Posts Tagged With: Arrow

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

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

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BD. Region B. Arrow Academy. PG.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh my God… it’s his ear!”

“Have we got crackers?”

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

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With me so far?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Have a nice day!”

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

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

… Virgil: The Aeneid, Book IV.

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

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

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

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

*****  Spoiler Alert Ends *****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Premier League film, Sunday kickaround in the park poster…

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That’s better!

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40,000 Flies On 4K… Arrow’s PHENOMENA Upgrade Reviewed

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BD/CD Combi. Region B. Arrow. 18.

I’ve always loved Dario Argento’s Phenomena (1985), ever since I first saw it (cut down to “Creepers”) at the long-defunct 123 Cinema (*) in Liverpool (above… now and then-ish), supported by The Evil Dead in its theatrical follow-up run. Support film? Ask your granddad. But wait, I hear you say… if you like Phenomena so much, Herr Freudstein, how come it’s taken you so long to review Arrow’s 4K restoration of it on this blog? Well, here’s the thing… significant chunks of my time are taken up, regrettably, with matters completely unconnected to watching and writing about films. When I am writing about films, I’m obliged (not least by Frau Freudstein) to prioritise assignments that are going to bring in some money (i.e. not this blog) and when that’s been taken care of, I feel duty bound to concentrate on releases for which somebody has bothered to furnish me with review copies. Stuff I’ve had to shell out for myself goes straight to the back of the queue, whatever its manifest, manifold merits. As with Arrow’s Phenomena, so it goes for their recent(ish) Bird With The Crystal Plumage set, which I might or might not get round to reviewing in the coming weeks and months.

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Anyway, Phenomena… I’ve always loved it and indeed, what’s not to love? A sleep walking schizophrenic schoolgirl uses her telepathic understanding with insects and friendship with a razor wielding chimpanzee to hunt down the butt-ugly deformed, demented dwarf who has been, with the connivance of his psychotic mother, dismembering and collecting the body parts of her classmates. If that synopsis doesn’t appeal to you, you’re probably reading the wrong blog… and you’re definitely following the wrong director. Yet there are those, even among the more Argento inclined demographic (who presumably accepted Four Flies On Grey Velvet, Deep Red and even Inferno as models of kitchen sink linear narrative) who’ve dismissed Argento’s ninth feature on account of its “bizarre plotting”. Such criticisms reappear regularly among the bonus materials  in this Arrow box set,  which makes you wonder why they’ve expended so much effort over it…

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… to impressive effect, it has to be said. What we have here are four discs (three BD and one compact) containing three variant versions of the film plus its original soundtrack. “The Italian / Integral Version” (i.e. Argento’s original directorial vision) runs at 116 minutes. Six minutes of trims to scenes yielded “The International Version” which, it was felt, might slip by a little more comfortably for international viewers. More drastic excisions (and the “Creepers” rebranding) were felt necessary for English language territories, where cinema goers had to be content with a mere 83 minutes of maggots-versus-mutant mayhem. Of course in mid-80s Britain, the BBFC insisted on further butchery for the film’s video release by Palace, though there’s no room for that particular cut (and good riddance to it) on this set. Every incarnation of the film included here looks as marvellous as you’d expect and Arrow have worked particular wonders compiling audio crap-free sound tracks for each from the available elements. The English soundtrack for the 110 minute version comes in lossless stereo and the necessarily hybrid soundtrack to the integral version also offers you the option of glorious 5.1 surround sound.

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As for extras, The Three Sarcophagi, another of those “visual essays” by Michael Mackenzie, compares the three versions and examines the painstaking process of rendering each in the spankiest shape it has ever been seen in for this release. There’s more information about that in the accompanying 60 page limited booklet, which also includes three essays – “The Poetry Of The Gross-Out” by the always interesting Mikel J. Koven, “Argento, Armani And The Fashions Of Phenomena” from my antisocial media pal Rachael Nisbet (the fashion clock stopped somewhere in the mid ’70s… 1870s… here at the House Of Freudstein, but Rachael’s stuff is invariably a pleasure to read) and Leonard Jacobs’ Phenomena As A Key To Unlocking Opera, which takes several pages to arrive at the conclusion which is expressed far more succinctly by the director himself in an Argento interview elsewhere on this site,  i.e. “Opera ends where Phenomena begins, even if I made Phenomena first…. it doesn’t really matter which order you watch the videos in, does it?”

Troy Howarth contributes a characteristically sure-footed commentary track and maintains an admirable balance between saluting the genius of early Argento and deploring how he subsequently sank into sterile self-celebration. Similarly, he’s critical of  Daria Nicolodi’s performance in Phenomena but reminds us how well she performed in plenty of previous pictures (for Argento and plenty of others) and acknowledges how her director (and disgruntled ex lover) hung her out to dry in this one.

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Nicolodi gets to have her own say in the feature-length documentary Of Flies and Maggots, as do plenty of others, including Argento, his daughter Fiore (whose severed head is thrown out of a window during the film’s memorable opening sequence), Davide Marotta (the defenestrating dwarf himself), co-writer Franco Ferrini, cinematographer Romano Albani, production manager Angelo Jacono, assistant director Michele Soavi, special optical effects artist Luigi Cozzi, makeup FX ace Sergio Stivaletti, underwater photographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia, musicians Claudio Simonetti and Simon Boswell and just about everybody else you’d expect to hear from plus some you possibly wouldn’t, e.g. actress Fiorenza Tessari (daughter of Duccio).

No Donald Pleasence of course, but it’s a pity that Connelly (who had the presence of mind to star for two of my favourite directors in her first two feature outings) declined to take part in this doc. Possibly aware of the words of one contemporary critic who opined that she had ruined Phenomena and should stick to modelling

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“Cheeky bastard said WHAT?!?”

