Posts Tagged With: Arrow

It’s Electrafying… TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN Reviewed.

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 15.

“Every so often comes a Major Motion Picture that dares to deal with the taboo subject of… (whatever)” . Hollywood has never exactly been shy about patting itself on its corporate back when it feels it’s getting edgy, tackling taboos and generally pushing envelopes. For the American independents immortalised in Stephen Thrower’s Nightmare USA tome (and indeed exploitation film makers anywhere) doing that was just their bread and butter. One such director was Stanley H. Brasloff, who after a career wearing many showbiz hats, wrote and produced Charles Romine’s 1968 “roughy” Behind Locked Doors, wrote and directed the similarly rough Two Girls For a Madman the same year and wrote / directed / produced the title under consideration here, which after a long incubation / pre-production emerged to mixed indifference and indignation in 1972, prompting Stan to return to a life of treading the boards as a stand up comedian.

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TANFC could have been a supremely sick and sleazy cinematic experience but Brassloff handles things (and strong performances from his largely unheralded cast don’t exactly hurt) with exemplary subtlety and sensitivity. So much so that the publicity blurb about “a haunting and devastating climax that lingers long after the credits roll” is, for once, more than mere hyperbole. One might well think that Mario Bava himself took note of this film’s closing shots before shooting his own Lisa And The Devil the following year. It’s a pay off of truly Sophoclean impact, in the build up to which Stanley H. brilliantly intercuts different time frames to convey the extent of  Jamie’s projections and acting out… if he was similarly adept at delivering his stand up act, I imagine he rarely left a dry seat in the house.

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Arrow’s good looking 2K restoration of this title is complimented by some predictably nifty extras including Thrower’s introduction to the film and its director and an audio commentary from Kat Ellinger and Heather Drain. There’s a video essay from Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (directed by Marc Morris) which starts off on an interesting tack by comparing and contrasting TANFC with Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015) and the novel that inspired the latter, Patricia Highsmith’s The Price Of Salt,  before touching on such kindred fare as Carroll Baker in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956), the Nabokov and Kubrick Lolitas, the 1963 Twilight Zone episode Living Doll, William A. Fraker’s A Reflection Of Fear from the same year as Brasloff’s film, the whole Barbie phenomenon and the truly creepy Baby Burlesque series of shorts showcasing the precocious talents of Shirley Temple, plus an isolated audio track of T.L. Davis belting out TANFC’s OTT theme song, Lonely Am I. You get a trailer, of course and bonus ones for Behind Locked Doors and Two Girls For A Madman.

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This is a real find and very welcome addition to Arrow’s ever expanding catalogue.

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“A World Unto Itself”: Al Pacino Is CRUISING For A Bruising In An Exemplary New Arrow Release…

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 18.

In 1979, radiographer Paul Bateson was arraigned for one of several killings that had recently disfigured New York’s underground gay scene. Bateson’s previous claim to fame / notoriety was performing the cringe-inducing cerebral angiography in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). The director visited him on Riker’s Island and by his (disputed) account, was both alarmed and fascinated when Bateson told him that he’d been offered a reduced sentence if he copped for other murders, to make NYPD’s clear up ratio look better. This, plus a Gerald Walker novel based on the killings, became the inspiration for Friedkin’s Cruising (1980)…

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Steve Burns (Al Pacino) is an ambitious young cop looking for a short cut to his detective’s badge. Because he shares many physical characteristics with several gay men who’ve already fallen foul of a serial killer, Capt. Edelson (Paul Sorvino) asks if he’s willing to pose as psycho bait. Burns readily assents but is warned that the milieu he’ll be moving into is “a world unto itself… heavy metal… S/M”. Reborn as “John Forbes”, Burns goes deep undercover in the meat packing district (ooh er, Missus!), frequenting such legendary establishments as The Ramrod and The Mine Shaft (Friedkin filmed in the actual venues, populated – with the understandable exception of the principal actors – by regular patrons) to bone up on his hankie etiquette and get closer (increasingly dangerously so) to the killer and / or killers. Unable to talk about his secret posting, Burns / Forbes realises that his relationship with girlfriend Nancy (the always adorable Karen Allen) is suffering and Nancy soon notices how he’s changing. Is he developing a taste for the gay life? Or something much darker?

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Even before shooting began, Cruising divided opinion in and beyond the gay community. The aforementioned heavy leather S/M crowd got right behind it but there was a strain of more mainstream homosexual opinion which held that a decade after the Stonewall riots, the director of such sensationalist fare as The Exorcist might be about to unpick the tentative social progress that had been and was being made. As Friedkin himself concedes, water sports, fist-fucking and serial killing might well not constitute the community’s “best foot forward” in this regard. Attempts were made to disrupt the films shooting (much of the dialogue exchanges had to be subsequently re-looped) and there were civil disturbances at early screenings. Cruising was and remains controversial stuff, with each revival / re-release serving as a weather vane for where we are now, attitude wise…

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Having said that, I must confess that this is the first time I’ve watched Cruising since its theatrical release in the UK. I remember that in 1980 I was fairly impressed by its gritty edginess (though of course its orgiastic tableaux now look pretty tame compared to, e.g. the opening / closing scenes of Gaspar Noé’s 2002 effort Irreversible) and found myself irresistibly drawn into its mystery, only to be frustrated by the film’s increasingly wayward narrative en route to a “WTF?” denouement, leaving the theatre with the impression that Friedkin had… er, blown an intriguing premise. In addition, of course, there was the lurking suspicion that Cruising was, yes indeedy, homophobic.

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39 years later, viewed through the prism of the cinematic obsessions I’ve accreted in the past four decades, my initial impression was how much influence Cruising (itself a vaguely gialloesque proposition) has exerted over another, perhaps even more notorious offering, Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper (1982), way over and above that of the other obvious precedent, Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill (1980). Of course Cruising wasn’t exactly fresh in my mind by the time I finally got to see Fulci’s much-banned giallo.

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Pacino’s attempts at dancing with amyl-fuelled gay abandon still look pretty risible (then again I think everybody – with the probable exception of Fred Astaire – looks pretty silly when they’re dancing)… and what exactly the fuck is it with the scenes in which a humungous black guy straight out of Tom Of Finland steps into interrogations, slaps suspects around then shimmies out the door?

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Friedkin makes fantastic use of Joe Spinell’s unforgettable physiognomy at various points and I’ve always cherished the entry that turns up in one suspect’s diary (“I feel my thoughts being born in my head. I can feel them taking shape. If only I could stop thinking. I can’t help but feel I’m on the verge of a discovery of some sort. Yesterday in the park, I saw an enormous dark shape. It seemed to hang suspended and dripping from the trees like a tar jelly. At its centre was a bright red glow”) because I love it when killers in these things have some kind of cracked mystical motivation. Still, not a patch on David Keith’s insane cosmological speculations in Donald Cammell’s White Of The Eye (1987, below).

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That demented diarist is only one of several candidates that Al’s got his eye on and I have to concede that I’m still as baffled as I was in 1980 regarding who exactly is killing whom… and why. Different suspects speak with the same creepy voice (and recite the same macabre nursery rhyme) as the hallucinated father of one of them. Is this a really lame attempt to forge some kind of link in the viewer’s mind between Cruising and Friedkin’s megahit The Exorcist (the director deploys subliminal footage to unsettling effect in both)? It doesn’t exactly help that a lot of the victims and possible killers look exactly like each other. Isn’t that what prejudiced people always say about minorities? Am I homophobic? Nah, just confused. I’ve spoken to gay friends and fellow pundits about Cruising and the general consensus seems to be that the film is problematic but probably not homophobic. But when Friedkin opines in one of the commentary tracks that “some of the cops were also degenerate”, you have to wonder.

