Ruggieri, Giorgio Piazza, Willeke van Ammelrooy, Rossella Falk, Antonio Guidi, Roger Van Hool, Ada Pometti, Alessandro Perrella.

Although he worked his way up through the mandatory succession of peplums and spaghetti westerns and signed off his directorial career in 1985 with a skid row giallo (Formula For A Murder) and similarly under-resourced monster movie (Miami Golem… David Warbeck starred in both), Alberto De Martino was a capable director (responsible for my all time favourite Italian crime slime picture, Blazing Magnum) who nearly crashed the big time in 1977 with Holocaust 2000, a Kirk Douglas-starring Omen clone that did tidy international box office business. The er, omens for Alberto’s career were looking good until he perpetrated The Pumaman, a terminally lame superhero effort that crashed and burned in 1980.

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The aforementioned Blazing Magnum (1976) is one of those poliziotteschi with strong giallo overtones and Martino’s The Man With Icy Eyes (1971) similarly straddles both genres, to less compelling effect. The Killer… Is On The Phone is often dismissed as “for giallo completists only” but having finally caught up with this 1972 effort, I’d hesitate to go even that far, the film playing out more like a ponderous “psychological thriller” than a full-blooded Italian whodunnit…

… for starters, we know who did it (“it” being “bumped off actress Eleanor Loraine’s husband Peter”) from the get go. Yes, it was hit man Ranko Drasovic (Telly Savalas, the year before his apotheosis from cinema character acting stalwart to TV icon with Kojak).

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Ranko’s been contracted to kill a Middle Eastern diplomat in Bruges, when he spots Eleanor (Anne Heywood). His assassination job immediately goes on the back burner (to the chagrin of his employers) because he knows that Eleanor saw him killing Peter (Roger Van Hool). What he doesn’t know is that she was so traumatised by what she saw that she’s completely blotted it out of her memory.

So, an eye-witness to a crime who, unknown to the perpetrator, can’t testify against him… think of how cleverly Lucio Fulci deployed this device during his psychedelic giallo tour de force Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (1971). In contrast, De Martino just has Drago wandering around the canals of Bruges, dogging Eleanor’s footsteps and looking vaguely menacing while he ponders what to do next. When he does finally take decisive action he only succeeds in bumping off the wrong woman, Eleanor’s sister Dorothy (the very lovely Willeke van Ammelrooy, possibly best known to our readers from Dick Maas’s The Lift, 1983) who has taken the indisposed Eleanor’s role in a production of Lady Godiva. Yeah, I’d pay to see Ms  Ammelrooy (below) in that…

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Eleanor had to bow out of the show when she started declaiming Lady Macbeth’s lines during rehearsals and indeed, she seems to identify closely with Lady M… in one flashback she is apparently seen egging on her co-star / brother-in-law / lover Thomas (Osvaldo Ruggieri, who looks like Udo Kier in a Kenney Jones wig) to murder Peter (now there’s a twist!) only for it to be revealed that this is a scene from a play in which they previously appeared together (taking his cue from Busby Berkeley, De Martino stuffs the purported stage production with visual material that no theatre audience could possibly have seen…)

Any viewer roused from their slumbers by this potentially interesting development will soon wish they hadn’t been, as further endless scenes of Savalas wandering around ensue, detracting from what is (when it finally arrives) a rather gripping and suspenseful finalé in which Eleanor rings the curtain down on Ranko’s murderous career in conclusive style. Then there’s an unexpected twist which identifies who really ordered Peter’s murder (and why), all of which comes way too late to salvage this Italo-Belgian co-production which, even if it doesn’t quite piss on your giallo chips, saturates them in an unappetising slurry of stodgy narrative mayonnaise.

Disappointing stuff…

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Nightmare Cinema: The Field Guide To MAYHEM 2018, As It Happened…

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The 14th annual instalment of The World’s Greatest Horror Film Festival, Mayhem, got off to an all-singing, all-dancing, all-intestine munching start at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema on the evening of Thursday, 11th October with John McPhail’s Anna And The Apocalypse (2017), in which schoolgirl Anna (Ella Hunt) and her school friends / adversaries deal with their commonplace hopes, dreams and fears, in song, against the back drop of an unfolding zombie apocalypse… well, zombie apocalypses are becoming pretty commonplace themselves these days (we’ll encounter one or two more before the end of this report). AATA doesn’t maintain its horror comic momentum quite as well as, e.g. last year’s opener, Double Date (why no proper release for that one yet?!?) and the musical numbers are as variable as some of the accents (Paul Kaye’s big show stopper has already been dropped after initial screenings) but this was an ambitious and rather jolly way to ease our way into the proceedings and Ms Hunt is one to keep your eye on, positively lighting up the screen every time she appears. Think “Michelle Keegan… with talent”.

