Picture yourself at the fag-end of 2017 / phony dawn of 2018. Christmas Day petered out shortly after Christmas dinner had been consumed, you’re too old and world-weary to give a rat’s ass about New Year’s Eve… your nearest and dearest have peeled off to do whatever it is they do, leaving you home alone with a greasy turkey leg, a tub of Quality Street now containing more cellophane than chocolate and hundreds of satellite TV channels… all screening shit, 24/7. Just to make things more interesting, the Aussie Flu is already beginning to gnaw at yer vitals. What’s a boy to do? Luckily, I’ve been salting away some 88 Films Blu-ray releases, as and when I’ve spotted them on the bargain shelves (it’s a long time since any review copies from this company troubled the mat under the letter box here at THOF) and now, almost exactly a year since our first round-up of elusive (to me, anyway) 88 releases and under very similar circumstances… here’s another one!
Our current trip down route 88 commences in bracing style with Fernando Di Leo’s brilliantly barking 1971 giallo La Bestia Uccide A Sangue Freddo (“The Beast Kills In Cold Blood”), abbreviated here to Cold Blooded Beast (and also released as Slaughter Hotel or Asylum Erotica). Talk about a promising set up… take a bunch of affluent, luridly outfitted female basket cases with a range of exotic personal problems (Rosalba Neri’s a nymphomaniac obliged to take regular cold showers to ward off incestuous desires for her brother) and confine them to a “rest home” established within a medieval castle that comes complete with medieval weaponry and torture implements (what’s that you were saying about “set and setting”, Dr Leary?) When not lounging around, smoking like chimneys and reading those yellow-jacketed Mondadori novels, the inmates are dodging (or in some cases indulging) the sapphic attentions of nurse Monica Strebel, a mental health professional so well-trained that she has to have the word “agoraphobia” explained to her. Just to put the cherry on this crazy cake, the sanatorium’s deputy director is played by Klaus Kinski… I mean, what could possibly go wrong? Hang on… did anybody just hear a squishing noise from inside the iron maiden?
Cold Blooded Killer flirts with the sleazier strand of giallo (Play Motel, The Sister Of Ursula, Giallo A Venezia…) but ultimately has more in common with such gothic gialli as Emilio Miraglia’s The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave from the same year or Antonio Margheriti’s 7 Deaths In The Cat’s Eye (1973). Di Leo’s more accustomed generic stomping ground was Crime Slime, where he proved himself no wilting violet when it came to the depiction of brutal violence. Here he bides his time as the kitschy kill-by-numbers plot shifts through its florid gear changes, only for everything to explode in spectacularly ugly style during the final few minutes, the frenzied ferocity of which suggests Ted Bundy’s sorority raid (in fact this film was shamelessly marketed on the US grindhouse circuit to tie it in with Richard Speck’s kill spree!)
The killer has been doing away with a series of apparently unrelated victims, posing as a blood thirsty lunatic to obscure his all-too coldly calculated motive for wanting to see the back of one of them. Once exposed, he runs amok through what remains of the sanatorium’s clientele, revealing that his “rational” dabbling in butchery has tipped him over the edge into hopeless psychosis. Dario Argento and Sergio Martino would expand on this plot conceit to more sophisticated and stylish effect in subsequent gialli, but Di Leo’s deployment of it here really packs a wallop.
88’s BD of Cold Blooded Beast renders previous DVD releases (e.g. Shriek Show’s Slaughter Hotel disc, with its sound-synching problems) obsolete, clocking in as the longest version yet available. Some of Neri’s sex scenes have been sourced from inferior elements and she complains in a bonus interview that much of this stuff features a body double and was inserted later without her knowledge. Indeed, it’s noticeable during one enthusiastic scene of, er, self-love that Neri’s appendicitis scar disappears during the close-up shots. So that’s not Rosalba’s hand handling her bits, there. Nor, unfortunately, is it mine.
Neri also reflects engagingly on various of her collaborators (“Kinski was strange and devoted to alcohol, or even something stronger that gave him strange reactions”) and confesses her one regret, i.e. “That I never made a good film!” Further extras include an audio commentary by Nathaniel Thompson and an interview (again, courtesy of 441 Films) with Sylvia Petroni (daughter of Death Rides A Horse director Giulio Petroni) concerning the crucial but oft-neglected role of script supervisor / “continuity girl”, a role she also filled on Flesh For Frankenstein, among several other notable credits.