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The impossibility of pinning down a single killer in Cruising leaves it open to the interpretation that even if you could put somebody away, there are always going to be more killings because “that’s what homsexuality is all about… deviance and premature death, innit?” Other possible interpretations emerge during the course of the supplementary materials on this disc. Apart from a trailer and two useful featurettes concentrating on the film’s genesis, production and controversial impact, you get a couple of commentary tracks. The archive one by Friedkin is a curiously unenlightening affair, for long stretches of which he merely describes what’s happening on screen. I really surprised myself by my positive response to the second, more recent track, in which BF’s comments are mediated by Mark Kermode…

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“Surprised myself” chiefly because I’ve never quite understood the esteem in which Kermode is rated as a critic. One of the biggest problems I have with him is his ongoing insistence that The Exorcist is, rather than some superior, turbo-charged variation on William Castle‘s formula of conveyor belt shocks, the best / most profound movie ever made. I mean… really, Mark? Come on…

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The main feature has never looked or sounded better than here, in a 4K restoration / 5.1 sound reworking. I still entertain nagging doubts about it but after consuming this edition I appreciate Cruising a lot more and understand it maybe a little better. Isn’t that precisely what these collector’s editions are supposed to do for us?

It was particularly helpful, while marshalling my thoughts (such as they are) on this film, to chat with @jonnylarkin from those Screaming Queenz. Here’s their SQ podcast on Cruising. Enjoy.

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“They Called Her The Countess…” Twice The Vice In Riccardo Freda’s DOUBLE FACE.

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 15.

Arrow’s creditable crusade to afford decent BD releases to as many Riccardo Freda films as possible continues with this timely edition of Double Face (“A Doppia Faccia”), an Italian / West German co-production that initially emerged in 1969 on the very cusp of Germany’s “krimi” adaptations (and alleged adaptations) of Edgar Wallace potboilers and the Italian giallo cycle that was heavily influenced by but ultimately supplanted them.

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Here John Alexander (Klaus Kinski on uncharacteristically restrained form for one of his earliest leading roles) romances Helen Brown (his frequent Eurotrash co-star Margaret Lee) in whirlwind style (and amid some of the crappiest blue screen work in cinema history) but finds time to repent at leisure as his new bride rapidly cools on him in favour of female lovers, most notably Liz (Annabella Incontrera). On the upside, she makes him the beneficiary of her controlling interest in some ill-defined business empire or other, in the event of her death. Some upside… when Helen’s jaguar crashes (in one of the film’s two poorly mounted miniature RTAs) and she’s burned to an unidentifiable crisp, he becomes Scotland Yard’s number one suspect for her murder (somebody planted an explosive device in the jag…)

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As if he doesn’t have troubles enough, John returns to his impressive country pile from a recuperative break to find that sexy hippy squatter Christine (Christiane Krüger) has moved in. Dismissing her as one of his wife’s ditzy conquests, John is lured to a groovy sex / drugs / motorbike party where he catches a blue movie starring Christine and a veiled woman who, her distinctive jewellery and distinguishing neck scar strongly suggest, is Helen. You’d have to be particularly dim not to suspect that John is being set up for something and he’s probably not too dim to have worked that out for himself, but his curiosity and the tantalising suggestion that his beloved, albeit estranged wife, might still be alive propel him ever further down the rabbit hole…

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Like any self-respecting giallo (and this one is, any way you cut it, more giallo than krimi), Double Face owes much to French crime novelists Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, whose ongoing concerns with thwarted sexual obsession, personal identity and characters who might or might not be dead were adapted to the screen most notably as Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955) and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Long before he was sucked into Italy’s giallo feeding frenzy, Freda had shown his affinity for these themes in that 1962 milestone of Gothic Cinema known, not coincidentally, as The Horrible Secret Of Dr Hichcock, wherein their necrophiliac foundations were laid startlingly bare.

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Converseley, the Goth trimmings of that one and it’s non sequential companion piece The Ghost Of Dr Hichcock (1963) infect Double Face, whose entrepreneur class inhabit antique mansions scarcely less sumptuously appointed than that of Dr H himself. Freda has a ball indulging his fussy visual style while driving his compelling narrative forward at such pace that you don’t register how little sense it makes until after the end credit has rolled. DB’s FX scenes are as risible as anything in Freda’s Iguana With The Tongue Of Fire  (1971), Tragic Ceremony (1972) or Murder Obsession (1980) and he stages a visit to The Grand National (Edgar Wallace’s parents hailed from Liverpool, incidentally) in true Am-Dram style but he never bailed (as was his wont) on Double Face (though Kinski briefly did after these alpha males had butted heads)… when you sense that his mercurial mind is tiring of the proceedings, the director amuses himself by sending Kinski out sleuthing in a Philip Marlowesque mac and fedora for a paranoid perambulation down Fritz Lang Street… Freda was a more cultured character than many of his contemporaries and when I see this sort of thing, I can’t help feeling that it’s closer to the passages of stylistic parody and pastiche in  Joyce’s Ulysses than standard cheapjack film thievery.

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Hyped as a Wallace adaptation for its German release, Double Face was actually co-written by our old pal Lucio Fulci, who liked its wobbly plot so much that he rehashed elements of it in his own Perversion Story aka One On Top Of Another (which takes its Vertigo fetish so far as to be set in San Francisco) the same year and Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (1971). Nora Orlandi’s beautiful main theme was similarly reworked, to spectacular effect, in Sergio Martino’s extraordinary The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh (1971).

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Speaking of Orlandi (with pals, above), in his bonus featurette OST guru Lovely Jon gives us the run down on the great woman and her circle, with some priceless vintage clips. Better still, the lady herself is then interviewed and proves to be a formidable prospect, who by her own account battled to make her way in a man’s world but never took any shit off anybody. She flatly contradicts Lovely Jon’s assertion that she must have learned much from Alessandro Alessandroni, implying instead that without what he learned from her, Alessandroni would never have amounted to much. She’s particularly catty about another rival, Nino Rota and although she got on fine with Romolo Guerrieri (for whom she scored The Sweet Body Of Deborah, 1968), predictably fell out with Freda over his accusation that she recycled cues from picture to picture. Frankly, he had a point, as acknowledged by Orlandi when she jokes: “Better to steal from myself than from somebody else…”

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… unless they lived in the middle ages, of course, Orlandi happily bandying about the volume of medieval music from which she pinched her most celebrated theme. When it was recycled in Kill Bill: Vol. 2, she had to take steps to ensure that she got paid. Endearingly, she admits to not even knowing who Quentin Tarantino was at the time, though now she believes it enhanced her prestige to have her music associated with him. Why not the other way round? Cultural imperialism is a curious thing…

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Other supplementary materials include Amy Simmons’ video essay on Freda’s forays into giallo, an extensive image gallery from the Christian Ostermeier collection (including the original German pressbook and lobby cards, plus the complete Italian cineromanzo adaptation), original Italian and English theatrical trailers, also a reversible sleeve featuring vintage and newly commissioned Graham Humphreys artwork. The first pressing only will include an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on Double Face by Neil Mitchell.

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Tim Lucas’s commentary track is as erudite and informative as ever, though representing something of a change of tack. Unsure about which of the films many edits (see below) he was going to be discussing, TL delivered a lecture rather than the usual scene synchronised commentary. If you close your eyes or turn the picture off this works OK, otherwise there are points at which Tim discussing scene A while scene B unfolds is as jarring as a Dinky toy traffic accident.

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Lensed by Gábor Pogány (who also shot Pink Floyd: Live At Pompeii, among many others), Double Face’s bold primary colours, which previous releases have contrived to mute, really pop in this beautiful transfer. At 1:31:26, the main feature runs about four-and-a-half minutes longer than the previously circulated French language / English subtitled bootleg print of “Liz Et Helen” and a full thirteen minutes longer than the Das Gesicht Im Dunkeln version on Universum Film’s epic Krimi DVD box set. I’ve never seen the French version with hard core inserts featuring Franco favourite Alice Arno… hey, what kind of a boy do you think I am?