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In his Q&A session director McPhail thanked the fans for turning out and expressed his concern that Netflix is killing Cinema. Our survey of the Horror Film’s current state of  health continued with Nightmare Cinema, an anthology picture that’s equal parts Amicus, Son Of Celluloid and Mad Ron’s Prevues From Hell. Five protagonists find themselves in an unearthly grind house, watching themselves fight for their lives in a succession of hazardous scenarios. Alejandro Brugués’ The Thing In The Woods starts like an ’80s slasher movie, complete with unstoppable psycho, before gleefully flipping our expectations with an excursion into 1950s alien invasion tropes. Joe Dante’s Mirare predictably emerges as the most satirical of the vignettes, building up a palpable sense of dread as a suspicious plastic surgery patient prepares to unwrap the face that Richard Chamberlain has given her, only to blow it with a smart ass ending that only registers a massive “so what?” At the conclusion of this meditation on the follies of cosmetic surgery we are introduced with admirably, er, straight face, to Mickey Rourke’s The Projectionist, the crypto Crypt Keeper in this celluloid vault of horrors.

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Dr. Kildare, is that you?!?

Ryûhei Kitamura’s Mashit is an incomprehensible yarn about demonic possession in a Mexican orphanage, the climax of which plays out like Who Can Kill A Child? meets Shogun Assassin, as lopped off limbs and heads fly through the air in all directions. A spot of gratuitous priest-on-nun rumpo-pumpo confirms the impression that Kitamura’s prime objective here was to rubbish the Catholic Church, for which I can only commend him. David Slade’s This Way To Egress features a female character sinking into psychosis and / or an entropic Lovecraftian parallel dimension. Real laugh-a-minutes stuff… not! Finally, Mick Garris’s Dead turns out to be yet another tweak on the ol’ Occurrence At Owl Creak Bridge chestnut which maintains audience engagement marginally more consistently than Lucio Fulci’s comparable Doors To Silence (1991), though that’s virtually a dictionary definition of “damning with faint praise”.

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Friday afternoon’s session opened with a retrospective screening of The White Reindeer, Erik Blomberg’s 1952 screen adaptation of the Lapland myth that also informed John Landis’ 2005 contribution to the Masters Of Horrors TV series, Deer Woman. Amid scenic snowy splendour (beautifully rendered in b/w by Blomberg, doing his own cinematography), beautiful Pirita (Mirjamo Kuosmanen) worries about maintaining her grip on her husband’s affections during long his long days away, herding. She visits a shaman, whose spells turn her into some kind of were deer, a scenario that’s never going to end well… particularly as it’s taking place in a part of Finland apparently known as “Evil Valley”! With whom exactly did Pirita fear that hubby was going to be unfaithful? I’m reminded of an off colour joke about a Derby County fan and an Eskimo RAC employee… and speaking of sheep shaggers, it was, as ever, a pleasure  to run into Darrell Buxton (rocking an Anthrophagous T-shirt), who’d made the trip specifically to catch this film. Glad he wasn’t sticking around for the quiz, though… give somebody else a chance eh, DB?

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Of all the films scheduled by Mayhem honchoes Chris Cooke and Steve Sheil this year, I suspect Nicolas Pesce’s Piercing will occasion the most hand wringing and knicker wetting over at the Daily Heil. Wannabe serial killer Reed (Christopher Abbott) checks into a hotel room with the intention of hiring and murdering a prostitute. Apparently his libido was hopelessly warped in childhood by the spectacle of a little girl stabbing a rabbit. He has a girlfriend who supports his murderous ambitions (what childhood trauma was she subjected to?) They have a talking baby… yeah, whatever. When Jackie the call girl (Mia Wasikowska) turns up she forestalls Reed’s attempt on her life by going straight into a messy self-harming session. After he’s taken her to hospital to be bandaged up, she invites him back to her place, where she spikes his soup and starts torturing him… oh, there’s a completely pointless nipple piercing sequence too. This one’s your basic fusion of American Psycho, Matador, Basic Instinct and Audition… in fact like Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), it’s adapted from a novel by Ryû Murakami, but while Miike took the time to make us care about that film’s protagonist before the psycho shit started hitting the fan, here you honestly couldn’t give an actual rat’s ass about what happens to Abbott’s character and the film’s makers prove that, ultimately, they couldn’t either by ringing down the curtain with a flip and fatuous gag. I’m increasingly irritated by hipster directors pinching giallo themes for their soundtracks, too. Profondo Rosso, Tenebrae and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, among others, suffer that particular ignominy here. Next, please.

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Marc Price introduced and later fielded questions on his Nightshooters, in which the long-suffering cast and crew of a low-budget zombie flick are locked by their tyrannical director into a tower block that’s due to be demolished at dawn, before which everybody’s hoping to get that last bit of footage in the can. This cut price Otto Preminger didn’t bother to get permission or notify anybody, everybody’s cell phones have been stashed (after a conspicuous bit of script contrivance) God-knows-where and just to put the tin hat on it, our rag-bag of protagonists find themselves witnessing a gangland rub out and must fight their way through a posse of mean ass gangstas to escape the block before everybody gets a real bang for their buck, relying mainly on the pyrotechnic skills of their FX girl Ellie (Rosanna Hoult) and the kung fu prowess of leading man Donnie (the amazing Jean-Paul Ly). Simple minded stuff, but Nightshooters successfully kicked Mayhem 2018 back on track after the pretensions of Piercing.