If 1971 was (give or take) the high water mark of giallo production, Italian directors were still knocking out the occasional yellow slasher a couple of decades later. It seems entirely appropriate that one of the last entries in the cycle, 1992’s Body Puzzle, should be directed by a member of the Bava clan, though Lamberto’s invariably competent handling of his material inevitably disappoints the high expectations invested in that illustrious surname. Here he seems to be taking his cue from Michele Soavi’s Stagefright (1987 and arguably the last of the great gialli) by revealing the killer’s identity in a very early scene… or does he? Francois Montagut (vaguely resembling Rutger Hauer in his prime) enters William Müller’s upmarket pastry shop, draws the blinds and casually stabs Herr Müller before departing the scene of the crime with various bagged-up innards. The unfortunate pâtissier’s ear is left in Joanna Pacula’s fridge. “Could be you’ve got yourself a real psycho” the coroner helpfully advises investigating officer Tomas Arana.
Arana’s a lot quicker seducing Pacula than he is in working out that all the victims of the unfolding kill spree received organ transplants from her dead husband. Apparently he’d been leading a secret gay life and the suggestion is that one of his former lovers entertains the deranged ambition of resurrecting him by reassembling his constituent parts (while listening to Mussorgsky’s Night On A Bare Mountain, for some reason)… so a teacher of blind children has her eye hacked out in front of her blissfully oblivious students (quite an effective sequence, this), a life guard is sliced up in his swimming pool and Susanna Javicoli (whose face was bisected by falling masonry during Suspiria’s most celebrated set-piece sequence) has her hand lopped off in glorious bog-seat-o-vision. Bava evokes further pasta paura splendours by casting Erika Blanc, Gianni Garko and John Morghen (who confounds all expectations by avoiding dismemberment) in small roles, though I could have done without the cemetery superintendent named “Mario Fulci”.
Things are proceeding engagingly enough towards what you think will be a predictable denouement when Bava drops his big plot twist. The killer isn’t who you think he is. He isn’t even who he thinks he is. This seems like clever stuff until, after a nanosecond’s reflection, you realise that it doesn’t make a lick of goddam sense. Now, Bava Jr’s handling of depth psychology has never been his strongest suit (witness A Blade In The Dark)… pay close attention to the throwaway conversation here between Arana and a sanatorium director. You still won’t buy it. The killer, however, once Pacula has explained to him the misconception under which he’s been labouring, gains immediate self-awareness, repents his misdeeds and speeds off into the night on his motorbike. Before you can say “Vertigo”, his motivating misapprehension has mutated into self-fulfilling prophecy. He could just as easily have ridden his bike through the holes in Bava, Teodoro Corrà and Bruce Martin’s screenplay (the scene where Montagut hides in a freezer on the off-chance that somebody will open it and he can jump out at them is a particularly bemusing one), but when have we ever let such considerations hamper our enjoyment of a good giallo? And Body Puzzle is a pretty good giallo…
Extras include two print interviews, with Arana (conducted by Phillip Escott) and Lamberto Bava (Calum Waddell).
The last big generic spasm undergone by the Italian B-movie scene was, appropriately enough, the early-80s post-Apocalyptic filone inspired by Escape From New York and Mad Max II, as crystallised in Enzo Castellari’s Bronx Warriors brace and The New Barbarians (1982-3). Able genre jumper Sergio Martino had no problems adapting to the formula and his 2019: After The Fall Of New York (1983) emerges as one of the better entries in a sometimes blockheaded cycle (Rats – Night Of Terror, anyone?), matching Castellari’s patented action scenes and peppering them with philosophical allusions and humorous asides.
Flavour-of-that-month action man Michael Sopkiw is Parsifal, your basic Snake Plissken wannabe, who scratches a living racing futuristic hot rods around the irradiated Arizona desert. Those who survived the nuclear war are sterile but rumour has it that there’s one fertile woman, in a coma, somewhere in NYC. Parsifal is hired by Edmund Purdom, President of The Pan-American Confederacy, to locate her and deliver her to the rocket base where she’ll be blasted off, in the company of the surviving global elite, to reboot the human race in some distant galaxy. “Somebody baked The Big Apple” (though they thoughtfully left the Peter Gabriel graffiti on the wall) and needless to say, when they gets there, Parsifal and sidekicks Ratchet (Romano Puppo) and Bronx (Paolo Maria Scalondro) find themselves thrown into the thick of incessant conflict between Confederacy stormtroopers and rival criminal and / or mutant gangs.