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Move Like Jagger… THE ANNIHILATORS Reviewed

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This is what you want…

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… this is what you get. Try not to shoot each other, boys.

BD. Arrow. Region B. TBC.

While Joe Zito was filming Invasion U.S.A. for Cannon in Atlanta, with a $10 million budget and Chuck Norris in the starring role, another action film was being made just down the block… Charles E. Sellier Jr was shooting The Annihilators (1985) for Roger Corman’s New World outfit, with a considerably less starry (albeit interesting) cast and predictably meaner financial resources at his disposal. Zito’s film made something in the region of seven and a half million dollars profit and was, until 2007, MGM’s second highest selling home video title (only Gone With The Wind kept it off the top spot). As for The Annihilators, well…

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The action commences with a crack team of American special forces operatives socking it to the slopes in Vietnam. Apparently nobody questioned this kind of thing back in 1985… nobody at New World, anyway. It definitely occurred to somebody that the local park setting of these shenanigans wasn’t entirely convincing, so we also get a bit of actual ‘Nam stock footage, some of it looking suspiciously similar to that used in the title sequence of Antonio Margheriti’s Cannibal Apocalypse (1980).

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The Atlantan cannibal outbreak depicted in that classic has thankfully now subsided,  only to be replaced by the scourge of gangs such as The Scorpions, The Turks, and The Rollers. It’s the latter, led by (I kid you not) Roy Boy Jagger (as played by Paul Koslo, arguably the oldest and bushiest coiffed gang banger in Cinema history) who enter the grocery store of Joe Nace (Dennis Redfield), one of the special forces guys we saw in the film’s opening but now confined to a wheelchair, to have a word with him about the resistance he’s been organising to their protection racket. This involves groping and fatally stabbing one of his female customers and beating his head in with a steak tenderiser. Perhaps Charlie Bukowski and his buddies are, after all, still living and dining in the area? Whatever, Dekalb County has definitely seen better days…

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Swept aside by the simple act of annihilation… murder! (Nice hair, Roy Boy.)

Obviously a fan of such Vet Vigilante opuses as James Glickenhaus’s The Exterminator (1980) and Patrick G. Donahue’s Kill Squad (1982), Colonel Bill (Christopher Stone) decides to reconvene his crack ‘Nam team to seek justice for their buddy. Ray Track (Gerrit Graham) is now a successful yuppy but years behind a desk have left him just itchin’ for action. Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs (as martial arts ace Garrett Floyd) is a happily married man, possibly seeking atonement for the part he played in Death Wish (“Mugger in Park #2… uncredited”). Woody (Andy Wood) has been fighting a losing battle with the bottle since being demobbed, but a mission to clear the scum off the streets (plus the prospective love of a good woman) is exactly the kind of motivation he needs to turn himself around.

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Like a cut-price Seven Samurai, the gang conduct crash courses in martial arts for the besieged citizenry and – even more crucially – teach them to knock three times on the nearest worktop, drainpipe or whatever, whenever threatened by bad guys. Sorry, I couldn’t resist it…

 

These tactics are improbably successful in degrading The Rollers’ power base but Colonel Bill ups the ante by hijacking their latest drug shipment, prompting Roy Boy to walk up and down the high street with a flame thrower, demanding his dope back. Faced down by a bit of a drainpipe tapping, he commandeers a school bus a la Scorpio in Dirty Harry (1971) at which point the kids he’s been grooming as future Rollers turn on him… jolly good thing, too. During the narrative wrap up, the ongoing mystery concerning the identity of the squad’s intelligence handler in Vietnam is finally revealed… as if you could give an actual rat’s ass!

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Despite its magpie borrowings from all of them, The Annihilators is no Seven Samurai, it’s no Assault On Precinct 13… it’s not even The Exterminator… but it is a cheesey urban Western, so very cheesey that its elements probably have to be stored at or below 35 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. From those elemental chunks of emmental, Arrow have fashioned a nice 2K restoration, whose extras include an in-depth examination (a little too in-depth, probably) of the boobs’n’blood stabbing scene that the BBFC excised from previous editions, new Graham Humphreys art work and interviews with Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs and David O’Malley, an erstwhile collaborator of the late Chuck Sellier (below).

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O’Malley talks about Sellier’s unlikely involvement in the Grizzly Adams movies and a series of “Chariots of The Gods” type speculative schlockumentaries and suggests that he didn’t really like introducing any element of confrontation into his films. Those viewers for whom The Annihilators doesn’t really live up to its title (we’re promised “heat on the street” but those sidewalks barely get tepid) might well see the justice of this observation… Sellier must certainly have got out of the wrong side of the bed when he dreamed up the Daddy of all the Killer Santa flicks, the ultra mean-spirited Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984).

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Rules Is Rules… Teruo Ishii Addresses A Significant Gender Gap In YAKUZA LAW

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BD. Region B. Arrow. Cert 18.

Although a perennial, prolific and promiscuous genre-jumper, Teruo Ishii is undoubtedly most famous… nay, notorious… in the West for the series of “pinky violence” epics he initiated in 1968 with Tokugawa Onna Keibatsi-Shi (The Joy Of Torture / Shogun’s Joy Of Torture) and we’ve already covered his Zankoku Ijô Gyakutai Monogatari: Genroku Onna Keizu (Orgies Of Edo, 1969). Constrained by contemporary domestic censorship restrictions on images of the naked female form, these films routinely doubled (and indeed tripled) down on imagery of women’s BDSM debasement, to increasingly delirious and (from today’s vantage point… “the Sadism inherent in The Male Gaze” and all that) decidedly troubling effect.

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Although women are routinely insulted, groped and slapped around for getting uppity in 1969’s Yakuza Law (original title Yakuza Keibatsu-Shi: Rinchi!), it’s main thrust is the dire punishments handed out to (male) Yakuza members who break the code of the underworld (give or take the moll who ends up in a cement block with her gangster boyfriend)… and it’s unrelentingly grisly stuff, at levels consistently way above and beyond the well known scene in Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza (1974) where Robert Mitchum cuts off one of his finger as honourable atonement for a misdeed.

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After a mind bogglingly gruesome opening compendium of tortures that don’t even occur in the main body of the feature, Yakuza Law begins to unfold, like Orgies Of Edo, as a portmanteau movie told in three instalments though, unlike that film, they play out over discrete historical eras. In that Edo Period, various samurais plot against and double cross each other for advancement in the organisation. I must admit that I found the plot of this section quite difficult to follow (Jasper Sharp’s commentary track helped a bit) but the outcome was clear enough – a stack of mutilated corpses. Fast forward to the Meiji Period, where Ogata (Minoru Oki, later one of the dreaded Masters Of Death in Shogun Assassin) comes out of the slammer, having taken the fall to protect his Yakuza master. No gratitude or payback is forthcoming and when Ogata sees how his allegedly honourable brethren mistreat the locals, he relinquishes his vows, resulting in another predictable pile of mutilated corpses. Stand out moments include somebody hacking out his own eyeball and throwing it in the face of the guy to whom he owed a debt of honour. A word of advice to Mino (Ryôta Minowada), whose criminal colleagues beat and piss on him for some misdemeanour… probably best to register your protests over this treatment with your mouth closed, dude!