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Bearing in mind that Ken Livingstone recently got labelled an anti-semite for saying Hitler originally planned to deport European Jews to Palestine (i.e. for stating an easily verifiable historical fact), this is a particularly, er, interesting time for Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich to hit the UK. Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund’s reboot of the endless Charles Band franchise proceeds from the not exactly PC premise that “fans” are visiting a convention “celebrating” the 30th anniversary of the Toulon murders and rapidly escalates to stratospheric levels of bad taste as Udo Kier (unrecognisable beneath heavy burns make up) unleashes his Nazi puppets on the minority groups he despises, in an orgy of clever but stomach churning make up effects… so a torso pisses on the head that’s just been severed from it… a puppet tunnels up a pregnant woman’s vagina and exits, dragging her unborn foetus and placenta behind it… I spotted Ollie Morris frantically recalibrating his Wrong-o-meter when a Jewish character pushed a “baby Hitler” puppet into an oven with the words: “See how you like it!” Fulci’s go-to OST man Fabio Frizzi scored this abomination and it was nice, as ever, to see Barbara Crampton in a small role.

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Nic Cage channels Marilyn Burns, circa 1974…

Anyone whose jaw hit the floor during PM:TLR was wasting their time in retrieving it, given that Friday night concluded with Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy. Everything you’ve heard about this much-touted, overblown oddity is true… and then some. When Steve Sheil suggested to me that I was about to see “a Prog Rock Horror Film” he was pushing at an open door and as the opening shots of rolling US timberland unfurled to the surround sound accompaniment of King Crimson’s monumental Starless (love King Crimson though, like Jeremiah Sand, I’m partial to a bit of Carpenters as well), my goosebumps and the erection of hairs on the back of my neck suggested that I could be about to watch The Greatest Film Of All Time… well, Mandy isn’t quite that but it is magnificently, recklessly unlike any film you’ve seen or are ever likely to see.

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Red (Nic Cage) is a lumberjack, but he’s not OK. He works all night then his home is invaded by the followers of Jeremiah (Linus Roache), a charismatic cult leader who’s pissed off about the world’s failure to recognise his musical talents and who refers to straight people as “pigs” (hmm, to whom could Cosmatos possibly be alluding?) When Red’s girl Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) proves singularly unimpressed by either Jeremiah’s music or his penis dimensions, he has his followers bag her up and burn her in front of Red’s horrified eyes. What follows is an odyssey of revenge… nay, a quest (Red even forges a sacred axe for it), during which our increasingly unhinged hero must overcome a band of outlaw bikers who subsist on acid so powerful that it has apparently transformed them into Cenobites (!) Chemical elevation is probably not the ideal consition under which to fight a chainsaw duel but there’s one of those, as well…

Mandy is, at heart,  a simplistic revenge drama but its rococo plot embellishments and the lysergic emulsion of Benjamin Loeb’s candy coated cinematography make it something that you really need to experience rather than read about.

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Shin’ichirô Ueda’s One Cut Of The Dead (2017) kicked off the Saturday session in audacious high risk style, its first half playing out like a shonky “zombie movie location interrupted by actual zombie outbreak” zero-budgeter, shot in one take… kind of “nice gimmick, shame about everything else”. I’m surprised that the audience stayed with it but for doing so, they were rewarded with a second half introducing the participants, their various backgrounds and motivations for taking part in this live TV production, then “making of” footage via which a lot of shonky things start making sense, to gratifyingly comic effect. A bravely / kamikaze structured movie… it’ll be interesting to see how it does outside the rarified Festival milieu.

I’d like to be able to tell you about the UK Premiere of Chris Caldwell and Zeke Earl’s sci-fi effort Prospect, but at this point I was whisked away to the Broadway’s Green Room by Carl Daft and Dave Flint to be filmed waffling about gialli for a proposed featurette that will hopefully accompany Severin’s upcoming BD release of Sergio Martino’s All The Colours Of The Dark (1972). The Green Room is defiantly and flamboyantly not green, as you’ll certainly appreciate when / if  this featurette sees the light of day…

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Number 37 (another UK Premiere for the men and women of Mayhem) is a South African variation on Rear Window (1954), with wheelchair bound small time crook Randal Hendricks (Irshaad Ally) making rather more interventionist use of his omniscient viewing position in the Capetown Projects than Jimmy Stewart did in the Hitchcock flick. Desperately in need of money to pay off a loan shark, Randal jumps from frying pan to fire when he persuades a friend to pinch a sack of it from the rude boys he’s been keeping under observation. Director Nosipho Dumisa sure-handedly ramps up the plot complications and suspense en route to a satisfying, if not exactly happy, ending.

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This year’s Short Film Showcase, curated by Meli Gueneau and always introduced as “the Heart of Mayhem”, included paraphrases of Poe (Kevin Sluder’s Heartless, USA) and Homer (Jorge Malpica’s Ulisis, Mexico) also, just in case things were getting too highbrow, Chris McInroy’s amusing American effort We Summoned A Demon, in which two drooling stoners… well, I guess I don’t need me to draw you a diagram. There were also two clever and – in their different ways – distinctly macabre animations. From Switzerland came Lorenz Wunderle’s Coyote (psychedelic enough to turn you into a Cenobite) and from the UK, Dick And Stewart: I Spy With My Little Eye, a “Watch With Mother goes to Hell” affair directed by one Richard Littler (the 88 Films guy?)