(I imagine that she recalls these wise words every time she polishes her Oscar) she will be further discomforted to hear Battaglia’s catty comments about the size of her feet (considering how many crazy elements Argento manages to pack into Phenomena, I guess there’s room for a Sasquatch subplot). Cozzi talks about the strained relationship between Connelly’s protective Dad and the production, Jacono refers to his agonising attempts to reconcile Dario with everyone from whom he’d become estranged – his father Salvatore, brother Claudio and Nicolodi. We also learn that Jack Sholder (Alone In The Dark, Nightmare On Elm Street 2, The Hidden) was responsible for the Creepers cut. Perhaps he could usefully have been assigned to Of Flies And Maggots, which at over two hours will probably prove a bit much for general viewers. The again, it’s unlikely that they would buy such a lavish celebration of one film and the doc is a real treasure trove for those who love Phenomena…

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… did I already mention that I love Phenomena? We are constantly told (on this set and in general film discourse) that no critics have got any time for the film, from which I and others who do can only infer the sub-text “no critics worth a light” have got any time for it. Well, it’s good to learn your place in the scheme of things but one can’t help but be tickled at the spectacle of Argentophiles who turn their noses up at Phenomena, only to devote hundreds of breathless column inches to the worthless likes of Phantom Of The Opera, Giallo and Dracula 3-D. Does anybody imagine that any of those will be appearing as multi-disc collectors’ box sets in years to come? Nah…

Supplementary materials are rounded out by the expected trailers, a cheesy promotional clip for Simonetti’s exhilarating “Jennifer” theme that Argento threw together with the composer, Connelly and a demented looking bint named Elena Pompei (who also appeared in Deodato’s Body Count, Cozzi’s Paganini Horror and DA’s lame ’80s TV series Night Shift), and pages from the characteristically lush Japanese pressbook. Candice Tripp is responsible for the box’s artwork, about which I’m still making up my mind.

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Nice to know after viewing the doc that excrement was used to wrangle the flies… this is one set that must have smelled just delightful! One recalls that honey was used to make them behave on Once Upon A Time In The West, the Sergio Leone epic on which Argento got his writing break… reminds me of Sheldon’s best line in The Big Bang Theory and also seems emblematic of the shift from a Golden Age of Italian popular cinema to one of Silver (= “Argento”) en route to the distinctly Brown patch of the late ’80’s – early ’90s with which the cycle wound down.

More extreme means were used to control other animal actors. Albani seems to find it a hoot that the chimp was beaten to make it co-operate. I don’t and nor, hopefully, do you.

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Try that one more time, pal…

It’s not only WRONG but totally out of whack with the MDMA-style “getting down with nature” blabberings that litter Phenomena and are developed to dismaying effect in Opera.

Nevertheless, I’ll continue to champion Argento’s grand guignol paean to Gaia. I’ve always fought its corner, whenever nay sayers have… er, said nay about it. In fact (boring historical sidebar alert!) when Alan Jones rubbished Phenomena in Starburst I sent a dissenting response to him and Shock X-Press, the editor of which declined to run it but hooked me up “with a guy who’s trying to start a fanzine”. The guy was John Gullidge, the fanzine became Samhain and how you feel about that publication and the whole UK fanzine renaissance it kicked off might confirm you in whatever positive or negative feelings you have ever entertained towards Phenomena. Me, I’ve always loved it. I think this is where you came in…

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(*) I also caught Re-animator, Demons 2 and a shitload of Russ Meyer films (among many others) there… The 123 was ground zero for Liverpool’s shabby raincoat brigade. In fact I’ll never shake the memory of seeing somebody jack off to the “severed head menaces Barbara Crampton” scene in Re-animator, no matter how hard I try.

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All That Zarjaz… FUTURE SHOCK! THE STORY OF 2000 AD Reviewed

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… wielding their gleaming tweezers, no doubt.

BD. Region Free. Severin. Unrated or BD. Region B/2. Arrow. 15.

The IPC comic Action (created by Pat Mills and published 14/02/76-11/11/77) specialised in, er, “adapting” the storylines of violent contemporary movies (Jaws, Rollerball, any amount of vigilante cop sagas) for a readership who were avidly discussing them in the playground but too young to sneak into cinemas and actually see the bloody things. In the process it garnered much hostile tabloid comment, anguished TV debate and the undying enmity of Mary Whitehouse’s National Viewers And Listeners’ Association. WHS and Menzies started getting cold feet and so did IPC, pulping the print run of issue 37 (an ultra-rare copy of which recently went for two-and-a-half grand on eBay!) and the comic lingered on for another year or so of declining sales in woefully bowdlerised shape. As a precursor to the “video nasties” witch hunt of five years later and indeed, as a social panic in its own right, the Action story deserves documentary treatment…

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In the absence of that, here’s Paul Goodwin’s 2014 documentary on Action’s spiritual successor, the rather more successful (forty years as “the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic” and still counting) 2000 AD. Mills’ new creation was seen as some kind of retreat on its inception. “Because it’s a Sci-fi comic, people thought that it would be nice and middle class…” he remembers: “Boy, were they in for a shock!” They sure were, with a continuing stress on “action” (which in Mills’ formula always equalled “violence”) and a new pantheon of iconic, anti-heroic characters such as Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, Halo Jones, The ABC Warriors and Nemesis The Warlock (2000 AD even revamped The Eagle’s venerable Dan Dare for a spell) running amok in hard-hitting strips that were Dystopianly satirical, sardonic and Sadean.