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Finally, the action is brought bang up to date (ish) with another tale of internecine gang conflict, headlined by Teruo Yoshida (who plays the idealistic doctor Gentatsu in Orgies of Edo). Technological advances mean that in the late ’60s, traditional swordplay has been replaced by guns, faces are burned with cigarette lighters and renegade yakuza can be locked in cars that are then crushed into cubes. The “guy dangled out of helicopter” sequence and casino scene are straight out of the James Bond franchise (which had visited Japan two years previously with Lewis Gilbert’s You Only Live Twice) and the unlikely feats of marksmanship, eccentric whistling henchmen and prominent poignant poinging of a jew’s harp on Masao Yagi’s soundtrack, not to mention the plot device of a maverick / Ronin playing two factions off against each other, suggest a desire to cop a dollop of Spaghetti Western box office…

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… and yes, I know that virtually the whole of Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars (1964) was an outrageous pinch from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) but Ishii was undoubtedly oblivious to such niceties, more concerned instead to pack a plethora of audience attracting elements into these portmanteau pictures to tempt contemporary viewers away from their beloved TV sets. Sharp points out that like contemporary Amicus releases, these films ran on narrative patterns more in tune with people’s telly watching habits, while simultaneously serving up stuff that couldn’t possibly be broadcast on the box.

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Ishii always was a commercial film maker rather than auteur with any kind of message, as he is at great, er, pains to point out in the bonus interview here. The late director was not without a social conscience though, explaining that he stopped directing episodes in the ongoing Supergiants franchise (below) after reports that kids wearing capes were jumping out of windows  and injuring themselves.

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Tom Mes contributes new writing to a collector’s booklet that will appear in the first pressing only. Jasper Sharp’s commentary track, as previously mentioned, is useful in maintaining a running score card on who’s doing what to whom and periodically drawing our attention away from the ongoing outrages to e.g. a particularly painterly piece of composition or the merits of Yagi’s score. He also name checks Morihei Magatani’s Girl Divers At Spook Mansion (1959, below) whose IMDB synopsis makes it sound like an especially deranged episode of Scoby Doo. Any chance of releasing that one, Arrow?

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It’s indicative of this film’s severe imagery that Mr Sharp can introduce its second episode with the observation that it’s the least violent of the three, his comment coinciding with Ogata storming into a rival gang leader’s place and chopping his arm off… that’s  Yakuza Law for you!

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“Hardboiled eggs and NUTS! Huh…”

 

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Park Your Taxonomy, Mister … THE GRAND DUEL Reviewed

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BD. Region B. Arrow. Cert 15.

The Grand Duel aka The Big Showdown (or, in Germany, “Three Our Fathers For Four Scoundrels”) begins with Philipp Wermeer (“Peter O’Brien” = Alberto Dentice) besieged by a plague of bounty hunters after being framed for the killing of Samuel Saxon, the Saxon City “patriarch”. Although he’s no mean sharp shooter himself, for the first of several occasions he is rescued against overwhelming odds by the intervention of his unlikely guardian angel, the former Sheriff Clayton (Lee Van Cleef), who was dismissed for calling out corruption in the Saxon’s political operation. After butting heads through a series of shoot outs and foiled ambushes, Clayton and Wermeer make it into town to confront not only the patriarch’s bad-ass sons but also the truth about who killed him and why…

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After serving his apprenticeship as assistant director to Sergio Leone (not to mention Giulio Petroni on Death Rides A Horse, 1967), Giancarlo was all set to take up the directorial reins on Duck, You Sucker! (1971) until its stars (most vocally, Rod Steiger) insisted that Leone direct that one, too. His directorial debut finally came the following year on this, often claimed as one of the last of the “classic” Spaghetti Westerns, a genre that was already well into its self-parodic phase with the advent of the Trinity films and their ilk, wherein elegies for the sacred myth of The West were becoming elegies for the Spagwest itself.

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To be sure, TGD is larded with Golden Age tropes. There’s the mysterious gunslinger mentoring a younger man while pursuing his own, hidden agenda (which had by now become the laconic, cadaverous Van Cleef’s signature role in the SpagWest)… improbable feats of marksmanship…allusions to the outlaw origins of American capitalism… Oedipal shadings… and the telling use of flashbacks, incrementally developing towards a crucial revelation (here, the identity and motivation of The Patriarch’s killer… and no, it’s not who you thought it was going to be). Santi had clearly osmosed enough from his proximity to the master Leone to render (in concert with DP Mario Vulpianina and camera operator Pasquale Rachini) striking compositions and make optimal use of the picturesque Tuscan locations (Spanish jollies in Almeria were clearly considered an expensive indulgence by this point). The cast is populated with familiar faces from the genre: Van Cleef himself, Horst Frank (playing both David Saxon and, via the addition of mutton chop whiskers, his own Daddy in the flashbacks), Jess Hahn (who had played alongside LVC in two pictures from the previous year, Captain Apache and Eugenio Martin’s Bad Man’s River), Antonio Casale from the Leone films … no bonus points for spotting The Beast In Heat himself, Salvatore Baccaro as a saloon bar sniper (I mean, how could you miss him?) Klaus Grünberg, who plays the syphilitic, psychotic and (it is strongly suggested) gay Adam Saxon is best known (around here, anyway) for his 1969 appearance alongside HOF Hall-of-Famer Mimsy Farmer (below) in Barbet Schroeder’s cautionary drugs epic More (boasting a groovy OST courtesy of The Pink Floyd).

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Speaking of OSTs, in another tick of the “Classic SpagWest” boxes, TGD boasts a fab score from Django man Luis Bacalov (or so it is usually credited), so very fab that it’s one of those pinched by Tarantino for Kill Bill. In a bonus interview Santi leaves us in no doubt regarding his feeling about such cultural appropriation… also insisting that while Bacalov conducted the score, its actual composer was Sergio Bardotti.

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With the benefit of hindsight, such distinctions between prime time and parody can be too sharply etched… some of the comedic acrobatics that “Peter O’Brien” (or his stunt double) indulges in during the shootouts here would fit perfectly into any Gianfranco Parolini knockabout farce and anyway, even the cream of the Classics (e.g. Leone’s films) are shot through with humour, albeit of a distinctly gallows variety. You’re best advised to just park your taxonomy by the stable door, saddle up and enjoy the ride, during which you might care to consider the extent to which TGD, allegedly among the last  of the “real” Spaghetti Westerns, anticipates Enzo Castellari’s Keoma (1976).

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Arrow’s transfer does justice to the sub-Leone visuals and there are various image galleries, a reversible sleeve option and, for the first pressing only, a booklet containing contemporary reviews and new writing on TGD by Kevin Grant. A wealth of supporting featurettes include an enjoyable and informative profile of unsung character actor Marc Mazza (Eli Saxon in the film) from “tough guy film expert” Mike Malloy, director of the documentary Eurocrime! The Italian Cop And Gangster Films That Ruled The ’70s, though perhaps it was a mistake to kick off with the observation that Mazza never appeared in any of the stills or posters for his movies, then trot out a bunch of precisely such artefacts. Academic Austin Fisher provides a suitably scholarly overview of the main feature. Ubiquitous scripter Ernesto Gastaldi recalls the heady heyday of the SpagWest cycle (“You’d see key grips going to the races dressed like millionaires!”), also detailing how Damiano Damiani’s Nobody’s The Greatest (1975) derailed the Leone-produced trilogy initiated with My Name Is Nobody (Tonino Valerii, 1973) and offering a tantalising glimpse of the never shot final instalment. AD Harald Buggening also has his say and producer Ettore Rosboch reveals that Western veteran Van Cleef was actually afraid of horses. An interview with Alberto Dentice establishes that he remains a hippy at heart, with connections to avant garde theatre. In his own interview, larger-than-life director Santi reciprocates Quentin Tarantino’s devotion by calling him a thief and remembers his time with the likes of Antonioni and Ferreri, underscoring a theme that we’ve highlighted so often in this blog, the symbiotic relationship between Italian “high” and “low” cinema.

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Twisted Neves… José Ramon Larraz’s Mean, Mean WHIRLPOOL Reviewed.

