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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A Sliver Of SALÒ… Lucio Fulci’s THE GHOSTS OF SODOM Reviewed

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“Jinkies!”

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The Gosts Of Sodom (“I Fantasmi Di Sodoma”), 1988. Directed by Lucio FulciProduced by Antonio Lucidi & Luigi Nannerini. Story by Lucio FulciScreenplay by Lucio Fulci Carlo Alberto Alfieri. Cinematography by Vincenzo TessiciniEdited by Vincenz Tomassi. Musiby Carlo Maria Cordio. SFX by Gino Vagniluca. Starring: Claudio Aliott, Maria Concetta Salieri, Robert Egon, Jessica Moore, Teresa Razzaudi, Sebastian Harrison, Al Cliver (uncredited), Zora Kerova (uncredited), Joseph Alan Johnson (uncredited).

Lamberto Bava was the best of influences… Lamberto Bava was the worst of influences… although his 1985 effort Demons (arguably the Last Great Italian Horror Film) confirmed him as his father’s son, Bava Jr’s Graveyard Disturbance (made just three years later) set the template for a string of anaemic, TV friendly efforts (more Hanna Barbera than Mario Bava) in which gormless yuppie youths confronted lame-assed spooky adversaries in anodyne adventures whose video releases had audiences around the world reaching for the fast forward button while struggling to stay awake.

The Ghosts Of Sodom (which Fulci directed in 1988, virtually simultaneously with the marginally superior Touch Of Death) pinches Demons’ central conceit of cursed celluloid only to put it in the service of “Scooby Doo Vs Third Reich” silliness, resulting in a listless boreathon that makes the likes of Sergio Garrone’s SS Experiment Camp (1976) and Luigi Batzella’s Beast In Heat (1977) look like Marcel Ophüls’ The Sorrow And The Pity (1969).

Towards the end of WWII, a bunch of SS men hole up in a villa and (stop me if you’ve seen something like this before) stave off contemplation of the inevitable by acting out a series of depraved sexual tableaux. Unfortunately the paucity of Fulci’s imagination in this department means that the most depraved thing we witness is Al Cliver shouting at a girl to dance too fast… oh and some bozo trying to pot a snooker ball between a compliant Fraulein’s legs. Before everybody expires from ennui, a stock footage allied bombing raid puts them out of their misery. But the nasty Nazis had the presence of mind to film their tame orgy for posterity…

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… and four decades or so later, a campervanload of groovy guys and bitchin’ babes (including Jessica Moore / Lucian Ottaviani from Joe D’Amato’s Eleven Days, Eleven Nights brace) rocks up at the (distinctly unbombed looking) villa to deplete the wine cellar and make out, their libidos inflamed by the photo albums of vintage Nazi porn they discover (“Get a load of these knockers!”) Unwisely, they also crank up the film of that long (and justifiably) forgotten orgy, at which point the villa fills up with Nazi spectres. The flower of Aryan manhood (identified in the credits as “Willy The Nazi” and played by Robert Egon) engages in vanilla S&M shenanigans with the lucky girls.

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One of the boys is brow beaten by Nazis into playing Russian roulette for the favours of a sexy female ghost (the uncredited Zora Kerova), only for her breasts to turn to ashes in his hands… doncha just hate it when that happens? Another falls downstairs and dies, his body rapidly degenerating into a pool of pulsating pus…

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Mercifully, the Nazi bongo movie reaches the point at which the villa was bombed and the yups find themselves outside, unscathed and remarkably philosophical about the ordeal which they have just undergone…

“That was some adventure!”
“Let’s get the hell out of here!”
“I’m way ahead of you!”

The resurgent Nazi threat is over, for now… but they would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids! Just to confuse them further, their dismembered antics would be recycled in another film-within-a-film outing, Fulci’s hysterical A Cat In The Brain aka Nightmare Concert (1990).

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Plenty of quality Italian films have examined, in literal or allegorical style, the country’s war-time complicity with Nazism… Antonio Bido’s Watch Me When I kill (1977), Pupi Avati’s The House With Laughing Windows (1976) and any amount of Pier Paolo Pasolini pictures spring to mind. This is certainly not one of them. Fulci’s attempt to reframe Pasolini for the Panino crowd comes up several scooby snacks short of a satisfying picnic, although towards the end you really do start to feel like it’s been going on for 120 days. Looking back on LF’s career nadir hasn’t turned me into a pillar of salt, but I’m struggling to think of anything else I could possibly say in its favour.