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Goodwin’s very welcome doc, adeptly handled for the most part, unfortunately kicks off with a couple of my least favourite lazy pop social history clichés, concerning the cultural climate from which 2000 AD emerged. The late ’70s was, by this account, a period of “social conflict” in the UK and the evidence wheeled out to support this trusty old chestnut is familiar stock footage of Arthur Scargill, aggro on the picket lines and bin bags piling up in the streets. OK, so working people at this time were achieving a measure of success in the struggle to advance their economic conditions by flexing their industrial muscle (nobody was going to hand them anything on a plate, where they?) and that apparently amounts to “social conflict.” By implication the current situation, in which the boot is very much on the other foot and being enthusiastically ground into the faces of the working poor, the disabled, the demented, immigrants and benefit claimants (when it isn’t pressing down on the accelerator of wealth transference to the 1% from the rest of us) must be seen as a period of relative “social harmony”. Tell it to the nurses queueing at food banks and the tenants of high-rise tinder boxes! So much for pop social history…

My other least favourite lazy cliché follows hot on the heels of the first and has it, in this instance, that 2000 AD drew its “grit”, “authenticity”, “street credibility” and any amount of other bullshit from the punk “movement” and the antidote it allegedly provided for the drippy hippy legacy of the ’60s. Well, the idea of punk as a street level / grass-roots tendency has always been laughable, considering that it was cooked up between a record industry hell-bent on cutting production costs and an elite circle of entrepreneurs who had been to Art School and thought (correctly) that they could use a dodgy strain of French academic theory (Situationism) to flog a bunch of stupid clothes to “the kids”. In point of fact, 2000 AD’s initial impact and impetus came from its adherence to the dark, taboo busting ethos of “drippy hippy” Felix Dennis’ Cozmic Comix, from which milieu the new title recruited such luminaries as Bryan Talbot, Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons.

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The pre-titles sequence’s clumsiest moment, though, comes when the voice over is referencing a “clash of cultures” and we simultaneously cut to The Clash on stage, performing some cod “political” diatribe in their customary hysterical manner. Speaking of Da Clash, during (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, Joe Strummer (aka diplomat’s son John Graham Mellor) warned us: “They got Burton suits, haha, they think it’s funny, turning rebellion into money”. The main thrust of Goodwin’s doc (which, it’s fair to say, improves dramatically after its glib introduction) is how the founders of 2000 AD overthrew the complacent likes of Eagle (which, if we are to pursue the putative punk parallels, might be cast in the infra-dig Emerson, Lake and Palmer role) and such anachronistic oddities as Whizzer And Chips, only to fall into old fartitude themselves as successive waves of young Turks arrived at King’s Reach Tower to redefine the cutting edge of comic cool, before giving way in their turn to further turks / future farts… while in the background the guys in suits continued to turn all of their respective rebellions into money.

Distinguished alumni interviewed here include Kevin O’Neill, Dave Gibbons, John Wagner, Alan Grant, Brian Bolland, Bryan Talbot, Carlos Ezquerra, Grant Morrison and David Bishop, plus the “comic activist” (whatever that is) and historian Paul Gravett, Alex Garland (who wrote the second, superior Dredd movie) and Karl Urban (who played the title  character in that) and fan boys including Scott Ian (the guy out of Anthrax with the silly beard) and some bloke from Portishead.

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Throughout this feature the rival factions diss each other (the only subject on which there seems to be unanimity is on how much everybody despises the character of Tharg, the comic’s notional alien editor) and big up their own credentials as true custodians of the soul and spirit of 2000 AD, with frequent interjections from founder and on / off contributor Mills, the Gordon Ramsey of the comic world… this is a man whose default emotional state appears to be “seething”. Of course he has a lot to feel angry about and one of Future Shock’s ongoing refrains is how disgracefully the creative talents have been treated by IPC and subsequent publishers. Shocking enough that writers and artists were expected to surrender all copyright in their work in perpetuity for a measly flat fee (as the late artist formally known as Prince once observed: “If you don’t own your masters, your masters own you”) but when Kevin O’Neill discovered that a) his story Shok! had been plagiarised for the Richard Stanley film Hardware and b) that he was being threatened with legal action by the film company’s layers unless he disowned any rights to the story… well!!!

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Neil Gaiman admits to shedding tears over the fact that Alan Moore (the most notable absentee from the interviewees here) abandoned The Ballad Of Halo Jones because of the shabby way he was being treated. When Brian Bolland defected to DC (specifically to its Vertigo imprint) he turned out to be the first of many. The second half of this doc details the subsequent decline in 2000 AD’s mojo and flirtations with closure. After the nadir represented by its ill-advised ’90s dalliance with the “lads’ mags” demographic, the only way was up and Future Shock! closes with the comic thriving under the safe custodianship of Rebellion Developments, still sending thrill-meters into meltdown across our and other galaxies. Meanwhile popular culture (have you checked out one of those Marvel movies recently?) and the world we inhabit have finally caught up with 2000 AD … kudos to Mills and co but perhaps, on reflection, this is not something we should be celebrating!

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Goodwin deploys flashy editing, groovy graphics and metal music in a style that suits his subject perfectly. It’s a subject he loves and the reverence he clearly feels for its protagonists means that interviews are occasionally allowed to go on a bit too long. At 110 minutes, Future Shock! would benefit from a bit of a trim, with more material allowed to spill into the off-cuts which form much of the generous bonus materials. Another nice featurette has Pat Mills revisiting King’s Reach Tower – well, standing outside it – and reminiscing in its shadow.

In terms of these supplementaries and their presentation of the main feature, there’s really very little to distinguish between the similarly impressive Arrow and Severin editions that recently arrived at the House Of Freudstein. You spends your Earth money and you takes your choice…

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Borag Thungg, Earthlets!

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Tremble With Fear! In The Frightening Interrogation Room #1… Kinji Fukasaku’s COPS VS THUGS Reviewed

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

Cops Vs Thugs, huh? Wonder what this one’s about (it’s about 100 minutes, as it happens… boom boom!) The fish markets and hostess bars of down town Kurashima are a bit off our usual beat here at The House Of Freudstein but, as Oscar Wilde once remarked, you should try everything at least once (admittedly he made exceptions for incest and morris dancing.)