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Now that’s what I call an alternative title…

Whirlpool (Denmark / UK, 1970) aka She Died With Her Boots On / Perversion Flash.  Directed by José Ramón Larraz.

I never did get my hands on a review copy of Arrow’s spiffing Blood Hunger – The Films Of José Larraz box set and I certainly can’t afford to buy it (at this point, if you’ve got the required plugin, you’ll be able to hear the smallest violin in the world scratching away) but I did get to access their online Larraz resources while researching an interview with those comely Vampyres Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska, affording me the opportunity to rewatch the director’s debut feature Whirlpool as it was intended to be seen, looking a lot better than the nth generation VHS dub of my previous acquaintance… and wow, it finally hit me what a bleak (and arguably mean-spirited) little film this is. I mean, it isn’t quite Saló but, you know, it’s unlikely to turn up anytime soon on the Talking Pictures channel, nestled in between Genevieve and The Good Companions, sponsored by Dormeo…

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In furtherance of her model girl career, the lovely Tulia (Viv Neves) agrees to accompany intense young photographer Theo (Karl Lanchbury) to his Aunt Sara’s place in the country. Aunt Sara, as played by Pia Andersson, is a libidinous libertine involved in a dodgy sexual relationship with her nephew but also partial to a bit of old-girl-on-glamour-girl action. Plying Tulia with drink and surreptitiously administered Mary Jane (Larraz’s idea of smoking a joint can only be described as quaint), they draw her into a game of strip poker and then their lustful bed. Ooh er indeed, Missus.

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Being the liberated young Missy that she is, Tulia’s quite happy with this arrangement but becomes increasingly troubled by traces of her disappeared predecessor in this menáge à trois, a certain Rhonda (Johana Hegger) who even returns in a dream sequence for a sleazy bit of rumpo-pumpo from beyond the grave.

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While they’re taking a brief break from shagging, Theo takes Tulia to the pub to score some more “special fags” from his mate Tom (Andrew Grant), after which they all go for a drive in the country and Theo takes photos of Tom tearing Tulia’s clothes off and assaulting her. Whatever reservations Tulia might entertain about this treatment are soon apparently overcome and she wastes no time jumping back into bed with Theo and Sara. As difficult to swallow as this turn of events might prove for viewers, it seems for a while that we’re possibly headed for a similar plot twist to that in James Kenelm Clarke’s Exposé (a film which seems to owe much to Whirlpool, which itself owes a certain something to Roy Boulting’s Twisted Nerve, 1968) whereby Neves will be revealed as Rhonda’s investigating / avenging sister or lover or whatever. But no… Tulia unearths a set of dodgy prints in Theo’s forbidden darkroom, depicting more rough sex in the woods and deduces from it (in an inspired / improbable joining of the dots) exactly what happened to Rhonda. Before she can even express her dismay, let alone extract any measure of justice, she is definitively – and quite shockingly – silenced.

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Although her big screen career soon hit the buffers (with only one more appearance, as a sexy nun in Paul Morrissey’s 1978 Pete’n’Dud vehicle The Hound Of The Baskervilles) the undeniably statuesque Ms Neves (she was either Vivian or Vivien… sources vary) was perfectly cast in the role of a sexually adventurous, doomed early-70s “dolly bird”. She was one of the Sun’s first Page 3 girls (making her topless debut in May 1970) and the very first woman to appear naked in a British broadsheet when her Fisons Pharmaceuticals ad graced the pages of The Times on 17/03/71. She quit nude modelling in early 1973, expressing herself embarrassed and disillusioned, though in the mid-’80s she set up a glamour modelling agency and her daughter Kelly followed in her footsteps onto Page 3 during the ’90s. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1979, Neves passed away on 29th December 2002.

In his feature debut, José Ramon Larraz begins to embroider themes that he would continue to embellish through such subsequent offerings as Deviation (1971), The House That Vanished (1973), Symptoms and Vampyres (both 1974, with Lanchbury cropping up again in the latter)… country retreats in the spooky English countryside (as similarly portrayed by fellow Catalan Jorge Grau in Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue, 1974), dangerous secrets, a sense that some tragic history is playing itself out again, emergent psychosis in a milieu of uninhibited and ultimately deadly sexual indulgence… Larraz obviously experienced a sense of artistic liberation in swinging England after escaping the repressive atmosphere of Franco era Spain, but if you can take the boy out of Franco era Spain… well, the converse is not necessarily true.

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When Tulia is cut down before she can offer the expected rationale for continuing to participate in orgies with these obvious nut cases, one theoretical explanation… and the one that you might feel Larraz is nudging you towards… is that her character’s just an irredeemable hussy who simply “had it coming”. Despite the mitigating chuckles to be had along the way over some of Whirlpool’s wardrobe excesses and equally florid patches of dialogue, that remains the most troubling aspect of this truly troubling picture.

Alongside that Larraz box set, Arrow are also releasing Stelvio Cipriani’s haunting OST on vinyl, pop-pickers…

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“Cor, that Viv Neves was one fit bird…”

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When Irish Eyes Are Screaming a.k.a. The Politically Incorrect Way To Wash Your Underpants… Riccardo Freda’s THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE Reviewed

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Who shivs ya, baby?

BD. Arrow. Region B. 15.

“The times we live in!”, as Lucio Fulci once exclaimed before disappearing in a taxi. “Willy Pareto” (Riccardo Freda)’s The Iguana With The Tongue Of Fire, rushed out during 1971 as a sure-fire cash in on the international success of Argento’s Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970) didn’t, in the event, get much of a release anywhere. In March 1972 British distributor Ben Rose submitted it to the BBFC for theatrical certification, which was promptly refused on the grounds of its florid sadism. Since then it’s only been available on nth generation bootleg VHS dubs and murky DVD-Rs sourced from them. Now, courtesy of Arrow (a label which has released several Freda titles in the last few years, with Double Face on the way) here’s a spanky new 2K restoration, uncut and rated ’15′(!) The times, indeed…

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Now a more general audience can discover (and bootleg watchers can more clearly evaluate) the sheer oddness of this film, in which a serial killer on the loose in Ireland is defacing the proverbial prettiness of Dublin’s female inhabitants with acid before slashing their throats, to be sure. While TIWTTOF’s ineptly rendered gore scenes (courtesy of Lamberto Marini, who did rather better on Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre, among others), nasty and mean-spirited as they undoubtedly are, look more laughable than anything these days, the very wilfulness of e.g. its plotting / dialogue / ludicrous Irish dubbing reaches levels only rarely attained by a select few, among whose numbers we can include the visionary likes of Tommy Wiseau and James Nguyen.

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Whereas Freda’s 1980 directorial swan song Murder Obsession aka Fear, et al (alternating as it does phoned in-banality and such audacious visual moments as the climactic recreation of Michelangelo’s Pietá) might suggest that, while making it, he was recovering from a stroke (a stroke that he was conceivably in the full throes of while directing 1972’s batshit bonkers Tragic Ceremony) there are signs here of a director who very much knows what he’s doing (there are crane shots and even helicopter shots) but is winking at us and daring us to get the joke during TIWTTOF’s  more ludicrous passages… dreaming, perhaps, that after all this faddish giallo nonsense has blown over, he’ll be back making “proper” pictures like the lavish costume dramas for which he was noted in the ’50s and ’60s. Guess again, Riccardo…

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The film kicks off with Dominique Boschero, playing the mistress of Sobieski, the Swiss ambassador (Anton Diffring) being bumped off in the first of many not-so-grand guignol FX scenes. The fact that she promptly turns up in the boot of his limo (and is discovered there by a bored-looking, possibly catatonic schoolboy) immediately puts the aryan ferrero rocher slinger in the frame, but why is his chauffeur Mandel (familiar giallo face Renato Romano) acting so suspiciously? Come to think of it, why is everybody in the cast acting so bloody suspiciously? Just about all of them seem to own at least one pair of murderous black leather gloves…

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The murder investigation, by Police Inspector Lawrence (Arthur O’Sullivan), is hampered by Sobieski’s diplomatic immunity so he spends a lot of time giving Mandel a hard time, to no avail, then calls in his “secret weapon”… ex-detective John Norton (played by Luigi  Pistilli and seemingly named after his transportation mode of choice). Lawrence recruits Norton to the investigation by sending some of his men round to duff him up, which might seem a perverse tactic… until you consider the circumstances under which Norton (nicknamed “The Beast”) became an ex-detective. As revealed in a recurring Leonesque flashback, this involved the enhanced interrogation of a suspect, so very enhanced that when Norton took a break from beating up on him, the dude grabbed a carelessly placed pistol and blew his own brains out. Yep, that’s definitely gonna piss on your career chips (incidentally, as acknowledged in the audio commentary to this release, the unidentified actor briefly essaying the role of that victim is a particularly fine-looking specimen of manhood).