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Much has been made, in the promotion of Aislinn Clarke’s The Devil’s Doorway, of the Magdalene Laundries scandal and the wider back story of her native Ireland’s emergence from the rancid grip of 2000 years of hypocritical superstition. Ostensibly culled from film shot by priests investigating supernatural goings on in a nun-run home for fallen women, TDD demonstrates Clarke’s familiarity and facility with the incessant “found footage” and “paranormal activities” traditions, effectively delivering its quota of genuine jump shocks. You don’t have to be Thomas Aquinas, though, to detect its doctrinal confusions, indulging as it does the very dogmas that justified those Irish gulags in the first place. Maybe Ms Clarke addressed such concerns in her Q&A session after the screening but I didn’t stick around for that, opting instead for a relatively early and cheap journey home, plus enough sleep to see me through Sunday. For this reason I also, regretfully, missed the late, late screening of Lamberto Bava’s Demons, 1985 (tailor-made for such a festival slot, I would have thought) and – I subsequently learned – a “mystery short”, too. That’s what you get for being a lightweight.

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I’ve been to enough Mayhems now to recognise the patented Cooke And Sheil play of waking up their Sunday morning audience and setting them up for the final day with a spot of manga madness. In Shinsuke Sato’s Inuyashiki (getting its UK Premiere) an alien visitation bestows super powers onto two random citizens of Tokyo, a hip albeit alienated young dude and an underachieving old geezer who gets no respect from his family or society in general… guess with which of those I most identified. Hip young dude turns his anger on his fellow citizens, bumping a bunch of them off through their beloved PC, phone and tablet screens, before his more philanthropically-inclined counter part engages him in an apocalyptic battle for the future of the city (half of which is demolished in the process) and indeed, the whole of Japan. The clash of personal and societal imperatives in this one recalls some of the themes from Anna And The Apocalypse, though something like ten times that film’s total budget must have spent on Inuyashiki’s CGI alone.

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Another multi-director portmanteau effort, The Field Guide To Evil (out of the same stable as ABCs Of Death) concerns itself with folklore horrors from around the globe, explored by the likes of Can “Baskin” Evrenol and Peter Strickland (whose erotic fairytale evidences a familiar foot fixation). (Just about) all of the vignettes are beautifully constructed and shot, if sometimes overly cryptic and open-ended. Neither charge, however, could reasonably be levelled at The Melon Heads, Calvin Reeder’s slice of American backwoods gothic being so on-the-nose that it reduced FAB Press main man Harvey Fenton to hysterical convulsions, from which he emerged to declare it “the worst film I’ve ever seen”. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

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Andy Mitton’s The Witch In The Window is an effective haunted house effort that sees Simon (Alex Draper) and his son Finn (Charlie Tacker) renovating a lakeside des res which, local legend has it, was previously occupied by… well, just read that title again. I hope that if I’m ever confronted by malign supernatural presences, I manage to retain my philosophical cool as well as the principal characters in this one. Having said that, when the really witchy shit does kick in and everybody starts seriously panicking, it’s all the more effective for that. I think the moral we’re supposed to draw from this film’s unexpected conclusion is something to do with self-abnegation being a necessary part of the maturing process…

… jump cut to the annual Flinterrogation, where self-negation was in short demand as the alpha anal retentives battled it out in most gruelling genre cinema quiz on this or any other planet. Having been part of the winning team on the only occasion I’ve ever taken part and rather liking the idea of retiring as undefeated Quiz Champ, I heeded the promptings of my stomach at this point and set out in search of some cheap food. On my return I learned that the team based around Messrs Daft and Fenton had taken the laurels for 2018. Yep, Harvey Fenton knows what he’s talking about when it comes to genre cinema… sorry to rub it in, Calvin Reeder.

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Flint, Fenton and Daft, pictured at the Broadway bar…

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Dennison Ramalho’s The Nightshifter starts promisingly enough, with Sāo Paulo mortuary worker Stènio (Daniel De Oliveira, a dead ringer for David Warbeck in his scrubs) talking to and hearing back from the corpses on his slab. He’s always had this ability and thinks nothing of it. That changes when his workaday conversational diet progresses from the customary exchange of small-talk and homespun philosophies to the revelation of his wife’s infidelity with the local baker. Stènio vengefully implicates the latter, falsely, in the death of a criminal warlord’s brother, as a result of which both of the lovers are executed in the street. You might have thought that any half decent director couldn’t fail to build on such strong foundations but unfortunately Ramalho hereafter squanders his hand with a relentless succession of demonic possession clichés… ho-hum.

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Mayhem 2018 concluded with Colin Minihan’s Canucksploitation killfest What Keeps You Alive, in which lesbian lovers Jacky (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Jules (Brittany Allen) get it together in another of those lakeside country getaways, until Jules rubs Jacky up the wrong way (by prying unwisely into her murky past) and unleashes her inner Count Zaroff. What follows is yet another a variation on Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game, with a soupçon of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane and the world’s most awkward dinner party (“awkward” as in “all the guests get killed”) thrown in for good measure. WKYA is another one that squanders its strong premise and early promise with a few too many plot improbabilities and “WTF did she do that for?!?” moments. Anderson’s psycho is also just a little too self-aware for my liking (c.f. Ksenia Solo’s character Carles Torrens’ Pet, from a couple of Mayhems back). Will Minihan cop heat, in the current PC climate, for being unable to depict lesbian lovers without revealing one of them as a ruthless killer?