Director Kinji Fukasaku came to Western attention with the astonishing dystopian fable Battle Royale (2000), three years and two further features before his death, but Arrow have been keeping the Fukasaku flame alive with sterling releases of his movies in the Battles Without Honour And Humanity series and are now turning their attention to one of the similarly themed films he made in between those, 1975’s Kenkei Tai Soshiki Boryokuin (Cops Vs Thugs.) Like many of the “jitsuroko” pictures released by Toei Studio at this time, the film is loosely based on notorious real life criminal cases.

Set, for some reason, in 1963, it starts promisingly enough with tough, trench coated Detective Kuno (Bunta Sugawara, a kind of Japanese Henry Silva type) slapping around a bunch of Yakuza foot soldiers on their way to some felony or other. He tells them that they’re not worth the trouble of arresting, because they’re only going to get themselves shot soon, anyway… but he does insist that they pay their sushi bill. The fact that these guys don’t dare turn their guns on Kuno speaks volumes about Yakuza etiquette in those days or, at least, how it got depicted in the movies. Of course this cop has other reasons to feel secure throwing his weight around, notably the fact that he is well connected with the Ohara faction and its acting boss Kenji Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata), whom he helps in his struggle with a rival gang led by Katsui Kawade (Mikio Narita) over a crooked land deal being set up by a corrupt politician. Don’t worry if you can’t follow the unfolding details of that, it’s merely a MacGuffin to keep things chugging along as Fukasaku and his favoured screen writer Kazuo Kasahara concentrate on the moral complexities and compromises that keep the lid on the Kurashima pressure cooker.

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If Kuno is a bad apple (and indeed, he’s more Bad Lieutenant than Serpico), clearly he’s not the only one. The brown stuff really hits the fan when Lt Kaida (Tatsuo Umemiya), a by-the-book straight-edger (and judo ace to boot!) arrives and upsets the whole rotten apple cart, together with the network of shady alliances that has been keeping the peace… rival hoodlums are soon decapitating each other on the town’s subway steps.

These Yakuza films have exercised a clear influence over John Woo’s work, but while Woo’s gangsters are able to bond with the heroic cops because of some kind of nobility attaching to the code by which they live, here the cops are just as bad as the gangsters. Fukasaku is quite unapologetic about this situation, which he attributes to the post WWII social and economic chaos in Japan, when desperate people from very similar social backgrounds were choosing careers as either cops or gangsters in order to ensure that their families had enough to eat. It’s also suggested at various points that the establishment tolerates the Yakuza as a bulwark against communism. Fukasaku seems equally sanguine about the way all this male camaraderie is often sealed by the brutal sexual mistreatment of some unfortunate women or other. So, surprisingly does the BBFC. Toshiaki Tsushima’s two fisted score, heavy on blacksploitation-style wicky-wacky guitar music, compliments the frenetic action en route to a cynical Get Carteresque conclusion which proves conclusively that if you sit on the fence, one day you’ll get shot by both sides.

I’m not in a position to tell you anything about the reversible sleeve or illustrated collector’s booklet (first pressing only) featuring the thoughts of one Patrick Macias, but my preview disc contains a bonus trailer, one of those “visual essays” by Tom Mes and a featurette in which Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane talks engagingly about the director’s work. Did you know that the guy who plays Matsui in this film insisted that Bunta Sugawara beat the crap out of him for real? And still he doesn’t get name checked on IMDB. So much for Method Acting…Cops-vs-thugs.jpg

 

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What Goes Up Must Come Down… THE CLIMBER Reviewed

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

Like our old pal Giulio Sacchi, as played by Tomas Milian in the recently reviewed Almost Human Aldo (Joe Dallesandro) is a small time crook with big dreams, given impetus by the contemptuous treatment dished out to him by his mob superiors. After cutting a few corners in the cigarette smuggling racket, he is beaten up by The Camorra and dumped outside the city limits. Making his way to Rome, in a stroke of luck that equals Giulio’s in hooking up with Anita Strindberg’s character, he’s taken in and supported by the lovely Luciana (Stefania Casini) while he begins taking similar liberties in the capital’s drug trade and gradually ascending the perilous underworld ladder. Confirmed in his cynical amorality, Aldo returns to Naples to dethrone Don Erico (Raymond Pellegrin), ably supported by a squadron of stunt bikers and the mandatory bad French criminal (“He doesn’t shoot people for the pay… he just hates everybody!”) who’s always in these things to make their bad boy Italian protagonists seem more sympathetic. What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? What, similarly, shall if profit Aldo if he’s shaking down every Neapolitan hot spot but has so alienated Luciana that she tops herself? The law of gravity, furthermore, dictates that his meteoric and violent rise will be followed by a comparably precipitous and bullet ridden descent…

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Naples native Pasquale Squitieri directed several crime slime efforts (e.g. Gang War In Naples, 1972… Corleone, 1978… and The Squealer, 1985) but remains significantly less well-known over here than his missus Claudia Cardinale (nice work if you can get it!) On the evidence of The Climber, he deserves at least as much attention as more celebrated auteurs in this genre such as Fernandi Di Leo. His off-kilter compositions, unexpected camera angles and deployment of such devices as slow-mo convey Aldo’s increasingly parlous state of mind without detracting one jot from the adrenalised action, sonically seasoned by a selection of hysterical plastic soul and a recurring freakbeat reboot of Hocus Pocus.

Hopefully Arrow will be unearthing further titles to bolster the rep of this, er, criminally underexposed director though there would be a certain bittersweet irony if this does prove to be the case, their impressive 4K restoration of The Climber coming three scant months after Squitieri’s death in Rome, aged 78.