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Norton’s beastliness is explained by reference to his own wife’s death at the hands of violent criminals, a revelation which fails to make his character any more sympathetic but significantly raises his own status as a suspect. In a clumsy bit of exposition / excruciating dialogue, Lawrence explains the film’s title to Norton… though he’s clearly confusing iguanas with chameleons. Shifting effortlessly from taxonomical error into political incorrectness, Lawrence confidently declares that the killer’s modus operandi is typical of “a woman… or a coloured person!”

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Norton starts dating Helen Sobiesky (the ever lovely giallo icon Dagmar Lassander), apparently unaware (in one of the film’s many improbable narrative spasms) that she’s the ambassador’s daughter. Looks like Dublin’s got no bigger since Bloomsday. He takes her on a date to Ireland’s ravishing coastline and seems to contemplate strangling her and throwing her off a cliff. She’s OK with this. Takes all sorts.

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Meanwhile various other characters are murdered and some gay people are being blackmailed. Or something. A decapitated moggy turns up in somebody’s fridge and every time any pair of spectacles appear on-screen, a burst of Stelvio Cipriani’s most sinister musical theme swells on the soundtrack. During one of the repetitions of the all-important flashback, Pistilli is clearly resorting to that most ludicrous of Francoesque expedients, acting in slow motion! Valentina Cortese’s excellent performance as Sobieski’s wife looks like it belongs in another film and she probably wishes it was. Confused yet?

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Understandably, in view of his long lay off, Norton’s grasp of contemporary police procedure is a bit shaky so he debates the likely guilt or innocence of the various suspects with his elderly mum (Ruth Durley), with whom he lives. I’m reminded of President Carter announcing to a bemused world that he frequently sought advise on nuclear disarmament from his brattish daughter Amy… in fact Norton’s daughter lives with them, too. He mocks his mother’s “Mrs Marples” identification of the culprit, which turns out to be bang on the money. This is no consolation when the killer pays them a visit (in drag) during the film’s genuinely shocking climax, which briefly attains the kind of goofy delirium also seen at the conclusion of Fernando Di Leo’s Cold Blooded Beast, made the same year. Norton intervenes and the killer (whose previous appearances in the film you quite possibly missed if you blink at anything like the normal human rate), apropos of nothing in particular (I mean, he’s already killed plenty of other people) jumps out of a high window, down into the street and through the windshield of a passing car, whose driver seems understandably miffed to find his shredded face puking blood all over the dashboard. It’s suggested that the killer became a misanthrope because he was gay / a slaphead / traumatised by somebody else in his family being a murderer. That somebody else thinks they’ve eluded justice, but there’s a twist in the tail. Award yourself bonus points if you spotted Freda’s cameo as one of the guys who fished Lassander out of The Liffey and… relax. You have been watching Riccardo Freda’s The Iguana With The Tongue Of Fire.

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Things get a bit iffy on The Liffey for Dagmar Lassander…

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The commentary track, conducted by David “Reprobate” Flint and Adrian J. Smith (author of giallo tome Blood And Black Lace) strikes just the right balance between informative (they made the effort to research and confirm the existence of The Swastika Laundry, in which Dubliners could once tumble their underpants) and fannishly enthusiastic… there really is no alternative to raucous guffawing when confronted by some of TIWTTOF’s unlikelier plot developments and choicer visuals. In a bonus featurette, cultural critic and academic Richard Dyer further accentuates the film’s narrative incoherence, a quality which he found engaging in Sergio Bergonzelli’s In The Folds Of The Flesh but not here. Developing the thesis he previously expounded on the Arrow release of Luigi Bazzoni’s The Lady Of The Lake, he talks up his theme of “the monstrosity of The Family in Italian life”. Editor Bruno Micheli talks about learning his craft from his big sister Ornella, how sex scenes removed by the Censor were surreptitiously spliced back into prints, working closely with Freda and how producer Adolfo Donati was the only man allowed to wear a red tie in the presence of Mussolini.

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Dagmar… the Nancy Allen of her day.

We’ve had a few career-spanning interviews with Dagmar Lassander recently and there’s another here, conducted by Manlio Gomarasca, which starts with her oblique entry into the industry and takes in Lucio Fulci’s misogyny, Freda’s snobbery, Tomas Milian’s charisma and Valentina’ Cortese’s thespian caprices.

OST guru Lovely Jon presents a useful 25 minute primer on the recently deceased Stelvio Cipriani, pushing his claim for a place alongside the “big three” of Morricone, Nicolai and Alessandroni. He discusses the influence of Dave Brubeck, talks us through Cipriani’s deployment of music during three key scenes in the film and – evaluating the killer’s acid chucking, throat slashing MO – offers the verdict: “Fucking ‘ell, that’s some really nasty shit, man!” Indeed.

If your fancy is tickled by what Lovely Jon has to say, Arrow are issuing an LP release of Cipriani’s score too!

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… and yes, that’s two reviews in a row where we neglected to mention (until now) that Werner Pochath was in the film under consideration. So sue us!

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“The Lady Dragon Has Attacked Our Wig Warehouse!”… Arrow’s SISTER STREET FIGHTER COLLECTION Reviewed

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 18.

Yes, Arrow are once again pillaging the Tohei archives, for a release that would have had James Ferman shitting bricks, back in the day, over its gratuitous nunchuck slinging and general levels of martial arts mayhem. What are the BBFC thinking? What’s the world coming to?

During 1974 Sonny Chiba had already starred in The Street Fighter (Gekitotsu! Satsujin Ken), Return Of The Street Fighter (Satsujin Ken 2) and The Streetfighter’s Last Revenge (Gyakushû! Satsujin Ken), not to mention several other features and the TV series Za Bodigaado, but such was the pressure to cash in on the box office bonanza inspired by Bruce Lee’s impact in Robert Clouse’s Enter The Dragon (1973), Sonny also found time to mentor and contribute a supporting performance to the lovely Etsuko Shihomi, herself a supporting player in the Streetfighter flicks but now spun off into her own franchise, commencing with Kazuhiko Yamaguchi’s Sister Streetfighter (Onna Hissatsu Ken).

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With the occasional aid of some ass kicking girlfriends and Sonny (as Seiichi Hibiki), Koryu attempts to rescue her brother from Mr Big’s drug dungeon by fighting her way through Kakuzaki’s assembled henchmen (guys wearing wicker bins over their heads, dudes with swastikas on their karate suits, a bunch of Thai girls in Betty Rubble dresses, a Mohican tonsured blow pipe assassin in a fancy dress outfit, et al), each of them expert in various fighting codes. I love the way these guys manage to get a few licks in before there’s a freeze-frame and caption identifying their particular discipline. Who says you never learn anything from exploitation films? After watching Sister Streetfighter, you’ll never again confuse Karate with Shorinji Kempo. Hopefully. Anyway, despite Koryu’s best efforts, Big Bro gets bumped off, setting up a particularly choice, wire-assisted climactic dust-up during which Kazukaki dons razor claws in an obvious attempt to evoke the denouement of Enter The Dragon.