Luigi Montefiori / George Eastman as “Big Ape” (Martino saved a few bob on make-up, there), manages a particularly impressive (even by his standards) entry, erupting on-screen to disembowel some bad dude with his cutlass. Futuristic glamour is supplied by Anna Kanakis (a former Miss Italy and erstwhile Mrs Claudio Simonetti) and Valentine Monnier. After just about everybody else has been bumped off, Parsifal makes it back to the rocket with his female cargo, the projected mother of a new, genetically pure human race… except of course, unbeknownst to everybody but Parsifal, Big George has parked a parcel in the prime real estate of her womb. Ooh, the cosmic irony… ooh, the echoes of the conclusion to Bob Fuests’s The Final Programme (1973), as Big George’s mutated monkey spunk departs (if I may paraphrase Neil Young) for its new home in the sun. This film’s director laughed off my reference to “Wagnerian overtones” in 2019 when I interviewed him but if you’re gonna send somebody named Parsifal on a mission to secure the genetic purity of his race… well, pull the other one, Sergio!
Phillip Escott interviews Martino and long serving production designer / art director Massimo Antonello Geleng (who provides fascinating insights into his miniature and effects shots for 2019) on the disc and the accompanying booklet includes another interview with Martino, courtesy of Callum Waddell.
Sergio was back in Arizona three years later, still surfing whatever generic waves the international box office was throwing up, to ever decreasing returns. Hands Of Stone started as a First Blood copycat but when The Terminator hit, it rapidly mutated into Hands Of Steel (1986). Daniel Greene (who actually managed to parlay his beefcake persona into a respectable acting career outside of the Italian “B’ milieu) is Paco Queruak, a cyborg created by John Saxon’s sinister industrial corporation to assassinate their eco-conscious political critics. When Paco’s human conscience gets the better of him, he drops out of the assassination racket to pursue competitive arm-wrestling (sure, what else would he do?), not to mention feisty bar owner Janet Agren. Jilted local tough guy Raul (George Eastman) and Saxon’s hit-men (including, unfortunately, Claudio Cassinelli in his final screen appearance) ensure that Paco’s retirement is anything but quiet. In the best sequence in the picture, he fights off a brassy blonde Hot Gossip refugee decked out in a polythene mini-skirt who tells him: “I’m the perfect cyborg and have been sent to kill the traitor!” Fine words, but it’s a pity she can’t back them up. Paco pulls her head off, but neglects to shove it up her android arse… which must go down as a missed opportunity, in my book.
In another bonus interview from the boys at 441, Martino identifies this film as one of the last in which (with the aid of Sergio Stivaletti’s make up FX and characteristic Italian resourcefulness) his countrymen could vaguely compete with their American models and sometimes make it onto American screens. While Hands Of Stone (he contends… and we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt) was a respectable Terminator copycat there was no way, he concedes, that by 1991 the Italians were going to be able to attempt the likes of Terminator 2. Inevitably, the director reflects ruefully on the death of Claudio Cassinelli in a helicopter stunt shot during the making of this movie.
One generic playing field on which the Italians probably figured they were well qualified to compete was that of the mythological Peplum, having invented it in Maciste epics going as far back as Giovanni Pastoni’s Cabiria (1914). When Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Quest For Fire (1981) and John Milius’ Conan The Barbarian (1982) hit paydirt, Italian exploiters weren’t slow to respond, none quicker (nor barmier) than Lucio Fulci with 1983’s Conquest (geddit?) which lived up to that opportunistic titling with a mind-boggling mix of mystical mumbo-jumbo, cocaine-snorting werewolves, jelly baby zombies and tribal tattoos straight out of The Book Of Eibon. Two other films made in ’83, Antonio Margheriti’s Yor – Hunter From The Future and Umberto Lenzi’s The Iron Master, were only marginally less mental.
Lenzi’s stone age spagwest concerns the Oedipal sibling rivalry between Ela (Sam Pasco in his only non-gay porn outing) and Vood (George Eastman again) over the succession to Raa The Wise (Jacques Herlin). Vood is exiled after trying to advance his claim by bumping off poor old Raa but, while wandering around in an amateurishly executed volcanic eruption, he initiates the iron age (just like that) by discovering some of the stuff in a stream of lava. Forging weaponry from it (pretty bright caveman, this), he returns (now wearing the head of a lion he killed) to supplant Ela. The latter does his own wandering around in exile, during which he fights off monkey men and zombie-like lepers, picks up Stevie Nix lookalike Isa (Elvire Audray) and invents archery. Dismissing the pacifist arguments of hippy philosopher Mogo (William Berger), Ela returns to vanquish Vood and his henchmen for good… and human history has continued to unfold in peace and harmony up right to the present day, yeah?