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The career of Joe Dallesandro (above) has been subject to the same gravitational forces affecting the character he plays in Squitieri’s film. The “pretty face” of Warhol’s Factory, as it appears in Little Joe’s Adventures In Europe, now resembles that of Harvey Keitel’s Bad Lieutenant after a particularly heavy night on the tiles (there’s no way of gleaning from this bonus featurette if his crotch is as impressive as it appeared on the legendary cover of The Stones’ Sticky Fingers album), every line and wrinkle part payment for the Getting of Knowledge. It’s a long time since I watched Dallesandro in any of Warhol’s underground efforts (and I’m in no hurry to repeat the experience any time soon) so after his dubbed appearances in various European pictures, it comes as something of a jolt to hear him reminiscing in his Brooklyn accent about Squitieri (whom he remembers as a “strange”, gun-toting character), his real life relationship with Casini (“She left Bernardo Bertolucci to start dating me and I thought ‘Well, I must be somebody!’ “),  the reluctant-to-strip Sylvia Kristel (with whom he co-starred in Borowczyk’s The Streetwalker, 1976) and his (apparently successful) struggle with alcoholism. He reflects philosophically on the times (notably on Bitto Albertini’s Safari Rally, 1978) when he was stiffed. Contrary to the Lou Reed song that clinched his public image, Little Joe, it seems, often gave it away…

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Street copies of The Climber (in its first pressing, anyway) will apparently come with a booklet featuring new writing on the film by Roberto Curti, author of the Italian Crime Filmography, 1968-80 on which I’m currently not in a position to comment.

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With Apologies To Proudhon… Daria Nicolodi in Elio Petri’s PROPERTY IS NO LONGER A THEFT

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. Arrow Academy. 15.

“What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?” – Bertolt Brecht.

“Money doesn’t smell!” – the emperor Vespasian, dismissing his son Titus’ qualms about a tax on piss collected from public urinals.

Some directors (as we shall shortly see) reacted to Italy’s “years of lead” (the pandemic criminal and political violence of the late ’60s and ’70s) by packing heavily moustached detectives and all manner of ballistic hardware into trench coats and unleashing them on the bad guys, whoever they were perceived to be that week. Elio Petri responded with darkly comic satires of the official corruption that had accompanied Italy’s “economic miracle” and was implicated, in ways not yet fully explained, with the turmoil that followed it. His films from this period (as suggested in the title of the 1973 offering under consideration here) also constitute an arch critique of the contemporary state of class consciousness and the Left’s fitness for purpose. Petri’s cinematic approach to these questions had less to do with the balletic bullet fests of Enzo Castellari than with such theatrical antecedents as Dario Fo’s celebrated Accidental Death Of An Anarchist and – as here – tends to be theatrically lit by Luigi Kuveiler. In Property Is No Longer A Theft he grants Shakespearian soliloquies to his principle cast members…

… and what a cast it is.Flavio Bucci (who made his screen debut in Petri’s 1971 effort The Working Class Goes To Heaven but will probably be more familiar as the blind pianist in Suspiria and one of the two murderous rapists on board Aldo Lado’s Late Night Trains) gives a superbly twitchy performance here as Total, a downtrodden bank teller who quits his job after developing a fixation on one of the bank’s clients, an affluent butcher identified simply as “The Butcher” (Italian comedy legend Ugo Tognazzi), whose wealth Total reckons (with some justification) to have been amassed via criminal means.

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Total resolves to steal The Butcher’s property, his reputation and his mistress Anita. The latter is played by another HOF Hall-of-Famer,  Daria Nicolodi, who emerges as a revelation when armed with a proper script and strong characterisation to sink her teeth into (and without the cruddy dubbing that have so often disfigured her screen performances.) There’s a gialloesque murder in a lift and a Diabolik gag or two thrown in for good measure as the blackly comic complications multiply, nicely complimented by one of Ennio Morricone’s quirkiest scores (though it’s not as flat-out bonkers as the one he contributed to Petri’s Investigation Of A Citizen Under Suspicion, 1970.)

Limited to the first pressing of this release, you also get an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Camilla Zamboni (upon which I can’t comment because I haven’t seen it.) The other bonus materials comprise interviews with make-up artist Pierantonio Mecacci, a knackered looking Flavio Bucci… who gets quite emotional talking about producer Claudio Mancini…

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… and Mancini himself, who restores the balance with some light-hearted, gossipy reminiscences. He pokes gentle fun at Petri (above) for being what British right-wing rags now call a “champagne socialist” (a charge they routinely level at any Lefty who doesn’t live in a mud hut) and recalls the perils of dealing with Maoist trades unions on location. Intriguingly, for such a cerebral effort, he attributes the box office success of PINLAT to the amount of prurient punters who wanted to see the sex scene in which Nicolodi takes the upper berth, a scene on account of which this film was originally banned (a decision promptly rescinded) by Italian censors. You might well want to check it out, too.

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Immoral Men… Walerian Borowczyk’s THE STORY OF SIN Reviewed

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

I’ve been pondering the possibility of a Walerian Borowczyk Weekender for a while now but Arrow, still mopping up the treasures that didn’t make it onto their epic Camera Obscura box set, have forced my hand with this handsome release of the last feature he completed in Poland, a 1975 adaptation of Stefan Zeromski’s bodice-ripping literary classic, a kind of Slavic answer to Madame Bovary.
The film opens with pious but ironically named small town girl Ewa Probatynska (Grazyna Dlugolecka) being warned in the confessional that sin begins with the imagination and admonished not to look at erotic books or art… nor should she respond to the lustful looks that men might give her in the street. Of course the priest can’t resist checking her out as she leaves, setting the scene for a cautionary tale of one woman’s decline and fall at the hands of a series of variously vain, hypocritical, weak and unreliable, opportunistic and murderous men.