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Having Sonny Chiba as your support act is obviously a high risk strategy and Sonny nearly steals the show with such moves as breaking the arms of a guy who has the temerity to flash spiky knuckle dusters at him, then disembowelling a fat baddy with his bare hands (that’ll teach him to maintain his six-pack!) But Shihomi trumps this by twisting one crim’s head around the full 180, after which he staggers down the stairs looking very sorry for himself. All this to the delirious aural accompaniment of wicky-wacky guitar and blaring horns… audiences were clamouring for more and director Yamaguchi didn’t keep them waiting very long.

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Sister Streetfighter: Hanging By A Thread (above) was in theatres before the end of 1974. No Sonny this time out but plot wise, it’s pretty much “as you were”, with Koryu travelling from HK to Yokohama to locate a woman who’s been drawn into a diamond smuggling syndicate which transports its illicit goodies in the buttocks of trafficked women (“Dealing in blood diamonds is a real pain in the ass!” quips one of the bad guys in a dubious, er, crack). As if the buttock slicing sequences aren’t unpleasant enough, there’s a scene of torture and eye violence (inflicted on Koryu’s sister) which reminded me very much of Lucio Fulci’s Contraband (1980). The eyes very much have it in this film… Koryu is alerted to the bad guys’ nefarious deeds on viewing micro film retrieved from a dead man’s glass eye (!) and when she finally confronts the operation’s Mr Big, she nails his glasses to his eyeballs in a sweet bit of poetic justice. By this point, of course, it must feel like a hollow victory as most of her nearest and dearest have been wiped out in the process and the film ends with Koryu’s agonised wailing… hanging by an emotional thread, indeed.

Our girl is assisted at the denouement by a Ronin figure who initially threw his hand in with the mobsters, only to switch his allegiances. Obviously intended to invoke Clint Eastwood’s intense drifter in Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars, 1964 (itself a pinch from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, 1961), this is just about the only significant innovation in what’s essentially a cookie cutter sequel, plot-wise…

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Continuing ossification is signified as early as the title sequence of Return Of The Sister Street Fighter (1975), which is lifted lock, stock and barrel from its predecessor (and in which Shihomi goes though her combat stances in a hall of mirrors setting that’s clearly, er, indebted to Enter The Dragon). The plot (Kuryo versus fiendish gold smugglers) is another retread and the film’s shortened  running time also suggests that the law of diminishing returns is starting to set in. Most disappointingly, Yamaguchi dispenses with those freeze frame martial arts captions.

In an attempt to distract our attention from the stale plotting,  The “Mister Big” figure in this one is pitched so over-the-top, he’s virtually in orbit. Confined to a wheelchair, he presides over martial arts tournaments in which the cream of the world’s evil henchman-types fight to the death for the right to take on Koryu. Why, one wonders, doesn’t he just send them all? While we’re asking, when Koryu is fighting the bad guys, why do they always form an orderly queue instead of all rushing her at once? And wouldn’t it be more effective to just shoot her? Alas, there are no guns in these gentlemen’s bouts…

Despite spouting lines like: “Kill all pests… that’s my philosophy!”, Koryu’s foe also makes the classic Bond baddy mistake (much lampooned in the Austin Powers films) of not killing her outright whenever he gets the chance. After she’s wiped the floor with all his goons, Mr Big (whose just been outed as a War Criminal) somersaults out of his wheelchair (that’s his incapacity benefit claim fucked) and whips off his Michael Jackson glove to reveal a golden hand (exposing Goldfinger for the cheapskate we always suspected him to be) before going (golden) mano a mano with Koryu. She’s assisted in the final showdown by another freelancing Clint Eastwood type, who gets his own subplot concerning his rivalry with a Lee Van Cleef clone (!) Koryu also has to protect the young daughter of a mob victim, whose “cute” antics will really grate on your nerves.

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This particular formula was clearly getting a bit played out but Sister Streetfighter: Fifth Level Fist, a 1976 effort from original Street Fighter director Shigehiro Ozawa, shakes things up so much that it’s debatable whether this one actually belongs in the Sister Streetfighter series or on this box. Don’t get me wrong, it’s always a pleasure to see the lovely Ms Shihomi doing her fistic thing… though she doesn’t really get to do that much of it here, her character (reinvented as the 100% Japanese “Kiku Nakagawa”) expending most of her energy on foiling her social-climbing parents’ attempts to marry her off to some boring young Professional. Ozawa privileges romantic comedy and social comment (notably women’s emancipation and racial prejudice) over martial arts and the heroin smuggling gangsters, when they eventually appear, are more realistically depicted (less of the Blofeld stuff but more self-referential humour, as they front up their operation with a film production studio).

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A despised social marginal because of his mixed race heritage, Jim Sullivan (Ken Wallace) falls in with the mobsters but is eliminated when he becomes a liability to them. This tragic figure is sympathetically portrayed and gets his own sweetly soulful theme on the soundtrack. His half-sister Michi (Rabu Micchii) calls in her friend Kiku to bring the bad guys to book but as much time is spent on the sexual tension between her and the investigating cop Takeo Nakagawa (Masafumi Suzuki) as on fighting. Only at the end does Kiku kick over the traces and really get to express herself with her feet and fists before another triumphant / downbeat ending…

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Bonus wise, you get another excerpt from Arrow’s ongoing interview with Sonny (Shinichi to his mum) Chiba, who talks of his working relationship with Etsuko Shihomi plus interviews with director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi (initially dubious about the new female star, he was ultimately won over “by her dimples and her physical capabilities) and screenwriter Masahiro Kakefuda (“We wracked our brains, day and night, to come up with scenarios for the bad guys”). There are various trailers for the films and a stills / poster gallery. The reversible sleeve features original and newly commissioned artwork by one Kungfubob O’ Brien and there’s an illustrated booklet featuring writing on the series by Patrick Macias and a new essay on the U.S. release of Toei’s karate films by Chris “Temple Of Schlock” Poggiali, which you won’t see once the first pressing has sold out or if you’re a humble blogger like me.

Chiba expresses his regret that Shihomi eventually (in a case of life imitating Sister Streetfighter: Fifth Level Fist) got married and retired from action movies. Who knows what she’d have achieved if she’d continue to develop her extraordinary abilities on the silver  screen? Sixth Level Fist at least, I reckon. But I’d have to check one of those freeze frame captions to be sure…

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Is that a nunchuck in your pocket, Jonny Wang, or are you just happy to see me?

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My Brain Hurts… Siberian Khatru On Board Eugenio Martin’s HORROR EXPRESS.

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 15.

If you’ll indulge me in a spot of nostalgia (and why wouldn’t you?), Eugenio Martin’s Horror Express (Pánico En El Transiberiano, 1972) was – along with the likes of Witchfinder General, Tales From The Crypt, et al – a regular fixture on the Friday late night horror slot with which Granada TV used to enliven my humdrum adolescence. In those days of course (sit up and pay attention, Junior, this is for your own good!) we didn’t yet have the benefit of VCRs and given that the gaps between transmissions of certain films might be as long as two years, it was a catastrophe of global proportions if you succumbed to sleep half way through this or some or other horror gem, usually waking up during the credits with a stiff neck and another significant wait in prospect.