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Buggered if I know… I’ve just sat through four straight days of horror films, I’ve got rectangular eyes and pressure sores on my bum. I need fresh air, some decent food and a lie-in. Thank you Chris Cooke, Steve Sheil and Meli Gueneau for reducing me to this state. Will I be back in 2019? Yeah, if they’ll have me…

All titles ©2018, unless otherwise stated.

Oh, just in case…

 

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Jeepers, Creepers… ALL EYES ON LENZI – THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE ITALIAN EXPLOITATION TITAN Reviewed

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All Eyes On Lenzi – The Life And Times Of The Italian Exploitation Titan (2018). Directed and produced by Calum Waddell. Produced and edited by Naomi Holwill.

Despite having one of Hollywood’s hottest hot shots (you know who I mean) as the unofficial President of his fan club, the recently deceased Umberto Lenzi remains an underrated director among aficianados of the various genres in which he worked. I’m as guilty as anyone in this regard… in one of my earliest published pieces I praised Lenzi’s cannibal movies (he wouldn’t have thanked me for that… indeed, he subsequently slammed the phone down on one attempt I made to talk to him about those films) while dismissing his gialli out of hand. Well, the statute of limitations must be up on this so I might as well confess that in those days I still hadn’t seen several of the latter…

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I subsequently caught up with and have recently been re-watching Lenzi’s thrillers starring Carroll Baker, in the service of a feature that I’m writing about the evolution of the giallo, so you’d think I wouldn’t make that mistake again. As recently as my review of Arrow’s Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key, though, I refer to a notional “big four” of giallo directors (Bava, Argento, Fulci and Martino) which really should have been expanded to a “big five” to include Lenzi. Sure, his brand of steamy. scheming, bonkbusting gialli gave way to the Bird With The Crystal Plumage model and his later attempts to render films in the Argento style are not wholly convincing, but to deny Lenzi his proper place in the Hall Of Fame does a significant disservice both to him and to giallo history… over and above which, we must consider the impact of his cannibal epics on polite society and the enormity of his contributions to the poliziotteschi scene.

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Perhaps my brief contributions to Calum Waddell’s timely All Eyes On Lenzi feature-length documentary will go some way towards atoning for my previous critical lacunae. There are plenty of other pundits lining up in it to demand that Lenzi be paid his due respect, including Milanese fan publishing notable Manlio  Gomarasca, the University of Worcester’s own Mikel Koven (who enthuses about the thespian sparks ignited between Tomas Milian and Maurizio Merli, among other things), film-maker Scooter McCrae and one of my favourite up-and-coming writers, Rachael Nisbet (is that your disc collection behind you, Rachael? Jeez, I wish mine was as neatly displayed as that…)

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Principle among those boosting Lenzi’s credentials, of course, is Lenzi himself, in one of the last interviews he ever gave (and in which he gives particularly good value for money on the subject of setting up the action scenes in his crime-slime classics, also keeping an admirably straight face as he expands upon the serious ecological message behind Nightmare City). Giovanni Lombardo Radice offers a dissenting view while his Cannibal Ferox co-star Danilo Mattei (who can also be seen lurking inside a bear skin in Lenzi’s The Iron Master) contributes a more  phlegmatic take on the moody director’s foibles.

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The Iron Master… Nightmare City… Eyeball… all these slices of delirious cinematic trash are enthusiastically endorsed as evidence that Lenzi could still deliver entertaining fare, even when the budgets got a bit rubbish. AEOL doesn’t shy away from the fact that when the budgets got really rubbish, Lenzi was as capable of delivering a sack of shit as anyone (Black Demons… The Hell’s Gate… I’m looking at you) but hey, that never queered anyone’s admiration for Lucio Fulci, and rightly so. Nisbet offers the ironic observation that even Lenzi’s fag-end failures have a fan following of their own among millennials (bloody millennials… who can figure those guys out, huh?)

Another winner from our pals at High Rising Productions, All Eyes On Lenzi will apparently be included in an all-singing / dancing deluxe metal box edition of Eyeball from 88 Films… keep ’em peeled for that one, schlock-pickers!

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06/08/31 – 19/10/17. R.I.P.

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“I Think We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Legal Team”… Enzo Castellari’s THE LAST SHARK Reviewed

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L’Ultomo Squalo (“The Last Shark”) aka The Last Jaws / Jaws Returns/ Great White (1981). Directed by Enzo G. Castellari. Produced by Maurizio Amati and Ugo Tucci. Written by Ramón Bravo, Vincenzo Mannino, Marc Princi and Ugo Tucci. Cinematography by Alberto Spagnoli. Edited by Gianfranco Amicucci. Special FX by Antonio Corridori. Art direction by Franco Vanorio. Music by Guido & Maurizio De Angelis. Starring: James Franciscus, Vic Morrow, Micaela Pignatelli, Joshua Sinclair, “Timothy Brent”  (Giancarlo Prete), Stefania Girolami.

Here at the HOF we continue to seek out new obscurities and re-familiarise ourselves with long neglected treasures during our increasingly elastic free month’s trial with Amazon Prime. This time out it’s an Italian copycat effort that scored big in American theatres (round about the time that its director was making a big impression in the early days of home video and winning the heart of Quentin Tarantino with the likes of Bronx Warriors)… scoring significant legal problems in the process.