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First she falls, head over heels, for Lukasz Niepolomski (Jerzy Selnik), one of the lodgers that her respectable parents are obliged to take in to keep solvent. In a masterly touch, Borowczyk intercuts their initial flirtation in a park with shots of a little girl getting lost in the undergrowth. Lukasz tries to put Ewa off by telling her that he’s married and having difficulty in obtaining a divorce… but he’s not exactly fighting her off with a pointed stick. When her pulls the first of his signature disappearances she is devastated but word later reaches her that her beau has been wounded in a duel and she unquestioningly heads for the village where he’s recuperating to take a menial job as a seamstress and nurse him back to health. After recovering enough to impregnate her, Lukacs disappears to Rome in pursuit of that divorce. Alone, Ewa undergoes a traumatic delivery and immediately does away with her baby. Count Zygmunt Szczerbic (Olgierd Lukaszewicz), an associate of Lukacz (in fact, the guy who wounded him in that duel) informs Ewa that her lover has been incarcerated in Rome but when they get there he has already been released and disappeared again without notice. The Count (who clearly worships Ewa, though she only has eyes for Lukasz) shepherds her around Europe in a vain search until she learns by chance that Lukasz got his divorce and promptly married a rich woman with whom he has returned to Poland. Hitting rock bottom, Ewa falls in with a bunch of con men and cut throats who string her along with promises that they can reunite her with Lukacz. At their behest she takes the devoted Count to bed and is tricked into killing him so that they can make off with his worldly goods.

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Thereafter they pimp her out to all comers until a social reformer with a kinky interest in criminal women enrolls her in his utopian agricultural community. Her former cohorts lure her away from there with yet another promise that they’ll hook her up with Lukasz. Realising that they plan to rob and kill him too, she sacrifices her life to warn him. At the very moment of death, she finally receives some tenderness, some acknowledgement from the love of her life.

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Often misguidedly dismissed as some kind of sexist monster or “mere” pornographer, Borowczyk does a remarkable job here, telling his story from the point of view of a strong (albeit doomed) female character with whom he clearly identifies… and well he might. The opening clerical admonition about imagination and eroticism having no place in Polish society might well have been aimed at the director himself, who was about to leave his homeland to follow more faithfully the muse that he had begun to indulge in such French productions as Immoral Tales (1973) and its notorious off-shoot, The Beast (1975.) Had he been granted the gift of foresight, Borowczyk might conceivably have enjoyed a wry chuckle at the way his subsequent career curve was perceived to parallel that of Ewa, with the accusation that he was somehow “prostituting” his formidable talent… it didn’t exactly help, admittedly, that he ended up directing the likes of Emmanuelle 5 (1987.)
As a valediction to interdiction, Story Of Sin is an exceptionally strong sign off, built around a powerhouse central performance from Dlugolecka (a very feisty woman indeed, as her bonus interview here attests.) With it, Borowczyk waved goodbye to his reputation as a “serious” film maker but, more importantly for his creative integrity, to not one but two tyrannies. After 1975 he was no longer subject to the strictures of Soviet ideology, although of course the insidious shadow of the Vatican proved harder to shake off.

Is Ewa, in her rejection of society’s mores, experiencing “freedom” when she follows her obsession through degradation into annihilation… or is she just the slave of her ovaries? By the same token, did Borowczyk, in the ongoing pursuit of his erotomania, merely replace the tyranny of The New Testament with that of his own testosterone? Is l’amour fou literally “the drug” (manifested as “solicor” in WB’s Dr Jekyll Et Les Femmes, 1981)? Is this why Borowczyk routinely depicts inanimate objects as having more character than the people who move among them? Frankly, I don’t know but I’m going to have a long, hard think about it…

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Those familiar with Arrow’s previous Borowczyk releases won’t be surprised to learn that this 2K restoration from the original negative looks great (I’ve only seen the DVD but it’s reasonable to suppose that the Blu-ray looks even better) and is jam-packed with edifying bonus materials, over and above the aforementioned, riveting Dlugolecka interview. You also get an introduction to the film by poster designer Andrzej Klimowski plus new restorations of the WB shorts Once Upon a Time, Dom (both of those co-directed with Jan Lenica) and The School, with optional audio commentaries by the ubiquitous Daniel Bird and co. Bird also contributes a witty video essay, a sort of “how to do Borowczyk” guide. Various WB associates and intimates are interviewed and we are further treated to a documentary on Borowczyk documentaries and a very early one that he co-wrote on poster art, which contains the manifesto line: “In our times, objects take centre stage…”

… of course you get a trailer… and reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Klimowski…
… but by far the jewel in this disc’s bonus crown is the audio commentary by Diabolique magazine’s Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger. Since my prehistoric first scribblings in the pages of Samhain, I’ve agitated for (and would like to think I’ve contributed towards) a criticism that is every bit as informed as it is passionate, enthusiastic and erudite in equal measure. That’s exactly what you get here. When Ellinger and Deighan aren’t rhapsodising about French saints masturbating with cucumbers they’re invoking Flaubert, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Hardy and Dostoevsky or reading passages from Baudelaire… marvellous stuff and quite possibly the best, most thought-provoking audio commentary I’ve yet encountered. Let’s hear it for the girls!

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– KONIEC –

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Simon Slays… Arrow’s Blockbusting 4K BD Edition of PIECES Reviewed

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

Lucio Fulci always seemed a bit touchy on the question of possible influences on his films and so it proved when I interviewed him in 1994. He adopted a pained expression (like somebody had just stepped on his ski boot) when I invoked the spectre of H.P.Lovecraft and claimed he hadn’t even heard of Ambrose Bierce (let alone read An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge) until after he completed The Doors To Silence (1991.) Unpredictable as ever, Fulci (who, it transpired, was quite the Spanish horror film buff) then amazed me by volunteering the information that he had pinched the idea for The House By The Cemetery (1981) from Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s La Residencia / The House That Screamed (1970.)