Incidentally, Fulci made much of his anti-Nazi credentials (not least when I spoke to him) but anyone who’s watched his interview on the Grindhouse DVD of A Cat In The Brain will have heard him make a pretty reprehensible throwaway crack about The Holocaust… a sorrow and indeed, a pity.

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He Should Have Gone To Specsavers… Sergio Martino’s THE SUSPICIOUS DEATH OF A MINOR Reviewed

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

Claudio Cassinelli (in the first of several starring roles for Sergio Martino) plays Paolo Germi, an undercover Police Inspector (it is revealed, half way into the picture) who is investigating the trafficking of minors for immoral purposes in Milan. Impetus is lent to his investigations when informant Marisa Pesce (Patrizia Castaldi) gets sliced up by a knife wielding, mirror shades-wearing assassin before she can pass on the information she had promised him. Hampered by his by-the-book boss (Mel Ferrer) and dozy colleagues (one of whom seems more obsessed with betting than rounding up any bad guys) Germi recruits petty criminal Giannino (a nice comic turn from Adolfo Caruso) as his wing man and continues his enquiries among the city’s tarts, those with hearts and otherwise. As connections with the drugs trade and a kidnapping ring fall into place, suspicion begins to fall on Marisa’s wealthy and influential Uncle Gaudenzio (Massimo Girotti). With his employers continuing to drag their feet, demanding cast-iron evidence, Germi is prompted by the murder of Giannino and his girlfriend to quit the force and confront Pesce while the latter is on a money laundering trip to Switzerland…

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There’s a gag running throughout TSDOAM, concerning the frequency with which Cassinelli’s character breaks the lenses in his glasses. If I wanted to go all clever dick on you, I’d argue that this is emblematic of the film’s fractured stylistic take. I do, so I will…

Having authored some of the more compelling and varied entries in the giallo cycle from 1970 to 1973 (The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh, All The Colours of The Dark, Your Vice Is  A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key) and providing the template for the all-conquering stalk’n’slash cycle with Torso, Sergio Martino could have been forgiven for leaving the yellow stuff well alone, especially as the wave inspired by Dario Argento’s The Bird with The Crystal Plumage (1970) was starting to recede. TSDOAM began life as a poliziottescho effort, a logical progression from the seminal crime slime entries that Martino had already racked up with The Violent Professionals (1973) and Silent Action (earlier in ’75). In the run-up to shooting Suspicious Death, however, the giallo was reinvigorated by Argento’s triumphant return with Deep Red and Sergio’s producer brother Luciano felt obliged, at short notice, to add gialloesque aspects to this picture. As well as the mandatory stalking sequences we get specific references to, e.g. Daria Nicolodi’s malfunctioning car, a stabbed woman breaking a window with her face, a nasty scalding… Luciano Michelini even contributes a main theme that’s eerily reminiscent of the Goblin one to Argento’s biggie.

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Argento copying aside, it can’t have escaped the Martino boys’ attention that Milan-born Massimo Dallamano’s What Have They Done To Your Daughters? (alternatively titled, tellingly enough La Polizia Chiede Aiuto / “The Police Are Asking For Help”) from the previous year combined giallo and crime slime successfully… not to mention turning on a “teenage prostitution racket servicing the great and good” plotline and starring Cassinelli. This cross-pollination of cop / giallo ingredients would produce its prize specimen in 1976, with Alberto De Martino’s amazing Blazing Magnum (1976).

But betting (correctly) that neither gialli nor poliziotteschi had that much life left in them, Sergio further confused matters by incorporating elements of comedy (a genre he had already debuted in with the Edwige Fenech vehicle Giovannona Long-Thigh, 1973, and to which he would successfully return for much of his subsequent filmography) into an already overegged mix. So instead of the nail-biting thrills of the car chase from The Violent Professionals (so impressive it was recycled in subsequent films by Martino and others) we are here “treated” to automobile antics involving nuns, acrobatic head spins and trick unicycle silliness.