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William Wells (Joshua Wells), the mayor of South Bay (why does the poster above locate the action in “Port Harbor”? Fucked if I know…) is running for State Governor so he doesn’t want anything to disrupt the centenary wind-surfing regatta he’s throwing (sound reasoning… anyone who lays on a centenary wind-surfing regatta gets my vote!) It follows that he doesn’t want smart alec marine biologist Peter Benton (James Franciscus) spreading scare stories about the potential for shark attacks. Credit where it’s due, the mayor does get miles of underwater metal cages installed to ring fence the bay from sharky intrusions (yep, this guy’s definitely getting my vote). Vic Morrow (in the Quint role) rants (in a preposterous Scottish accent) about how sharks, once they’ve acquired the taste for human flesh, won’t let any metal fence come between them and their next helping of it. Helping them on their relentless way, ambitious freelance news reporter Bob Martin (Giancarlo Prete) sabotages stretches of the fence to increase his chances of getting saleable footage of wind-surfing kids being attacked by sharks (way to get your Pulitzer prize shoved up your arse there, Bob!)

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“There’s something fishy here… I don’t like it” announces one of the competitors, shortly before he, his buddies and their bikini-clad bimbo girlfriends start getting bits munched off them by that Great White. Sensing his gubernatorial aspirations slipping from his grasp, the Mayor has himself helicoptered out over the bay in an attempt to shoot the giant shark, which rises from the brine to drag the chopper and its inhabitants into Davey Jones’s locker… another promising political career comes to an end! What pisses Peter off more than any of this, though, is when the shark bites off one of his daughter Jenny (Castellari’s real life daughter Stefania)’s legs, setting up the climactic confrontation between him, Quinty ol’ Ron Hamer (Morrow) and the titular beasty…

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Hm… did any of that remind you of another film? One directed by Steven Spielberg in 1975, perhaps? Just a little bit? Universal Pictures certainly thought so. As Castellari tells it… “In the sunny city of Los Angeles, in only its first weekend of release, we collected $2,200,000… a crazy amount for any Italian, indeed any European, film. I was fortunate enough to be in LA when it was opening. After 15 days The Last Shark, which was called The Great in the United States, had taken at least 20 million. It seemed impossible to be in competition with Spielberg and win, it was like one of our fantasy productions but it was true! The Americans were running scared of us, so Universal moved to interrupt our success, and a month later they did it, through legal means, inventing a lot of reasons and a lot of evidence which they presented to the judge. You can imagine these high-powered lawyers for Universal, they’re able to fight very well against a small Italian production…”

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As if this wasn’t enough of a commercial injury, Castellari feels that Universal subsequently added a cheeky dollop of insult: “In Jaws 3, which came out two years later, there are several scenes that are exactly the same as in my film, which they killed in this big market, then they had the cheek to copy me… especially the big scene on the pier, it’s exactly the same as in my picture, right down to identical shots!”

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Well, there’s probably an element of the pasta pot calling the US corporate kettle black here, though what’s undeniable is that with admirable economy and characteristic conviction (in the action sequences) / competence (during the scenes of exposition) Castellari has managed a shark picture that bears comparison with the legitimate successors to Spielberg’s original. Sure, there are plot holes (does Benton chin Bob Martin because he knew that the latter had sabotaged that anti-shark fencing? How did he know? And was a sock on the jaw sufficient payout for his daughter’s missing leg?) but the film’s biggest drawback is the way Castellari allows the camera to dwell too long on his giant plastic shark head (admittedly Spielberg made the same mistake) and some less than convincing model work, certain shots of which should have been dispensed with entirely. There’s one bit with a toy helicopter bobbing around in somebody’s sink, alongside what’s supposed to be a shark… but could well be something else…

… but what else could it possibly be?

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Well, consider Castellari’s own account of shooting The Shark Hunter with Franco Nero, two years earlier: “We did that in a Caribbean island, using 32 real sharks with a Mexican crew. For them it was so easy, but on one occasion I was underwater with the DP when a shark escaped from the hands of his trainer… I saw this shark coming straight at me, it was just like a train, and that was it… whoa! What do you say? ‘You shit your pants!’ I know now from experience, that’s not just a saying. You actually do it!”

Another mystery cleared up. All part of the service here at House Of Freudstein, dear readers.

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I Ain’t Gonna Work On Mimsy’s Farm No More… THE VIOLENT FACE OF NEW YORK Reviewed

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La Faccia Violenta Di New York (1973). Directed by “George” (Jorge) Darnell. Produced by Toni Di Carlo. Written by Jorge Darnell, Giovanni Fago, Marino Onorati, Alberto Piferi and José Diaz Morales. Cinematography by Erico Menczer. Edited by Alberti Gialitti. Art direction by Gianni Polidori and José Rodriguez Granada. Music by Riz Ortolani. Starring: Sergio Jiménez, Fernando Ray, Mimsy Farmer, Luigi Pistilli, Renato Pinciroli, Yolanda Rigel, Adolfo Lastretti, Tere Velázquz, Léon Singer, Giuseppe D’Avanzo, Augustin Isunza.