Although arguably the ever popular (at least in the venerable Aurum Horror Encyclopedia) “body-in-pieces fantasy” has cinematic antecedents that go at least as far back as James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), Serrador’s gothique girls school adventure hit the spot with its daring satire of Spain’s ossified fascist society, in which the sexually repressed son of an authoritarian headmistress finishes off several young ladies at her finishing school so that he can build himself an idealised “pure” woman.

When Generalissimo Francisco Franco died in 1975 and his appointed successor King Juan Carlos opted to become a constitutional monarch in a modern liberal democracy, things thawed pretty rapidly. In “It’s Exactly What You Think It Is!”, one of the many extras on this handsome package, The Pact director and Pieces lover Nicholas McCarthy identifies it as a film coming “at the ass end of the Spanish horror boom” which honours the Iberian tradition with its hommage to La Residencia and via such touches as the casting of tapas terror titan Jack Taylor. Late Phases director Adrian Garcia Bogliano, in the same featurette, notes that things had been buttoned down for so long in Spain that exploitation film makers made up for lost time by packing as much sex, violence and plain craziness into their films as the creaking plots would bear… and no film exemplifies this tendency more brazenly than Juan Piquer Simon’s Pieces (1982.)

Somewhere in “Boston, 1942″(or a Madrid facsimile thereof) some four eyed little schmendrick is discovered labouring over a jigsaw of a naked Playboy playmate (which looks like it dates as far back as the early ’70s, tops) by his mom (May Heatherly, who bit that doctor’s tongue out in Cannibal Apocalypse.) Not knowing where all this is going to end (though masturbation would be a reasonable guess) she smashes a mirror (repeated in slow motion and shattervision, like she was in an Adam And The Ants video or something) before announcing that she’s going to bin said nudie jigsaw. Now The Beastie Boys wrote a rousing rap when their mom threw away their best porno mag, but this guy’s protest is rather more emphatic… he buries an axe in her head and starts sawing her into … Pieces!

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When the cops turn up he insists that “a big man… a big man” performed the murderous deed then scarpered and as forensic science wasn’t so hot in Boston, 1942, he gets away with it…

… “forty years later”…

… loose living, flash dancing bimbos at some Boston college are being carved up with a chainsaw by a black clad assassin. In broad daylight. At the same time, somebody is having another go at that jigsaw. Looks like Junior from the pre-titles sequence is replaying his primal scene… but who did he grow up to be?  Willard the burly gardener (Paul “Bluto” Smith) is strenuously touted for our consideration on account of his familiarity with a chainsaw and appetite for beating up cops trying to investigate the case, but c’mon… are we really expected to buy that the scrawny kid in the Quincy tank top grew up to be this ogre? Indeed, the Paul Smith interview included as another of the extras on this set is pointedly entitled The Reddest Herring.

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Other leading suspects include closet case anatomy professor Arthur Brown (!), played by Jack Taylor and the Dean of Studies (Edmund Purdom.) Curiously, Professor Chow the kung fu instructor (yep, the college has a kung fu instructor) played by Kin Lung Huang (*) is never in the frame, despite his penchant for wandering around the college at night, randomly picking fights with women he encounters (it’s a crazy world on this campus… then again, what do you expect when they employ an anatomy professor named Arthur Brown?)

The Dean is keen on a low-key investigation, which might seem like a tall order (what with these butchered co-eds turning up all over the place) until you consider the resources that Boston’s finest are prepared to commit to the case, i.e. Lt Bracken (Christopher George), his sidekick Sgt Holden (Frank Bana), and ex tennis pro May Riggs (George’s wife, Lynda Day), working undercover (sure thing, I mean who else would you send?) Bracken’s got the measure of the case, though – “We must catch the killer…” he advises Holden: “… that’s what it says in the rule book” (I bet he was the stand out candidate at police academy.) Smoothy student Kendall (Ian Sera) is initially a suspect but, having won the confidence of Lt Bracken (and with precious little alternative manpower available) he is soon seconded to the case. I think he’s supposed to be like Keith Gordon’s character in Dressed To Kill (1980) but in the event he’s way more irritating. Co-scripters Dick Randall and “John Shadow” seem to find him equally obnoxious, judging by the fate they’ve devised for him. First of all, after the killer has finally been unmasked, Kendall has to fight off his knife wielding attentions until Bracken turns up to shoot him in the head. While they’re congratulating themselves on that, the putrefying dream girl that the killer has been stitching together falls out of a cupboard and pins Kendall to the floor. Just as he’s recovering from that shock and joshing with the cops about it, in the mother of all Carrie quotations, the composite corpse reaches up and claws his balls off! I swear to Christ, I’m not making any of this shit up!

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The budget that the Boston PD allocated to the investigation of this case would seem to be significantly less than that afforded the FX crew on Pieces. Kudos to Basilio Cortijo for some of the stunning gore creations on display here (mostly centering, of course, on the after effects of chain saw attacks.) There’s stuff that Giannetto De Rossi wouldn’t turn his nose up at. Among all the silliness and non sequiturs, Simon also manages some suspenseful sequences and set pieces murders that look like they belong in an arty giallo rather than a run-of-the-mill American slasher effort. (**) The scene in which Isabel Luque’s nosey reporter is stabbed to death on a water-bed wouldn’t be out of place, if not quite in an Argento classic, than in a top-of-the-range Fulci effort, though better editing would have obscured the wobbliness of that rubber knife before it entered the girl’s skull and edited via her mouth, a la the pre-titles sequence of Fulci’s aforementioned House By The Cemetery.

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Bad chop suey strikes again…

People get snotty about Pieces in particular and JPS in general, while learned tomes get written about Jesus Franco. Now don’t get me wrong, people have a perfect right to enjoy the films of Jesus Franco and write learned tomes about them… I’ve read one or two of them and it proved a worthwhile investment of (rather a lot of) my time. But compare Pieces to e.g. its closest equivalent in the Franco canon – Bloody Moon (1981) – and really, there’s no contest.