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Flash forward past the VHS era and into incipient middle age, at the dawn of DVD, where Horror Express became one of the most widely released titles on the nascent format, mostly in scuzzy looking and not necessarily authorised editions on fly-by-night labels, apparently because of a misconception that it had entered the public domain. Indeed, if memory serves me well, this is the first title I ever saw on DVD, round at David Flint’s place. Image Entertainment’s managed a decent R1 version that has been deleted for some time now and was followed  by a R2 incarnation from Cinema Club’s Horror Classics imprint, very welcome despite its absence of extras, full screen presentation and rather tired, solarised-looking print, which seemed identical to the one that subsequently got screened by the BBC. In 2011 Severin managed a predictably pristine BD / DVD combo edition chock full of impressive extras that you’re going to get another chance to catch on the new Arrow release under consideration here.

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Born in 1925 and now (if indeed he’s still alive) long retired, Eugenio Martin was an able journeyman director of adventure yarns until the success of Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy (shot in Spain) initiated a vogue for Paella Westerns in which he enthusiastically participated with the likes of El Precio De Un Hombre (aka Bounty Killer, 1966) , Requiem Para El Gringo aka Duel In The Eclipse (1968) and as late as 1971 with El Hombre De Rio Malo (“Bad Man’s River” aka Hunt The Man down)

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By this point Martin had already started dabbling in the horror genre, his 1969 offering Una Vela Para El Diablo (“A Candle For The Devil”) showing a preoccupation with hidebound social concealing psychotic deviance that would be amplified in later efforts up to and including the early ’80s brace Sobrenatural and Aquella Casa En Las Afueras (“That House On The Outskirts”). The latter turns on a memorable, Sheila Keith type turn from the venerable Alida Valli and features abortion as a plot point in a way that would have been impossible scant years earlier, under Franco’s regime.

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There’s a similar faith vs secularism motif in the Spanish / British co-production Horror Express (1972), easily the best of Martin’s fear flicks… how could it fail to be, combining as it does a truly stellar cast (including Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in their strongest non-Hammer outing) with some totally wacked out plotting. Said action commences with Sir Alexander Saxton (your basic Professor Challenger type, as essayed by Lee) unearthing some kind of deep frozen yeti in scenic Szechuan (in fact all the impressive locations in this picture are actually Spanish) at the turn of the Century. Later he runs into old scientific adversary Dr Wells (Cushing) at Shanghai railway station, as both are about to board the Transiberian Express. The prickly professional rivalry between these two leads to Wells bribing a porter to take a peek at the contents of Saxon’s crate. Oh, mister Porter… what he finds is a thawed out troglodyte whose glowing red medusa stare leads to prolific bleeding from the victims’ own eyes (which rapidly cloud over with cataracts), followed in pretty short order by death. Cushing’s autopsy (pretty graphic stuff for its day) reveals that the victim’s brain is smooth as a baby’s bum, every wrinkle (and piece of information that is potentially useful to a space Yeti) sucked right out of it.

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Having bailed out of his crate, Trog now mooches around the train, disturbing the genteel travellers with further eye-bleeding, brain-sucking antics. His victims’ ordeals, effectively conveyed via dissolves and quick cuts, still pack a horrific punch and really shook me up as a kid. I’m convinced that they also made a big impression on Lucio Fulci who, it became apparent to me after meeting and interviewing him, was a bit of a Spanish horror buff. The mistreatment to which various characters’ eyes are subjected in Fulci’s 1980 schlock opera City Of The Living Dead are unmistakably reminiscent of these scenes, ditto the ping-pong eyeballs which pop up at the conclusion of his masterpiece The Beyond (1981).

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Back on that train, as if all of the above weren’t entertaining enough, Martin chucks in Eurobabe Helga Line as the beautiful Polish Countess Natasha and her Rasputin-like personal chaplain Father Pujardov, played by Alberto de Mendoza in a performance possibly patterned on that of Patrick Troughton as Lee’s sidekick Klove in Roy Ward Baker’s Scars Of Dracula (1970). The Argentinean Mendoza was a busy actor (right up  till his death in 2011) whose notable Eurotrash credits include Bitto Albertini’s Nairobi-based giallo oddity L’Uomo Piu Velenoso Del Cobra (“Human Cobras”, 1971), Sergio Martino’s The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh (1970) and Case Of The Scorpion’s Tale (1971) plus the Fulci brace One On Top Of Another / Perversion Story (1969) and Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (1971.)

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His mad monk maintains that the Troglodyte is Satan incarnate (”There’s the stink of Hell on this train… even [Line’s] dog knows it”) and Saxton’s attempts at rational explanations (“Hypnosis! Yoga!”) are somewhat less than compelling. When the train’s resident detective manages to shoot Trog, Mills performs an autopsy that presents some startling results. This missing link’s retina has retained images of dinosaurs and even a view of The Earth seen from Outer Space (Martino taking his cue here from a pinch of the pseudo-science that informed Dario Argento’s Four Flies On Grey Velvet, made the previous year). The conclusion is that the evil entity comprises pure energy that must inhabit a host body to make its way around terra firma. The train dick’s hairy hand (hope I got that the right way round) indicates that he is the new host, and a fresh cycle of brain sucking and The Thing-type paranoia kicks in when he sets out to absorb the engineering expertise that will allow the construction of a spaceship with which to check off of planet Earth. Ultimately Pujardov volunteers to host the Elemental and, as if the passengers hadn’t already suffered more than their fair share of commuting misery, he now raises the bodies of all the previous hosts and victims as a horde of marauding zombies!

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By this point the express has been boarded by a macho bunch of cossacks, under the command of Captain Kazan, played by Telly Savalas. Ah yes, Telly Savalas… never the subtlest of actors, the future Kojak star raises the bar here for all subsequent outbreaks of scenery-chewing thespianism… but how else was he going to steal the show from the legendary Lee / Cushing axis? Obviously labouring under the delusion that he’s performing in a Spag Western (an impression enhanced by frequent, tuneless whistling on the soundtrack) Savalas swaggers around gargling with vodka, smashing glasses, ranting xenophobic invective and delivering such impenetrable aphorism as: “A horse has four legs, a murderer has two arms and The Devil must be afraid of one honest Cossack.” “What’s he raving about?” demands Mills, reasonably enough, only to be punched out by Kazan of this trouble. “Everybody’s under arrest!” howls the Captain before handing out a few lumps to Saxton, a propos of nothing in particular and horse whipping Pujardov into the bargain… Oh, those Russians! Savalas’ overripe performance had such an impact on my impressionable mind that I long misremembered him as dominating the entire picture, and it came as quite a shock on my first adult rewatching of Horror Express to realise that this character doesn’t make his entry until well into the film’s final third.

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Thankfully, Saxton and Mills manage to de-couple the zombie-infested carriages and send them down the line that sends them careering over a cliff. Great miniature work throughout, but which bright engineering spark decided to lay down a line that would send trains careering over a cliff? Even Southern Rail commuters expect better than this… and speaking of stiff upper lips, Cushing gets to utter the best line in the film –  “Monsters? We’re British, you know!”, one that still resonates loudly in the wake of Brexit…

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Bonus materials include an interview with director Martin in which he reveals that the film’s motivating “high concept” was producer Philip Yordan’s desire to get his money’s worth out of the train that he had purchased for Pancho Villa, in which Martin had already directed Savalas earlier in 1972. He also describes how Lee coaxed the recently widowed and deeply depressed Cushing back into a working mood. In the featurette Notes From The Blacklist producer Bernard Gordon talks about his run-in with everybody’s favourite Commie-baiter, Senator Joe McCarthy. Telly And Me comprises an interview with composer John Cacavas, who acknowledges how his scoring career flourished under the patronage of Savalas. There’s an enthusiastic intro piece from erstwhile Fango editor Chris Alexander and of course you get a trailer.

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All of these were on Severin’s BD, which also included an audio interview with Peter Cushing that you could listen to while watching the film. Arrow replace that with a useful Kim Newman / Stephen Jones commentary track. The main feature here looks marginally grainier but more a tad more nuanced, colour wise, than the now out of print Sev disc, for which this disc constitutes the perfect replacement.

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