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Beating up wet backs is made to look like so much fun in The Violent Face Of New York…

I’ve been bingeing on Amazon Prime recently and thought I might post a few quickie reviews of stuff I found on there, as time permits and the fancy takes me. The Violent Face Of New York (here under its alternative title One Way) is a bit of rarity in that it’s an Italo-Mexican co-production. The picture it paints of the lives (and deaths) of illegal Mexican immigrants to the USA suggests that Trump would be doing them a favour if he ever did build that fucking wall: repetitively setting up pins in a bowling alley and getting duffed up by its scumbag patrons, lugging heavy sacks around and getting beaten to death and stuffed into one of them if you complain about working conditions… it’s all in a day’s work, a model of industrial relations straight out of a Tory wet dream…

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Although fellow wet back wannabes are shot dead by US border guards, Sergio (Sergio Jiménez) makes it to the promised land with a package of dope and an introduction to gang master Mr David (Fernando Ray). Disgusted by the exploitive underworld he’s been sucked into and having become involved in an affair with the gang master’s mistress, Milena (Mimsy Farmer), Sergio resolves to bring down the organisation but in a downbeat drama such as this, there’s only ever going to be one conclusion…

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Jorge Darnell (whose thin resumé also includes the 1975 rip-off of you know what, Devil’s Exorcist and the following year’s horror comedy Hard Times For Dracula) directs with gritty efficiency and was able to call on a solid crew. A Riz Ortolani score never exactly hurts, either. Sergio Jimenez is believable and sympathetic as the doomed hero and Fernando Ray, as usual, never puts a foot wrong. As with so many of the films she’s appeared in, though, it’s Mimsy Farmer who continues to haunt the viewer’s memory…

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Her dark hair in this one makes for a refreshing change (though she’s often required to wear a Marilyn Monroe-style blonde wig for Mr David’s sexual gratification) but it’s the same old fragile Mimsy. Nobody has ever suffered in Italian (or any other) cinema quite like Ms Farmer. I’m not talking about the physical suffering routinely undergone by the likes of Daniela Doria, Zora Kerova and Mariangela Giordano, though (MAJOR SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD!) one shouldn’t discount Mimsy’s spectacular decapitation at the climax of Argento’s Four Flies On Grey Velvet (1971) or the fact that the rest of the cast of Francesco Barilli’s Perfume Of The Lady In Black (1974) conclude that film by eating her. It’s the laceration of her very soul, so eloquently conveyed in those Argento and Barilli pictures, Barbet Schroeder’s More (1969) and Armando Crispino’s Autopsy (1975) that makes each cinematic date with Mimsy Farmer such a memorable one and the denouement of TVFONY, in which her character’s desperation and simultaneous resignation to her enslavement are so readable in those eyes, is yet another mesmerising moment.

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I was tickled by the scene in which Mr David, attempting to intimidate his moll back into line, tells her that Britain was once overrun with hamsters and that we limeys solved the problem by turning them all into fur coats. Americans believe the funniest things about life over here, don’t they? The one about Birmingham being a no go area for Muslims is particularly droll. But she takes his point… or rather, sadly for her and Sergio, she doesn’t.

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Can You Dig It? Armando Crispino’s THE ETRUSCAN KILLS AGAIN Reviewed

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The Etruscan Kills Again (1972). Directed by Armando Crispino. Produced by Artur Brauner. Written by Armando Crispino, Lucio Battistrada, Lutz Eisholz, adapted from a short story by Bryan Edgar Wallace. Cinematography by Erico Menczer. Edited by Alberti Gialitti. Art direction by Giantito Burchiellaro. Production design by Giovanni Nataluccu. Music by Riz Ortolani. Starring: Alex Cord, Samantha Eggar, John Marley, Nadja Tiller, Enzo Tarascio, Horst Frank, Enzo Cerusico, Carlo De Mejo, Mario Maranzana, Carla Brait.

“In ancient times, hundreds of years before the dawn of history, lived a strange race of people… the Druids. No one knows who they were… or… what they were doing… but their legacy remains… hewn into the living rock of Stonehenge!”: Stonehenge by Spinal Trap. 
… and pretty much the same could be said of the Etruscans, whose civilisation shaped, but was ultimately supplanted by, that of Ancient Rome. Certainly tousel-haired Professor Jason Porter (Alex Cord) is mulling their mysteries when he flies in to investigate some recently unearthed burial mounds, but archeological enigmas soon prove to be the least of his worries… for starters he’s trying to woo back his ex, Myra (Samantha Eggar), who finished with him on the pretty reasonable grounds that he’d stabbed her (“Sure, love can make you stab a woman and you might even knock her around a little” observes a sympathetic if not entirely PC cop). She’s now married to the tyrannical orchestra conductor Nikos Samarakis (John Marley) who, it turns out, still hasn’t divorced his first wife Leni (Nadja Tiller)… whose son Igor (a very young-looking Carlo De Mejo) is working on the Prof’s dig. A canoodling couple who choose one of the mounds for a spot of furtive nookie end up getting their brains beaten out (in a scene which might well have influenced the pre-credits sequence to Fulci’s House By The Cemetery, 1981) with a ceremonial club that turns out to look exactly like one wielded by an Etruscan deity (“Chakuka”? Sorry, my Ancient Etruscan’s a but rusty…) in a subsequently discovered mural. Is some kind of supernatural nemesis avenging the desecration of this sacred site? Or is some really weird shit going on?