Everything about The Iron Master, from its model mammoths and mastodons to its hysterical mumbling cavemen / psychedelic sitar score by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis (who also scored 2019 under their trusty “Oliver Onions” alias) is a certified hoot. I’m reliably informed that this version has been cut by eight seconds (animal abuse?) but I’m not sure that my heaving ribs would have been able to take another second, anyway. Once seen, this film’s male lead can never forgotten and certainly wasn’t by Fred Andersson, who supplies the diverting booklet essay “Who Is Sam Pasco And Why Is Nobody Talking About Him?”, detailing his search for the facts concerning this body-building pin-up icon / gay porn star / hustler. The disc also contains 441’s joint interview with DP Giancarlo Ferrando and the aforementioned Massimo Antonello Geleng, which is a particularly jolly affair in which the two old troupers, clearly great pals, reminisce about the good old days. Ferrando remembers the irascible Lenzi “foaming at the mouth” during one shooting mishap on The Iron Master and jokingly blames him for the near-extinction of the American buffalo.
88 seem to have got the hang of this Blu-ray mastering bit. All of the films under consideration here look fine, some of them probably better than they deserve to look. Even their crowd-funded restoration of Lucio Fulci’s Aenigma (1987) looks… as good as it’s ever going to look, given Luigi Ciccarese’s unrelentingly harsh blue-rinse cinematography.
It’s a look clumsily copped from Argento’s Phenomena (1985), from which Fulci also cheerily pinches much of Aenigma’s setting and plot. Bereft of his prime-time dream team (Sacchetti, Salvati, Frizzi, Tomassi, Lentini, De Rossi), Fulci struggles desperately (with co-writer Giorgio Mariuzzo, a script collaborator on The Beyond and House By The Cemetery) to figure out what makes a horror hit in 1987 and also ends up roping in significant elements of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) and Richard Franklin’s Patrick (1978). It’s reasonable to surmise that the latter did decent box office in Italy, given the appearance of Mario Landi’s hysterical Patrick’s Still Alive in 1980. Unfortunately, that one’s a lot more entertaining than the item under consideration here…
In a snotty girl’s boarding school in Boston (actually Belgrade), a spiteful prank dreamed up by the bitchier pupils and their loathsome PE teacher Fred (Riccardo Acerbi) misfires, leaving its victim Kathy (Milijana Zirojevic) in a coma. New student Eva (Lara Lamberti) arrives to fill the Jennifer Connelly role, though unfortunately she has no telepathic connection with insects. There’s no chimp in this film either, unless you count Fred. What does happen is that comatose Kathy exerts psychic control over Eva, taking advantage of her slutty inclinations (“Let’s get one thing straight! A successful semester to me means making out with as many cute boys as possible. Let’s put it this way: anything in pants!”) to take violent, albeit far-fetched revenge on Fred and his co-conspirators. So people are strangled by statues or their own reflections, or eaten by snails (this ludicrous scene an obvious indicator of how far Fulci’s talents had slipped since The Beyond and its spider attack, just six years previously). None of this is as interesting as it sounds and re-reading what I just wrote, it didn’t sound particularly interesting in the first place. The “action” grinds to an arbitrary stop when Kathy’s mum, the school’s Mrs Mopp who had previously assisted in her vengeful kill-spree, decides enough is enough and pulls the plug on her daughter’s life support system.
Fulci (who cameos as a cop, above) is credited for direction and also “special camera effects”, though it’s difficult to discern any particular “camera effects”, special or otherwise. Maybe that’s a reference to the glowing red eyes various characters develop when in the throes of a psychokinetic mong attack. Or maybe they’re reacting adversely to Douglas Meakin warbling Carlo Maria Cordio’s appalling theme song Head Over Meels (sic).
There’s a boring romantic subplot involving the romance between penitent prankster Jennifer (!), played by Ulli Reinthaler and Dr Robert Anderson (Jared Martin). The recently deceased Martin seemed to be Fulci’s go-to David Warbeck substitute, though he managed a pretty decent TV career (Dallas, L.A. Law) in America. Well versed in the ways of Fulci (he essayed the role of “Drake” in the director’s Fighter Centurions, 1984), Martin’s most resonant line of dialogue here is: “Don’t call me Bob!” He’s obviously aware of the unhappy precedents…
This disc’s significant bonus material constitutes Eugenio Ercolani and Giuliano Emanuele’s Aenigma: Fulci And The ’80s, a feature-length look at LF’s declining years featuring contributions from Claudio Fragasso, Antonio Bido, Michele de Angelis, Massimo Antonello Geleng and Antonio Tentori, among others. Good stuff.