I used to love the long-defunct magazine Continental Film Review (briefly recoined as Continental Film And Video Review before it disappeared forever from our newsagents’ shelves) for the way it would alternate analysis of the new Antonioni or Fellini offering with pages of stills from the likes of Danish Dentist On The Job and similarly, I do appreciate it when a label goes to town on a “mere” exploitation movie.

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Suffice to say, Arrow have done an astonishing job here. The 4K restoration of Pieces from its original negative looks just dandy, but video high fidelity probably isn’t a major reason why anyone would watch a movie like this. It’s the extras assembled here that make this release indispensible. People used to talk about “party tapes” but you could have your mates round for this set all weekend and still be discovering stuff long after all the snacks have been snacked on, drinks quaffed and the party favours have petered out. For starters, this is the ultimate “Musos edition” of Pieces with three (count ’em) score options and that’s before you even get onto the commentary track. I hope the original music by Librado Pastor is your favourite, because you also get that on a bonus CD. It’s not likely to keep Ennio Morricone off my deck for any length of time but I’m glad to have it. Thanks, Arrow.

That commentary track, courtesy of The Hysteria Continues (basically Justin Kerswell and his mates) is a real plus: skilfully moderated (it sounds like a couple of the participants are on some kind of conference call set up or maybe Skype), enthusiastic, entertaining, informative and insightful. I’m particularly grateful to Kerswell and co for clearing up an aspect of the film that has always mystified me, i.e. the bit where a certain “Virginia Palmer” (you’d think her family had suffered enough, considering what happened to Laura and everything) skateboards through a giant sheet of plate-glass in slow motion, apparently a propos of nothing. Turns out it was a propos of reminding jigsaw boy of his mother smashing that mirror, reactivating the killer inside him after years as a useful member of society, plying his trade as a… oops, nearly gave it away there! Sadly no explanation is offered (I’m sure they looked for one) as to why Professor Chow should launch an unprovoked flurry of kung fu kicks at Lynda Day (or why she forgives him so readily), over and above the clearly implausible one suggested in the (frequently piss-taking) English dub, i.e. “bad chop suey!” Just to clarify another bit of trivia they allude to, it’s true that the “John Shadow” who’s “credited” as co-writer of Pieces is NOT (as often rumoured) Joe D’Amato… the guilty party is actually Roberto Loyola, one of the many producers involved in the tangled saga of bringing Mario Bava’s Rabid Dogs (1974) to the screen.

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As if the guidance of The Hysteria Continues wasn’t immersive enough for you, you’re also treated to The 5.1 Vine Theater Experience…. a barker lures you (with lines like “Come and see tits getting sawn”… let’s face it, you’re never going to get that at the NFT) into the lobby of the eponymous LA theatre where you’ll have fun spotting trash film luminaries before taking your seat for a screening of Pieces, courtesy of Grindhouse Releasing. During that you’re able to enjoy the surround sound reactions of an up-for-it audience enthusiastically applauding every outbreak of nudity, guffawing at every last gobbet of gore and critiquing salient thespian missteps (Lynda Day’s “bastard… BASTARD… BASTARD!!!” predictably takes the cake!)

Not least among the bonuses offered on this set is the presence of two distinct versions of the feature, the US theatrical cut and Mil Gritos Tiene La Noche (“A Thousand Cries In The Night”), the slightly longer Spanish version. I must have the attention span of a goldfish or something but I never manage to work out what the extra stuff is in the longer cuts of these things. One thing I did learn from watching Mil Gritos Tiene La Noche, though, is the extent to which the American dubbers yocked things up by spicing up dialogue that was already pretty fruity to begin with (i.e. for once something gained a lot … of mainly trash … in translation), the “bad chop suey” crack being the most obvious example. The Spanish original also plays Stars And Stripes Forever over Suzy Billing’s murder but those who put the US release together obviously figured that such iconic American music shouldn’t accompany shots of a girl pissing herself and being dismembered by a chainsaw, so substituted the kind of jolly library music often played over sketches on The Benny Hill Show.

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The late JP Simon gets an hour-long interview / profile devoted to him and in a similarly lengthy interview with art director Gonzalo Gonzalo (so good they named him twice) we hear a lot of amusing stories about how resourceful the director was in stretching out his minimal budgets to maximum effect. A short audio Interview with producer Steve Minasian relates how everybody was shafted for their money by a fly-by-night distributor. Undeterred by this cautionary tale, JPS disciple Sergio Blasco relates on another featurette of his collaboration with the maestro on a sadly unrealised Pieces sequel.

Of course you get a trailer, image galleries and a reversible sleeve (featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Marc Schoenbach.) The collectors’ booklet apparently features new writing on the film by critic Michael Gingold… I’ll have to take Arrow’s word for that as I didn’t receive a copy of it.

Watching this set might not quite be “the most wonderful feeling in the world” (to paraphrase one of the most notorious lines of dialogue in Pieces) but in trash movie terms, it comes pretty close.

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You can always rely on beyondhorrordesign.blogspot.co.uk

(*) Kin Lung Huang  starred (as “Bruce Le”) in the likes of…Bruce’s Deadly Fingers (1976), My Name Called Bruce (1979) The True Game Of Death and Re-Enter The Dragon (both 1979)… and just in case the penny hasn’t dropped yet regarding his USP, The Clones of Bruce Lee (1980.)

(**) The producers of Pieces include Stephen Minasian (who put up money for Friday The 13th) and Dick Randall, who produced Ferdinando Merighi’s 1972 giallo The French Sex Murders… though on reflection, I’d be pushing it (over a fucking cliff!) to describe that one as “arty.”

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