In case you were wondering whether such jocularity was appropriate for a film about the sexual exploitation of minors, fret ye not… this is hardly a serious look at that troubling subject, the victims herein constituting the oldest “minors” since Stockard Channing enrolled at Rydell High. Barbara Magnolfi, two years away from her striking turn in Suspiria, had already bid adieu to her teens when she appeared in TSDOAM…. ditto Patrizia Castaldi, the title character. Kooky hooker Carmela (Lia Tanzi, perviously a prostitute in The Violent Professionals) bears a close resemblance to  Nancy Allen and the fate of her character curiously foreshadows that of Allen’s in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981).

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A healthy compliment of strong female characters is rounded out by the feisty Gloria (the ill-starred Jenny Tamburi), with whom Germi hooks up for a briefing (while Giannino is attempting to debrief her) in a down-market Terza Vizione cinema which is screening, incestuously enough, Martino’s Your Vice Is A Locked Room. This sequence segues into one of the picture’s best realised suspenseful action vignettes, with that mirror shaded assassin stalking Germi across (and through) the cinema roof until another Italian shop window mannequin takes the mandatory fall. Mention must also be made of a well-choreographed shoot out on a roller coaster and the ensuing metro station pursuit that ends in somebody being squashed under a train.

Arrow’s BD presentation of this rare title looks just great. We’re getting used to swallowing a bit of grain in return for the revelation of hitherto unguessed at cinematographical subtleties but those pesky pixels are barely perceptible here, a testament to the work of  Martino’s long serving DP, Giancarlo Ferrando. Travis Crawford clocks up yet another commentary track but the normally sure-footed TC seems to be having a bit of an off day, completely missing the director’s cameo appearance while wasting words on a (non-existent) continuity error. He also lavishes much praise on Mel Ferrer, who pretty much phones in his brief appearance here.

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Of course there’s a trailer and a reversible sleeve which, like the limited edition collectors’ booklet, “with new writing by Barry Forshaw”, was not available to me at the time of penning this review. The Ferrando interview mentioned in some of the publicity releases is conspicuous by its absence from the Blu-ray disc I received, though you do get 42 minutes with Sergio Martino, in which he reflects on the generalities of his long and distinguished career (e.g. the pros and cons of making most of your films for a producer who’s also your brother, the lax attitude towards health and safety that applied on Italian shoots and how this might or might not have contributed to Cassinelli’s untimely death during another Martino production, Hands Of Steel in 1986) and the problematic position that TSDOAM occupies within it, conceding what a hotch-potch of styles it represents and how difficult it consequently was to market. Indeed, the fact that this edition comes with an Italian language soundtrack and optional English subtitles confirms ones suspicions that Suspicious Death was just too weird for much of a mainstream release outside of Italy.

Indeed, with genres being so recklessly juggled, it’s amazing that this film’s elements cohere at all, let alone that it’s constituent parts coagulate into such a diverting concoction. As Quentin Tarantino once told me: “Martino’s a hack but he really knows what he’s doing and you’re in safe hands when you watch one of his pictures”. TSDOAM comes nowhere near to what Martino achieved at his peak in either the giallo or crime slime genres but as an interesting snap shot of Italy’s ruthlessly commercial popular cinema mutating, before your very eyes, in response to contemporary box office pressures, it’s well worth the attention of any serious student of Cine Exploitation All’Italiana.

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

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BD. Region B. 88 Films. 18.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On account of some or other brainstorm I was suffering at the time, the initial posting of this review omitted any reference to the highly entertaining Erika Blanc interview and her introduction to KBK, which can be found among this set’s supplementary features… and how very pleasantly nuts she seems, talking us through her collection of stills from the movie. Great stuff.

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Premier League film, Sunday kickaround in the park poster…

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That’s better!

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How Do You Like Your Clots? VAULT OF HORROR Reviewed

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BD. Region B. Final Cut Entertainment. 15.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Amuck Time… ALLA RICERCA DEL PIACERE Reviewed.

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“There must be some pleasure around here somewhere…”

BD. Region B. 88 Films. 18.

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

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Good question…

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

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

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“Sexually… sexually… sexually…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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