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Suspects include choreographer Horst Frank (in a performance that is, even by his standards, floridly camp) and an insect torturing tour guide-turned-blackmailer (seriously, I’m not making this up!) but Jason finds himself fitting neatly into the frame (rather like Jon Finch’s character in Hitchcock’s Frenzy, 1972) on account of his track record in domestic violence and significant gaps in his memory, occasioned by his habit of downing a bottle of J&B a day… it’s nice to see the giallo wonderdrink actually serving as some sort of plot point for once, over and above its customary product placement purpose. Oh, Mr Porter… things are looking bad for our stab-happy, dipsomaniac academic but the fact that Verdi’s Requiem is heard playing every time some gormless youth gets messily bumped off amid the Etruscan remains (yeah, it happens a few times)  and the introduction of a shoe fetish motif suggest that some kind of primal trauma is being played out and if you pay attention, you shouldn’t find it too hard to identify the culprit before the climactic revelation.

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If TEKA was the only giallo ever attempted by Crispino, he would probably has made about as lasting an impression on the genre as those Etruscans did on world history, but fortunately in 1975, the year that Dario Argento perfected the form with Deep Red, our man Armando got his thematic shit (the soapy interaction of characters with improbable biographies, morbidly delineated in a macabre atmosphere) together and hewed his legacy into the living rock of pasta paura with the remarkable Autopsy.

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If this one whets your appetite for Etruscan-themed thrillers you’ll want to check out Sergio Martino’s so-so Murder In The Etruscan Cemetery (1982) and Andrea Bianchi’s gobsmacking Burial Ground (1980), the latter featuring some even weirder domestic entanglements than Crispino’s picture and also enough badly made-up zombies to improve the mood of any living dead completist who felt that they were tricked into seeing The Etruscan Kills Again by a misleading American retitling and ad campaign.

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It’s About Time… CRONOS Reviewed.

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When I learned that Guillermo del Toro had won the best director and picture Oscars for The Shape Of Water, I intended to dust off an interview I did with him in 1994 (when he was publicising his feature debut Cronos) for this Blog. The relevant data file proving resolutely elusive, I’ve decided to dust off my contemporary review (here slightly modified). It’s fair to say that I feel vindicated in my prediction of great things for Senor del Toro (who struck me even then as an intelligent and amiable dude). We Freudsteins are even contemplating a rare cinema visit… to watch a film so mainstream that it won an Oscar. Strange times indeed…

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Cronos (1993). Directed by Guillermo del ToroProduced by Arthur Gorson, Bertha Navarro, et al. Written by Guillermo del Toro. Cinematography by Guillermo NavarroEdited by Raúl Dávalos. Art direction by Brigitte Broch. Production design by Tolitga Figuero. Musiby Javier Álvarez. Special FX by Laurencio Cordero. Starring: Federico Luppi, Ron Perlman, Claudio Brook, Margarita Isabel, Tamara Shanath, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Mario Iván Martinez, Juan Carlos Colombo.

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Cronos begins with antique dealer Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) acquiring the statue of an archangel, which has apparently been missing for four hundred years. The appropriately named but distinctly menacing Angel de la Guardia (Ron Perlman) turns up at his shop, very keen to acquire the artefact for his dying uncle Dieter (Claudio Brook), a Howard Hughes-type so anally retentive that he keeps his surgically removed tumours in glass display cabinets. Nice. Gris and his little granddaughter Aurora (the spooky Tamara Shanath) soon discover why he’s so intent on buying the piece – it contains the legendary Cronos Device (shades of the Lemarchand Configuration), a small, elaborately engineered metallic sphere which incorporates a worm-like organism whose secretions confer the gift (or is the curse?) of eternal life… along with an overpowering urge to drink human blood.

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To gain possession of the alchemical contraption, Angel does away with Gris… or so he thinks. The antiques dealer has already experimented with the device and, unpicking his mortician’s stitches, wanders out of the crematorium, visibly decomposing, for a confrontation with the bad guys. After finally destroying the Cronos Device, Gris goes to blessed oblivion, surrounded by those who love him. “I am Jesus Gris” he states, and that’s enough. Mortality is acknowledged as an essential component of humanity.

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I knew doodly-squat about Guillermo del Toro when I first watched his feature debut, apart from the fact that he is Mexican. For all I knew, Cronos might have been some kind of masked wrestler smack down or something akin to the loony likes of Night Of A Thousand Cats. Instead, it emerged as that kind of horror picture which comes along every so often and gives you new hope for the future of the genre. “As far as I’m concerned, Cronos is a world-class gem of a film” says one of its stars, Ron Perlman and while there’s a touch of “he would say that, wouldn’t he?” about this pronouncement, it just so happens that he’s right.

You could call Cronos a vampire movie, but it’s a revisionist one that continually confounds your expectations by reversing the conventions of the genre. Never mind Tom Cruise mincing around in Interview with the Vampire, Cronos cuts the crap and delivers the kind of new blood the genre has been crying out for… and in supplying it, del Toro announces his arrival as a major new Horror auteur for the nineties and beyond.

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